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Kuwarjeet Arora: “Sikh Helmet” Generates Mixed Community Reaction
"[The] reaction has been more varied [amongst Sikhs], from those annoyed by coverage simplifying the Sikh experience to advocates worried about how it may dilute turban and helmet [exemptions]..."
Kuwarjeet Singh Arora
January 11, 2023 | 5.5 min. read | Original Reporting
On December 1, 2022, Sikh Helmets Inc. posted it developed a multi-sports helmet that comfortably accommodates a normal Sikh boy’s joora (topknot), encouraging followers to register for the exclusive limited Canadian launch in 2023. Last week, their Instagram page shared a launch update of the “Sikh Helmet,” which went viral and generated positive mainstream media coverage in Canada and abroad.
However, within the Sikh community, the reaction has been more varied, from those annoyed by coverage simplifying the Sikh experience to advocates worried about how “Sikh Helmets” may dilute turban and helmet exemption and accommodation battles for turbaned Sikhs in other spaces.
According to the founder, Tina Singh, an occupational therapist, she could not find a bicycle helmet that fits well for her sons, inspiring the launch of “Sikh Helmets.” In the absence of a patka-appropriate helmet, she was forced to use larger helmets that did not fit her children's hair, scoop out foam inside one, or sometimes not wear helmets at all.
“There are rules around how a helmet should fit, and I needed an option for them that will fit properly and will do its job,” she shared with Baaz.
“It’s an innovative solution for this family that Tina Singh has come up with,” said Balpreet Singh, Legal Counsel at the World Sikh Organization of Canada, an advocacy group which has fought precedent-setting helmet exemption accommodation matters for Sikhs in Canada, “[However], I have mixed feelings about it, and I know it will have a mixed reaction in the community.”
Tina Singh has felt that the mainstream media got some specifics wrong. The “Sikh Helmet” is not supposed to be worn on top of a turban. Rather according to her, it is meant to be on top of a patka, a cloth often worn by Sikh children to cover the joora.
That difference is important when analyzing it from a community lens, according to Dr. Harjeet Singh Grewal, Professor of Sikh Studies at the University of Calgary.
“There is a little bit of misrepresentation happening in the media, simplification first and foremost, there is a lack of nuance in vocabulary. Children who wear this helmet will wear a patka, that's not a Dastar or a turban.”
The helmet has been billed by some media outlets as the only option for Sikh children when playing sports.
“This should not be understood as something that is unequivocally used by all Sikhs,” Dr. Grewal says, “Sikhs practice Sikhi in a bunch of different ways, and the maintenance of the hair is a requirement, however, the way that it connects to the Dastar for an individual family is different.”
Critics suggest that branding the helmet as the “Sikh Helmet” adds to the confusion.
For those advocating for Sikh-based legal and policy accommodations concerning articles of faith, it is important to draw a distinction between a helmet for kids with a joora, and Sikhs keeping a Dastar and not wearing a helmet for religious reasons.
“[For example], this isn’t the solution for the hard hat issue,” Balpreet Singh states, referring to ongoing attempts to secure reasonable accommodation against blanket hard hat requirements on some worksites, impacting Sikhs employed in industries like trucking, “it shouldn’t be interpreted as a breakthrough into Sikhs not having to wear a Dastar. This is not a product that should replace a Dastar.”
Tina Singh says the “Sikh Helmet” is for safety and inclusion, arguing that we should have products that make it easier for those that wish to wear a helmet to wear one for protection and participate in activities.
However, according to Dr. Grewal, in regard to religious freedom and inclusivity, we must acknowledge and anchor conversations around helmets and Sikhs around those most marginalized, which are initiated Sikhs working to keep Maryada, or the Sikh code of conduct, strictly, rather than focusing community dialogue around those who are not as concerned about possible violations of Maryada opting for the “Sikh Helmet”.
“I think practicing the Maryada in the most stringent way should never disfranchise anybody. The marketing around it [as the ‘Sikh Helmet’] is definitely questionable because it reduces the diversity in the community, and again that should be an issue. You shouldn’t level diversity in order to sell a product.”
Balpreet Singh believes any conversations around helmets, and requirements to wear one, should be continued to be weighed from a policy perspective, irrespective of the “Sikh Helmet.”
“If there is a sport that has a high chance of head injury, then I can understand that an exception may not be provided. Where there is just a remote chance of some sort of head injury, in that case, I think an exemption can and should be provided.”
Tina shares she has treated patients with acquired brain injuries. From her experience, she believes a bike helmet that fits well is essential, echoing arguments made at one time to ban turbaned Sikhs from riding motorcycles without a helmet.
Kushwant Singh is the Secretary of the Sikh Motorcycle Club, one of the organizations involved with securing a helmet exemption in Ontario for Sikhs wishing to ride a motorcycle after various safety and policy reports looked into the matter.
He believes products and branding like the “Sikh Helmet” negatively impact the struggle of the Sikh community to secure important religious freedom rights and accommodations to wear the Dastar.
“On this issue, there is nothing that exists that is called ‘Sikh Helmets,’ it’s totally misleading, and it’s not acceptable in the Sikh religion as well. This is because out of five of our Sikh Articles of Faith, it [patka] protects two articles of faith which are uncut hair and the wooden comb.”
When it comes down to Sikhs not wearing a helmet, Tina Singh says that if someone believes that their kid should not wear anything on top of their patka, then that is their individual choice to make.
“We are talking about kids who wear a patka, not a Dastar here.”
According to Dr. Grewal, many Sikhs will object to “Sikh Helmets” because it covers the head. The idea is that the Dastar is what covers the hair, and that should be the paramount covering, not a helmet.
“It’s great that option is there, but that option doesn’t provide answers to every version of the religiosity of Sikhs. Upmost are the Gurmat, Sidhant, and Maryada that would say that the turban needs to be outside.”
Some supporters of the “Sikh Helmet”, and commentators, refer to images of helmets hailing from the Sikh empire that look similar to Tina Singh’s design. However, there is no hard consensus on how common it may have been, how exactly it may have been worn on all occasions, and whether Sikhs would have tied a turban above and around the helmet to maintain the Dastar.
“It's not clear how common it was,” Balpreet Singh states.
Irrespective of whether it may impact other advocacy efforts and Maryada, Tina Singh is adamant that what matters is providing options for parents.
“I am not prescribing that every parent should use this for their child, everyone has their own beliefs. This is more for parents that are struggling to find an option.”
Kuwarjeet Singh Arora is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Brampton, Ont. He is currently working for The Bramptonist, writing about local Brampton news. Besides covering topics about his community, he also covers issues that affect Canadian society as a whole. You can follow him on Instagram @kuwarx123 or Twitter @kuwarx123x
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