GAP’s holiday season print ad campaign, “Make Love,” which is focused on giving and sharing love, according to a statement by the retail clothing giant, features several icons, including singers Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett and glam-queen Cyndi Lauper. Ahluwalia – of The House of Waris – and Jones are featured in one of the print ads, with the turbaned and bearded Indian American focused at the camera, as a waspy, bed-headed Jones has a hand on his dastaar and another on his open-necked shirt.
Racist graffiti against the Sikh actor and designer started appearing online in November. Journalist Arsalan Iftikhar alerted his social media followers to a subway ad that compared the 39-year-old Ahluwalia to a terrorist. The vandal replaced “Make Love” with “Make bombs,” then wrote, “Please stop driving taxis.”
Gap has been lauded for its quick response to the graffiti. The company asked Iftikhar for the whereabouts of the defaced ad. Then, it placed Ahluwalia front and center as its cover image on Twitter and Facebook.
“Gap is a brand that celebrates inclusion and diversity. Our customers and employees are of many different ethnicities, faiths, and lifestyles and we support them all,” the company said in a statement.
Waris Ahluwalia has come to be seen as something of a role model for Sikhs, according to Kanwar Singh, a practitioner of the faith who lives in Richmond, Va. After hearing about the racist graffiti, Singh started a Facebook page thanking Gap for choosing Ahluwalia to be a part of the “Make Love” campaign. Singh says he’s heard from hundreds of people — both Sikh and non-Sikh — from around the country and the world who have come out in support of Gap.
Not all Sikhs in the US share this sentiment. Sikh activist Gursant Singh organized a rally in front of the GAP Store in Davis, Calif., to protest the ad which he believes is disrespectful to the Sikh community.
“This is a highly sexualized ad. Anytime a woman has her hand on a man’s shirt, with her tousled hair, it screams of sex,” Gursant Singh, organizer of the Davis protest, told India-West.
“It is completely unacceptable for an unmarried woman to be touching a Sikh man in this way. We’re family people and this is not the image of Sikhs we want portrayed,” said Singh, who converted to Sikhism 35 years ago. Singh said it would be better – but not entirely acceptable – if Ahluwalia and Jones were portrayed as a married couple.
“Stop GAP from brown-washing,” and “Stop GAP from disrespecting Sikhs” are the slogans Singh plans to use on his picket signs. Singh said he is expecting a counter-protest from young Sikhs who view the ads as a sign that Sikhs have entered mainstream culture. He said he has not received any stated support from Sikh organizations.
The Facebook page for the Davis protest had many comments denouncing the upcoming rally. “This ad is beautiful! It is a good-looking Punjabi Sikh man who has the affection of a good-looking woman. Why would you demoralize that?” queried Trish Singh.