Five Thoughts about the Quebec 'Turban' Kerfuffle

by Navneet Alang

Though a sensitive cultural issue in Quebec is a bit outside the purview of our Toronto-focused blog, given how it articulates so much about Canadian multiculturalism in general, I couldn't stay away from the topic. So here, in no particular order, are five points on the matter.

  1. This debate about turbans isn't actually about "turbans".  Almost no Sikh boy or male Sikh soccer player wears a turban. A turban, or paggadi in Punjabi, is a thin ~10-20ft stretch of cloth, wrapped around the head, and what most people think of when they hear the words "Sikh man". What Sikh boys and male adult athletes wear is a patka, a piece of cloth about a foot and a half square which is wrapped around the head in 1 layer--mostly because, you know, they're not insane. Running around in a turban--or getting a 10 year old to tie one every day--isn't anyone's idea of fun. Does it matter, then, that the wrong word keeps getting used? Well, yes. For one, having the word circulate in media makes people seem to think that kids are out there on the pitch with full, padded turbans on their heads, and not simply with their hair in a knot covered by very thin fabric. That's important when people talk about 'safety' or related concerns. But more to the point, the fact that this very public debate is occurring without even a basic understanding of the terms--and therefore the specific nature of the argument--speaks volumes about what's going on here.
  2. But! Yelling at minorities about bigotry often causes as many problems as it means to solve. As I've argued before on Ethnic Aisle, the dynamics of prejudice amongst minority groups gets weird. When you attack someone who identifies as part of a culture that has been historically disadvantaged or suppressed--like the Quebecois--it has the odd (and totally predictable) effect of making people dig in their heels. Those who have legitimate cause to think their identity is under attack can quite understandably feel that "accommodate our culture ya' stupid jerks!" sounds a lot like someone else in the past saying "your culture is stupid and lesser!" Shouting "bigot" at a rich white man in Toronto versus a middle class French-Canadian in Montreal is not the same thing, and we need to stop pretending it is. History looms large, and a certain kind of sensitivity is required when it comes to multiculturalism and Quebec.
  3. Calls for universalism are, however, still prejudice in disguise. Some, like Sylvain Raymond and  Simon Delorme** have supported the ruling based on a kind of universalism: team sport is about forgoing individualism and should thus encourage adhering to a standard of neutrality. It's a noble goal. I mean, who could object to that?  The problem is that it assumes two things: 1) that the neutral, 'secular' standard people should aspire to just happens to be the default of white, franco-Canadians; 2) and secondly, that a universalism in which everyone expresses or evinces the same beliefs is necessarily a good thing, regardless of how it may force a certain kind of norm on a multicultural population.
  4. What about the 'right to happiness'? Okay, fine, that's an American idea. But, though it perhaps it sounds silly, think about this: it's a hot, sticky summer day, and a guy wants to feel as cool as possible. In an abstract sense, wearing no shirt--and a skirt!--would be the most comfortable thing of all. Right?  But who wants to face no end of stares, giggles and outright condemnation for such a simple thing? No-one. Who wants to combat these massive ideas about gender and appropriateness just to stay cool? No-one. So you wear some trousers and go to work and suffer it. Maybe asking people to make profound ideological decisions in relation to everyday shit is just a bit much. I know this'll come as a shock, but every time a Sikh dude ties his turban or patka, he doesn't stand there in front of the mirror and think "hm, what is the relationship between my understanding of cosmology, identity and these five symbols of my faith?" Maybe he just wants to get on with his fucking day.
  5. There might be a conversation to have about turbans in modern societies; it's just not yours to have.Discussions about Sikhism or Islam or any non-European practice often tend to assume they're these static things that people either adhere to or reject. It's not that simple. You can, for example, be a secular Sikh; I know this because I am one, as are some of the people I grew up with. For my own reasons, I don't wear a turban, and whether or not the turban and other Sikh symbols continue to serve a specific function is a conversation I think is worth having. But I'll be damned if I have that debate solely in the terms of Western secularism, Canadian cultural norms, or from the perspectives of Toronto or Montreal's (white) chattering classes. Instead, it's something that has to happen in a space aware of the history and specificity of faith and culture --all the while being mindful of the fact that the meeting of cultures is often very fruitful. It's just a conversation that "we" are going to have on our terms, and in our time.

**The original post stated that it was Paul Wells from Macleans who made this argument. It was in fact a guest post by Delorme on Well's regular Macleans blog. Thanks to the anonymous commenter who pointed this out.