When I walk around campus, or anywhere, I am keenly aware of the eyes on me. The casual glance to my turban, then to my face, and then back, as if they had not stared at me in the first place.
There was a time last year when I would wonder what thoughts ran through their minds. Did they find me weird? Would they tell their friends? Do they pity me? Would they question my gender, wonder why I didn't choose to just shave or why I wrapped my hair? In their eyes, I saw mockery and hesitation. I had resigned myself to think that the world was full of only ignorant people -- no one would ever see beyond what I looked like.
This year, the stares are no longer offensive, nor do I see an inkling of hate in them. Instead, I see true curiosity and genuine wonder.
What changed? My own eyes did. I learned to accept the curiosity as what it is: simple ignorance. They didn't know me, and they probably haven't seen another Sikh. And of course, they've probably never seen a Sikh woman who doesn't remove any of her body hair, including her facial hair. I started to view those stares as an opportunity to educate, to enrich and to elevate.
Last week, I did exactly this on the social news site Reddit, in response to someone who had surreptitiously taken a picture of me and posted it in the "funny" section with the caption, "I am not sure what to conclude from this." I sat for several hours reading the mocking and mean responses that post evoked. I chose to respond) through my new eyes, and through the grace offered by my Sikh faith. In my response to the picture of me and to the thread it sparked, I wrote:
"I'm not embarrassed or even humiliated by the attention [negative and positive] that this picture is getting because, it's who I am. Yes, I'm a baptized Sikh woman with facial hair. Yes, I realize that my gender is often confused and I look different than most women. However, baptized Sikhs believe in the sacredness of this body -- it is a gift that has been given to us by the Divine Being [which is genderless, actually] and, must keep it intact as a submission to the divine will ... by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating change and progress for this world in any way I can."
What happened next surprised everyone, especially me. More than a thousand comments appeared on Reddit supporting me, my faith, and my view of outer and inner beauty. Articles supporting me emerged everywhere from Jezebel to the Times of India and the Guardian in the UK. Even though I appreciate all the positive energy, I've spent the last 10 days or so trying to stay away from more media!
I aspired to act in the tradition of Guru Tegh Bahadur, who sacrificed his own life in exchange for freedom of religion for a tradition he didn't believe in. This is one of the stories that inspires me, as a Sikh woman, to believe there is no difference between a man and me. Just as a Sikh man, I too can adorn myself with a turban, choose to keep my hair, and live by the same discipline and love of the scriptures.
As part of my commitment to the Sikh faith, I have also trained to become an interfaith leader. An interfaith leader is someone committed to highlighting how her faith or philosophical tradition inspires her to bring people from all backgrounds together to build understanding and cooperation. I have attended the Interfaith Leadership Institutes of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) , a Chicago-based organization that trains college students nationwide to be interfaith leaders. I also mentor other student interfaith leaders as a coach with IFYC.
My first experience with IFYC was amazing (I'm actually wearing an IFYC shirt in the picture, with the organization's campaign theme -- Better Together). I discovered so many other college students who didn't see me as "the turbaned girl," but as Balpreet Kaur. In fact, there I learned how to talk to others about my faith, about who I am. And it wasn't awkward -- it was a breath of fresh air. For the first time, I wasn't afraid to initiate a positive dialogue about faith. In fact, when people saw that I was different, they came up to me and asked me questions.
I started wearing my heart on my sleeve and seeing every stare as a chance for dialogue and friendship. I began to firmly believe in the power of the spoken and written word. I finally began to realize that I had to take charge of my own narrative; if I didn't, then that ignorance I saw in people's eyes would never change into knowledge. That's what it means to be a Sikh and an interfaith leader.
I hope my story inspires people to learn more not only about the Sikh tradition, but also about what it is in their own faith or philosophy that would inspire them to respond to moments of nastiness with grace. I also hope my story inspires people to become interfaith leaders themselves, and to support the programs of IFYC that are training hundreds of college students a year in this methodology.
Together we are better, together we can overcome prejudice, and together we can make interfaith cooperation a social norm.
Balpreet Kaur is a first-generation sophomore at the Ohio State University, where she is studying both neuroscience and psychology. She hopes to continue on to medical school to become a neurosurgeon, research the effect of social stigma on the progression of mental disorders in developing countries, and hopefully, open a few free clinics in Africa. At OSU, she is a part of the executive board of the Better Together team, president of the Sikh Student Association, and a Humanities Scholar.