Kids Corner


Kaur Identity:
The Roundtable Open Forum # 103





The physical identity of Sikh males is quite simple. Either he keeps his dhaarrhi (beard) and wears a dastar, or he doesn’t ... in general, the visual portrayal of the Sikh male is standard and universal.

The Kaur/female physical identity, however, is not so obvious or well defined.

Some Kaurs keep kesh, others do not. Some cover their heads with dastars, patkas, or chunnis, while others choose not to cover their heads. Some Kaurs believe it is okay to try different hairstyles, while others stick to one.

At this point in time, Sikhi does not have a collective, communal idea of what a Kaur looks like or what her physical identity should portray. This begs the question: Are Kaurs, as a collective, suffering from a physical identity crisis?


What exactly is an identity or a physical identity?

An identity refers to a social category (group of people) that has membership rules, unique attributes, or expected behaviors. A social category also has a set of characteristics (beliefs, morals, or physical attributes). People who are part of a social category take pride in their group; it is a source of dignity, pride, or honor.

Using the above definition, “Sikh” is a social category and a Sikh identity would be defined as:

    -  Membership rules: Rehat Maryada
    -  Unique physical attributes: The 5 Ks and the dastar.
    -  Beliefs: Guru Granth & Guru Panth
    -  Behavior: Acting and living in a way that exemplifies “naam juppna,” “vund chhukna,” and “kirat karni,”

In the Sikh case, the physical features of a person connect him/her to Sikh values and characteristics. “Sikhs wear an external uniform to unify and bind them to the beliefs of the religion and to remind them of their commitment to the Sikh Gurus at all times,”


The argument or disagreement over who is part of a social category (group) or who is not, is called “identity politics.”

It asks the question, “Does this person / behavior / characteristic fit into the social category?”

It seems like the Singh physical identity is very obvious. “The dastar and dhaarrhi make this man a Sikh, visually.”

Yet the Kaur identity, her characteristics and physical attributes, is still a matter of identity politics. “What makes this woman a Sikh, visually? Her long hair? Does she need it to be covered before we call her a Kaur? Does she need to wear a dastar?”

There is contestation over a Kaur’s “look.” The Kaur identity is not unified, “Sikh women, some with their turbans, some with their long hair in buns and braids, are perhaps less identifiable ….”

The Kaur’s physical identity, whether it be hidden in private minds or in openly discussed in public forums, is a matter of identity politics.

“After the Oak Creek tragedy, I watched stranger after stranger come up to the males in my family and offer their support and condolences. No one said anything to me, and eventually I realized it’s because there’s nothing about my appearance that’s noticeably Sikh.”

If all Sikh women wore dastars, would the Kaur physical identity be more recognizable? Or would chunnis suffice? Maybe we should just let our hair down? Perhaps, it is not the vehicle or mode of expression, but rather, that we all look the same and have a unified front? “She is a Kaur because all Kaurs wear/have xyz.”


When it comes to personal physical identity, a person has physical characteristics that she is aware of, and which distinguishes her from other people. A social category, like “Sikh” is in part defined by what it is not.

How is a male Sikh visually different from other non-Siks? His beard + turban + 5Ks.

But, since the female Sikh’s physical identity is in constant flux and not universally consistent, it is difficult to say Kaurs are visually different from non-Kaurs. The social category of “Kaur,” is not as solidified as “Singh,” because it is impossible to define what  Kaur physically looks like. What is she not? How is a Kaur visually different from non-Kaurs?

Her 5Ks? But those are very subtle and not as visually impactful as her male counterpart’s.

Her 5Ks and her long hair? Her chunni? Her dastar? Her braid?

A group identity cannot be constructed with varying uniforms. A social category does not exist with multiple definitions of a single identity. Thus, it is difficult to say that Kaurs, as a group, have a cohesive physical identity.

To illustrate this dilemma, consider visual media. Sikh organizations struggle to represent the Kaur in their print media. They quickly slap an image of a Sardar on their brochures, “But what about the female?” the marketing director asks. “Does a Kaur in a dastar suffice?” asks the designer. “But what about those with chunnis? Or joorras?”

This question of Kaur representation goes beyond the marketing department. Kaurs struggle with understanding their place in the larger world, non-Sikh groups, and the Sikh panth. Without a cohesive identity, some feel suspended between worlds, not completely part of any single community. In this struggle, Kaurs may “try on” different physical identities and journey through different identity statues.


According to developmental psychologist E.H. Erikson, there are several identity statuses that individuals may go through. I have tried to apply them to the physical identity of Kaurs.

1    Identity achievement occurs when an individual has gone through an exploration of different identities and made a commitment to one.

Example: “As a Kaur, I have tried different physical ways to show my Sikh identity. I’ve kept my hair down, I’ve worn a dastar to school, and I’ve tried wearing a chunni in public. But I’ve finally decided that what feels best to me is to keep it in a bun. After trying all the options, I connect to the bun the best. That is what I am committed to.”

2    Moratorium is the status of a person who is actively involved in exploring different identities, but has not made a commitment.

Example: “As a Kaur, I like wearing a dastar at camps, but at school I like leaving my hair open. Maybe one day I’ll wear a patka in public, I’m not sure yet. I’m still in the deciding phase. One day I’ll make a commitment. ”

3    Foreclosure status is when a person has made a commitment without attempting identity investigation.

Example: “I am a Kaur therefore I will wear a chunni, end of story. I did not and will never need to explore other options.”

4    Identity diffusion occurs when there is neither an identity crisis nor a commitment.

Example: “I am a Kaur, but I do whatever I feel like at the time. Sometimes I wear my hair long, sometimes it’s in crazy braids, other times I wear a dastar. They all feel good. I am fine with noncommittal, I don’t need to decide ever.”

Most male Sikhs are handed one identity status, the foreclosure status, and commit to it for their entire lives. The second he is born, his parents expect him to wear a dastar (in general). In essence, he is born into foreclosure status, “Because I am a Singh, I wear a dastar. I have never and will never explore other options.”  

Kaurs however, are more likely to struggle between the four statuses.


When a female Sikh “finds herself,” or “creates herself,” she finds community and fits into it. Through this process, she emerges as a unique person with a specific physical identity, temperament, personality, and ideals, which mold (and in turn are molded by her roles, occupations, relationships, and values. She becomes unique, but she also becomes part of a larger community (in the Sikh context, this would be the panth) that has created a collective consciousness (Sikh theology and practice); a consciousness that is perpetuated by physical identity (bana).

But if Sikh women go through the identity formation process, jumping from one identity status to the other, and emerge as Kaurs with “different faces,” as a vast range of different physical identities, without any cohesiveness or uniformity, does she truly become a part of a community? Does this lack of Kaur unity mean the panth has botched the construction of a gender-neutral collective consciousness? Has the panth failed in giving the Kaur a role in representing Sikhi to the world through her physical image? Has the panth been unsuccessful in creating belonging and community for the Kaur? Is she unable to bond with fellow Sikhs because she doesn’t look like a “Sikh”?

Ultimately, I think the lack of a cohesive understanding of the Kaur’s physical identity results in ambiguity, apathy, and confusion.


The struggle for people to visual portray the female Sikh begs the question, why do Kaurs need to be recognized as Kaurs? Does she need to feel like she is a part of the panth through her bana, or can she live life happily and be fulfilled without physical sameness?

I personally feel that, yes, Kaurs should have a visually distinct identity, and a consistent physical uniform because a uniform:

-    Psychologically connects a Kaur to the panth
-    Creates harmony and alikeness which, can help Sikh women to bond
-    Keeps a Kaur committed to her Sikh values
-    Allows Sikhs to recognize her as a Kaur and thus it helps builds community
-    Allows non-Sikhs to recognize her as a Kaur and they can ask her questions about Sikhi
-    Illustrates a Kaur’s commitment to Sikhi and others can (ideally) look to her as a beacon of truthful living
-    Creates a sense of belonging and camaraderie with her panth and her Gurus
-    Encourages a sense of pride in Sikh life and values
-    Eliminates the range of visual portrayals of Kaurs which inhibit them from creating a cohesive social identity
-    Prevents confusion to those trying to understand Sikhi
-    Reduces the internal prejudice, conflict and judgment that comes with a diverse Kaur image
-    Creates a subjective sense, as well as an observable quality of personal/physical sameness and continuity, paired with some belief in the sameness and continuity of the Sikh shared world image within Kaurs
-    Brings about physical equality: Male Sikhs have a cohesive physical identity, so the women should too
-    Facilitates leadership: The lack of a female physical identity excuses our females from taking leadership roles

However, the opposing view point is interesting and has merit too. Here are some reasons some may feel a consistent uniform is unnecessary.

“No, Kaurs can look whichever way they wish, they do not need a visually distinct identity, and consistent physical uniform because …”

*    Sikhi encourages individuals to think for themselves and thus, Kaurs need the freedom of will to decide what is best for her
*    There is not only one Sikh female identity
*    The range of visual identities celebrates the uniqueness of each individual
*    Sikhi is a spiritual journey and physical appearance doesn’t matter
*    Diversity facilitates dialogue and social richness
*    The diversity of the physical identity of Sikh women is a reflection of Sikhi’s flexibility and timelessness
*    All faces flow from different interpretations of Sikhi and all are beautiful manifestations of hukam
*    The visual differences one sees among Sikh women results in deeper, meaningful conversations and thoughts on bana, saroop, and identity
*    Their diverse interpretations of identity result in richer dialogue, and a more colorful social fabric
*    Kaur diversity is a celebration of different paths to the same end
*    Allow a woman to be who she is, let her reflect her personality through her physical image and don’t restrict her or impose an identity on her

Or … are we putting the cart before the horse?

“Infuse the Kaur with gurbani and Guru will show her the way,”…and ultimately, this conversation is meaningless…?


Physical identity impacts how others perceive and treat you, molds how you feel about yourself, and communicates your values to the world. Furthermore, physical identity has a role in developing personal psyche. 

“Researchers have found that those who have made a strong commitment to an identity tend to be happier and healthier than those who have not. Those with a status of identity diffusion tend to feel out of place in the world and don’t pursue a sense of identity.”

I guess this means, choose an identity, commit to it and become happier and more connected with the panth.

But what is that physical identity for Sikh women and should it be universal for all Sikh women, as it is for Sikh men?


Please share with us your thoughts on the opinions expressed by the author herein, by posting your comments below.


[Courtesy: Kaur Thoughts. Edited for]
September 11, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Harvind Kaur (USA), September 11, 2013, 11:53 AM.

Very well expressed. The Sikh Rehat Maryada does not prescribe a Sikh identity to Sikh females. It says it is the Kaur's choice. Herein lies the dilemma. Also, how would you address the difference in attitude towards women with dastaars vs. males? Why are women held to a different standard? I love the conversations you've started. Keep it up. I have struggled with these ideas for most of my life. It's great to see others express it in public forums.

2: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA..), September 11, 2013, 12:04 PM.

Physical identities for human beings (both men and women, jointly or separately) should not have been created. However, now we cannot help in case of Sikh males; it was supposed to be a uniform to unite the community, but the panth created a physical identity for those who wanted to follow Sikhism. Sikhism believes in inner life and not on any outer labels. Our Gurus knew that to attack the religious label of human beings (Hindu or Muslim) is to alienate them. Labels to our Gurus did not matter if they advanced spiritual life. The change was to be brought about in the content of belief, if it was fallacious, and not in the label.

3: Sukhbir (United Kingdom), September 11, 2013, 11:11 PM.

I read the article and my first thought was, why we as Sikhs seem to think of outward appearance first before internal well-being, especially nowadays. If we spend time reading (good articles and paatth, etc.) and making ourselves stable inside, then what is outward is generated from within. Our outward appearance becomes out signature unique to us. We have to be careful here of one of the five vices which is Moh, emotional attachment, and sometimes focusing on the issue of physical appearance is in my view a form of Moh. Being a Sikh now with dastar and beard I still find it difficult to live up to the high ideals we have but never give up trying. I remember even at gurudwaras the first thing is to say to men and women, 'Sikh Sajo', i.e. keep the physical uniform when really we should say to people read gurbani first before asking them to keep physical uniform. In my view I think a Kaur does not have an identity crisis simply from the Sikh women in history who are examples and then from the modern day Sikh women I see around today. Most women are easily identifiable as Sikhs from the karra and just their general appearance, they have an aura. Some are very confident and some are shy but ultimately you can still tell they are Kaurs. I think women are lucky they have no specific directive on appearance, which means they may not see the restrictions a Singh can on a day to day basis in the western world. I think if taken as a positive, Kaurs are better placed to represent and encourage Sikhism, they have a blank page to work with for appearance. I over the last 3-4 years deciding to keep my beard had many questions about my appearance from people at work from Punjabis and non-Punjabis. It is difficult to answer each time clearly and give a fantastic answer, it takes practice. I did feel the pressure at times. Then recently I came across a T-Shirt which explains beautifully what a turban represents: I wore it and the response was incredible, all parties were impressed. I hope my words are taken lightly as they are not meant to offend or frustrate anyone. Best of luck in your path as a Gursikh.

4: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), September 12, 2013, 6:25 AM.

Why can't Kaurs, like Singhs, 'have their cake AND eat it too'? As a Sikh male, I can have my outward appearance with any fashion and have my inner peace and respect for the Guru which makes me a moralistic and ethical human being. It shouldn't be ... it isn't ... any different for our Sardarnis.

5: Fateh Singh (Canada), September 12, 2013, 11:51 AM.

The name Kaur is given to women that have taken Amrit from the Punj Pyare. Looking at the Rehat Maryada we can see that a woman who cuts her hair is patit. Additionally, the same Maryada tells us to keep our heads covered, but not with a cap. Most definitely there is an identity given to women in Sikhi; the Rehat Maryada and Sikh history define this identity. I believe the issue is covered; the difficulty may lie in lack of acceptance among some women, and the need to embrace the guidance with humility and commitment.

6: Rup Singh (Canada), September 12, 2013, 11:43 PM.

Interesting article. Seems there is an inner struggle as to what the outer appearance should be, or the one that looks the best, or which one makes the individual look the best in their own mind. I believe fully observant amritdhari Sikhs -- men and women -- don't have any issues with appearance or physical identity. The rules are clear and are adhered to. I think physical identity issues might be for those who wear the 'Kaur' or 'Singh' more lightly.

7: Narayanjot Kaur (Chester, Pennsylania, USA), September 13, 2013, 1:47 PM.

I have visited your blog and cannot say enough how impressed I am. Not enough reflection has been paid to the Kaur identity and the questions raised on the Internet. Too often when it has been discussed, someone is telling Kaurs what to think, not how to think, about our identity. You leave no stone unturned in your explorations; everything is well-researched. I don't agree with everything I have read. Then again, that is not the point. Identity should fit like a comfortable pair of shoes, and that means one tries on many pairs. Then we know our feet will take us to the end of the day, our thinking still fresh, our bibek intact, our journey unfinished, we are ready for more!

8: Kanwer (New Delhi, India), September 15, 2013, 2:07 AM.

Congratulations for handling such an issue so well and so gracefully. A real Kaur -- immersed in Sikhi -- will shine by her own light like a jewel.

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The Roundtable Open Forum # 103"

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