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Sikh Council disappointed at club ban

Sikh Council of New Zealand is disappointed at the outcome of Cosmopolitan Club (Manurewa) AGM held on June 13, 2010, in which the club membership has decided to maintain the untenable status quo (established erroneously on November 30, 2009) of not allowing a practicing Sikh to enter the club premises.

Before we deal with the issues involved, we take this opportunity to put on record that we respect the fact that club members have exercised their right to take a decision as they thought fit, and we do not question their right to do so. We do, however, question the premise of their decision.

Regarding the issues at stake, in a January 26, 2010 letter to the club president, Sikh Council of New Zealand had informed the club membership that:

1. Mr Karnail Singh and the local Sikh community (henceforth "we") fully accept the right of Cosmopolitan Club to formulate any rules within the bounds of New Zealand laws to manage the club premises and other activities as the membership deems fit.

2. We also state categorically that we do not seek to change any existing rule that may dictate that "headwear be removed before entering the club premises" situated at 6-10 Alfriston Road, Manurewa.

At issue thus was the definition of the term “headwear”. The membership was requested that while considering this issue, following be taken into account:

a) Venerable RSA clubs have the same headwear rule (as the Cosmopolitan Club, Manurewa) which they formulated to honour the servicemen who made the supreme sacrifice while defending our freedom. RSA does not bring the turban of a practicing Sikh under the purview of this rule for two reasons - one, turban cannot be taken off and put back on like a hat or a cap and is classed as part of attire of a practicing Sikh; and two, turbaned Sikh soldiers fought alongside the ANZACs in both the great wars and gave their lives in their thousands for the allies.
b) All New Zealand courts of law have a strict "no headwear" policy. However, that policy excludes the Sikh turban from its purview because the courts accept that asking a Sikh to remove their turban is akin to asking someone to strip down. Courts also accept that turban is an extension of unshorn hair, which is an article of faith for the Sikhs. Hence a Sikh can enter a court of law without being asked to remove their turban.
c) Aviation Security has strict guidelines around search of a turban - if they need to search a Sikh's turban they must follow the same protocol as in case of a strip search. In addition, after the search of a turban, the person must be given a mirror, a well-lit room and allowed 10 to 15 minutes to re-tie the turban.

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It was further conveyed to the club that we “will be grateful if the club can bring its definition of ‘headwear’ in line with RSA, law courts of New Zealand and Aviation Security rules. This will not require any changes to the existing rules, while avoiding the recurrence of the incident that occurred on the evening of November 30, 2009.”

In addition to this, another factor the members were requested to consider was the anomalous situation that exists wherein practicing Sikh members from other Cosmopolitan Clubs cannot be barred from entering the premises of Cosmopolitan Club (Manurewa) but all other practicing Sikhs who may be invited to the club by its existing membership as guests will not be allowed entry.

It is unfortunate that the club membership has allowed the situation to stand rather than take the opportunity to resolve this matter.

President of the Sikh Council of New Zealand, Mr Bachan Singh Nihalgarh, says that the Sikhs of New Zealand are keen to create greater awareness in the wider society around the importance of turban for a Sikh. “We take the decision of the Cosmopolitan Club (Manurewa) as a wake-up call for us to work harder to educate the wider society about what turban means for the Sikhs and why the Sikhs have a history going back hundreds of years, of accepting a death sentence rather than giving up the turban.”

A brief write-up on the importance of turban is attached with this statement for use by the media.

--------------------------Write-up on Turban follows--------------------------

The Sikh Turban

The Sikh turban is an article of faith, or more precisely, extension of an article of faith, viz., the unshorn hair. Without unshorn hair, turban loses all religious meaning and becomes a matter of choice – nothing more than an accessory to one’s clothing. However, for practicing Sikhs, donning the turban is not a matter of choice – they must don it or feel naked without it. The importance of the turban may be judged from the fact that a Sikh would not greet any unexpected visitor to their home, without the turban (or the more informal version, called Patka or Keski), because for the Sikhs that would be akin to greeting someone in one’s undergarments.

It may also be pointed out that the Sikh plea to equate removal of turban during security checks (at airports and other places) with strip search and all protocols governing strip search be applied to removal of turban, has been accepted in USA, UK, Canada as well as New Zealand.

In practical terms the Sikh Turban, has a lot of merit. It is made up of fine muslin (cotton) which is kept clean with the usual weekly or more frequent washing, thus very hygienic.

The Turban is always a made-to-measure thing. That is, it fits the contour or shape of the head, and thus is more comfortable than the 'ready-made' or factory made hats which are usually the same shape for all differently featured heads.

It is also an ideal headgear for both winter and summer. Even in icy winds it keeps the head and ears cosy and comfortable, while under the hot sun its utility may be gauged from the fact that a bald head heats up quickly if not sheltered from the sun by a cap or a hat.

For all jobs requiring a certain uniform, such as a conductor or driver; a postman or policeman, the Turban is perhaps the best uniform for the head where it makes a snug fit, and cannot easily be 'knocked off' or 'blown away.'

The Turban can act as a safety cushion. In ordinary daily life, driving a car or riding a bike; walking on the road or having a joyride at the funfair, the turban certainly provides reasonable safety to the head from any sudden accident and it must be remembered that it is during ordinary daily life that most accidents occur- i.e. when we are the least prepared to protect our head.

Learning and mastering to tie the Turban is a gentle and natural process from children to adults. Usually, a child of 8 or 10 years of age acquires the initial skill in making his own turban; to him it is perhaps as easy or as difficult as lacing up his boots or tying up his necktie unaided by his parents.

Usually an adult Sikh Turban is eight meters long and one meter wide. This length is smoothly turned around the head six times (rounds) by clockwise movements of the hands. Both ends of the 'length' or the turban must be tucked in properly- i.e. the beginning or finishing ends of the turban should not be flowing loosely as can be seen with many non-Sikh Indian turbans.

Most Sikhs prefer to wear another small under-turban that is usually white. This under-turban may be kept at bed-time as well, when the turban proper is taken off. Similarly, during swimming and sports, the Turban is replaced by a smaller version called Patka or Keski which is tied in a way different from Turban proper.

Keeping in mind the above facts, it may be stated that Turban is not a fashion statement or a clothing accessory. It is a religiously mandated article of faith for a practicing Sikh. A practicing Sikh cannot choose to wear or not wear the Turban. For a Sikh who has chosen to cut off their hair, the reason without fail is that they do not want to don a turban (usually because they did not learn at an appropriate age to tie one or under peer pressure they chose not to stand out).

It is an ongoing discussion within the community as to whether a shorn Sikh has the same rights as the unshorn one. At present the situation is that there are certain religious rights which only an unshorn Sikh may perform. But it is accepted that a shorn Sikh is still a Sikh if they have not formally converted to another religion or they profess to follow the Sikh path. It is accepted that one may lose one’s footing at any instant while walking the Sikh path – cutting off one’s hair is seen as such. It is also part of the Sikh worldview that people make mistakes – only God is the One who does not make a mistake. Hence cutting of hair is seen as a mistake that one may rectify at any juncture in one’s life – akin to giving up of alcohol by an alcoholic.

Thus, for a Sikh officer of New Zealand Police, the governing rule may be – if one is a practicing Sikh, the right to don a turban is guaranteed under the laws of New Zealand that govern freedom to practice one’s religion. However, if one is not a practicing Sikh, one has voluntarily given up donning a turban. Hence there is no reason why any exception in the normal NZ Police uniform be made to allow a non-practicing Sikh to don a turban rather than the Police cap.

The only situation would be if a non-practicing Sikh rediscovers religion and decides to abide by the directive to not cut one’s bodily hair. In that case the officer should be allowed a transition period wherein the beard (in case of male officers) is allowed to grow first and then the turban may replace the uniform cap. This is important as the fact that a turban is worn by one who has unshorn hair under the turban and in case of males, an unshorn (in a few cases trimmed) beard. These factors may prove invaluable in the police work – as in the case of a robber in Manurewa a few months back who had tried to loot ASB Bank there trying to disguise himself with an obviously false beard and a turban that was tied in a way that would have aroused the suspicion of one familiar with a Sikh turban.

Even during physical search, if the need to remove the turban arises, and the hair underneath are not unshorn, it may be seen as reason enough to investigate further – unless the person concerned is in the transition period to become a practicing Sikh.

Sikhism is a voluntary religion in which no action is seen as beyond redemption. But there are certain rules which are expected to be adhered to by its followers. Cutting off one’s hair is seen as a public declaration by an individual that they no longer practice Sikhism.


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