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 Northern California’s 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 tenets: 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.
As the daughter of farmworkers who immigrated from the Punjab region of India 50 years ago, Didbal talks about picking peaches alongside her parents and overcoming the cultural barriers faced by Sikh women, particularly after she was raped as a young woman. She 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 the Yuba City council in 2014. The mayor is elected annually by the five-member council.
The Los Angeles Times sat down with Didbal following her first time presiding as mayor at a council meeting. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.
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, even growing up. Say a son is born, there’s all these festivities that happen. A girl is born, and it’s usually uh-oh.
I don’t have any brothers, only sisters. 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.” Then there was this rude awakening that happened when my parents finally just stepped back and said, “It’s time for us to learn from our kids but, more importantly, our grandkids.”
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 got a large amount of support. The community is wonderful in that sense. I think also because we have a large Sikh community, we know of each other. Our brown color doesn’t matter. 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.
We left this town for almost three years because of the scrutiny and the judgment, the shame that was placed upon us. … I went to UC Davis trying to continue school and I had drop out because I was not mentally OK.
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.
I started speaking about the rape about two years ago when my daughter turned 16. That was … a critical moment in my life. One, because my daughter was of the age where she was going to start driving and, being an athlete, she had events that she was going to. It just came to a point where it was time that I had to tell her. It was the toughest conversation that I’ve ever had to have, and at the same time it was the most freeing — to hear my daughter say, “You need to talk about this mom.”
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. Just being born and raised here there were a lot of things that, customarily, we were taught. We’re supposed to not cut our hair, keep it long, and that’s one of the symbolisms of Sikh men and women. But as you can see, my hair is cut. 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 able to grow.
I meditate in the morning. . 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.
What are your top concerns as mayor?
The biggest concern is pension [liability]. That’s across the board. That’s something that every city is dealing with. What we want to do is bring more economic growth. We’re expanding our roads from two lanes to four lanes. All of that is to bring in more economic growth.
Why are you a political independent?
For me, it’s all the of stuff that’s going on right now — the divide. I am just like, “You know what, think about why you ran for office.” Are you serving the people or are you serving your personal agendas? Are you being rubber stamped into a party? I certainly don’t want to be rubber stamped.