YUBA CITY, Calif. — 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 tenants: Selfless service to others and the belief in one god who sees all people as equal.
“It plays a role in my life every day because that’s who I am,” Didbal said of her religion. “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.
“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.”
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.
“We’re supposed to not cut our hair, keep it long, and that’s one of the symbolisms of Sikh men and women,” she said. “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 being able to grow.”
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 farm workers who immigrated from 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 Yuba City council in 2014. The mayor is elected annually by the five-member council.