What Is It Like to Be a Sikh Woman in the U.S. Military?
Two of the first Sikh women in the U.S. Military
Currently, there are approximately 215,000 women serving in active duty in the military, 15 percent of all branches. When it comes to Sikh women serving in the military that number falls to … well, so small that it’s not a statistic.
Below is a conversation with two of the first Sikh women to ever serve in the U.S. Military. It might be surprising, as the Sikh tradition emphasis the role of military service as well as the importance of gender equality; historically Sikh people have been disproportionately represented in armed forces throughout the world.
But as Petty Officer Guldeep (Geena) Kaur Sidhu and Staff Sargent Balreet (Bree) Kaur Khaira relate, they are breaking barriers in the military and in their communities.
INTER: The Sikh tradition has a long history of valuing military service and the “saint-soldier”. Can you tell me a little bit about why that is and what military service means to Sikhs?
Geena: The term “saint-soldier” resonates very deeply within the Sikh community. All of our leaders, in some way, fought for people who could not fight for themselves, whether that was in peaceful protest or by sacrifice or by actually picking up a weapon and fighting on the battlefield. It has been a longstanding tradition from our gurus to the earliest of our Sikh men and women to today.
It means a lot more than being a solider. It means to stand up for what is right and to stand up against injustice. Some people perform that responsibility through military service or public service as police officers or firefighters. Then you have people who are doctors or nurses and for them that is being a saint-soldier. But at the end of the day, it has that deeper meaning of protecting those around us.
Bree: Sikhism is a way of life, not only a religion. I think it is understood around the world that Sikhs are meant to be protectors. It is embedded into the religion and the way of life. When you see someone in a turban, or know they are Sikh, know that they will be looking out for you.
Geena: Yes, as Bree says, our gurus and Sikh men and women have sacrificed themselves, sacrificed their lives, for the sake of other religions. It isn’t just that we protect our own. Our duty is to protect humanity.
INTER: How do you feel the Sikh tradition of military service and the saint-soldier has inspired you in your life?
Geena: Growing up I heard about the 1984 Sikh genocide that took place in India and Punjab. It was during that time that my family immigrated to the United States. For me, when it came to service and serving in the U.S. armed forces, it was a repayment to this country for saving my family’s life. That’s what it was.
But then as I got older and learned more about my religion and significant Sikh warriors, one stood out to me. It was a female warrior known as Mia Bhago from the early 1700s. Her husband was one of the Sikhs that fought with our 10th guru. After a while fighting got to be too much and he returned to his village along with 40 other men and said he wasn’t going to fight anymore. Mia Bhago told him he could either go back and fight or he could take care of the house and she was going to take his armor and fight alongside the Guru, which she did. To see those pictures of her riding on horseback with a sword in her hand – that was someone I always looked up to as a girl.
Bree: For me, the medical field is something I’ve always been passionate about and something I wanted to pursue. So, my proposition to my parents was that if I joined the military it would pay for my school and I would learn more than I could at any medical school. The plan was not to stay in, but to do the bare minimum, get out and move on with my life. But, before I knew it I totally fell in love with the Army.
INTER: Sikhism also emphasis gender equality. Geena and Bree, you are two of the first Sikh women to serve in the U.S. Military. What does that mean to you and why is that significant?
Geena: I believe there is a major difference between our culture and our religion. So, our religion promotes gender equality and tells us our women are just as fierce and just as much warriors as men are, but when it comes to modern day Punjabi culture, we still tell our daughters that they need to stay home and learn to make dinner for their husbands one day.
My biggest issue was telling my very Indian family that I was going to go serve in the military. They had a different view of what they wanted their eldest daughter to do. They wanted me to get a degree, get a good paying job, find myself a husband and raise a family.
What helped me prove to my family that I was just as capable of military service as my brother would be, were those fearless Sikh women of the past. I’ve been in the Navy for almost seven years. And my field is still very male dominated. Military service is still hard for women no matter what religion or culture they come from. As cliché and as hallmark as it sounds, it was remembering the history of my people and how they never gave up, that is what pushed me forward and helped me to continue my efforts to serve.
Bree: When I joined the Army in 2006 there was only one other Sikh female in the military. She was the first in the Army, and I was the second. I would go on this page, it’s basically a big address book for the military, and I would type in “Core + Sikh” to see who else was in the service and there were not that many people. It was a select few. And even now, only 1 percent of the U.S. population joins the military and Sikh Americans are a fraction of that.
It is something we should all be very proud of. But when I first enlisted, I was the first one in my community. And no one really understood why I did it. As Geena said, there is a difference between the culture and the religion.
Geena: As far as I know I am the third Sikh female in the Navy. But, because a lot of our Sikh men and women who joined the military didn’t say, “Hey guys, I’m Sikh, I’m one of the first ones, turn the spotlight on me,” we are just now uncovering prior Sikh vets and just now meeting people who have served before us. In 2013, I did an interview with the Facebook page Portrait of Sikhs and a number of Sikh news sites took that and launched it all over the place. After that I got a bunch of messages from other Sikhs saying, “I also served.” We are still finding more people.
INTER: Thinking you were the only one or one of very few Sikhs and Sikh women in the military, how did you that make you feel?
Geena: There is a Sikh website called Sikhnet.com. It is one of the largest and most well-known websites for Gurbani and Sikh history. They published the interview I did with Portraits of Sikhs, and I also got a bunch of messages from women in the Punjabi community that said, “I’ve always wanted to serve, but I’ve never had anyone to look up to or use as an example.”
To hear that was nerve-racking, because I felt like I had to hold myself to an even higher standard. And also, to be someone others can use as an example to pursue their dreams is an incredible feeling. Like I said, I didn’t have anyone like that. When I joined, it wasn’t necessarily for the Sikh community, but I realize now my service means just as much to my country as it does to my community.
Bree: I did feel a little isolated at certain points because I never had anyone to talk with about things like our religion, culture, and beliefs. I remember the first time I had beef, I was emotional but it wasn’t something I could bring to the surface. The men around me wouldn’t understand why I was balling my eyes out while eating beef. Not all Sikhs are vegetarian, but my family is. And my mom, she asked me, “Why do you eat that?” I told her I have an option, either I will starve or I will eat it.
There are no religious accommodations when it comes to food. I think that is one of the biggest things that the military has not figured out yet: how to serve vegetarians. I don’t know how many there are, and bless their hearts, but I know they don’t get fed well. Even though we are all one and we all wear the same uniform, we all have different upbringings that mold us into who we are so when there is something a little out of the norm, that is when you feel it. You can’t accommodate everyone individually, but there are people with many different backgrounds that serve.
INTER: Since 1980, there have been regulations that restricted things like beards and head-wear worn by military personnel in uniform. This created a barrier for observant Sikhs to serve. Just a few months ago, in January, these regulations changed. Has this change affected your service at all? Have you seen it affect other service members? What do you think this might mean for the future of Sikhs in the U.S. Military?
Bree: Since the change happened, I’ve had my leaders come to me and ask me what I think about the change, because they know I am Sikh. The biggest thing is no one really understands the history of Sikhism and the military. People don’t realize that many Sikhs have served and have worn the turban and had beards. This hasn’t been a forever ban. As you said, it was implemented in the ‘80s. These things were allowed at one time. We are just allowing it again. But there has been a lot of initial animosity. There are a lot of people that just like things to be the same, they don’t want any changes.
The policy applies both to males and females. And that is probably the thing I am most excited to see, the first turbaned woman to join.
INTER: What is the Sikh tradition for women and the turban? Is it optional?
Geena: It is optional. Women generally don’t wear it, but some do. It’s just not as common as it is for Sikh men. But, my entire life I’ve known Sikh women who wore the turban.
I honestly think a lot of women don’t know that the new policy is not gender specific. Up until a few weeks ago, I thought it was just being allowed for Sikh men. I’m sure there is a Sikh woman somewhere in our community that wants to be the first turbaned Sikh woman service member. I know for a fact there is someone itching to be able to set that example. And we need to let her know she can do it.
The other misunderstanding is that the policy change is only for the Army. It isn’t available to all branches. There was a Muslim woman who wanted to join the Navy and a recruiter from my hometown called me and asked, “Who do I contact for this accommodation?” and I had to tell her that it is not available for the Navy yet, that policy is only for the Army. If the woman chooses to serve in the Army she can wear the Hijab, but in the Navy, it is not an option.
INTER: Why do you think it is important to have men and women of different faiths serve together in the U.S. Military?
Geena: I think it is so important. Absolutely important. When you have a certain type of person and that is the only type of person you are promoting to have in our military, you only have one type of mindset and one way of thinking and one set of experiences. And with our changing times and with conflicts around the world, I think it is very important to incorporate all faiths, all cultures, and all religions. Not only does it bring a different viewpoint and history to the table, but I also think it promotes more open-mindedness. It helps us not shut people out just because they are different.
Faith is important for military service. Because we do face situations where we don’t have anything other than faith. You are so isolated at some points and all you have is that conversation with God. Promoting diverse faiths is only going to strengthen us as a military. When you have people who are so strong willed because of their faith and you shut them out only because of that faith, you are losing out on a phenomenal opportunity to work with someone with tremendous passion. Once we get away from this mindset that just because someone is different they don’t belong, that is when we become a better military.
Bree: That is beautifully said. I agree word for word. Religion drives people. Deep down inside a lot of us live our daily lives based on our faith and what we believe is a righteous way to live.
Honestly, I took my religion for granted and didn’t think that much about it. But as I grew older in the military, I began going to Gurdwara a lot more, more than I ever thought I would and really looking into the Gurbani to give me what I was looking for when I had no one to turn to. I feel like the military allowed me to get closer to my religion rather than my religion allowed me to get closer to the military.
When you are taking away the comforts of home and saying I’m going to sign on this dotted line and serve my country, you are practicing selfless service. Even though there are different religions, everyone has a common goal and that is to serve their country.