Social media users might know her as the Sikh woman who, with dignity and grace, educated and elicited an apology from a cyber bully, a Reddit user who attempted to ridicule her for her facial hair. Kaur’s eloquent response, explaining to the user, among other things, that her adherence to Sikh practice prevents her from removing her facial hair, generated a flurry of supportive discussion on Reddit and sites like Jezebel.
But there is much more to Balpreet Kaur.
A sophomore at Ohio State University, Kaur is a pre-med student, a feminist, a poet, a writer, a speaker, an activist, and an interfaith leader. Manifesta sat down with this activist for a conversation on the intersections of faith and feminism.
“I got involved with interfaith work my senior year of high school,” Kaur says. “Coming to Ohio State as a Sikh woman, as someone who doesn’t fit the role of homogeneity, it was difficult for me to find a place to have a dialogue with people about…the way I am.” As a result, says Kaur, “I took it upon myself to start a Sikh Student Association.”
After founding the Sikh organization, a university official suggested that Kaur help set up an “executive board of all the faith organizations.” Soon, OSU’s “Better Together” chapter was born. Better Together, according to the website for the Interfaith Youth Core, is an IFYC “national student campaign for interfaith action.”
According to Kaur, IFYC brings students of different religious and nonreligious backgrounds together to work on secular projects, while also tackling issues that arise between members of different religious affiliations.
“IFYC has a saying, ‘Voice, engage and act,’” Kaur says. “You voice your personal truth, like sharing answers to questions like ‘Why are you here at this homeless shelter?’” in service work, she says. “We engage those differences, we understand them, and then we act. We come together. We make this world a better place by overcoming differences.” The group’s projects engage a wide range of issues, from food education and LGBTQ activism to sustainable energy and gun violence.
For Kaur, involvement with the interfaith movement has been a positive experience. During our interview, Kaur proudly recounted the story of the first time she applied the skills she learned at IFYC conferences and training workshops to her real interfaith leader life. It was a simple, but rewarding act: helping a friend connect with fellow Sikh students at his school.
Kaur also indicates her fondness of IFYC in her Huffington Post blog post “Turning Ugliness into Beauty Through Interfaith Leadership,” where she explains the pleasant experience of being viewed by IFYC peers not as “‘the turbaned girl,’ but as Balpreet Kaur.”
When asked about the impact of physical appearance, the nineteen-year-old offered some reservations about focusing too much on the external, before laughing, pausing for a moment, and then concluding: “Yes, there is value in looking a certain way. [But you can be] autonomous and self-sovereign enough to unapologetically hold on to your personal truth.” She continued, “There is a line between worrying about how people perceive you and using that as a measure of your self‑worth.”
Kaur also acknowledges that there is power in expressing oneself through one’s appearance. In fact, she planned an interfaith fashion show at OSU earlier this month called Dress Better Together, which featured participants from Catholic, Jewish, Baha’i, Wiccan, Sikh, Lakota, and Cherokee backgrounds, as well as one student who was non-identifying.
She also points to her own choice to wear a turban as a Sikh woman, a practice that is more common among Sikh men. Her decision initially sprung from her admiration of a group of turban-wearing Sikh women who she felt exuded contagious confidence.
Since then, Kaur’s reasons for wearing a turban have evolved, and she now points to a combination of feminism and the responsibility of visibility.
“I can’t blend in, I can’t just expect people to just lead the way,” she says. “In a sea of people, you recognize me. That kind of visibility puts an obligation and I guess a need to always act and be a good person, to always be aware of what you’re doing.” She continues, “I might be the only Sikh that a person may ever see in life. By being me, [I can] give them the impression, ‘yes, that girl wearing a turban is kind of cool.’ Now it’s turned into a feminist thing, because I am self-sovereign.”
Kaur expresses satisfaction with where she is. “I love what I look like now. It’s who I am. I feel complete,” Kaur says. “I wouldn’t trade that feeling of completeness for anything else. I think people should embrace themselves, do things that make them feel complete, and feel like they’re living the life they want to live.”