Meet the first turban-wearing Sikh woman to join the NYPD

This story is part of “Ceiling Smashers,” a series in which successful women across industries tell Moneyish how they broke down professional barriers.

Gursoch Kaur is helping New York’s Finest better reflect the communities they serve.

The Indian-American Queens native recently became the first Sikh woman who wears a turban to join the New York Police Department, entering the ranks on May 16 of auxiliary police officers who patrol neighborhoods; perform traffic control; keep order at parades and festivals; and serve as eyes and ears on the ground.

“Being the first Sikh turbaned woman joining the NYPD, I feel like it’s a bridge to our community — and any community in general, whether you’re wearing a hijab or any type of (religious) headpiece,” Kaur, 20, told Moneyish. “And it should encourage other females to join in any force in any country. Whereas men can do it, I feel like females are just as powerful and strong to do the same thing.”

There are 170 NYPD members who identify as Sikh, 10 of whom are female, according to Det. Ahmed Nasser, a department spokesman. Kaur’s milestone with the auxiliary program came after the NYPD announced in December 2016 that it would allow its members to wear turbans and beards up to a certain length for religious reasons, as many observant male Sikhs do. Turbans must be navy blue and bear departmental insignia.

“We want to make the NYPD as diverse as possible,” Commissioner James O’Neill said at the time, “and I think this is going to go a long way to help us with that.”

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Kaur says the Sikh Officers Association, a religious fraternal organization that applauded the head-covering policy change, helped guide her through the department’s religious accommodations process. “I had to go to my gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) … and get a written notice telling the department that this is part of a religious piece and I’m supposed to be wearing it at all times,” she said. “Through the Sikh (Officers) Association, I was able to go through the process very easily.”

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Kaur, the middle of three children and only daughter born to parents who emigrated nearly three decades ago from Punjab, India, decided in high school to start wearing a turban — and found it presented an opportunity to educate her classmates.

“Sikhism’s core value is equality between men and women … (and) where we mostly see men wearing it, females wear it as well,” she said. “Wearing the turban was really helpful for me, because in school kids would ask me questions — ‘Why are you wearing that? You never wore that before’ — and that’s where I was able to tell them about Sikhism and why we wear it.” (The turban, as the Sikh Coalition advocacy group explains, signals a commitment to maintaining traditional values and ethics like honesty, service and compassion.)

Kaur also endured some racist taunts over her turban, she said, as people told her to go back to her country or asked whether there was “a bomb underneath there.” “But it’s great, in a way, where I was still able to educate them,” she said. “They actually got to know who I am, and their mindset changed.”

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With her newfound prominence, Kaur added, “it’s like all of a sudden: ‘Gursoch, Gursoch, I want to take a picture with you! … I want to have dinner with you!’” “And I’m just here, like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never felt this before,’” she said. “But I can say the only reason people are recognizing me is because of my turban … And I’m more happy that more people are going to find out about Sikhism and why we wear it.”

Kaur’s NYPD ambitions stemmed from a desire to fulfill her mother’s dashed dream of becoming an officer in India, where Kaur says a height requirement barred her entry. Another inspiration was her religion, she added, “because (Sikhs are) taught to be a saint and a warrior at the same time.”

In her 105th Precinct patrol area — the easternmost part of Queens that includes her home of Queens Village — “the neighborhood is full of Indians, and they speak Hindi and Punjabi,” said Kaur, who speaks both languages. “It’s important for the community to see law enforcement that looks like them (because) it brings a sense of security to them, that they’re comfortable approaching you,” she said. “And the fact that I know the language just makes their life easier, and mine.”

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Kaur, who pegs her height at 5’1, also acknowledges some people were “shocked” at her petite self joining the NYPD — but said her addition was “a great way of breaking those stereotypes.” “Sometimes I do have trouble (getting people to) take me seriously because of my height,” she said. “It’s a great feeling when I get to prove them wrong.” She aspires to ultimately join the ranks of the regular police force.

When she’s not in uniform, Kaur is a second-year student studying liberal arts at Nassau Community College, with plans to attend a four-year institution. And when she’s not at school, she said, she’s usually at the gurdwara teaching children Sikh martial arts, which she calls “a great way of bringing the younger generation to our roots.” “I love teaching the younger kids, especially the girls,” she said.

The five articles of Sikh faith include uncut hair, a steel bracelet, a wooden comb, a cotton undergarment and a steel sword, all of which Kaur says she wears with her uniform. Kaur, for her part, urged young girls and boys who wear articles of faith to “be proud” and “never feel obligated to look a certain way” in order to impress people.

“It should be about you and how you feel comfortable,” she said, “and other people should embrace if you’re different.”

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