YUBA CITY — With a sharp crack of the gavel, Preet Didbal made history this month as the first known Sikh woman in the nation to preside as a city mayor.
In Yuba City, Didbal’s rise to mayor was celebrated as a long-awaited affirmation of the Sikh community’s contributions in California.
Yuba City’s annual Sikh parade attracts upward of 100,000 visitors every November to honor the teachings of Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, who preached the religion’s main tenants: Selfless service to others and the belief in one god who sees all people as equal.
The religious minority has an estimated 500,000 followers in the U.S. and 25 million worldwide, and Didbal’s ascension comes as Sikhs have made political inroads nationwide. But those gains have been accompanied by heightened discrimination since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Followers have faced violent, sometimes deadly, attacks by people who mistake Sikhs for Muslims, especially men who wear a customary turban and unshorn beard.
A single mother of a college freshman and political independent who has been registered as a “no party preference” voter for her entire adult life, Didbal took a challenging path to becoming mayor of the city where she was born in the late 1960s.
The daughter of farm workers who immigrated from Punjab region of India 50 years ago, Didbal earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education and a master’s of business administration on her way to jobs at the state Department of Corrections and State Compensation Insurance Fund, where she currently works.
Didbal, 49, was elected to Yuba City council in 2014. The mayor is elected annually by the five-member council.
What is the significance of becoming the nation’s first known Sikh mayor?
It’s breaking barriers because as a Sikh woman, just in the general culture, we are subservient. Say a son is born, there’s all these festivities that happen. A girl is born, and it’s usually uh-oh.
Girls are raised to … make sure they can cook and clean. You have to go to school and come home and do chores, while my cousins — who were boys — would be able to play. Our questions were always, “Why?” There usually was never really a great answer to it other than, “That’s the only way we know how.”
While campaigning for the city council, did you encounter any obstacles because you’re a Sikh woman?
Not because I’m Sikh, but more because I’m a woman. And it came more directly with my mom. Because my mom was asked by the older generation, her generation, “Why is your daughter doing this? This is a man’s world.” My mom’s response would be: “Why do we educate our girls then? This is what she wants to do and I’m going to stand by her.”
I’ve never had to directly deal with prejudice of any kind. I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t exist. It does. But I never faced it myself.
We are having a moment of reckoning for men who have abused and mistreated women in the workplace, and in general. What has been your experience?
I have had to deal with it. But I’m also a rape survivor. In 1988, I was raped. I went through a sexual assault in this very community. It changed my life forever and it changed my parents’ lives.
And I was losing my parents because, in our culture, it was a situation where they told me not to go somewhere and I went anyway. It was just basically a graduation get-together. The ramifications were more: “Well, we told you not to go. This is why you don’t go to co-ed events.” So it was more you. It was your fault for going. Your fault versus the other way. There was a lot that we, as a family, needed to heal.
The women speaking up right now, more power to them. Trust me, for somebody who’s gone through it at the severity that I did, I held on to that shame for a lot of years. A lot of years because of judgment that society puts on you.
Many Americans are unfamiliar with Sikhism. What would you tell them about the religion and the role it plays in your life?
It plays a role in my life every day because that’s who I am. I grew up in a very traditional Indian Sikh family… There’s a blended culture and I’ve been fortunate enough that my parents were open to that blending. I think that’s kept us level-headed and being able to grow.
Our biggest thing as Sikhs is to serve our community. It’s called seva. My goal is that every day when I go home and go to bed and put my head on the pillow, everything I had done during the day has been in good faith and a good heart.