Kids Corner


Striking a Conversation: Jagmeet Singh Sethi at TurbanInc





If the spheres of fashion and religion seem disparate and distant, it is 22-year-old Jagmeet Singh Sethi's Connecticut-based apparel company, TurbanInc, that has brought the two seemingly distinct worlds together.

"The power of fashion is universal and when we dress ourselves, we often think, 'What am I saying to the world when they look at me today?' " said Jagmeet. "With that in mind, we wanted to combine one of our most routine methods of expression with confidence, self-love and pride in being Sikh."

Born and raised in Queens, New York, U.S.A., Jagmeet, who was among the one million Sikhs then living in the United States, was consistently the mistaken target of discrimination stemming from the lack of knowledge and ensuing confusion of Sikhs with Muslims or Arabs.

That confusion is what ultimately led to the death of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh who was the first person believed to have been murdered in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks. More than a decade later, in December, another bloody assault on a 56-year-old Sikh granthi in Fresno confirmed that the group remains a mistaken target of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States.

"Kids who were once best friends of mine all of a sudden stopped talking to me right after the attacks took place," said Jagmeet. "There was a period of time where I was getting into physical fights with classmates of mine almost every week."

Although much of the prejudice settled when Jagmeet's family moved to Connecticut in 2004, his outward display of faith, first through the patka covered topknot in middle school and then the full turban later in high school drew judgment well through college, where during his senior year Jagmeet wore an "I Love Turbans" T-shirt that his then budding company had designed.

Created to invite classmates to engage with his appearance, Jagmeet spent much of that day explaining his religious background, practices and rituals to friends, professors and hallway strangers.

"I wanted to create something that would invite kids to start a discussion about my religion with me," said Jagmeet, who has since designed more than 25 T-shirts and dozens of accessories with similar statements aimed at sparking a much-needed dialogue about Sikhism.

In 2008 Sethi created his original design, "Bhangra Evolution," which he took to the annual New York City Sikh Parade and sold 250 shirts within a couple of hours, indication that there was a real demand for his product, and more broadly his message.

Last year, the 3-person company - with partners Jasjeet Singh and Karandeep Singh - turned its first profit.

But Jagmeet's message was too little too late for some Sikh-Americans who succumbed to pressures of blending in rather than standing out. Even in the culturally diverse city of Los Angeles, some like 56-year-old Sarinder Singh, owner of the popular mid-city East India Grill feel more at ease without the identifiable turban and beard.

"It just became easier for me to live my day-to-day life without fear of judgment, without the fear of something much worse than judgment that some have had to endure," said Singh. "The adjustment may have taken some time, but I think in the end it was the right choice."

That choice is also being made half way across the world in India, where Jagmeet discovered that many of his Sikh friends and relatives had not only stopped donning many of their articles of faith, but had grown unaware of the practices and values associated with Sikhism.

"It's such a huge culture shock each time I go back to India to visit my friends and family because I expect Sikhs living in India to be more educated about our religion," he said. "Instead, I feel like I know more and in some ways have an easier time preserving my identity and background, which is strange to admit considering my teenage experiences of being Sikh in the States."

Although the Sikh turbans and beards were first abandoned by many in the aftermath of the anti-Sikh pogroms in 1984, millennials with no personal memories or ties to the anti-Sikh pogroms of the 1980s often point to Western fashion influence as the main reasons they have given up outwardly identifying themselves as Sikh.

Still, Jagmeet hopes that his company will help young Sikhs in the States and eventually also those in India embrace their religious background and engage openly with Sikhism.

Says Jagmeet of his future goals for the company, "One of my dreams is to run into someone I don't know, outside of Connecticut who isn't Indian or Punjabi wearing one of my designs. I'll know I've really contributed to efforts around religious tolerance once I see that."




[Courtesy: Times of India]

March 3, 2012

Conversation about this article

1: Harleen Kaur (Australia), March 03, 2012, 10:32 AM.

Jagmeet, what you are doing is such a good thing. I am an Australian with English parents and married to a Punjabi. For years I have been pestering my husband to keep his kesh unshorn and wear a turban and respect our religion and what our Gurus and many great people have done in regards to Sikhism. For him it's been hard to stay strong within himself, as he gave in to the pressures of western culture living in Australia. However now we have returned to India for a long holiday and his commitment has improved and he's starting to wear turbans and hasn't cut his hair for over a year. Our plan for our son is to bring him up as a Sikh in India as we have found that in Australia the Sikh community is not very pure and even the people judge me, being a western girl in a Punjabi suit. In the beginning, it was extremely hard having people sneering at me, however I had trust in God and knew that my time in the gurdwara was for Him and not to worry about the negative judgements. I guess I'm telling this story to explain that this is a global issue and not just Sikhs being judged from the western culture but also western people who wish to follow the Sikh faith being judged by Sikh-Punjabis and Indians. If we have true faith in God He will always show us the way. Congratulations for your efforts in making a change for the better. I would be more than happy to wear your T-shirts :) Wwaheguru Ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji ki Fateh.

2: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), March 03, 2012, 11:39 AM.

What a great vision by Jagmeet Singh. Standing out is everything in Sikhi. And what a fantastic response by commentator #1, Harleen Kaur, with her extraordinary background, shows passion for and knowledge of Sikhi. Well done, Harleen Kaur, you truly deserve the 'Princess' title bestowed on you by our Guru.

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