Canada·First Person

I wanted to cut my hair. Did that make me a bad Sikh?

For many Sikhs, long hair is a symbol of their faith, but for Manjot Mann, it felt like a burden as she tried to find her place in Canadian society. As she struggled with her relationship with God, her hair became a symbol of that struggle.

For many Sikhs, long hair is a symbol of faith, but it felt like a weight on my shoulders

A woman with a long braid holds a pair of scissors to her hair.
For many Sikhs, long hair is a symbol of their faith, but for Manjot Mann, it felt like a burden as she tried to find her place in Canadian society. (Althea Manasan and Ben Shannon/CBC)

This First Person article is written by Manjot Mann, who lives in Surrey, B.C. April is Sikh Heritage Month. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

"Can you sit on your hair?" 

That's what the girl sitting behind me in my Grade 10 math class asked me. 

I was used to people asking about my hair. It cascaded down my back in a long braid and I actually could sit on it. Even though I grew up in Newton, a predominately South Asian area of Surrey, B.C., I still felt like an anomaly and a bit of a freak with my long braid. 

I didn't feel like a Bollywood goddess with my long, dark hair. Instead, every strand felt like a weight on my shoulders and I wished for nothing more than to chop it all off.

People would ask if I was Amritdhari a baptized Sikh who has taken Amrit (nectar water) and abides by the Five Ks or symbols of the Khalsa, including uncut hair — because they assumed that's why I had a long braid. It was difficult to explain to them that my long hair had nothing and yet everything to do with the Sikh religion. 

A class of smiling Sikh children. The other children’s faces have been blurred except for one girl.
Manjot Mann attended a Khalsa school in Surrey, B.C., during her kindergarten years. (Submitted by Manjot Mann)

As I sift through the memories of those days, it's hard to remember why long hair felt so important other than it was a rule Sikhs were told to follow. 

For many Sikhs, long hair symbolizes their spirituality and connection to God. It gives them comfort and makes them feel a part of a community that shares their beliefs. The turban, which holds the hair, is described by some Sikhs as their crown — and reflects their pride in their faith. 

But I've always had a complicated relationship with my hair. I went to a Khalsa school in kindergarten and Gurmat camp for Sikh education and religious studies on and off. I was told at these places that my hair had to be kept long and tied up, but didn't quite understand why. As a kid, I became hyper-focused on the idea that because I wanted to cut my hair and thread my eyebrows and I didn't pray every day that somehow I was a bad Sikh. 

Growing up, religion felt black and white to me. "Good Sikhs" had long hair and prayed every day, or so I thought. "Bad Sikhs" did the opposite. As a child, it felt like there was no grey area. Either you abided by these principles and were good or you didn't and were bad. 

When I was 10, I told my mom I wanted to be baptized. When she asked me why, I didn't have an answer for her. How could I put my anxiety into words? How could I explain that I worried about the stories of heaven and hell, and I wanted it to know that without a doubt I would go to heaven if I just kept my hair long, stopped eating meat and was baptized. 

I was too young to understand that there was more to being Amritdhari than what you ate and how you looked, but that's all my young brain could take in: fear. I was already ostracized at school for being different and I didn't want to be different in my community, as well. I wanted to belong and this felt like the way to do it. Instead of straddling the line between Western culture and my Sikh faith, I thought I could just choose one.

My mom told me to sleep on it, and I'm glad I heeded her advice. I eventually stopped going to Khalsa school and Gurmat camp when I was 10, because it became too confusing to reconcile my Canadian identity with my Sikh faith. 

A smiling girl with long hair sits on the lap of a Ronald McDonald statue.
Mann’s hair was so long in 1998 that she could sit on top of it. (Submitted by Manjot Mann)

In the periphery of my childhood are fragmented conversations with my family around the Air India bombing tragedy in June 1985, which is widely considered to be the worst mass murder in Canadian history. It was impossible for me to fathom that one could look the part of what I grew up believing was a "good Sikh" and do a bad thing. I felt even more confused. 

I did eventually cut my hair when I was 16, and it was as if I became a whole new person. If you've never felt held back in life because of your hair, it's hard to understand, but it was never just about my braid; it was about having the freedom to form my identity beyond what people assumed about me. My braid tied me to Sikhi in a way that felt confusing and constricting. 

My mom plays a big role in my more nuanced understanding of faith. She told me that God looks for what's on the inside — not what's on the outside, such as long hair — and, for me, this has made all the difference. 

Today, as a 32-year-old woman, my relationship with religion is more layered. As a therapist, I work with clients — many from a South Asian background — who are processing religious trauma, and this has given me pause to reflect on my relationship with God. 

When I think of my relationship with Sikhi and God now, it's not as based in fear as it was when I was 10, but that deep-seated need to be a good person hasn't gone away. 

A smiling woman next to a smiling girl sitting in a car seat.
Mann, right, with her daughter Sophia. Mann eventually cut her hair but maintains her faith. (Manjot Mann)

My faith looks a lot different now. I don't pray out of fear and I don't worry about what God will think of my hair. We have a relationship based on my values and this is something I teach to my daughter. God is your friend, God is a guide, God does not love or hate based on how you choose to look.

I am a proud Sikh and my faith might not look like others, but that's OK. I am a culmination of my experiences, my learning and my own unique relationship with God. 

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Manjot Mann

Freelance contributor

Manjot Mann is a mom, therapist and writer in Surrey, B.C. She writes for 5XPress and occasionally appears on Spice Radio 1200 AM.