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BTW: Of helmets for women, and true meaning of words

Apparently to avoid getting into wrangles over identifying Sikhs among women, Chandigarh administration simply exempted all women from wearing helmets. Now there are reports that the admn may finally take away that exemption altogether.

columns Updated: Mar 26, 2018 18:49 IST
Aarish Chhabra
Aarish Chhabra
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
The law says protective headgear on two-wheelers is mandatory, except for turbaned Sikhs; but there is scope for further exemptions.
The law says protective headgear on two-wheelers is mandatory, except for turbaned Sikhs; but there is scope for further exemptions.(HT File)

I think women across Chandigarh, and beyond, have misunderstood the word ‘headstrong’. No, ladies, as patronising as I may sound, let me tell you that being headstrong does not mean your head is strong, physically. The dictionary simply defines it as: Energetically wilful and determined. Maybe the term that you’re looking for is ‘stone-headed’; maybe not.

My point is simple. Why don’t you wear the helmet when riding two-wheelers? Yes, there are male idiots who don’t wear it too. But there are idiots of all kinds everywhere, you know. You will meet one such guy in the subsequent paragraphs. But that is not the primary point. We have only about 800 words to make some sense of this whole issue, which has made headlines over the past fortnight after an activist approached the high court asking why women are exempt from wearing helmets in Chandigarh.

First up, let’s talk street logic. Your head, the most important part of your body, is exposed when you are on a two-wheeler, and injury to the head is the leading cause of death in road accidents. I am sure you understand.

Now, let’s go legal. The law makes protective headgear on two-wheelers mandatory for everyone, except for turbaned Sikhs. However, the law provides for local authorities to provide further exemptions based on specific reasons. Hence, in some states, Sikh women, irrespective of whether they wear a turban or not, too have an exemption.

There’s religion behind that.

Community leaders cite tenets to say no sort of “cap” is allowed for Sikhs of any gender. For instance, Hardeep Singh, the Chandigarh unit president of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) who says his party has “always protected Sikh tenets”, underlines that a verse in the Rehatnama, a text that describes the code of conduct for Sikhs, reads, “Sikh hoye sir topi dhare, saat janam kushti hoye mare,” loosely translated to, “If one being a Sikh wears a cap/hat, one shall suffer through seven lives as a leper”.

Apparently to avoid getting into wrangles over identifying Sikhs among women, the Chandigarh administration simply exemptedallwomen. Now there are reports that the UT may, owing to severe raps from the court, finally take away that exemption altogether. “We will protest it. Our women will not wear helmets,” says Hardeep.

It should not be that simplistic, though, agrees Hardeep’s party colleague Harjinder Kaur, who is a former mayor and now a member of the elected Sikh mini-Parliament Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). She first suggests, “Turbaned Sikhs are already exempted, so Sikh women too can simply wear the turban if they want exemption,” but turns pragmatic too: “The religious verse refers to a time when certain symbols such as the cap were a mark of slavery. Our Guru made the turban a mark of our identity, and freed us from those marks of slavery,” she says, “I too have protested for the religious right to wear the turban. But it should not be made an excuse against safety.”

And then she gets refreshingly practical for a religio-political leader: “The Sikh leadership can sit together and discuss if there can be a sort of protective gear designed specifically that does not look like a cap and can even be worn over a turban. Sikhs have the capacity... they can have a new rule. Ours is a modern religion that has always taken the lead on issues of humanity. We should show courage on this front too.”

Some women already wear the helmet, obviously because they are smarter than the others. I mean it.

But then there are the others. Across age and religions, these women instead use layers and layers of scarves to guard against the sun and dust. It remains to be studied as to how many two-wheeler riders die due to the sun or dust every year.

But reports do underline that most women on two-wheelers who died in road accidents in Chandigarh in the past half a decade were not wearing helmets, and received grievous head injuries. Yes, I know the same would be true for men. Like I said, there are idiots of all kinds everywhere. Be headstrong, not stone-headed.