Towelheads, Diapers, and Faggots: Reviving the Turban

In the days and weeks following the World Trade Center and
Pentagon attacks on September 11, there has been a rapid
proliferation of mocking images of a turbaned Osama bin Laden,
not to mention of the turban itself. In a photo-montage circ u l a t i n g
from, even George Bush has been sporting a bin
Laden-esque turban. Another internet favorite is a picture of bin
Laden superimposed into a 7-11 convenience store scene as a
c a s h i e r. Posters that appeared in midtown Manhattan only days
after the attacks show a turbaned caricature of bin Laden being
anally penetrated by the Empire State building. The legend beneath
reads,” The Empire Strikes Back” or “So you like skyscrapers, huh,
bitch?” Though much humorous commentary on the appropriate
punishment for bin Laden focuses on the liberation of Afghan
women, this portrayal suggests something further still: American
retaliation promises to turn bin Laden into a fag.
While turbaned individuals in multicultural America have
oft been referred to as “towelheads,” the repertoire of sophisticated
references has expanded further still: On September 17,
US Representative John Cooksey explained to a network of
Louisiana radio stations that anyone “wearing a diaper on his
head” should expect to be interrogated as a possible suspect in
the investigations of the terrorist attacks.
In fear of being the targets of racist backlash against
Muslims and Arab Americans, Sikhs who wear turbans, (albeit, as
has been repeatedly pointed out by spokespersons for Sikh
advocacy groups, not the type worn by bin Laden), have
discovered various counter-narratives of respectable turban-hood.
Many Sikhs, hearing early reports of turban-grabbing and the
fatal shooting of turbaned-Sikh gas station owner Balbir Singh
Sodhi in Mesa, Arizona, have simply abandoned their turbans, for
the same reasons that many Sikhs abandoned them when they
first migrated to the US. Others have contributed to the current
fervor of American patriotic/multicultural exceptionalism by
donning red, white and blue turbans. Organizations such as the
Sikh-American civil rights advocacy group, Sikh Mediawatch and
Resource Task Force (SMART), have released statements and
photos explaining the differences between “those” turbans and
Sikh turbans. Sikhs are being stopped at airport security and
asked to take off their turbans so they can be checked for knives.
For this Sikhs are directed by SMART to patiently educate: “The
turban is not a hat. It is a mandatory symbol of the Sikh religion.
I cannot simply remove it; it must be unwrapped.”
To the average uninterested American eye, however, a
turban is just a turban. And it symbolizes: the revived, erect and
violent patriarchy of the East, of Islam, and of the Taliban; the
oppression of Afghan women (in essence creating default
feminists of Bush and his administration, and numerous others
who are now suddenly condemning the Taliban for their
treatment of women, in an uncanny continuity with western
liberal feminists who also have been using Afghan women as an
easy icon in need of feminist rescue); the castration and the
penetration of white western phallic power by bad brown dick,
and its turban.
Having spent my life surrounded by turbaned male relatives,
as a queer Sikh who cut off all her hair against religious mandates
in order to look like a certain kind of dyke, I experience the turban
as a complicated and ambivalent signifier of both the comfort of
racial and religious community as well as the power of masculine
h e t e r o n o r m a t i v i t y. I am as troubled by the increasing forms of
turban-profiling and its consequences as I am about the erasure of
violent backlash against women in hijabs and other forms of
religious attire. The re-masculinization and nationalism that is the
response of numerous middle-class Sikh communities takes place in
tandem with the emasculation of the white male state.
Much mainstream Sikh response has focused on getting
the attention of white America, intent on re-narrating itself
through American nationalism as respectable, exemplary, model
minority citizens who have held vigils, donated blood and
contributed funds to the Red Cross, and were quick to cover their
gurudwaras (temples) in American flags. Many national Sikh
media outlets, attempting to counter the mistaken identity
phenonmenon, have put out messages to the effect of “we are
not them [Muslims],” encouraging Sikhs to use this opportunity
to educate people about the peaceful Sikh religion. They are also
sending an endless stream of lawyers to Washington, D.C. to
meet with Senators and other public officials to expound upon
Sikh commitment to American civic life. Sikh gurudwaras across
the country are hiring public relations firms to deal with this
misunderstanding among the American public.
While the revival of Sikh middle-class “good citizenship”
nationalist pride threatens to hinder possible coalitions across
class, race, and sexuality, South Asian queer organizations have
been relatively quiet about the racist backlash. Turbans have
never been viewed as very queer-friendly, at least not in the
diaspora. Community-based anti-backlash/war organizing efforts
— for example, a recent vigil in Jackson Heights organized by
International South Asia Forum — have been conspicuously
straight. Religious differences have remained largely unaddressed
in South Asian queer diasporic organizing contexts, which historically
have been predominantly Hindu (and Indian). Within the
spectrum of towelheads, diapers, and faggotry, the turban is a
powerful reminder of the constructions of racial and sexual
difference that inform both US multicultural discourses as well as
South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Arab American community
formations. The current climate presents an opportunity for
Sikhs to rethink the historical fissures among Hindus and Muslims
while building stronger coalitions with other communities of
color; it is also an opportunity for South Asian queers to address
the pervasive Hindu-centric nature of diasporic organizing in the
US that should not be missed.

Jasbir Puar is Assistant Professor of Geography and Women’s Studies
at Rutgers University.