TELL US MORE: Harsimran Kaur ’97, Civil Rights Advocate
Kaur is a co-founder of The Sikh Coalition, an organization dedicated to legal advocacy for a religious minority that often finds itself the target of discrimination.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Sikhs, Muslims, people from the Middle East, and other minorities in the United States increasingly found themselves victims of an angry backlash. Alarmed by those attacks, volunteers including Harsimran Kaur ’97 formed The Sikh Coalition to educate and advocate for civil rights and justice. Sikhs originate from Punjab, India, and the most religious among them are recognizable by turbans and unshorn hair. Though the religion arose in South Asia, within a Hindu/Muslim culture, Sikhism is separate and distinct from both Islam and Hinduism. Despite that, Sikhs were (and still are) targeted by those who claim to hate Muslims, or are simply looking for anyone they identify as “different.”
“Sikh professionals around the country were talking because everyone had friends or family or knew someone who had been assaulted or harassed,” says Kaur, who at the time was in her third year of law school at George Washington University. “An elderly man was attacked in Queens, and Sikhs were chased down the streets of Manhattan. Our community was feeling so much grief and trauma because of the terrorist attacks, and it doubled because of the [violence against us]. There was a real fundamental misunderstanding of who we were and our articles of faith.”
One of the coalition’s first goals was getting the U.S. Senate to pass a resolution recognizing assaults against Sikhs as hate crimes. “Federal recognition was important,” Kaur says, “so that police and prosecutors recognized the gravity of those crimes.”
Kaur volunteered for the Coalition while working on civil rights and race-based employment issues for a D.C. legal firm, then joined the Coalition full-time in 2008. She served as legal director for eight years, handling cases ranging from hate crimes to workplace discrimination and profiling. Today she is senior counsel, based in Chicago and splitting her time between raising two young children and providing strategic consulting and support to the full-time legal staff of three that she trained and now mentors. She’s also a spokeswoman and nationally recognized expert on Sikh legal issues. The Coalition partners with other advocacy groups fighting for equal rights and justice, and their public relations team educates the public about Sikhs. “Sikhs have been here since the turn of the 20th century, particularly on the West Coast, and not many people know our history,” Kaur says.
What has been the Coalition’s most recent, major legal victory?
Since 2009 we’ve been working to integrate the military and allow observant Sikhs to join, and in January 2017, the U.S. Army changed its policy to allow not only observant Sikhs, but also hijab-wearing Muslims, to join formally. If a religious Sikh wants to serve, they can, while maintaining unshorn hair and wearing a turban. The new policy also permits a person of any religious tradition to obtain an accommodation to maintain a beard, and allows African American female soldiers to wear dreadlocks. That’s not something we take credit for; African American service members have been requesting that change for a while. But when you push for the rights of some, you force the institution to have broader conversations about inclusiveness. If the government discriminates against us, it sends a message to the broader public that it’s acceptable to discriminate against the community. Our military is stronger if it looks like and reflects the rest of America.
We’ve also represented a number of Sikh truck drivers who were disallowed jobs because they were told they had to provide hair samples for drug tests, or were told to remove their turbans. We support safety but there were alternatives, like fingernail testing. We filed a complaint with the EEOC and ultimately settled the case.
Do the incidents you hear about ever discourage you?
I try to balance the day-to-day with the bigger picture. As an organization and a community, we have come a long way. Self-care is also critical with a job like this. Once I had kids, it forced me to do self-care better because I couldn’t bring the trauma I heard about home to my family. Exercise and eating right is important, and you have to allow yourself time to decompress.
Has your organization seen an uptick in hate crimes over the past year?
In the three to four months leading up to the November 2016 election, there was a very palpable increase in hate crimes. And in the past three to four months [late 2017-early 2018] we’ve seen an unprecedented number of school bullying cases. We know it’s a huge problem because every time we survey our community, we find that two out of three kids who maintain the Sikh articles of faith (including turban or unshorn hair) are being subject to bullying in school. Still, we get very few official calls for help about bullying.
Why aren’t parents or children requesting more help?
We think parents might not realize that bullying is a legal issue and also, kids are hesitant to speak out and be seen as tattling. And for a lot of children whose parents are immigrants, they see their parents working hard, often with several jobs, and they don’t want to burden them. In the last three months we’ve had 12 school bullying cases come in, so that’s a huge jump in the numbers.
How can Americans better combat hate and prejudice at home?
It has to come from the top and bottom. Our elected officials need to speak out clearly on what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of the values our democracy holds dear. After 9/11, for example, George W. Bush stated that the Muslim community isn’t our enemy, terrorists are. From the community perspective, we need to be marching in the streets and making our voices heard.
What drew you to this area of the law?
I was always interested in social justice, and my time at Haverford fostered that interest. After graduation I worked as a paralegal at Philadelphia Legal Assistance, which provides legal services to the indigent. I was always in a social justice environment and went to law school with that interest.
How do you prepare your own children (ages 4 and 7) to deal with prejudice and discrimination?
On the one hand you have to teach them to be proud of who they are and what our values are: to be kind and live with integrity. At the same time, I try to teach them to be resilient. We nurture them, love them, and prepare them for whatever adversity may come their way in life. It’s a long-term process.
What does the turban represent in the Sikh religion?
The turban signifies equality and sovereignty. In South Asia in the 1400s, only the nobility wore turbans, and society was entrenched in the caste system. Sikh prophets spoke out against the caste system and preached that all people are equal. Wearing a turban is meant to reinforce this idea that all men are their own kings. No one is high- or low-born.