On two Sikh doctors shaving their beards

I myself grew up with my hair unshorn, and eventually the beard came along. Got teased, mocked and bullied in school for my appearance.

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Dr. Sanjeet Singh-Saluja is a physician who works in the ER at McGill University Health Center (MUHC).
By Parvitar Singh | OPINION |

When the news broke about two Sikh doctors shaving their beards to serve in the frontlines more efficiently (in their words), many emotions flared up whilst at the same time there were many who were in solidarity.

I received many messages two weeks ago asking my view on this issue and some were even in praises on how Sikhs have always stepped up and sacrificed to serve humanity.

I chose not to reply to most of the messages because I was perplexed myself. I was trying to reconcile with many factors – religious, spiritual, social, political, physical, mental, personal and emotional. I also wanted to study the viewpoints of these doctors carefully and hear what what other individuals and Sikh establishments have got to say about this issue.

Coming from a biotechnology (research) background and the study of viruses and bacteria was something day in, day out for me. From a purely scientific viewpoint, I understand how contagious and deadly this virus is, how complex its genetic make up is, how it affects the human respiratory system and possibly even the circulatory system. Therefore mandating the emphasis of personal protection, personal hygiene, social distancing and etc.

Now the beard, and even hair, is sacred for Sikhs. In the form of tenets, it is an absolute taboo to remove our hair. In fact, many Sikhs rather lose their lives than give up their hair as witnessed in history. The list goes on when it comes to the supreme sacrifices of many Sikhs who chose death over giving up their tenets.

As a young kid, my mother use to sing this as a lullaby to me: Seer Jaye Ta Jaye Mera Sikhi Sidakh Na Jaye. Translation: If I have to lose my head, so be it
May I never lose my Sikhi and the practices that come with it.

SEE ALSO: The false choice presented to Sikh doctors serving COVID patients

I myself grew up with my hair unshorn, and eventually the beard came along. Got teased, mocked and bullied in school for my appearance.

It didn’t get any easier in the army – as a combatant it also meant getting down & dirty during PT, trainings, and even spending days in the jungle without showers.

In all of that, I chose not to waiver on my tenets because they are deeply engrained in me and I understand the importance of staying true to my tenets.

Beside these two Canadian doctors, we’ve got many Sikh doctors and nurses around the globe who are serving in the frontlines. In fact, a month ago or so, an elderly Sikh doctor in the UK had lost his life to Covid-19. Many Sikh doctors are serving the frontlines with their beards and donning the personal protective equipment (PPE) and I’m sure it’s challenging given how heat traps in the PPE and they’ve got to withstand long shifts. [See here]

In the case of these two doctors, they’ve shared how it was difficult for them to make this decision, how it has upset them but they found it necessary as it limited their capacity to work and the lack of PPE in their part of the world.

Many Sikhs and Sikh institutions responded with emotion, questioning their strength in the upkeep of the tenets and even provided alternatives that Sikh frontline stuff can adopt to steer around the beard.

I questioned myself for many days and finally reached to these conclusions:

  1. The emotion, anger and sadness that some Sikhs expressed is understandable given how these tenets have seen sacrifice of lives for us to even be practicing them and more importantly, how it has been preached, practiced and passed down from the Sikh Gurus.
  2. To those who showed solidarity aren’t wrong either – perhaps they come from a space of understanding that these doctors are doing their job, adjusting to unprecedented times given the lack of PPE and are putting their personal safety and of their patients as priority.
  3. Religious policing – it can be healthy and unhealthy. Healthy because it gives the religion and more importantly its practices a certain decorum, discipline, format and system. It becomes unhealthy when it becomes intrusive, an avenue for degradation and discrimination and starts going against the very teachings of the religion.

In this case I disagree with all the discriminative viewpoints against these doctors but I understand the less spoken fear of many Sikhs – they wouldn’t want the examples of these doctors become a precedence, an instrument of influence and possibly having this case study taken on a political level where anti – beard polices or measures are put in place thus affecting Sikhs who truly want to do their jobs while practicing their faith.

This fear is valid, it’s the crux of the matter and can be possibly be worrying for Sikhs who are already bearing the brunt of high levels of racism and policies that discriminate against the Sikh tenets especially in the West and Europe.

I personally believe that Sikhism is a highly personal journey between a Sikh and their Creator. In the end, as stated in our scriptures, we are answerable for our own actions.

As human beings being judgemental is something we can’t run away from but I’d urge everyone to have healthy discourses and debates rather than resorting to unhealthy religious policing that may adversely affect those who are either attempting to follow the religion, have their faith already shaken, the ones who are questioning their faith and those who are at the verge of exiting the faith.

I empathise with these doctors and I can’t say I support their decision but I wouldn’t judge them for their decision either because they know their situation best.

In all of this my only concern is having this episode becoming ammunition for the development of policies that can possibly be discriminative and disadvantageous for Sikhs who truly want to serve and do their jobs while keeping and practicing their tenets.

Sikhs are known to be versatile and flexible. We’ve proved time and again that we can serve, work and conduct ourselves efficiently regardless of industry. I guess a lot of the emotion also stems from how many Sikhs have done their part no matter how difficult it has gotten while doing what is required from them and I share the same sentiments.

I am grateful for the Sikh institutions and individuals who have gone out of their way to demonstrate how Sikh males can safely don their PPE with the beard as well as some of the alternatives that can be safely adopted however my very humble request to all Sikhs including the institutions – let’s always come from a place of understanding, empathy, research and education. These are in fact the very fundamentals of Sikhism and that gives us the uniquely neutral global image.

Parvitar Singh is a Singapore-based youth leader who’s passion lies in understanding people, polices and worldview to do his part in making this world a better place.

 

RELATED STORY:

Sikh officer makes history for Alameda County (Asia Samachar, 21 May 2020)

Dealing with loss, separation during Covid-19 crisis (Asia Samachar, 13 May 2020)

 

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