The Lioness

By Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa
The Lioness

“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”

− Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

What’s in a Name?

“Hi, this is Janet ringing from the Heart Foundation. Could I please speak to…Amaaaaar…amooooor…jiiiooot… sorry, how do you pronounce it?”

“Amarjit. Sure, which one…Mr or Mrs?”

“Pardon…?”

“My parents have the same name.”

All Sikh names are unisex and have a distinct meaning to them. My name means “winner of peace”. I know, big shoes to fill, right? I’m no Nelson Mandela or Rosa Parks, but a girl can try.

Apparently, the night before I was born, one of the most destructive storms hit the suburbs of Perth − it swallowed up six hundred homes and left one-third of the city in darkness. I like to think of it as Mother Nature throwing me a baby shower, welcoming me into the bosom of her universe. My family, on the other hand, saw it as a warning to the citizens of Western Australia that a wild being was about to thunder into their world.

Not only did I thunder into my family’s four-place-setting home, but my loudness continues to invade Transperth buses and trains. I’ve been told to keep the volume down on numerous occasions by people sitting behind me and my friends. Not quite the “winner of peace” one expects me to be, although it is rather peaceful when I shut up.

Along with being so loud that I’ve actually been fined for it (while studying abroad in Prague), I have also acquired a bone in my body that itches to advocate for equality − a “fair go”. Whether it is on the train where a lady in a hijab is told to “take it off” or in a classroom where a boy is bullied for his flamboyancy, I’ll be there with my megaphone and picket. Much to my disappointment, I’ve found people would rather glue themselves to their smartphones than hear my outbursts for justice.

My brother would argue, “Superjet, you’re simply a rebel without a cause!”

So here I am, trying to find my cause, my purpose in this world, and my place in the family tree. My ancestry goes back to the war-torn mountain region that borders Pakistan and Afghanistan. My grandparents fled the city of Bannu, which is now located in Pakistan, after the partition of India in 1947. My parents were both born and raised in India, and met three days before their engagement. There was immense pressure from my mother’s in-laws to change her name because it was the same as my father’s. She refused, so the confusion between their names persists.

The confusion travelled with me to school, where I had an exotic name of my own. My ears would perk up during rollcall, when I would hear the almost ritualistic long pause between surnames beginning with ‘j’ and ‘l’.

“Yeah that’s me.”

“Suck-gjheeet?”

“Suk-i-ji?”

“Suk-a-jit?”

“How about I call you Superjet? It’s close enough.”

If nothing else, at least my year three teacher made me sound like a superhero. Not all the names given to me were as glorifying. “Suck-a-shit” was one of my least favourites. The absolute worst, though, was “Gorilla Girl”.

Sikh and You Shall Find

We all have our insecurities − mine was my hairy legs. Being a member of the Sikh faith, we can be recognised by our unshorn hair and turbans. It gives us a unique identity, and many Sikhs believe there is a practical and spiritual purpose for every hair on our body. Brought up in a secluded home away from Western influences and beauty magazines, I grew up believing that Anglo girls weren’t born with leg hair.

I often asked myself: Why aren’t I like everybody else? Why don’t I feel feminine?

My questions were usually triggered by advertisements, in which models would caress their Photoshopped legs and exclaim in voices sweeter than a lotus emerging from my uterus, “Veet: what beauty feels like”.

Am I not a beautiful girl?

In the school environment, Gorilla Girl was just one of the forms of verbal abuse I received. I was bullied for four years for not conforming to the high school hierarchy. Every day the amount of boys terrorising me grew like an epidemic. As Head Girl of the school it was highly embarrassing.

Instead of throwing a pity party, I decided to twist the traditional bullying victim card. I chose to face all twenty-six of my bullies in a mediated environment. I put them in my shoes and went on to highlight the link between bullying and teenage suicides, racism, hate crimes and current world issues.

“…Most of you guys enjoy playing sport and some of you are in state teams. Imagine you are about to play in a grand final and I rock up with twenty-six of my friends and we start tormenting you from the benches. Deliberately and publicly humiliating you at what you do best. How would that make you feel? Would you be able to perform at your best? I still have the balls to act on stage and do my speeches at assemblies while you chant your little war cries, but there is a tumour inside me. No one deserves that. Not me; not anyone at this school.

“What you are doing is cowardly. Deal with your own shit. Don’t use me to get the satisfaction of feeling powerful. If one girl has to stand up to twenty-six of you in front of the principal to be heard, she will. Because I have the guts to face my problems. I abide by our school motto ‘Harmony ~ Excellence’ and I stay true to the meaning of my name. I am equal to you, whether you like it or not. I deserve to be treated better than that…”

I looked up from my shaky palm cards, after speaking from my heart for forty-five minutes, to find a room filled with a stunned principal, sobbing teachers, speechless friends, and red-faced bullies in tears. As a result, I got an unexpected amount of genuine apologies from the majority of the boys. The day after, the atmosphere changed in the school corridors. No longer did I feel fear or hate. The nods of acknowledgement, smiles and friendly hellos from my bullies made me realise that this opportunity to spread awareness reaped many rewards. Finally, I was a winner of peace. The school was buzzing. Students were finally addressing bullying in a manner that had never, in my experience, been done before. I sent a clear message to my peers: Bring. It. On.

All Sikh boys are given the surname Singh that translates to “Lion” or “King” and all Sikh girls are given the middle or surname Kaur that translates to “Lioness” or “Princess”. After accepting my identity as a Sikh and eyeballing bullying right in the face, I rose above a sea of grey. That is the day I took my first steps as a lioness. Now, every day when I leave the house, hairy as ever, I command to the world: Judge Me. I Dare You. 

Is hairy the new sexy? Probably not, but I do everything I can to make it the new sexy. With beards growing into fashion, I can’t help but wonder when it will be fashionable for women to be hairy.

As I lie on my beach towel and the wind blows through each hair follicle, I feel free. People have often asked me, “How do you deal with people staring at your legs? − ‘Cause let’s face it, it’s not the norm!” My secret is… sunglasses! When I’ve got my Ray-Bans on, I can pretend not to see the confused I-think-you’ve-got-fungus-growing-on-your-body-and-I’m-here-to-make-you-aware-of-it look of a passer-by. Besides, the stare only lasts for a couple of seconds until they find something else to judge. My brother once told me, “Sukhjit, your personality should be so exuberant that no one even pays attention to your external looks because they are too in awe of your internal awesomeness”.

Besides being fully-Sikh, you might be curious about who the Sikhs actually are. Before I give you Sikhism 101, why don’t we take a closer look at what it means to be Australian? Now, I’m not talking about wearing Bintang Beer singlets, eating Vegemite, or being a bogan. What is the one value that the majority of Australians would share? I’ll give you a hint: it starts with “m” and originated during the world wars.

Mateship.

Sikhs have come from a divided nation where war and conflict have shaped our identity. Australia is also a nation that began with a colony of convicts and has had to redefine itself, often through international conflict. Australia is a unique nation, one that prides itself on courage and determination. The Australian and Sikh character share a history of struggle that has evolved into a unique “survivor” mindset.

As humans, we tend to focus on our differences rather than embracing our similarities. Regardless of our race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and religion, we are children of the world. When I hear the second chorus of the Australian national anthem,

“For those who’ve come across the seas

We’ve boundless plains to share,

With courage let us all combine

To Advance Australia Fair.”

I envision a caring and sharing Australia. An accepting Australia. A handmade Australia. Unfortunately, Australia isn’t doing any handholding at the moment; instead, it seems to be doing a lot of shooing.

Indian Accent Sold Separately

I remember applying for one of my first jobs as a checkout chick at Coles. I rocked up to the front service desk to have a chat and hand in my resume. At the counter, I met a colourful character; a middle-aged Anglo woman wearing old school spectacles, complete with ropes draping over her sagging ears. Her shiny badge told me her name was Dorothy. She greeted me with a grunt of disapproval.

“What can I do for ya, love?”

I began asking whether I could please speak to the manager regarding a service cashier position. Before I could finish my sentence, Dorothy snatched my resume and peered at it through the slit of her glasses, glancing back and forth from the paper to me. I had started making some casual banter when she blurted out,

“Do you have a Visa, honey?”

“…I have a Master Card?”

“No love, are you illegally in this country? We don’t want no illegal workers here in ’Straya”.

I began to chuckle thinking she was cracking a joke, but her frown lines and obnoxious slowing-down-while-speaking-English-because-you-don’t-look ’Strayan tone told me otherwise. To say I was offended would be an understatement. I grabbed my resume and as I walked away I replied, “Perhaps next time, Dorothy, I should attach an Australian birth certificate to my job applications.”

Parallels can be drawn from my experience and a blog post of a Muslim girl living in the United States, who documented a day in which she took off her hijab and the differences in how she was treated by strangers. It was wintertime, so she was still rugged up with a scarf and beanie; covering the same amount of skin that she would normally have covered. This girl described how people acknowledged her presence for the first time and actually smiled at her while passing by. Why was she deprived of this treatment while wearing her cultural attire? She came to the conclusion that “apparently, the type of cloth you place or wrap around your head defines how you will be treated”.

I reflect on this by looking inwards at myself. As an adolescent I rarely wore my Indian clothes out in public. Even if we were going to the shops on a Sunday arvo straight after temple, I would refuse to leave the car – mortified that people would see me in my traditional getup and think I was some sort of genie (true story, but we’ll get to that later).

My eccentric mother on the other hand, only puts on Western attire for work. The rest of the time, whether doorknocking for the Heart Foundation or getting knee high in the beaches of West-’Straya, she’ll be flowing in her cultural dress, rocking her colourful prints − loud and proud! She’s one of those women who see a friend in all and genuinely want to make you laugh. She creeps up on you in the express lane at Woolworths − a lane you chose on purpose − pointing at the glass bottle in your basket, “You might be having chicken tonight, chicken tonight, but I will be making curry tonight, curry tonight”. Indian accent sold separately. Whilst out doing her doorknocking rounds, she’ll ask the most direct, personal and random questions, and then quickly waddle home so she can tell us the gazillion stories about all these new people she met.

“Mum, I don’t think the Heart Foundation hired you to do their detective work!”

“They’re our neighbours, Sukhjit − if they don’t have our back, who vill?”

While I was busy looking cool, she was showing the world that you shouldn’t be defined by what you wear. Why blend in when you were born to stand out? It’s who you are on the inside that really matters. Before you roll your eyes or give me a pitiful nod that says, “awww − bless your cotton socks”, hear me out.

These values have derived from my faith. As Sikhs, we stand up for human rights and equality. Sikhism is actually the fifth-largest organised religion in the world and not many people have heard of us.

The Turbanator

It is mandatory for Sikh men to wear turbans but it is a choice for Sikh women. The turban is how we crown ourselves as Singhs and Kaurs, conveying an identity of royalty, grace, and uniqueness. When you wear a turban, you fearlessly stand out as one single person amongst seven billion.

The turban has had a negative presence in the media ever since the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. Since 9/11, Muslims and Sikhs have been victims of hate crimes in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia. I was still a primary school student in 2001, unaware of the racial divisions that would plant themselves in my neighbourhood and change my perception of Australia. “G’day mate” was replaced with “Go home you terrorist!” and my dad’s name, “Amarjit” was replaced with “Osama Bin Laden”.

When will I ever be classified as Australian?

These experiences of not belonging led my brother to research the pioneering Sikhs of Western Australia. Shiploads of camels were brought to Australia in the 1860s for transport and construction as part of the colonisation of the central and western parts of the country. Among the handlers of the camels were some Sikhs. Sikhs were mistakenly called Afghans as the term “Afghan” was used for any dark-skinned turbaned person, especially if he was a cameleer or a hawker. We discovered that Sikhs have actually been around in Western Australia for over one hundred and fifty years. It’s hilarious when someone tells my family to go home to where we came from because now I simply tell them: “We’ve been right at home for the past one hundred and fifty years, mate.”

I don’t really have a distinct physical identity as a Sikh because my hairiness seems to pass off as “feminist”, or “lesbian” or “just another hairy Indian”. However, I still feel the need to fight these injustices even though they don’t directly affect me. I feel attached to the firsthand racism Sikh men receive. When they experience a hate crime, I feel as though I have experienced a hate crime.

In January 2014 I decided to start wearing a turban. It ended up being an unintentional social experiment. What was the big hoo-haa about the struggle of a Sikh male? Was it really that alienating to wear a turban? Funnily enough, I received more prejudice from my own Sikh community than the wider Australian public. As a Sikh girl, wearing a turban challenges the beliefs of others. Everyone had an opinion and I became a hot topic on The Great Sikh Debate of Perth.

“Why is she wearing that thing on her head? Great, now she’s gone all religious on us.”

“So proud of her, she is finally showing us she is a religious girl. Hang on − why is she still showing off her skin?”

“Don’t go around throwing your turban in my face, you fundamentalist!”

“Did you see her talking to that man? A turbaned girl must be modest at all times!”

“Her poor Mother, no one will want to marry her daughter! She will die making curry for one!”

“Ew, hairy AND a turban! I like my Sikh girls skanky! Unless it’s in front of my parents, then she’d better cover up!”

“Bro, she seems like the perfect girl for me now. Religious AND modern! Thank God she doesn’t have any facial hair though!”

“Who does she think she is? Equality between men and women? She can take her feminist beliefs elsewhere!”

Through this experience I learnt we are not just our beliefs. A Muslim woman is not just her hijab. Quite like a nun is not just her robe or a police officer is not just their uniform, I am not just my turban. I am not just my hair. I am Sukhjit − evolving through my life experiences and hopefully getting closer to the actual intention of my name.

You might be wondering how everyday Australians reacted to The Turbanator?

They didn’t. That’s how.

Generally in Australia we tend to ignore the elephant in the room. The great thing about kids, though, is that they don’t ignore the elephant − they jump right on and ask for a ride. I was sitting on the train on my way to university, when a toddler sitting on the seat opposite me, pointed excitedly and said, “Look Mum, a genie! A genie! It’s a GENIE!!!!!!” I chuckled. His mum went bright red and pretended I wasn’t even there. I thought, lady − your son said genie, not ghost!

Before his mum could stop him, he ran up to my seat greeting me with his beaming wide eyes, “Genie, can you grant me three wishes?” As he went on to list what he wanted, I thought to myself, we are not born racist; we are taught these differences from a young age. My wish for the future is that people will learn to see the inner beauty in all. Then maybe we can all be winners of peace.

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