Why Sikhs Wear a Turban and What it Means to Practice the Faith in the United States

People participate in a candlelight vigil near the White House to protest violence against Sikhs in 2012.  AP Photo/Susan Walsh

People participate in a candlelight vigil near the White House to protest violence against Sikhs in 2012. AP Photo/Susan Walsh

An elderly Sikh gentleman in Northern California, 64-year-old Parmjit Singh, was recently stabbed to death while taking a walk in the evening. Authorities are still investigating the killer’s motive, but community members have asked the FBI to investigate the killing.

For many among the estimated 500,000 Sikhs in the U.S., it wouldn’t be the first time. According to the Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh civil rights organization in North America, this is the seventh such attack on an elderly Sikh with a turban in the past eight years.

As a scholar of the tradition and a practicing Sikh myself, I have studied the harsh realities of what it means to be a Sikh in America today. I have also experienced racial slurs from a young age.

I have found there is little understanding of who exactly the Sikhs are and what they believe. So here’s a primer.

Founder of Sikhism

The founder of the Sikh tradition, Guru Nanak, was born in 1469 in the Punjab region of South Asia, which is currently split between Pakistan and the northwestern area of India. A majority of the global Sikh population still resides in Punjab on the Indian side of the border.

From a young age, Guru Nanak was disillusioned by the social inequities and religious hypocrisies he observed around him. He believed that a single divine force created the entire world and resided within it. In his belief, God was not separate from the world and watching from a distance, but fully present in every aspect of creation.

He therefore asserted that all people are equally divine and deserve to be treated as such.

To promote this vision of divine oneness and social equality, Guru Nanak created institutions and religious practices. He established community centers and places of worship, wrote his own scriptural compositions and institutionalized a system of leadership (gurus) that would carry forward his vision.

The Sikh view thus rejects all social distinctions that produce inequities, including gender, race, religion and caste, the predominant structure for social hierarchy in South Asia.

A community kitchen run by the Sikhs to provide free meals irrespective of caste, faith or religion, in the Golden Temple, in Punjab, India.  shankar s. ,  CC BY

A community kitchen run by the Sikhs to provide free meals irrespective of caste, faith or religion, in the Golden Temple, in Punjab, India. shankar s., CC BY

Serving the world is a natural expression of the Sikh prayer and worship. Sikhs call this prayerful service “seva,” and it is a core part of their practice.

The Sikh identity

In the Sikh tradition, a truly religious person is one who cultivates the spiritual self while also serving the communities around them – or a saint-soldier. The saint-soldier ideal applies to women and men alike.

In this spirit, Sikh women and men maintain five articles of faith, popularly known as the five Ks. These are: kes (long, uncut hair), kara (steel bracelet), kanga (wooden comb), kirpan (small sword) and kachera (soldier-shorts).

Although little historical evidence exists to explain why these particular articles were chosen, the five Ks continue to provide the community with a collective identity, binding together individuals on the basis of a shared belief and practice. As I understand, Sikhs cherish these articles of faith as gifts from their gurus.

Turbans are an important part of the Sikh identity. Both women and men may wear turbans. Like the articles of faith, Sikhs regard their turbans as gifts given by their beloved gurus, and their meaning is deeply personal. In South Asian culture, wearing a turban typically indicated one’s social status – kings and rulers once wore turbans. The Sikh gurus adopted the turban, in part, to remind Sikhs that all humans are sovereign, royal and ultimately equal.

Sikhs in America

Today, there are approximately 30 million Sikhs worldwide, making Sikhism the world’s fifth-largest major religion.

‘A Sikh-American Journey’ parade in Pasadena, Calif. AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker

‘A Sikh-American Journey’ parade in Pasadena, Calif. AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker

After British colonizers in India seized power of Punjab in 1849, where a majority of the Sikh community was based, Sikhs began migrating to various regions controlled by the British Empire, including Southeast Asia, East Africa and the United Kingdom itself. Based on what was available to them, Sikhs played various roles in these communities, including military service, agricultural work and railway construction.

The first Sikh community entered the United States via the West Coast during the 1890s. They began experiencing discrimination immediately upon their arrival. For instance, the first race riot targeting Sikhs took place in Bellingham, Washington, in 1907. Angry mobs of white men rounded up Sikh laborers, beat them up and forced them to leave town.

The discrimination continued over the years. For instance, when my father moved from Punjab to the United States in the 1970s, racial slurs like “Ayatollah” and “raghead” were hurled at him. It was a time when 52 American diplomats and citizens were taken captive in Iran and tension between the two countries was high. These slurs reflected the racist backlash against those who fitted the stereotypes of Iranians. Our family faced a similar racist backlash when the U.S. engaged in the Gulf War during the early 1990s.

Increase in hate crimes

The racist attacks spiked again after 9/11, particularly because many Americans did not know about the Sikh religion and may have conflated the unique Sikh appearance with popular stereotypes of what terrorists look like. News reports show that in comparison to the past decade, the rates of violence against Sikhs have surged.

Elsewhere too, Sikhs have been victims of hate crimes. An Ontario member of Parliament, Gurrattan Singh, was recently heckled with Islamophobic comments by a man who perceived Singh as a Muslim.

As a practicing Sikh, I can affirm that the Sikh commitment to the tenets of their faith, including love, service and justice, keeps them resilient in the face of hate. For these reasons, for many Sikh Americans, like myself, it is rewarding to maintain the unique Sikh identity.

SIMRAN JEET SINGH is a Henry R. Luce Post-Doctoral Fellow in Religion in International Affairs Post-Doctoral Fellow at New York University.


China’s Architectural Wonder Has Been Standing for 700 Years

The Guanyin Pavilion was built to last. And last. And last. This temple has sat atop a large reef rock in the middle of China’s Yangtze River in Ezhou for 700 years. When the water rises and covers the foundation, it looks like the structure is floating. Also known as the Goddess of Mercy Pavilion, the temple isn’t open to the public nowadays. But we’ve captured a glorious bird’s eye view of this historical treasure, holding its own against the swirling current.

Why Traditional Persian Music Should be Known to the World

The Nasir ol Molk Mosque in Shiraz, Iran: Islamic architecture is one of the gems of Persian culture, as is its traditional music. Wikimedia Commons

The Nasir ol Molk Mosque in Shiraz, Iran: Islamic architecture is one of the gems of Persian culture, as is its traditional music. Wikimedia Commons

Weaving through the rooms of my Brisbane childhood home, carried on the languid, humid, sub-tropical air, was the sound of an Iranian tenor singing 800-year old Persian poems of love. I was in primary school, playing cricket in the streets, riding a BMX with the other boys, stuck at home reading during the heavy rains typical of Queensland.

I had an active, exterior life that was lived on Australian terms, suburban, grounded in English, and easy-going. At the same time, thanks to my mother’s listening habits, courtesy of the tapes and CDs she bought back from trips to Iran, my interior life was being invisibly nourished by something radically other, by a soundscape invoking a world beyond the mundane, and an aesthetic dimension rooted in a sense of transcendence and spiritual longing for the Divine.

I was listening to traditional Persian music (museghi-ye sonnati). This music is the indigenous music of Iran, although it is also performed and maintained in Persian-speaking countries such as Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It has ancient connections to traditional Indian music, as well as more recent ones to Arabic and Turkish modal music.

It is a world-class art that incorporates not only performance but also the science and theory of music and sound. It is, therefore, a body of knowledge, encoding a way of knowing the world and being. The following track is something of what I might have heard in my childhood:

Playing kamancheh, a bowed spike-fiddle, is Kayhān Kalhor, while the singer is the undisputed master of vocals in Persian music, ostād (meaning “maestro”) Mohammad Reza Shajarian. He is singing in the classical vocal style, āvāz, that is the heart of this music.

A non-metric style placing great creative demands on singers, āvāz is improvised along set melodic lines memorised by heart. Without a fixed beat, the vocalist sings with rhythms resembling speech, but speech heightened to an intensified state. This style bears great similarity to the sean-nos style of Ireland, which is also ornamented and non-rhythmic, although sean-nos is totally unaccompanied, unlike Persian āvāz in which the singer is often accompanied by a single stringed instrument.

A somewhat more unorthodox example of āvāz is the following, sung by Alireza Ghorbāni with a synthesised sound underneath his voice rather than any Persian instrument. It creates a hypnotic effect.

Even listeners unfamiliar with Persian music should be able to hear the intensity in the voices of Ghorbāni and Shajarian. Passion is paramount, but passion refined and sublimated so that longing and desire break through ordinary habituated consciousness to point to something unlimited, such as an overwhelming sense of the beyond.

Beyond media contrived images

The traditional poetry and music of Iran aim to create a threshold space, a zone of mystery; a psycho-emotional terrain of suffering, melancholy, death and loss, but also of authentic joy, ecstasy, and hope.

Iranians have tasted much suffering throughout their history, and are wary of being stripped of their identity. Currently, economic sanctions are being re-applied to Iran’s entire civilian population, depriving millions of ordinary people of medicine and essentials.

Traditional Persian music matters in this context of escalating aggression because it is a rich, creative artform, still living and cherished. It binds Iranians in a shared culture that constitutes the authentic life of the people and the country, as opposed to the contrived image of Iran presented in Western media that begins and ends with politics.

This is a thoroughly soulful music, akin not in form but in soulfulness with artists such as John Coltrane or Van Morrison. In the Persian tradition, music is not only for pleasure, but has a transformative purpose. Sound is meant to effect a change in the listener’s consciousness, to bring them into a spiritual state (hāl).

Like other ancient systems, in the Persian tradition the perfection of the formal structures of beautiful music is believed to come from God, as in the Pythagorean phrase, the “music of the spheres.”

Because traditional Persian music has been heavily influenced by Sufism, the mystical aspect of Islam, many rhythmic performances (tasnif, as opposed to āvāz) can (distantly) recall the sounds of Sufi musical ceremonies (sama), with forceful, trance-inducing rhythms. (For instance in this Rumi performance by Alireza Eftekhari).

Even when slow, traditional Persian music is still passionate and ardent in mood, such as this performance of Rumi by Homayoun Shajarian, son of Mohammad-Reza:

A Persian woman playing the Daf, a frame drum, from a painting on the walls of Chehel-sotoon palace, Isfahan, 17th century. Wikimedia Commons

A Persian woman playing the Daf, a frame drum, from a painting on the walls of Chehel-sotoon palace, Isfahan, 17th century. Wikimedia Commons

Another link with traditional Celtic music is the grief that runs through Persian music, as can be heard in this instrumental by Kalhor.

Grief and sorrow always work in tandem with joy and ecstasy to create soundscapes that evoke longing and mystery.

Connections with classical poetry

The work of classical poets such as Rumi, Hāfez, Sa’di, Attār, and Omar Khayyām forms the lyrical basis of compositions in traditional Persian music. The rhythmic structure of the music is based on the prosodic system that poetry uses (aruz), a cycle of short and long syllables.

Singers must therefore be masters not only at singing but know Persian poetry and its metrical aspects intimately. Skilled vocalists must be able to interpret poems. Lines or phrases can be extended or repeated, or enhanced with vocal ornaments.

Thus, even for a Persian speaker who knows the poems being sung, Persian music can still reveal new interpretations. Here, for example (from 10:00 to 25:00 mins) is another example of Rumi by M.R. Shajarian:

This is a charity concert from 2003 in Bam, Iran, after a horrendous earthquake destroyed the town. Rumi’s poem is renowned among Persian speakers, but here Mohammad-Reza Shajarian sings it with such passion and emotional intensity that it sounds fresh and revelatory.

“Without everyone else it’s possible,” Rumi says, “Without you life is not liveable.”

While such lines are originally drawn from the tradition of non-religious love poems, in Rumi’s poems the address to the beloved becomes mystical, otherworldly. After a tragedy such as the earthquake, these lyrics can take on special urgency in the present.

When people listen to traditional music, they, like the singers, remain still. Audiences are transfixed and transported.

According to Sufi cosmology, all melodious sounds erupt forth from a world of silence. In Sufism, silence is the condition of the innermost chambers of the human heart, its core (fuad), which is likened to a throne from which the Divine Presence radiates.

Because of this connection with the intelligence and awareness of the heart, many performers of traditional Persian music understand that it must be played through self-forgetting, as beautifully explained here by master Amir Koushkani:

Persian music has roughly twelve modal systems, each known as a dastgah. Each dastgah collects melodic models that are skeletal frameworks upon which performers improvise in the moment. The spiritual aspect of Persian music is made most manifest in this improvisation.

Shajarian has said that the core of traditional music is concentration (tamarkoz), by which he means not only the mind but the whole human awareness. It is a mystical and contemplative music.

The highly melodic nature of Persian music also facilitates expressiveness. Unlike Western classical music, there is very sparing use of harmony. This, and the fact that like other world musical traditions it includes microtonal intervals, may make traditional Persian music odd at first listen for Western audiences.

Solo performances are important to traditional Persian music. In a concert, soloists may be accompanied by another instrument with a series of call-and-response type echoes and recapitulations of melodic phrases.

Similarly, here playing the barbat, a Persian variant of the oud, maestro Hossein Behrooznia shows how percussion and plucked string instruments can forge interwoven melodic structures that create hypnotic soundscapes:

Ancient roots

The roots of traditional Persian music go back to ancient pre-Islamic Persian civilisation, with archaeological evidence of arched harps (a harp in the shape of a bow with a sound box at the lower end), having been used in rituals in Iran as early as 3100BC.

Under the pre-Islamic Parthian (247BC-224AD) and Sasanian (224-651AD) kingdoms, in addition to musical performances on Zoroastrian holy days, music was elevated to an aristocratic art at royal courts.

Centuries after the Sasanians, after the Arab invasion of Iran, Sufi metaphysics brought a new spiritual intelligence to Persian music. Spiritual substance is transmitted through rhythm, metaphors and symbolism, melodies, vocal delivery, instrumentation, composition, and even the etiquette and co-ordination of performances.

A six-string fretted lute, known as a tār. Wikimedia Commons

A six-string fretted lute, known as a tār. Wikimedia Commons

The main instruments used today go back to ancient Iran. Among others, there is the tār, the six-stringed fretted lute; ney, the vertical reed flute that is important to Rumi’s poetry as a symbol of the human soul crying out in joy or grief; daf, a frame drum important in Sufi ritual; and the setār, a wooden four-stringed lute.

The tār, made of mulberry wood and stretch lambskin, is used to create vibrations that affect the heart and the body’s energies and a central instrument for composition. It is played here by master Hossein Alizadeh and here by master Dariush Talai.

Music, gardens, and beauty

Traditional Persian music not only cross-pollinates with poetry, but with other arts and crafts. At its simplest, this means performing with traditional dress and carpets on stage. In a more symphonic mode of production, an overflow of beauty can be created, such as in this popular and enchanting performance by the group Mahbanu:

They perform in a garden: of course. Iranians love gardens, which have a deeply symbolic and spiritual meaning as a sign or manifestation of Divine splendour. Our word paradise, in fact, comes from the Ancient Persian word, para-daiza, meaning “walled garden”. The walled garden, tended and irrigated, represents in Persian tradition the cultivation of the soul, an inner garden or inner paradise.

The traditional costumes of the band (as with much folk dress around the world) are elegant, colourful, resplendent, yet also modest. The lyrics are tinged with Sufi thought, the poet-lover lamenting the distance of the beloved but proclaiming the sufficiency of staying in unconsumed desire.

As a young boy, I grasped the otherness of Persian music intuitively. I found its timeless spiritual beauty and interiority had no discernible connection with my quotidian, material Australian existence.

Persian music and arts, like other traditional systems, gives a kind of “food” for the soul and spirit that has been destroyed in the West by the dominance of rationalism and capitalism. For 20 years since my boyhood, traditional Persian culture has anchored my identity, healed and replenished my wounded heart, matured my soul, and allowed me to avoid the sense of being without roots in which so many unfortunately find themselves today.

It constitutes a world of beauty and wisdom that is a rich gift to the whole world, standing alongside Irano-Islamic architecture and Iranian garden design.

The problem is the difficulty of sharing this richness with the world. In an age of hypercommunication, why is the beauty of Persian music (or the beauty of traditional arts of many other cultures for that matter) so rarely disseminated? Much of the fault lies with corporate media.

Brilliant women

Mahbanu, who can also be heard here performing a well-known Rumi poem, are mostly female. But readers will very likely not have heard about them, or any of the other rising female musicians and singers of Persian music. According to master-teachers such as Shajarian, there are now often as many female students as male in traditional music schools such as his.

Almost everyone has seen however, through corporate media, the same cliched images of an angry mob of Iranians chanting, soldiers goose-stepping, missile launches, or leaders in rhetorical flight denouncing something. Ordinary Iranian people themselves are almost never heard from directly, and their creativity rarely shown.

The lead singer of the Mahbanu group, Sahar Mohammadi, is a phenomenally talented singer of the āvāz style, as heard here, when she performs in the mournful abu ata mode. She may, indeed, be the best contemporary female vocalist. Yet she is unheard of outside of Iran and small circles of connoisseurs mainly in Europe.

A list of outstanding modern Iranian women poets and musicians requires its own article. Here I will list some of the outstanding singers, very briefly. From an older generation we may mention the master Parisa (discussed below), and Afsaneh Rasaei. Current singers of great talent include, among others, Mahdieh MohammadkhaniHoma NiknamMahileh Moradi, and the mesmerising Sepideh Raissadat.

Finally, one of my favourites is the marvelous Haleh Seifizadeh, whose enchanting singing in a Moscow church suits the space perfectly.

The beloved Shajarian

Tenor Mohammad-Reza Shajarian is by far the most beloved and renowned voice of traditional Persian music. To truly understand his prowess, we can listen to him performing a lyric of the 13th century poet Sa’di:

As heard here, traditional Persian music is at once heavy and serious in its intent, yet expansive and tranquil in its effect. Shajarian begins by singing the word Yār, meaning “beloved”, with an ornamental trill. These trills, called tahrir, are made by rapidly closing the glottis, effectively breaking the notes (the effect is reminiscent of Swiss yodeling).

By singing rapidly and high in the vocal range, a virtuoso display of vocal prowess is created imitating a nightingale, the symbol with whom the poet and singer are most compared in Persian traditional music and poetry. Nightingales symbolise the besotted, suffering, and faithful lover. (For those interested, Homayoun Shajarian, explains the technique in this video).

As with many singers, the great Parisa, heard here in a wonderful concert from pre-revolutionary Iran, learned her command of tahrir partly from Shajarian. With her voice in particular, the similarity to a nightingale’s trilling is clear.

Nourishing hearts and souls

The majority of Iran’s 80 million population are under 30 years of age. Not all are involved in traditional culture. Some prefer to make hip-hop or heavy-metal, or theatre or cinema. Still, there are many young Iranians expressing themselves through poetry (the country’s most important artform) and traditional music.

National and cultural identity for Iranians is marked by a sense of having a tradition, of being rooted in ancient origins, and of carrying something of great cultural significance from past generations, to be preserved for the future as repository of knowledge and wisdom. This precious thing that is handed down persists while political systems change.

Iran’s traditional music carries messages of beauty, joy, sorrow and love from the heart of the Iranian people to the world. These messages are not simply of a national character, but universally human, albeit inflected by Iranian history and mentality.

This is why traditional Persian music should be known to the world. Ever since its melodies first pierced my room in Brisbane, ever since it began to transport me to places of the spirit years ago, I’ve wondered if it could also perhaps nourish the hearts and souls of some of my fellow Australians, across the gulf of language, history, and time.

DARIUS SEPEHRI is a Doctoral Candidate for Comparative Literature in the Religion and History of Philosophy at the University of Sydney.


Fighting to End Child Marriage in Lebanon

Ghassan Idriss knows firsthand the harmful effects of child marriage on society. Having married at a young age to a woman even younger than himself, Idriss and his wife faced struggles that so many other couples in his home country of Lebanon grapple with. Now, with three daughters of his own, Idriss is doing everything he can to educate those around him about the dangers of this antiquated institution. By hosting talks, he’s using his voice to spark change within his community.

The Women Taking on the Macho World of Mariachi

Mariachi is a folkloric tradition as macho as it is Mexican. Eight years ago, Mireya Ramos and Shae Fiol sought to up-end convention and founded Mariachi Flor de Toloache, New York City’s first all-female mariachi band. With their bandmates Julie Acosta and Eunice Aparicio, the musicians traded in traditional mariachi skirts for homemade suits and created an empowering space for women while staying true to the music and spirit of mariachi.

What is Ashura? How this Shiite Muslim Holiday Inspires Millions

Ashura in Syria.  Tasnim News Agency ,  CC BY-SA

Ashura in Syria. Tasnim News Agency, CC BY-SA

ens of millions of Shiite Muslims from around the world will visit Iraq on Sept. 10 this year to see the shrines of Hussain, grandson of Prophet Mohammed, and his brother Abbas on the day of “Ashura.”

This annual pilgrimage marks the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic new year. As the Islamic calendar is a lunar one, the day of Ashura changes from year to year.

Muslims visit the shrines to observe the martyrdom day of Hussain, who was killed in the desert of Karbala in today’s Iraq in A.D. 680. Shiite Muslims believe that Hussain was their third imam – a line of 12 divinely appointed spiritual and political successors.

Muharram may be an ancient festival, but as my research tracing the modern-day impact of Islamic pilgrimage shows, its meaning has changed over the centuries. What was once a commemoration of martyrdom today inspires much more, including social justice work around the globe.

Martyrdom of Hussain

The story of Muharram dates back 13 centuries, to events that followed the death of Prophet Mohammed.

After the prophet’s death in A.D. 632, a dispute emerged over who would inherit the leadership of the Muslim community and the title of caliph, or “deputy of God.” A majority of Muslims backed Abu Bakr, a close companion of the prophet, to become the first caliph. A minority wanted the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. Those that supported his claim later came to be called Shiite Muslims.

Even if Ali was not made the caliph, Shiite Muslims would consider Ali their first imam – a leader divinely appointed by God. The title of imam would be passed on to his sons and his descendants.

Political leadership largely remained out of the hands of Shiite Imams. They would not be caliphs, but Shiites came to believe that their imam was the true leader to be followed.

By the time Ali’s second son, Hussain, came to be the third imam, divisions between the caliph and the imam had further deepened.

In A.D. 680, during the holy month of Muharram, a caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, Yazīd, ordered Hussain to pledge allegiance to him and his caliphate – a dynasty that ruled the Islamic world from A.D. 661 to 750.

Hussain refused because he believed Yazīd’s rule to be unjust and illegitimate.

His rejection resulted in a massive 10-day standoff at Karbala, in modern-day Iraq, between Umayyad’s large army and Hussain’s small band, which included his half-brother, wives, children, sisters and closest followers.

The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.  Alessandra Kocman ,  CC BY-NC-ND

The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Alessandra Kocman, CC BY-NC-ND

The Umayyad army cut off food and water for Hussain and his companions. And on the day of Ashura, Hussain was brutally killed. Among the men, only Hussain’s sick son was spared. Women were unveiled – a violation of their honor as the family members of the prophet – and paraded to Damascus, the seat of Umayyad rule.

Passion plays and performances

This history is reenacted throughout the world on the day of Ashura.

In Iraq, millions of pilgrims fill the streets to visit the shrines, chanting poems of lamentation, and witness a reenactment of violence in Karbala and the capture of the women and children.

From New York and London to Hyderabad and Melbourne, thousands take part in Ashura processions carrying replicas of Hussain’s battle standard and following a white horse. This symbolizes Hussain’s riderless horse returning to the camp after his martyrdom.

Persian passion plays known as “taziyeh,” music dramas of the many martyrs and tragedies of Karbala, are performed across Iran and many other countries. Taziyeh performances are meant to evoke deep emotions of grief in the audience.

A powerful set of themes

Numerous historians and anthropologists have explored how communities across time and space have adapted the story of Karbala or the rituals around Ashūrā.

In the 16th century, a vast majority of the population across Persia, or today’s Iran, would be converted to Shiite Muslims. In this region, the passion plays evolved into a popular form of religious and artistic expression.

The character of Zainab, the Prophet Mohammed’s granddaughter, has also come to play a central role in remembrance of the Karbala story.

Scholars have drawn attention to speeches in which Zainab denounced the violence in Karbala and lauded Hussain’s “martyrdom.”

Today, Zainab is seen as a strong female model of resistance.

In the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the story of Karbala became a rallying point for opponents of the shah, who were fighting against the shah’s brutal and oppressive regime. They compared the shah to the caliph Yazīd and argued that ordinary Iranians had to stand up to an oppressor, just like Hussain had.

Zainab’s resistance to oppression helped emphasize the role of women in Islamic society.

Anthropologist Michael Fischer calls this the “Karbala paradigm” – a story that captures a powerful set of themes, including people standing up to the state and fighting for justice and morality.

Inspiring change?

Today the story of Karbala has become a powerful tool of fight for social justice in Muslim communities.

“Who is Hussain?,” a social movement with chapters in over 60 cities worldwide, carries out charitable activities and blood donations in the name of Hussain. Volunteers are encouraged to organize around events that will be meaningful in their communities and will tie into social justice issues that Hussain is believed to have fought for.

In 2018, local volunteers donated tens of thousands of bottles of water in Flint, Michigan in remembrance of Hussain and his companions, who were denied water for three days before they were killed.

As historian Yitzhak Nakash points out, the tragedy of Karbala gives Shiite Muslims a common narrative to pass on to the next generations. And commemorating it in multiple ways is an part of their unique identity.

NOORZEHRA ZAIDI is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.


Trinidad & Tobago: Dancing Among the Clouds

In Trindad and Tobago, “moko jumbies” soar high during Carnival. The traditional art of stilt dancing is a highlight of Trinidadian celebrations, but for stilt walker Adrian Young, it’s an everyday practice. For the past 21 years, he has been dancing among the clouds. Now, through his Future Jumbies youth group, he’s helping the next generation make their own strides.

INDIA: Piplantri - Where 1 Life Creates 111 Lives

How a village leader changed the perception of women in India, one tree at a time

Girls connecting with the trees in Piplantri. Photo provided by Piplantri Village.

Girls connecting with the trees in Piplantri. Photo provided by Piplantri Village.

Every time a baby girl is born in Piplantri, India, the village gathers together to plant 111 trees in her honor. The custom began a couple of years ago, when former village leader, Shyam Sundar Paliwal was forced to ponder the fleetingness of life after his daughter tragically passed away at a young age.

Piplantri and other villages in the area were facing two crises that greatly affected the quality and value of life. One issue was social: a high rate of female infanticide. Traditionally, female births were considered a burden on the family. The parents of a girl are expected to provide a dowry to her husband’s family, which can be a big financial undertaking. Additionally, daughters were married off well before the age of 18, before they could obtain an education. 

Piplantri and its surrounding villages faced environmental hardships as well. The villages in the Rajasthan area are suffering from deforestation with the increase of marble mining. 

Paliwal decided to confront these issues with a plan that can be broken down into three words: “Daughter, Water, Trees.” 

To counter the pessimism around the birth of a baby girl—and improve the lives of the daughter and her family—the village raises money for a “trust” every time a girl is born. The family is to contribute one third of the fund, which is set aside until the girl turns 20. This alleviates the problem of the financial burden of a dowry. 

In order for the family to receive the money, they must sign an affidavit agreeing not to marry their daughter until she is of the legal age of 18 and has received a proper education. 

To solve the deforestation problem, the village gets together to plant 111 trees in the girl’s honor. As a part of the contract, the family agrees to take care of those 111 trees. Hopefully the trees will help the spread of water along the land. 

And the scheme gets even better. The fruit trees being planted were beginning to attract a lot of termites. In order to prevent infestation, the villagers planted many aloe plants to protect the trees. The villagers can harvest and sell the aloe—which has incredible healing benefits—and make a profit, to even further improve their quality of life. 

Although Paliwal is no longer the leader of the village, the tradition continues. Now, teachers report that there are just as many girls enrolled in school as boys. And, the village is lush and green with the hundreds of trees planted. 

Other villages are following suit. The nearby village of Tasol is trying out Piplantri’s eco-feminist village model.

ELIANA DOFT loves to write, travel, and volunteer. She is especially excited by opportunities to combine these three passions through writing about social action travel experiences. She is an avid reader, a licensed scuba diver, and a self-proclaimed cold brew connoisseur. 

Saving India’s Most Sacred River

Each year, about 8 million tons of flowers are dumped into India’s rivers. As flowers hold a sacred place in Hindu rituals, they are often thrown into the Ganges, India’s holiest river. Unfortunately, pesticides and other chemicals from these flowers are mixing with the water, exacerbating an ecosystem already plagued with pollution. Enter HelpUsGreen, an organization that has begun collecting the waste flowers and upcycling them into products like incense, soap and biodegradable styrofoam. Through the group’s efforts, they’re addressing an environmental threat while giving the flowers a new life.

Modern Shamans: Financial Managers, Political Pundits and Others Who Help Tame Life’s Uncertainty

Examining chicken intestines, reading the tea leaves, watching the markets – people turn to experts for insight into the mysteries that surround them. Manvir Singh,  CC BY-ND

Examining chicken intestines, reading the tea leaves, watching the markets – people turn to experts for insight into the mysteries that surround them. Manvir Singh, CC BY-ND

Aka Manai explains that there are two kinds of people in the world: simata and sikerei.

I am a simata. He is a sikerei. Sikerei have undergone transformative experiences and emerged with new abilities: They alone can see spirits.

I’ve experienced a lot since that night in Indonesia when Aka Manai told me this. I was there when an initiate first saw spirits, when he and the other sikerei wept as they saw their dead fathers swirling around them. I’ve attended seven healing ceremonies, witnessing the slaughter of dozens of pigs to accompany nights of dancing. But that chat with kind-faced Aka Manai, more than any other experience, grounded my understanding of sikerei in particular and shamanism more generally.

A sikerei treats an initiate’s eyes so he, too, can see spirits. Manvir Singh,  CC BY-ND

A sikerei treats an initiate’s eyes so he, too, can see spirits. Manvir Singh, CC BY-ND

I’m a cognitive anthropologist who studies why societies everywhere develop complex yet strikingly similar traditions, ranging from dance songs to justice to shamanism. And though trancing witch doctors may sound exotic to a Western reader, I argue that the same social and psychological pressures that give rise to healers like Aka Manai produce shaman-analogues in the contemporary, industrialized West.

What is a shaman?

Shamans, including the sikerei I’ve known in Indonesia, are service providers. They specialize in healing and divination, and their services can range from ending a drought to growing a business. Like all magical specialists, they rely on spells and occult gizmos, but what makes shamans special is that they use trance.

Trance is any foreign psychological state in which a practitioner is said to engage with the supernaturalSome trances involve complete immobilization; others appear as tongue-lolling convulsions. In some South American groups, shamans enter trance by snorting a hallucinogenic powder, transforming themselves into crawling, unintelligible spirit-beings.

Being a shaman often carries benefits, both because they get paid and because their special position grants them prestige and influence.

But these advantages are offset by the ordeals involved. In many societies, a wannabe initiate lacks credibility until he (and it’s usually a he) undergoes a near-death experience or a long bout of asceticism.

One aboriginal Australian shaman told ethnographers that, as a novice, he was killed by an older shaman who then replaced his organs with a new, magical set. When he woke up from the surgery and asked the old shaman if he was lost, the old man replied, “No, you are not lost; I killed you a long time ago.”

A long time ago, a short time ago, here, there – wherever you look, there are shamans. Manifesting as mediums, channelers, witch doctors and the prophets of religious movements, shamans have appeared in most human societies, including nearly all documented hunter-gatherers. They characterized the religious lives of ancestral humans and are often said to be the “first profession.”

Why are there shamans?

Why is it that when we lanky primates get together for long enough, our societies reliably give rise to trance-dancing healers?

According to anthropologist Michael Winkelman, the answer is wisdom. Drugs and drumming, he’s argued, link up brain regions that don’t normally communicate. This connection yields new insights, allowing shamans to do things like heal sickness and locate animals. By specializing in trance, shamans uncover solutions inaccessible to normal brains.

Based on my fieldwork, I’ve argued against Winkelman’s account. Rather than all integrating people’s psychologies, trance states are wildly diverse. Chanting, sipping psychoactive brews such as ayahuasca, dancing to the point of exhaustion, even smoking extreme quantities of tobacco – these methods produce profoundly different states. Some are arousing, others calming; some expand awareness, others induce repetitive thinking. In fact, the only element shared among these states is their exoticness – that once altered, the shaman’s experience stands apart from those of his onlookers.

As part of his anthropological fieldwork, author Manvir Singh speaks with an Indonesian shaman. Luke Glowacki,  CC BY-ND

As part of his anthropological fieldwork, author Manvir Singh speaks with an Indonesian shaman. Luke Glowacki, CC BY-ND

Not only are shamans’ experiences exotic, their very beings are, too. As Aka Manai emphasized to me, people understand shamans to be different kinds of entities, made “other” by their ordeals. The Mentawai word for a non-shaman, simata, also describes uncooked food or unripe fruit; it implies immaturity. The word for shaman, in contrast, means a person who has undergone a process: one who has been kerei’d and come out the other side a sikerei.

This otherness is crucial. Convinced that shamans diverge from normal people, communities accept that they have superhuman abilities. Like Superman’s alien origins and the X-Men’s genetic mutations, shamans’ transformations assure people that they deviate from normal humanness, making their claims of supernatural engagement more believable.

And once people trust that a specialist engages with gods and spirits, they go to them when they need to influence uncertainty. A sick child’s parent or a farmer desperate for rain prefers to nudge the forces responsible for their hardship – and a shaman provides a compelling conduit for doing so.

This, I suggest, is why shamans recur around the world and across time. As specialists compete in markets for magic, they fuel the evolution of practices that hack people’s intuitions about magic and special abilities, convincing the rest of us that they can control uncertainty. Shamans are the culmination of this evolution. They use trance and initiations to transcend humanness, assuring their clients that they can commune with the invisible beings who oversee uncertain events.

Who are the shamans of the industrialized West?

Most people assume that shamanism has disappeared in the industrialized West – that it’s an ancient tradition of long-lost tribes, at most resurrected and corrupted by New Age xenophiles and overeager mystics.

To some extent, these people are right. Far fewer Westerners visit trance-practitioners to heal illness or call rain than people have elsewhere in the world or throughout history. But they’re also wrong. Like people everywhere, contemporary Westerners look to experts to achieve the impossible – to heal incurable illnesses, to forecast unknowable futures – and the experts, in turn, compete among themselves, performing to convince people of their special abilities.

So who are these modern shamans?

A specialist you can turn to for help divining the mysterious forces at work in financial markets.  Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock.com

A specialist you can turn to for help divining the mysterious forces at work in financial markets. Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock.com

According to the cognitive scientist Samuel Johnson, financial money managers are likely candidates. Money managers fail to outperform the market – in fact, they even fail to systematically outperform each other – yet customers continue to pay them to divine future stock prices.

This faith might come from a belief of their fundamental otherness. Johnson points out that money managers emphasize their differences from clients, exhibiting extreme charisma and enduring superhuman work schedules. Managers also adorn themselves with advanced mathematical degrees and use complicated statistical models to predict the market. Although money managers don’t enter trance, their degrees and models assure clients that the specialists can peer into otherwise opaque forces.

Of course, money managers aren’t the only experts to specialize in the impossible. Psychics, sports analysts, political pundits, economic forecasters, esoteric healers and even an octopus similarly sate people’s desires to tame the uncertain. Like shamans and money managers, they decorate themselves with badges of credibility – an association with the White House, for example, or a familiarity with ancient Tibetan medicine – that persuade customers of their special abilities.

As long as hidden forces shape our fates, people will try to control them. And as long as it’s profitable, pseudo-experts will compete for desperate clients, dressing in the most credible and compelling costumes. Shamanism is not some arcane tradition restricted to an ancient past or New Age circles. It’s a near-inevitable consequence of our human intuitions about special abilities and our desire to control the uncertain, and elements of it appear everywhere.

MANVIR SINGH is a PhD Candidate in Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.


In Bhutan, a History of Matriarchy and the Question of True Equality

Much like the diverse landscape of Bhutan, women’s representation and access in the country features impressive peaks as well as low-lying valleys.

Paro Taktsang, a Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple complex, located in the upper Paro valley. Arian Zwegers. CC BY 2.0

Paro Taktsang, a Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple complex, located in the upper Paro valley. Arian Zwegers. CC BY 2.0

The tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan is known for its ornate fortresses, or dzongs; the breathtaking Paro Taktsang, or Tiger’s Nest, temple complex, which clings to a steep cliffside; and its matriarchal traditions—but while Bhutan has much to be proud of in terms of gender parity, it still has a long way to go in creating true equality and professional mobility for its women.

Traditional society in Bhutan, which lies in the Eastern Himalayas between China and India, is matriarchal, and Bhutanese women do not have to contend with any institutionalized forms of discrimination. Participation in decision-making in the local and national spheres is accessible to all genders, with female involvement reaching as high as 70 percent at the grassroots level. Women account for nearly half of land owners, a figure that increases to 60 percent in rural regions. Summing up her own experience as a Bhutanese woman before moving to the Netherlands, journalist Karma Pem Wangdi writes, “My life has been created and shaped by the fact that our society has generally allowed us women the same freedoms and equality of opportunity as men.”

Nevertheless, entrenched inequalities lurk beneath the surface. Lily Wangchuk, the first and only woman president of a Bhutanese political party, referred in 2013 to “huge gender gaps” in societal attitudes, which have inspired her to continue pursuing her political ambitions. Wangchuk, whose Druk Chirwang Tshogpa party was eliminated in the first round of elections that year after garnering only 6 percent of the vote, told the Indian business news publication Mint: “During my campaign, my male opponents said, ‘[How] can a woman assume such an enormous responsibility?’ If I quit now I will be proving them right.”

Writing the previous year, Wangdi pointed specifically to gaps in economic and governmental participation, with far fewer women than men in the civil service workforce, and women making up just 8.5 percent of the National Assembly and 24 percent of the National Council. On the personal level, female reproductive rights lag in certain aspects: while women in the public and private sectors receive three months’ maternity leave with 100 percent of wages, abortion is illegal except in certain specific cases, leading many women to cross into India and seek abortions in unsafe conditions.

Thimphu Dzong, which has been the seat of the Bhutanese government since 1952. Robert GLOD. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Thimphu Dzong, which has been the seat of the Bhutanese government since 1952. Robert GLOD. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Attitudes toward abortion may be traced to the tenets of the Buddhist religion, which has otherwise played a key role in many facets of gender parity, given that its tradition and values view men and women as equal. In terms of participation in the public sphere, two factors are broadly to blame, the first being a historical lack of education for women. In the 1950s and ’60s, when Bhutan began to prioritize national development and education, more boys than girls were sent to India for formal learning—a disparity that stemmed not from gender discrimination but rather from fears about girls’ safety during the long journey to school.

Also of concern is the burden on women as caretakers and unpaid workers in the home, which may hinder or entirely preclude professional development. In the case of divorce, Bhutanese law grants custody of children under nine years old to the mother, a statute that may further ingrain the stereotype of women as primary caregivers. A 2001 study found that, in rural areas, women were responsible for cooking, washing clothes, and preserving food for over 80 percent of households; urban regions presented an even starker figure, with more than 90 percent of households leaving cooking, cleaning, washing, and food purchasing to women. These time-consuming tasks undeniably present a barrier to engaging in activities outside the home: A 2012 study revealed that nearly 62 percent of women felt their household responsibilities prevented them from taking a more active role in public life.

Bhutan’s Punakha Valley. Andrea Williams. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Bhutan’s Punakha Valley. Andrea Williams. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Fortunately, Bhutan has recently made strides toward closing gender gaps in various arenas, and thus envisioning an end to the self-perpetuating cycle in which women—missing role models in positions of power—lack the structural support needed to pursue such positions themselves. In 2016, more girls were attending school than boys, with 98 percent vs. 97 percent enrolled at the primary level, respectively. Bhutan’s first woman Dzongda (District Governor) was elected to office in 2012, and its first woman minister in 2013, ushering in a wave of successful woman candidates in 2016: that year witnessed a 68 percent increase in female representation compared to the previous election in 2011.
With evolving attitudes toward gender representation, however, come increased pressures brought on by a globalized and digital media: in 2013, Siok Sian Pek-Dorji, executive director at the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy, told Mint that the changing media landscape has created “a pressure to conform that is eroding the natural confidence of Bhutanese women.” Just last month, in March 2019, Bhutan gained an advocate for media representations of women in the form of Namgay Zam, who was appointed as the executive director of the Journalists Association of Bhutan. Speaking with the International Federation of Journalists, she addressed the lack of managerial role models for women, and pointed to the fact that a preponderance of male media magnates leads to the perpetuation of gender stereotypes.

Zam, looking toward a future in which Bhutanese women take their rightful place at the helm of Bhutan’s civil society as well as its media sector—thus fully realizing the matriarchal ideals on which the country was built—commented: “I think top-level management need to rethink gender representation at the workplace. Women also need to believe in themselves more. Hopefully, things will change for the better sooner than later.”

TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.


The Hawaiian Rain Dancers Who Summon Storms

On the island of Hawaii, the rain dancers of Waimea perform their art for the only audience that matters: their ancestors. When they call for rain and snow, they dance not to entertain, but to feed and nourish their land. Each performance is a physical manifestation of the spiritual world, a chance to connect with the natural land we inhabit. Practicing a centuries-old form of hula rarely seen in public, these dancers carry on generations of tradition with every graceful move and each handmade kapa garment. 

Working to Keep an Island Afloat

For most people, keeping track of one job is complicated enough—now, imagine juggling six. On the small island of North Ronaldsay off the northern coast of Scotland, that’s the case for many of the residents. With a population of just 50, everyone has to work a handful of jobs to keep the island afloat. Sarah Moore is part of North Ronaldsay’s trusted work force. She works as a mailwoman, home care worker, council clerk, airfield attendant, baggage handler and firefighter. Oh, and did we mention she also keeps a flock of sheep? Sarah moved to the island after searching for quiet from the big city. In North Ronaldsay, she feels like she has found her purpose as a part of something bigger than herself—a caring community.

“Untouchables” Still Struggle for Equality in Indian Society

For centuries, Dalits occupied the lowest rung of Indian society. Flickr user The Philosophy of photography -  https://www.flickr.com/photos/matteo-gianni/109971376/ . CC  BY 2.0.

For centuries, Dalits occupied the lowest rung of Indian society. Flickr user The Philosophy of photography - https://www.flickr.com/photos/matteo-gianni/109971376/. CC  BY 2.0.

With 1.2 billion citizens India is the second most populous country in the world, and while today’s India is governed by a parliamentary system, for more than three millennia, India’s massive population lived under a rigid caste system that forced many Indians into occupational roles with no hope of advancement.  Though modern India has officially done away with castes, the old system’s influence is still felt, particularly among those formerly identified as “untouchables”.

According to Hindu texts, the caste system was brought to India by the creator god Brahma. The top caste was occupied by Brahmins, India’s priests and teachers. Next came Kshatriyas, who were warriors and rulers. Below them, Vaisyas made up the middle class of merchants and traders while Sudras were unskilled workers or peasants. Dalits were “untouchables,” outcasts who existed outside of the caste system entirely and were often relegated to undesirable tasks like street sweeping, toilet cleaning, and disposing of dead animals. A person’s surname identified to which caste they belonged., While one could never hope to ascend to a higher caste in a single lifetime, it was believed that through dedication to one’s Dharma, or caste-specific duty, one could earn a higher position in the next life.

In 1950, the caste system was abolished, creating new opportunities for social mobility and intermingling between India’s various social groups.  India even elected a Dalit president, K.R. Narayanan, who served from 1997 until 2002. Tensions remain, however, as Dalits, still identifiable by their surnames, continually find themselves subject to discrimination, harassment, assaults, and rapes. Many attacks go unreported, and local police tend to show leniency to the attackers.

India’s caste system has been likened to South African apartheid or the Jim Crow laws, both of which required many years of legislation and social pressure to affect changes which could be embraced by the general populace—if they were ever fully embraced at all. As India wrestles with its own history of social stratification, the future of its Dalits remains unclear.  But it is clear that Dalits, who make up a quarter of India’s population, are an integral part of Indian history, culture, and society, and they won’t be leaving any time soon. Greater equality could be vital to India’s overall health as a country.

JONATHAN ROBINSON is an intern at CATALYST. He is a travel enthusiast always adding new people, places, experiences to his story. He hopes to use writing as a means to connect with others like himself. 

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In Japan, Repairing Buildings Without a Single Nail

In the past, making and developing metal was too costly for carpenters in Japan. So instead of using nails, carpenters called “miyadaiku” developed unique methods for interlocking pieces of wood together, similar to a giant 3D puzzle. Takahiro Matsumoto has been a miyadaiku carpenter for over 40 years. He runs his company in Kamakura, Japan, where he assesses and repairs damage sustained by the many ancient temples in his city. Using ancient techniques, he ensures that these spiritual structures stay standing for generations to come.

The Border Restaurant That Makes Asylum Seekers Feel at Home

The Mexican border town of Tijuana is home to thousands of Haitians. Most are asylum-seekers, stuck in administrative limbo as they await potential entry to the United States. To help them feel more at-home, Fausta Rosalía—owner of a popular lunch spot—decided to switch up her traditional offerings of tacos and quesadillas to better serve the city’s new residents. Now, she’s cooking Haitian food in the hopes that a taste of home will make life a little bit easier for so many.

Spicing Up Hungary For 200 Years

Adoringly known as “red gold,” paprika is the undisputed spice of Hungary. The 200-year love affair started when, seeking an alternative to expensive black pepper, people in the Szeged region of the country began grinding a readily available red pepper fruit into a delightfully hued seasoning. Today, it’s become a cultural touchstone, with museums and festivals dedicated to the spicy stuff, and new generations of top chefs securing its place in premium gastronomy.