Why we are Sikh feminists
Guest Blogger // 16 April 2013
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.