Perhaps you’ve been wondering about the long hair of the Sikh student in your classroom. Or maybe you’ve joined debates about whether your Sikh student can carry a sword in the classroom. Perhaps you’ve mistaken your Sikh student for a Muslim all along. To help prevent misunderstandings in your school, here are some facts to know about Sikhs.
Sikhism, which came into existence about 350 years ago, is a monotheistic religion that emphasizes doing good deeds. The tenth Sikh guru Gobind Singh baptized a group of men known as the Khalsa. To instill courage in the group, he required them to wear five physical articles of faith:
- Uncut hair, considered a body part and a visible sign of affiliation
- A comb for cleanliness
- A bracelet, a reminder to do good deeds
- A ceremonial sword or dagger to symbolize defense of the weak
- Undershorts, a reminder of self-restraint
Eventually, the Khalsa came to include both men and women.
Today, about 500,000 Sikhs live in the United States. Statistically, this is a miniscule number, given that there are more than 230 million U.S. Christians. Sikhs who keep the practice of visibly displaying the articles of faith continue to grow their hair long and cover it with a turban. Many also carry kirpans, or swords. For Sikh students, both symbols can lead to in-school discrimination.
Some Americans have mistaken turban-wearing Sikhs for Muslims—and have attacked them. Perhaps due to discrimination, the desire to assimilate or frustration with combing long hair, an estimated 75 percent of Sikh males under age 30 cut their hair. But those who choose to trim their locks might be viewed as by other Sikhs as denying their religion. It’s not an easy choice.
As to that sword, of course, possession of a perceived weapon in school is a violation of policy. However, some Sikh students have sought agreements allowing them to carry the kirpan in the classroom. One district in Michigan amended its blanket restriction against wearing a kirpin and added clear guidelines. The kirpin falls under state statutes for protection of religious liberty. But Sikh students must still defend their religion to others.
Regardless of how your administration decides to handle the kirpan issue or cases of discrimination, the classroom can be an excellent place to demonstrate understanding. Consider ways to address the Sikh culture in your lesson plans—and know the facts so that you can better relate to your students.
Walker is a writer and editor based in Illinois.
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