What is the appropriate dress for a Sikh?

IN STYLE: Myanmar Sikhs gathered in style for the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak in Mandalay in 2019

By Manjit Kaur (UK) | OPINION |

Today we live in the age of Instagram and the selfie. Whereas in the past perhaps the only time somebody might see their image would be in front of a mirror or a photo, today, because of smartphones, we are almost constantly looking at ourselves and others. Unless we completely go off-grid, we cannot avoid participating in a culture where we are being bombarded with all kinds of images, sending out all kinds of messages about appearance and dress. Dressing and appearance has all kinds of practical and social meanings. I would like to explore some of these issues.

Think of a Sikh and the immediate image that comes to mind is a turban and beard, or in the case of women, a turban/keski, chunni and salwar kameez. And increasingly, for a whole complex set of reasons, we also regularly see Sikhs, especially the youth, both men and women, dressed in traditional Sikhi bana, specifically, kurta pyjama, cholla and dummala. And this is especially the case during particular occasions when we attend the Gurdwara, festivals, gurmat smagams, nagar kirtans and Sikhi camps.

Even though we have seen a renewed interest in reclaiming Sikh culture, history, tradition, heritage and bana or dress amongst Sikh youth, both in India and amongst the global diaspora, it is still the case that most Sikhs, men and women, most of the time, will wear what might be termed modern western attire, such as Jackets, jeans, trainers, t-shirts, sweatshirts, dresses, hoodies, shorts etc. And as for the headdress, whilst the turban is still prominent, even Keshadhari Sikh youth tends to wear bandanas, whilst the rest will not cover their heads at all.

These differing practices can be a source of conflict and confusion amongst Sikhs in terms of deciding what is and what is not acceptable dress for a Sikh. And to answer this question we need to look both at the fundamental question that, unlike all other animals, why do we human beings dress up? And secondly, what does Sikhi say about an appropriate dress? Asking the question of why we dress, seems obvious, but when you look into it, it is quite complex. For sure, there is a practical dimension to dressing, footwear and head covering, but equally, if not more significantly, there is the cultural aspect of dress, which we can’t ignore.

I think we can all agree that one of the reasons we dress up is to maintain our privacy and modesty. In most, if not all, countries of the world, walking down the street fully exposing your body would not be tolerated and could lead to prosecution or worse. Yes, the laws and restrictions vary from country to country, but the general principle does apply, that choosing what to wear in public is not a completely free choice; you must have some regard for others and the wider cultural norms of the society you live in.

Whilst some people may think imposing certain dress restrictions denies them freedom of choice, others will argue that covering our body, especially parts associated with ones sexuality, is about self-respect and dignity. In a culture where women are still very much seen as sexual objects, one way to challenge this is to allow women to be valued for their intelligence, creativity, and ability, rather than just their bodies. You could apply the same argument to men and boys as there is plenty of evidence suggesting that pressure to have and display perfect bodies is causing considerable mental health problems for them as well, though the pressure on women and girls is much greater.


So, while we can agree that we should always think about modesty, the question remains, who decides what is the appropriate dress? I feel that women who show their private parts are just as degrading as women who are covered up from head to toe. For me, these extremes represent a view that what women wear should be decided by men and their fears and desires, rather than women exercising their right to chose.

No doubt making your own choice to dress how you want can boost your self-confidence. It’s like feeling in control and not being pressured by what others might think. But, in a culture where we are bombarded with images of ‘perfect’ models selling clothing, brands and styles, there is a thin line between choosing for yourself and being influenced by media and advertising. Ultimately, I think you should be happy within yourself rather than following trends when choosing what to wear. If we are driven by trends, rather than feeling happy, ultimately, we will become trapped in the constant desire to look good and chase the fantasy of perfection.

However, as social animals we like to fit in and sometimes to stand out; we do have one eye on the how others will respond to how we dress. That’s ok, but not be led by the images of models in the ads who seemingly have ‘perfect’ bodies. Why? because they are simply fake and have been photoshopped, and the models as far from being healthy, but can suffer from all kinds of eating disorders. Beauty is not to be found on the surface but is something that one can only realise within. As Bhagat Kabeer Ji says, “Do not be so proud of your body, after all, it is just a bundle of bones wrapped up in skin”. (SGGS, 1366). Further, surface beauty is a very temporary thing, whereas inner beauty can serve you for a lifetime. And true beauty, according to Gurbani, is released in your state of mind and is linked to anand (bliss), gian (wisdom), love (piar) and critical thinking (bibek).

So, when we accept that beauty is about how we feel within ourselves, then we become liberated to make our judgement about what to wear rather than simply follow the norms of society. So, for me when I think about the appropriate dress for Sikhs I turn to a shabad by Guru Nanak in Siree Raag, (SGGS, 16) in which he discusses all kinds of daily routines, including what one should eat. And the message is very simple: wear those clothes that do not cause suffering to your body or corrupt the mind. Note here that Guru Ji does not provide a detailed list of items but, by establishing a general principle, allows you according to the society you live in to make sensible choices.

For example, if you live in a very cold country, it makes sense to wear warm clothes, and if you live in a very hot country or if the season is hot, then one should wear loose light-coloured clothes. So, when we think about comfort, all kinds of considerations need to be made, such as what fabrics suit your skin. I am allergic to polyester. So, I always try to buy cotton or linen. As for colour, there is a lot of theory that links certain colours to moods and our state of mind. So, we know that pastoral colours can make you feel calmer and relaxed, brighter colours with stripes and or flowery patterns create energy and can be up-lifting.

What we wear also sends out powerful messages. So, for example, dark formal clothes send the message that you are serious and mysterious. In some professional workplaces, such as the police, you may be required to wear a uniform and there is also the phenomenon of ‘power dressing’. This idea emerged in the 70s when women were starting to find jobs in the corporate sector, which was historically dominated by men. Though they were now in powerful roles, they were still treated by men as lacking authority and as a result they were not getting the respect that men were getting; the reason given was that they need to project their power and the solution came from power dressing. Though things have changed, then it was mostly about adapting typically male clothing and styles and colours.

So, when I decide what to wear, I follow the guidance given by Guru Nanak and I think first and foremost about my own comfort. As noted earlier, our choice of dress is in part determined by external factors like weather, occasion and place. I would not go on a mountain walk wearing a dress and shoes with big heels. Likewise, I would not go to a wedding dressed in combats and boots. It’s all to do with the weather, place and occasion.

Because of all kinds of social pressures, I was brought up to believe that the appropriate dress for a ‘good’ Sikh woman is salwar kameeze and chunni/dupatta. I was made to feel that ‘western’ clothes, such as jeans and t-shirts, were immoral and that ‘doing fashion’ was wrong because it was about drawing attention to yourself! The irony is that if you go to any Gurdwara programme, especially a wedding, you will see many of the women dressed in all kinds of traditional Punjabi clothing which appear to be uncomfortably tight and very revealing.

But times are changing, and the hypocrisy and double standards of Punjabi/Indian culture are now fully exposed. Today, young women are much more assertive about their right to choose what they dress. But I do feel that because of the massive external pressures, not all, but many young girls and boys will break both the two principles set out by Guru Nanak, of comfort and morality. Freedom to choose what to wear is not an absolute right and there are many other considerations one must make. But that does not mean telling somebody what to wear. I feel I have managed to reach the right balance, between exercising my freedom, comfort, and personal morality.

Manjit Kaur, a UK-based therapist and counsellor, is a presenter of the 1 Show on Akaal Channel. She can be contacted via email at manjitkaur1show@gmail.com


Living in the ‘real’ world: Some personal reflections (Asia Samachar, 5 April 2022)

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