By Jagpal Singh Tiwana
HALIFAX: Ms Wanda McDonald of Halifax, Canada, has made history by becoming the first Sikh woman to wear turban (she calls it dastar) with her uniform of the Canadian Royal Navy.
A sonar operator, she spoke with Jagpal Singh Tiwana, former president of the Maritime Sikh Society in Halifax, about her experiences, career and decision to adopt Sikhism.
Q: How did it all start? Did you just show up one day for duty in turban? Or did you seek prior permission to wear the turban?
A: My inspiration was another Halifax Sikh girl Rupinder Kaur who is married to Harjot Singh. This Sikh couple are very dedicated and wear dastar. After reading about how Guru Gobind Singh Ji had created an image for Sikhs to stand out, and how women and men are seen as equals in Sikhism, I just felt an inner desire to tie dastar myself. I had slowly become accustomed to tying it on a daily basis outside of work for several months. But after deciding to take amrit (baptism), I wanted to wear dastar with and without uniform. So I submitted a request through my chain of command to allow me to wear it with my uniform.
Q: How did the naval authorities react? Did they approach any Sikh organization for inputs? Or did you approach any Sikh body to intercede on your behalf?
A: Sikh men have been allowed to tie turban in uniform in the Canadian Forces for some time now, but what we didn’t know was that there had been decided several years ago that both Sikh males and females would be allowed to wear turban. But this information never got updated in the appropriate publication. The Canadian Forces Chaplaincy contacted the World Sikh organization (WSO) to obtain information on the significance of turban for both Sikh males and females. So during that process it was discovered that Sikh women had already been granted permission to wear turban.
Q: Was Tim Uppal, Minister of State for Multiculturalism who is a Sikh himself, involved in anyway in it?
A: After I learned that I was the first female to tie dastar in uniform in the navy, I was told that the WSO had also liaised with Minister Tim Uppal’s office and that they might want to release something as well. I was asked if I would be okay with a photo opportunity with the minister. He was supposed to come to Halifax but that was subsequently cancelled due to other events.
Q: Tell us about your background.
A: I was born here in Halifax and I have lived pretty much my whole life here in Halifax. I have been in the Canadian Navy for 18 years as a sonar Operator, qualified to sail on both ships and submarines. Before I had joined the Navy I obtained my degree as a graphic artist.
Q: Why did a career in the Royal Canadian Navy attract you?
A: I joined the military because I had been in Air Cadets when I was younger, and a career where I had the opportunity to see the world, and also participate in things like humanitarian missions appealed to me. The opportunity to work with high tech equipment was also something that drew my interest.
Q: When and why did you get interested in Sikhism?
A: That is a bit of a long story but basically I became very interested in the deeper meaning in Gurbani (after I had read Sri Guru Granth Sahibji in English translation. My concept of the universe, reality and our purpose did not agree with the religion I was brought up in, but I had always been spiritual and was very much interested in philosophical studies. I always believed that there should be a synthesis between philosophy, science, and religion. When I started to read the holy Granth, it immediately stood out to me and I was in awe! I knew I had to learn more.
Q: How did your parents react to your decision to imbibe the Sikh way of life?
A: My father, who passed away in 2001, had studied to be a Catholic priest for three years before deciding to have a family instead. Had he been around, he might have objected. My mother, however, has been very accepting of it, and has even been to our gurdwara a few times with me.
Q: And what was the reaction of your relatives, friends and colleagues in the navy?
A: There have been times where I had to explain the difference between Islam and Sikhism because of some general misunderstandings, but overall it’s been a very positive experience and generally everyone are very accepting of it!
Q: You regularly attend Halifax gurdwara. But you must having language problems as Sikh scriptures are in Punjabi! Is the LCD display on screen any help in understanding shabads (hymns)?
A: The LCD screen has been essential to my being able to follow and understand! As a back up, I have apps on my iPhone where I could also follow along with English translation.
Q: Are you learning Punjabi?
A: I am trying to learn Punjabi, but it’s a very slow process. I have a few apps on my phone that have built in tests and basic vocabulary.
Q: What do you like most when you visit the gurdwara?
A: I like listening to kirtan (hymn singing) regularly, but what has touched me most to date was during Gurmat Samagam in April 2014 when we did Naam Simran (meditation) during Amrit Vela (dawn twilight). You could really feel the connection and it was a powerful experience.
Q: Have you read any Sikh literature?
A: I have read several books and quite a lot of information online, but the book which stands out most to me was The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred, Writings, and Authors by Max Arthur Macauliffe.
Q: Will you get baptized as a Sikh now that you have started wearing the dastar?
A: Actually I visited Amritsar last year, and was in the state of Jammu Kashmir this year. I was supposed to take Amrit in Srinagar, however, the floods in Kashmir happened during this trip and I was unable to do it. So I will go through the ceremony at the next opportunity.
Q: What was the experience of visiting the Golden Temple?
A: It was an amazing experience. My first night there at 3 am I just sat by the sarovar (holy water) and meditated on life, and it was so serene. I spent three days and two nights there in total and I definitely plan to go back. I stayed on site at Mata Ganga Ji Niwas.
Q: After baptism in Sikhism, men add Singh and women Kaur to their names. Will you become Wanda Kaur McDonald?
A: With the assistance of some close friends both here and in India, a name has been chosen: Harkiran Wanda Kaur.
Q: Now that you are a Sikh, will you marry a Sikh?
A: Actually, I am marrying an Amritdhari (baptized) Sikh and he lives in Srinagar. Anand karaj (marriage ceremony) will take place there. However, we will be doing a civil ceremony here as well for legal purposes.