Hair double standards?

An unexpected video posted on the has gone viral in the last 24 hours. The moving clip highlights the  story of 23-year-old Harnaam Kaur from Slough, UK who has a full beard. Harnaam’s polycystic ovary syndrome led to her facial and body hair growth as a pre-teen, resulting in intense bullying and harassment from her peers. Harmaan took amrit as a 16-year-old, proudly embracing her Sikh identity and her unshorn hair — facial hair included.  It seems the teenage Harnaam found the strength to overcome years of isolation and self-loathing in part through Sikhi.

Harnaam’s courage to embrace her dhari and speak so honestly about her experience to the general public inspires me. While watching the video, I found myself wondering how much this young woman has likely struggle within the Sikh community itself. Despite Harnaam’s exceptional commitment to her Sikh identity and the keeping of her kesh, I have a feeling she has often been shamed and considered an outcast among other Sikhs nevertheless.

Her story reminds me of a presentation my friend Kirpa Kaur did about her research on Amritdhari Sikh women and body hair a few years ago at the Surat-Lalkaar conference in New Jersey. One of the things that stuck with me from Kirpa’s research is the extreme difficulty the women she interviewed encountered when it came to finding a Sikh partner — usually Amritdhari Sikh men. In many cases, Kirpa found that the prospective husband would require his prospective partner to wax (or laser remove) her body and/or facial hair in order to move forward with an engagement. You can watch a similar version of Kirpa’s talk below from the 2012 Sikholars conference here:

We have a situation where Sikh women who grow and choose not to remove  facial hair, and even those who choose not to shave their legs, are not fully accepted in the Sikh community itself. These women already face so many challenges in the broader societies they live in — shouldn’t the Sikh community be a respite for them? Certainly, keshdhari Sikh men receive ample support and positive reinforcement about our dastaars and our unshorn beards in our gurdwaras, camps, and families. Sometimes we of course get some slack if we choose to wear our dharis natural, or khuli, but I suspect this struggle pales in comparison to what Sikh women who don’t remove (or bleach) their facial (and sometimes other body hair) deal with.

I suppose  it all comes down to gender socialization and our ideals of masculine and feminine beauty. If we’re honest with ourselves, the Sikh community is really no more advanced than the mainstream societies we live in (whether that be the US, UK, or India) when it comes to gender roles. And one could argue we’re pretty far behind–despite the values of radical gender equality we have learned from our Gurus.

So then, how can we align our community practices with our supposed Sikh values? How can we shift our cultural ideas about gender, hair, and beauty in a way that actually reflects our deep commitment and spiritual responsibility to gender equality? How can we — as a quom — truly embrace the Harnaam Kaurs and the Balpreet Kaurs among us and make space for more girls and women to not be ashamed of their hair? These are huge questions to grapple with, but what is certain is that Harnaam’s courage to make the decisions she makes about her kesh — all of it — and  share her story with the world is a bold step in the right direction.

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