"It's the equivalent of having a sign on the door, no Sikhs allowed," says Jaswin Sawhney, a Sikh physician who tried to enter Sanctuary in the Strip District late on Aug. 14 but was stymied by the club's no-sportswear policy -- which includes all hats.
Sawhney is a Baltimore native who moved to Downtown Pittsburgh less than two months ago to be a hand surgery fellow at UPMC. As with all traditional Sikh men, his uncut hair is wrapped in a turban -- "so people would always know who Sikhs were, and as a reminder of their spirituality," he explains.
His wife Kelly, who is not a Sikh, likens the rule to a ban on Orthodox Jews wearing their yarmulkes in the club.
Not all Sikhs in the U.S. choose to follow this tradition, he reports; some have cut their hair. "But my family hasn't. And I haven't."
On 11:30 that Saturday night, both the club's doorman and manager Chad Hardy refused Sawhney entry, even after he explained that his religion required him to wear the turban. Sikhism is the world's fifth-largest religion, founded 500 years ago in India as a reaction against, and a combination of, several sects of Islam and Hinduism. "I said, 'It's not a hat, it's a religious article of faith," Sawhney says. "I wear it all the time. I can't just take it off."
Why the no-hats policy anyway?
"I didn't ask," says Sawhney.
"People in tennis shoes, hats, sweat suits usually start problems," says the club's Hardy. Casual dress signals a greater propensity for trouble? "Without a doubt in the world," he says. Why? "I don't know. Just human nature."
Hardy blames the current strict dress-code enforcement on a recent spate of violence in the Strip. But enforcement "fluctuates," he allows. It's the doorman's decision first. "If they're pleasant" about the dress-code violation outside, they'll be pleasant inside and an exception can be made, Hardy figures. He feels Sawhney "became verbally abusive with me. That's the reason we didn't want to let him in. I went to shake his hand. He said, 'I don't want to shake your hand.'"
"I totally disagree -- I never raised my voice," Sawhney responds; he refused Hardy's hand only after being refused club entry, he says. "I did not say one abusive thing. I just asked him what his name was so I would get my facts straight." Sawhney has reported the incident to the Sikh Coalition, an anti-defamation group whom Sawhney says is drafting a protest letter to the club.
"I was born and raised here," Sawhney says. "America is the best example the world has to offer of people of different races getting along and succeeding. People need to embrace that. When things like this happen, it's a slap in the face to that whole way of thinking."