Sexy GAP ad featuring a Sikh man with an adoring female sparks controversy

Sexy or sacrilegious? Exploitative or liberating? A Gap holiday ad featuring a Sikh man with an attractive woman touching his turban and unbuttoned shirt has provoked controversy from Yuba City to India. The ad – part of a campaign titled “Make Love” – can be seen in every Gap store nationwide and on freeway billboards.

While the ad sparked a small protest at the Gap in downtown Davis on Thursday, Sikhs across the Sacramento region – home to an estimated 40,000 Sikhs, the largest concentration outside Punjab, India – celebrated the poster as a breakthrough for an often misunderstood religion that has been confused with Islam since 9/11, resulting in attacks on turban-wearing Sikhs from coast to coast. On March 4, 2011, in Elk Grove, two Sikh grandfathers were murdered while out on an afternoon stroll.

“I saw this (ad) at Arden Fair mall two weeks ago and flipped out,” said Aunpreet Kaur Sandhu, a 21-year-old preschool teacher from Rancho Cordova. “I thought this was awesome, the best thing I’ve ever seen. I took pictures of it and showed it to all my friends and family.”

Sandhu said her father, who owns a convenience store, faced a lot of discrimination for wearing his turban after 9/11. “He knows people who shaved their heads and stopped wearing a turban so they could get a job,” she said. “It’s great for us to get positive exposure and for the turban and beard to be seen as a normal thing rather than a terrorist thing.”

One of the posters on a subway wall in New York was covered with racist scribblings and “Make Love” was changed to read “Make Bombs.” But the defacing of the ad caused it to go viral on the Internet, and Gap elevated it to the background image of its Facebook and Twitter feeds along with the statement, “Gap is a brand that celebrates inclusion and diversity.”

The Davis protest, which had drawn interest from more than 300 supporters on Facebook but attracted only three people, was organized by Gursant Singh, a Yuba City author who said he converted from Christianity to Sikhism at age 21 to escape the greed and materialism he saw around him.

“Sikhism is a 24/7 religion; it’s not just going to church on Sunday,” said Singh, 56, who claimed to represent orthodox Sikhs who find the woman glomming on to the Sikh model while touching his turban highly offensive.

“Gap shamelessly decided to run this lusty ad for one of its front-line posters.” he said. “The ad’s not going to do the Sikhs any favors. People are going to think Sikhs are playboys. We were taught by our Sikh gurus that we were to be married, and the sexy model isn’t married to him.”

Singh, who goes to the Sikh temple, or Gurdwara, in Yuba City daily, said the sixth Sikh guru told his followers to wear turbans like a crown of defiance after a Mughal emperor put a price on Sikhs’ heads. “Many Sikhs died so we can wear the turban, and it was because of the Sikhs that India’s no longer ruled by Mughals.”

Singh also claimed the Gap is using the ad to “pacify the critics of how they treat Asian workers,” including the 1,100 who died during the collapse of a factory in Bangladesh last April.

Singh was joined in protest by Amrit Kaur, a Yuba City farmer. She said she’s never seen a Sikh man expose his chest and that the flirtatious image and the slogan “Make Love” promotes extramarital sex – “one of the five cardinal sins of Sikhism, completely taboo.”

“If this is not nipped in the bud, our Sikh identity will be lost,” she said.

But Sikh leaders from the West Sacramento Gurdwara, which has more than 3,000 members, saw the ad as a great way to break down stereotypes.

“This lets people know who we are and what we believe in,” said Surjit Dhillon, director of planning and development for the Gurdwara. “The turban is like a crown and it’s part of our dress, and we have long unshorn hair. If someone intentionally touches your turban to bother you, it could be an issue, but he (the model) agreed to it.”

Gursant Singh claimed the female model looked like she was taking advantage of the Sikh man in the ad, but Dhillon responded, “I’d like to know what kind of advantage she’s taking.”

Darshan Singh Mundy, a Sikh civil rights leader, added there’s nothing in Sikhism that says nobody can touch your turban. “When elderly people give blessings to their kids male and female, they touch your head, even if you are 50, 60 years old,” Mundy said. Both Mundy and Dhillon said they’ve allowed airport security to examine their turbans.

Gap Inc. says the ad features Indian American actor and designer Waris Ahluwahia and illustrator and filmmaker Quentin Jones, who are known for their inspiring work and community service. The “Make Love” campaign also features celebrities such as Cyndi Lauper, Tony Bennett and other artists. “Our customers and employees are of many different ethnicities, faiths and lifestyles and we support them all,” said Gap spokeswoman Kari Shellhorn.

Amrinder Singh Virk, a Sikh model who belongs to the Sikh Cultural Association at UC Davis, called the ad “fantastic” and said he considers Ahluwahia, whose also appeared in films, his hero.

“As a freelance model, I wear dress suits and ties along with my turban, but I’m used to being judged because of it,” said Virk, 24. “I’m glad the Gap’s letting Sikhism be represented. I think this ad is something America needed. The protesters don’t deserve my time.”