To brand, or not to brand? — Addressing the MTA’s “turban-branding” policy

Four years ago, Sikh tran­sit work­ers in New York City decid­ed that enough was enough. In response to a “tur­ban-brand­ing” pol­i­cy that required work­ers, both Sikh and Mus­lim, to brand their tur­bans with the Metro­pli­tan Tran­sit Author­i­ty (MTA) logo, Sikh tran­sit work­ers called on the MTA to end this pol­i­cy, deem­ing it an act of reli­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Fur­ther­more, in 2005, the Depart­ment of Jus­tice found that, over the course of three days, there had been two hun­dred cas­es of MTA employ­ees wear­ing some form of head­dress with­out the logo, includ­ing Yan­kees hats, yaar­mulkes, and a num­ber of win­ter hats in fact issued by the MTA. The Depart­ment of Jus­tice con­se­quent­ly filed a dis­crim­i­na­tion suit against the MTA. Yet for years, this issue has been placed on the back burn­er by city offi­cials.

On Tues­day of last week, a major­i­ty of the New York City Coun­cil final­ly spoke out against the “tur­ban-brand­ing” pol­i­cy. Coun­cil Mem­ber Tony Avel­la said, “It’s time for the City Coun­cil to take action on this mat­ter, and it’s long over­due that the MTA end reli­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion.  Enough is enough.”

While this issue is being addressed for a small num­ber of Sikhs in New York, it still speaks to a greater issue that many South Asian and Arab indi­vid­u­als in the US face on a day-to-day basis. Even today, the con­cept of reli­gious wear is quite for­eign to Amer­i­can cul­ture. Many do not real­ize that a tur­ban, hijab, or any type of reli­gious wear is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of an individual’s spir­i­tu­al life, and is there­fore a very per­son­al and pri­vate enti­ty. Like any arti­cle of faith, it is not some­thing that can just be set aside for appearance’s sake, nev­er mind brand­ed with a cor­po­rate logo.

The law­suit against the MTA has yet to be resolved, and we are hop­ing for an end to this dis­crim­i­na­to­ry pol­i­cy. In the mean­time, it is impor­tant to keep this in a wider con­text and rec­og­nize that if this law­suit goes through, it is a small step in a long jour­ney to address­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion against Sikhs and Mus­lims in the Unit­ed States.

Facts and quotes from: New York City Coun­cil Major­i­ty Demands End to MTA’s “Tur­ban-brand­ing” Pol­i­cy from the The Sikh Coali­tion (June 18, 2009)