by Rachel Kohl Finegold
Last week, I participated in an interfaith panel of Jews and Sikhs at the Le Mood Festival. For those who have been to a Limmud conferences in the States, picture Le Mood as the Montreal (read: hipper, slightly “euro”) version.
Some of our U.S. readers may not be aware of a troubling bill which has been proposed here in Quebec. The Charter of Quebec Values would prohibit any government employee from wearing a religious garment or conspicuous religious symbol. The intention is to maintain a clear separation between religion and state, symbolized by the secularism and neutrality of public sector workers. The reality is that this bill would prohibit employees in diverse settings such as daycares, hospitals, and universities from wearing a kippah, hijab, turban, large cross, or any other overtly religious article of clothing. Here in Quebec, where so many social services are funded by the government, it’s hard NOT to be a government worker. This bill would force employees to either remove their religious clothing, or lose their job. [I should note that this bill will likely not become law, but obviously even its existence as a bill is disturbing.]
When I moved to Montreal three months ago, I was shocked to learn that a law like this could even be proposed in the 21st century, where religious expression should be recognized as a basic human right. I have learned that it is predominantly the secular Quebecois population, who live in parts of Quebec that are far from the cosmopolitan city of Montreal, that support this bill. Religious groups around the Montreal area have mobilized around letter-writing campaigns, media appearances, and protests, hoping to educate government officials as to how this bill would negatively impact their daily lives. Diverse religious communities have united in this fight.
Hence, the interfaith panel. Entitled “Holy Hair,” the program explored the ways that Judaism and Sikhism deal with hair. Besides the discussions around how the proposed Charter of Values has caused much upset in our two communities, we spent time comparing the turban worn by Sikh men, and the kippah. Beyond that, when I discovered that Sikh men not only cover their head, but also never cut their hair or beard, I could hear echoes of our own tradition where men refrain from shaving their beards (or use only an electric razor) as well as the tradition of the Nazir, who refrains from cutting hair as a show of devotion to God.
We also compared the daily experience of a Sikh man who wears a turban to an Orthodox woman who covers her hair. As someone who covers her hair all the time, but often does so with a hat, I may go undetected by those who are unaware that my hat is a religious head covering. A Sikh turban, however, is overtly religious. Not only does this mean that we would be treated differently under the proposed Charter of Values. It also means I can “pass” in my everyday life. I walk down the street relatively undetected as a religious individual. Not so a turban-wearing Sikh.
There was one experience which we had in common: the airport head patdown. Whenever I go through security at the airport, I am told, “Ma’am, please remove your hat.” I explain that this is a religious head covering and that I cannot remove it. I am then told to step aside, and that I need to be subject to a “pat down”. We’ve all been there at one time or another, randomly selected for a full-body pat down. I am in the “pat down zone” every time I am in the airport, but just for my head. As I step aside, a female TSA employee dons a pair of gloves, and proceeds to pat my head and every part of my hat, including the brim (if there is one), to ensure that there is no contraband. Hey, I can’t blame them – if explosives have already been hidden in shoes and underwear, why not in a hat?
As I related this experience to our audience at Le Mood, the Sikh sitting near me immediately identified with it. Yes, he, too, was regularly subjected to the turban pat down. I then learned that in Sikh culture, the head is holy. So a turban pat down is actually quite disturbing to a Sikh, and even feels invasive. The first time it happened to this individual, he felt violated, as if someone had touched an intimate and holy part of himself. I found this fascinating. Did I feel that way when getting my own hat patted? Not really. But once I thought about it, yes, it did feel like a violation of my personal space to be asked to remove an article of clothing that I would only remove in the privacy of my own home. For others, removing one’s hat might be like removing one’s jacket. But for me, my hat is a basic covering like my shirt or skirt, which one would never dare ask anyone to remove in public, even at airport security.
My Sikh colleague sensitized me to my own tzniut. He had such a deep connection to his head and its covering, that he felt a dimension of shame or violation when a stranger touched that place. I learned that I have a similar gut reaction when asked to remove my hat. I also learned that the Sikh community has educated TSA employees with regards to this cultural sensitivity of the head. These days, a Sikh may don the gloves himself, rub his hands along his own turban, and then remove the gloves for inspection, which is sufficient to detect any explosive device or dangerous weapon. What an incredible show of tolerance and respect, without compromising anyone’s safety!
I have found myself far from home here in Quebec in many ways, politically and otherwise. But I have also found kindred spirits in my fellow religionists. We have much in common in the political arena, out on the street, and even in the airport.