Why we are Sikh feminists

// 16 April 2013

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Herpreet Kaur Grewal talked to her colleagues on the Sikh Feminist Research Institute’s editorial board about why they are feminists. This blog post collects their views to mark the Sikh festival of Vaisakhi, which took place this weekend.

 When you hear the words ‘Sikh feminist’ what images does it bring to mind? Perhaps it evokes a general image of Asian women holding placards and angrily protesting? Or maybe it reminds one of a grand warrior saint like Mai Bhago riding her horse into battle? Or possibly a more contemporary incident comes to mind, like the one of Balpreet Kaur who last year deflected taunts from an Internet troll by eloquently explaining why she decides to keep her facial hair in a society where women are largely pressured to be perfectly formed and hairless. Or maybe it evokes none of these images.

As editorial board members of a Sikh feminist body we feel compelled to express our philosophy as a proactive and empowered one. All of us look to the Sikh (and non-Sikh) values of equality, honesty and strength (among many others), to anchor our lives in an everyday spirituality. But that doesn’t mean our motivation has always rooted from a positive place.

One of us was sexually assaulted which absolutely shattered a personal notion that being strong, assertive and smart can keep you insulated from an attack. If anything, it laid bare the vulnerability that exists if you happen to be born a woman in a world that can devalue one so extremely and how that devaluation is integrated into the culture and system we live with. A culture and system which many men and women internalise – sometimes, to a massive extent.

Others on the editorial board have seen the way prejudices have been laced into our and our family’s day-to-day lives and this has made feminism a requisite to our existence. A big question that has run through all of our minds as we grew up: if Sikhism advocates equality then why do women take a backseat in so many areas of life? Why are women not always allowed to go where they want to go or to speak up truly about what they feel? Why, in some Sikh families is a male baby still celebrated more than a female baby? If we are truly equal and free, why are we sometimes told that these questions should not even allowed to be asked?

We believe feminism is at the core of the Sikh religious philosophy, which is actually quite a mystical one that encourages peeling back the layers of manmade conventions that society has imposed over history and time. We believe this includes the gender labels that have become entrenched and accepted without question, in our daily lives over aeons. Unravelling these layers will lead to a greater recognition of each other as equal but different souls, all of whom deserve to sing their unique song.

Others may say Sikhism has a more universal and humanistic core. But we argue that to get to the universal and humanistic, you have to go through the feminism. If we have a vision of universal equality, that is great; but for women to be a part of that, they must be treated equal to men and in many, many instances, like some of our personal experiences have shown, they are not. But not only that, men must see how their roles as men can be much, much more than patriarchy and culture has led them to believe. This is where feminism comes in. It requires women and men to reflect on how they may or may not be contributing to this idea of equality between the sexes. It is not an aggressive stand-off, it is an honest listening, exchange and collaboration.

As we usher in this new year after the Sikh celebration of Vaisakhi, we hope the spring that approaches is not just one that will affect the weather but also a new beginning for the way we interpret women’s role in Sikhism, Asian culture and the world. We must continue to fight against violence and blatant degradation against women (and men). But let us highlight the empowering traits and roles of women in Sikhism (and other cultures and religions) past, present and future as inspiration to move towards a truer equality.

The image is of the Khanda, a Sikh symbol. It is in the public domain.

Comments From You

Jagdeep Singh // Posted 17 April 2013 at 1:59 am

“Sikh Feminist” is a bit of a misnomer. If one is a Sikh, then he or she is an advocate for equality; equality that transcends beyond gender, financial classification, cultural differences, castes, creed, religion and anything else imaginable. If one is Sikh, then the “feminist” part is redundant and actually limits the “Sikhism” part. Be a Sikh and automatically be a feminist and much more than just a feminist.

The author wrote about an attack. Nothing insulates one from an attack. The very nature of an attack involves two or more parties and the attacker’s conduct is very much in question. The person being attacked may or may not have done anything to provoke it. Being strong, assertive and smart certainly makes one less susceptible to an attack than if one did not depict any of these qualities. Any one can be attacked. Men get attacked all the time but are expected to be able to defend themselves. Speaking of equality, why can’t we expect the same from women and leave it at that? Thereafter, let the legal and social mechanisms take their course.

“…if Sikhism advocates equality then why do women take a backseat in so many areas of life?” – This question and others in this paragraph are flawed. Here principles are being compared to a practices. If anyone is a true Sikh i.e. practices Sikhism, then no discrimination happens and no issues of sexual discrimination will ever arise. The only reason such opinions are formed and such questions are asked, is because we often observe the outwardly appearance and think the person or a family is a Sikh. Whereas in reality, a Sikh is known from conduct.

The blog confuses between religious principles and cultural practices. Teachings of Sri Guru Granth Sahib are absolute, above gender and gender biases, utilizing the gender based cultural practices as examples only to connect the practitioner of the religion with the Supreme Entity.

Absolutely, we must empower the traits and roles of women in Sikhism (and other cultures and religions) past, present and future as inspiration to move towards a truer equality. And we should do the same for the traits and roles of men as well.

Laura // Posted 17 April 2013 at 5:34 pm

Hi Jagdeep,

I can’t comment on Sikhism as I am not a Sikh, but I just wanted to highlight that in terms of sexual assault, the responsibility lies entirely with the perpetrator – women do not “provoke” sexual assault.

Preet // Posted 21 April 2013 at 8:30 pm

@Jagdeep Singh, please see the author’s comments pasted below:

“Yes, IN THEORY if someone is a Sikh they are an advocate for equality but IN REALITY this is not always the case in their conduct. Just because you CALL yourself Sikh doesn’t make you perfect.

If Sikhism advocates equality and in actual life equality is not a reality, then this disconnection needs to be addressed. We know equality is not a reality from things like female foeticide rates and many other issues etc. If Sikhism is all about equality then why aren’t those who are Sikh living up to those values? And those that do live up to those values, need to point it out to those that don’t. But it’s not just about Sikhs, it’s about using the wonderful values of Sikhism to empower ANYONE to live up to those inspiring ideals. They are universal values.

That is where feminism comes in…addressing specifically the way women are treated in order to bring about this equality which is explicitly a part of Sikhism. So, it’s not a misnomer if you look at it from that perspective.

We are not confusing religious principles and cultural practices. We are pointing out that this confusion you speak of exists in wider society and amongst Sikhs, and we are calling this to account by giving the issues that affect women a spotlight.” – Herpreet Kaur Grewal

Preet // Posted 21 April 2013 at 8:32 pm

Jagdeep Singh, yes, you are correct in stating if one is a true Sikh, then that person is past gender (and also class, caste, race, ethnicity, ability, sexuality, etc.) difference, and therefore the use of the term Sikh feminist is not required. Whether or not we are ‘true’ Sikhs is not amongst any human person’s capacity to determine. If we accept this part of the fundamental basis of being a Sikh, then we move on to discuss the temporal. The use of the term Sikh feminist is relevant as a conceptual tool to address the reality of the Sikh families, local communities and global world we are apart of. This is why the term has relevance, and this is precisely why this piece was written. It was a way for members of the editorial team to communicate to an interested audience some of the reasons we call ourselves Sikh feminists. As you can see, the reasons are quite varied. But it’s a way of connecting a conceptual term to the realities many of us face as Sikh women and men.

Jagdeep Singh // Posted 22 April 2013 at 12:10 pm

Responses as follows:

Preet // Posted 21 April 2013 at 20:30

I quote from my original comment, “principles are being compared to a practices”. Do people who claim to be Sikhs lack its practices? Absolutely. A Sikh is a Sikh only as long as she or he deserves to be called so. ਕਬੀਰ ਗੁਰੁ ਲਾਗਾ ਤਬ ਜਾਨੀਐ ਮਿਟੈ ਮੋਹੁ ਤਨ ਤਾਪ ॥ ਹਰਖ ਸੋਗ ਦਾਝੈ ਨਹੀ ਤਬ ਹਰਿ ਆਪਹਿ ਆਿਪ ॥ – Sri Guru Granth Sahib 1374. Kabeer, one is known to be a Guru’s follower when one’s attachments, illnesses are eradicated. One does not feel the burning of pleasure or pain; one then becomes a (Qualitative) reflection of the Almighty. So I say again, if one is Sikh, not just by appearance but more so by practice, then she or he already is a feminist and much much more. The “Feminist” part in “Sikh Feminist” is redundant, and hence the term is a misnomer. It would be like stating that I am a University graduate and I am also a high school graduate. The latter is understood and thus redundant.

Jagdeep Singh // Posted 22 April 2013 at 12:31 pm

Response to Preet // Posted 21 April 2013 at 20:32

Hello Preet: I disagree with parts of your post.

1. “Whether or not we are ‘true’ Sikhs is not amongst any human person’s capacity to determine” – Yes it is. I can determine whether I am a ‘true’ Sikh or not by reading & understanding Guru Granth Sahib’s teachings, then checking my conduct against those teachings. You can do the same for yourself. We don’t require a divine intervention or a judgement day type of an approach.

2. “The use of the term Sikh feminist is relevant as a conceptual tool to address the reality of the Sikh families” – The sub-concept of “feminism” cannot be used to deviate from the main concept of a “Sikh”. Once you are a Sikh, being a feminist is redundant. Anyone wanting to “address the reality of the Sikh families” should use the teachings of Sikhism. Trust me, you will accomplish much more than just the feminism part.

3. “But it’s a way of connecting a conceptual term to the realities many of us face as Sikh women and men.” – Rather than invent other things, why not research, understand and practice Gurbani and then write blogs explaining that. That would be the Sikh way to address any aspect of our lives, including feminism.

Like you stated, “if one is a true Sikh, then that person is past gender (and also class, caste, race, ethnicity, ability, sexuality, etc.)” – You see how this is all encompassing. I like your work and it definitely needs to be continued. I don’t agree with the terminology, which later on can be construed to imply that Sikhism lacked the concepts of feminism, so Sikhs had to work as Sikh-Feminists. Sikhism is humanism and way more and it must be depicted as such.

Pawan // Posted 24 April 2013 at 12:59 am

Jagdeep, if it’s just a terminological issue — you seem to take issue mainly with ‘redundancy’ — I get it. But you’re steering the conversation into a debate over who is a ‘true Sikh,’ which for me, is not the point. In your last post, your dismissal of feminism rests on a sweeping generalization about what ‘feminism’ is. There have been many different feminist communities, and there have been differences among feminists about where to start, in terms of directing energies and focus [check out this blog, for one]. What I find especially troubling about your commentary is that you’re insisting on providing a corrective to Sikh feminists about who or what they are, and who they can be: that they’re somehow misinformed when they identify as both ‘feminist’ *and* ‘Sikh’. I wonder why you have not yet *asked* Sikh feminists what they mean when they use both identifiers, Sikh+feminist. You’ll find that there are many differences among those of us who do identify in this way.

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