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The Sikh Project: Photos explore Diversity and Identity of Sikh Americans in US

The Sikh Project is a collection of photographs of turbaned Sikh Americans that was on display in New York City last week

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For Sapreet of the Sikh Coalition, the goal of the exhibition was "to spark that national conversation on behalf of all communities who are lesser known and misunderstood about what it means to be an American." Though the exhibition in Soho has closed, Amit and Naroop are working to compile a book of images from both the U.K. and the U.S. projects. VOA
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In the photographs, they wear leather jackets, or superhero costumes, and hold their trumpets and helmets. They appear to be what they are: poets, musicians, bikers, soldiers — and all Sikh Americans.

The Sikh Project is a collection of photographs of turbaned Sikh Americans that was on display in New York City last week. It showed their interests are as diverse as their American community.

“At its core the project is about identity in general … and how identity never restricts you,” said Naroop Singh, half of the U.K. photography duo Amit and Naroop that took the photos.

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“Because Sikhs, whether they’re from the U.S. or the U.K., are thought of as a certain type of person — either they’re doctors, engineers, accountants. … But if you told somebody you could have a Sikh guy who’s tattooed and a kickboxer, they might not believe you,” Singh said.

Amit and Naroop, the London photographers of the Sikh Project, during their shoot with the famous actor and model Waris Ahluwalia. VOA
Amit and Naroop, the London photographers of the Sikh Project, during their shoot with the famous actor and model Waris Ahluwalia. VOA

Amit, 31, and Naroop, 35, have been working together for years, but began photographing members of their community in 2013.

In London, the photographers set out to photograph Sikhs with the goal of breaking stereotypes and showing “how cool” a Singh (male Sikh) can look. This look includes the turban, which Sikhs wear as a symbol of self-respect, courage and piety, and to show their love for and obedience to the wishes of the faith’s founders.

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Few step forward

At first, Amit and Naroop were hard-pressed to find sardars, or turbaned Sikh men, who would sit for them.

“They said, ‘Who would ever want to see photos of Singhs?’ They said, ‘Don’t waste your time, boys,’ ” Amit said. “We had to grab my grandad and say, ‘Dude, look, sit here. We’re gonna take a photo of you and show people how cool a Singh can look.’ “

The trend caught on. When Amit and Naroop started a Kickstarter campaign to fund their first exhibition, the impact was global.

“They put one of their first images online. I saw that and was blown away by their talent and their ability to see people in a different way,” said Sapreet Kaur, executive director of the Sikh Coalition, a Sikh advocacy and community development organization in New York that works to promote civil rights for all people.

Though Amit and Naroop were born and raised in the U.K., Sapreet knew they were the perfect choice to tell the story of the American Sikh. And the photographers found just as much diversity and character.

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For the American project, women and children were also photographed expanding on the original idea. Though relatively few women of the Sikh faith wear a turban, or dastaar, it was important to the Sikh Coalition that those women be represented.

Amrita Khurana, a marketing specialist at The New York Times, poses for her portrait with the Sikh Project. VOA
Amrita Khurana, a marketing specialist at The New York Times, poses for her portrait with the Sikh Project. VOA

Amrita Khurana was one of the subjects they chose. She is the first and only sardani (turbaned Sikh woman) working for The New York Times. Amrita did not always wear a dastaar and struggled for years balancing her love for her religion with her love of hip-hop and clubbing.

Search for identity

“I was trying to find myself; I couldn’t figure out who I really was,” she said. “I came from a Sikh family, but my friends lived in the ghetto, and that’s where I felt comfortable. I was into hip-hop and rap; that was my scene. The Sikh background was only on Sundays.”

Though Amrita never lost her love for hip-hop, her devotion to her religion became stronger as she aged. And along with the worship came a fascination for Sikh identity — namely, the turban.

Amrita started wearing a dastaar only occasionally on the weekends, to temple. “One foot was in the club scene, one foot was in the dastaar scene,” she said about that period in her life.

Reactions within the Sikh community to women wearing the dastaar are often mixed. While some see it as the ultimate sign of devotion, some, including Amrita’s mother, believe that it should be worn only by men.

“My mom has a fit,” Amrita said. “She’s like, ‘What are you doing? This is not OK. This is not the norm. Nobody’s going to want to marry you!’ “

It took years, more fights with her mother, the guidance of her priest and discussions with her husband before Amrita committed to the dastaar full time. Unlike some Sikh men and teenagers, who often have the opposite fight with their parents, wanting to cut their hair to avoid questions and stares, Amrita struggled to break gender norms within her faith community.

The look of the dastaar was almost as important to her as what it meant religiously.

“I wanted to stand out,” she said. And as a turbaned woman who still sports her leather jacket on weekends, she absolutely does.

“I remember saying to her, ‘Should we try it without the leather jacket?’ And she said, ‘No,’ ” Naroop said with a laugh.

Living and working in New York, Amrita said she has faced few questions and next to no hostility about her look or her religion.

Sapreet Kaur, executive director of the Sikh Coalition, answers a woman’s questions about the Sikh Project in New York City. (E. Sarai/VOA)
Sapreet Kaur, executive director of the Sikh Coalition, answers a woman’s questions about the Sikh Project in New York City. (E. Sarai/VOA)

 

From genie to terrorist

Amit and Naroop noticed a difference in how Sikhs are treated and perceived in the U.S. versus in the U.K.

“One subject here told me, ‘Before 9/11, I used to walk down the road and someone would say, “Hey, look, there’s a genie,” ‘ and after 9/11 they said, ‘Hey, look, there’s a terrorist.’ THAT’s what people are going through,” Naroop said.

“And the horrible thing is that in the U.S., I find that people take it, accept it as a norm,” he said. “Like, I’m going to go out today and probably be verbally abused, and I’m not going to say anything back.”

While Amit and Naroop were shocked, Sikh Americans share this perception and have become numb to it in the past 15 years.

Sikhs, who are often confused with Muslims in the U.S., have been the targets of violence and hate crimes, particularly after the attacks on September 11, 2001.

In 2015, a year marked by the most divisive and hateful rhetoric during a presidential campaign in decades, 174 incidents of violence against Muslims and those perceived as Muslims were reported, according to a study by Georgetown’s Bridge Initiative, a multi-year research project focusing on Islamophobia.

Sikh Coalition volunteers speak with visitors as they look at portraits from the Sikh Project. (E. Sarai/VOA)
Sikh Coalition volunteers speak with visitors as they look at portraits from the Sikh Project. (E. Sarai/VOA)

For Sapreet of the Sikh Coalition, the goal of the exhibition was “to spark that national conversation on behalf of all communities who are lesser known and misunderstood about what it means to be an American.”

Though the exhibition in Soho has closed, Amit and Naroop are working to compile a book of images from both the U.K. and the U.S. projects. (VOA)

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  • Antara

    Wonderful initiative to promote the Sikh-Americans!

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20 Indians Killed In A Terrorist Attack In Afghanistan

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (IHRC) condemned the attack

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Afghan firefighters clean up the site of a deadly suicide bombing near Kabul University, in Kabul, March 21, 2018.
Afghan firefighters clean up the site of a deadly suicide bombing near Kabul University, in Kabul, March 21, 2018. VOA

A suicide bomber targeted a group of Sikhs and Hindus, two Afghan minority communities, in Jalalabad city, the capital of eastern Nangarhar province, on Sunday, killing nearly 20 people.

“They brutalized us. They have martyred 15 and wounded 15 other Sikhs. We are not aligned with any group or party. Why would anyone attack us? We never harmed anyone,” Tarlok Singh, a member of the Sikh religious minority, told VOA.

However, an Afghan health official told VOA the death toll was higher, with 19 people killed — at least 17 from the Sikh and Hindu communities — and at least 20 others injured.

The Sikhs and Hindus were reportedly on their way to attend a gathering led by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the provincial governor’s office when a suicide bomber on foot detonated his explosive device.

Islamic State through its media wing, Amaq, took responsibility for the attack in Jalalabad city, however, the militant group claimed to have targeted a “medical compound.”

It is believed to be one of the first times a suicide bomber has targeted members of the Sikh minority group in Afghanistan.

“Unfortunately, it is the first time that our Sikhs become the victim of suicide bombing. The leaders of the group and their active community members were all killed or injured today,” Zabihullah Zimaray, a former provincial secretary general of Nangarhar province, told VOA.

Avtar Singh Khalsa, a longtime leader in the Sikh community, was among those killed in today’s suicide attack, an Afghan official told VOA.

Khalsa was an unopposed candidate running for the only seat for Afghan Sikh and Hindu minorities in Afghanistan’s parliamentary election in October.

Place where the attack took place
Map, Place where the attack took place. VOA

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (IHRC) condemned the attack and called the attack on minority groups “… an obvious example of a war crime,” and asked the Afghan government to bring those responsible to justice.

“The Afghan armed oppositions must respect the international humanitarian laws and human rights values and refrain from targeting specific groups or individuals,” IHRC spokesperson Mohammad Bilal Sidiqi told VOA.

Discrimination

The Afghan Sikh and Hindu populations totaled about 220,000 in the 1980s. That number dropped sharply to 15,000 when the mujahedeen were in power during the 1990s and remained at that level during the Taliban regime. It is now estimated that only 1,350 Hindus and Sikhs remain in the country, according to an investigation conducted by TOLO news, Afghanistan’s most viewed private television station.

Discrimination is one the many reasons Sikh and Hindu minorities are fleeing Afghanistan, Anar Kali Hunaryar, an Afghan Sikh senator, told VOA in a previous interview.

“Discrimination has caused our children not to attend the mainstream schools and that is why most of our kids in Afghanistan remained illiterate and could not actively participate in their communities,” Hunaryar said during the interview.

Afghanistan is a predominantly Muslim country, but the constitution spells out equal rights to the followers of other faiths.

“The sacred religion of Islam is the religion of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Followers of other faiths shall be free within the bounds of law in the exercise and performance of their religious rituals,” reads Article Two in Chapter One of the constitution.

However, Rawinder Singh, a member of the Afghan Sikh and Hindu Union, who spoke to VOA previously on the topic, named “social discrimination” as the No. 1 problem religious minorities face in the country.

The Indian subcontinent is the birthplace of the Sikh faith, and India is home to the world’s largest Sikh population.

“Our fellow Afghans call us Indian and we are being told to go back to India. We are Afghans just like any other resident of this country. Yes, we follow the same religion as Indians, but it’s not rational to say that we do not belong to Afghanistan,” Singh told VOA.

Sikh and Hindu minorities mostly dwell in the south and eastern Afghanistan, and their numbers continue to fall.

Also read: Twin Bomb Attacks in Afghanistan’s Kabul Kills 25 , IS Takes Responsibility

“We were being treated ill and discriminated in the past, but today they badly brutalized us,” Tarlok Singh said, referring to the suicide bomber attack. (VOA)