Why is this topic so popular today?
BY: Mallika Kaur
Equality. Oft-cited are Guru Nanak’s words in Asa ki Vaar: “So kyon Manda Aakhiye Jit Jamme Rajan” (Why speak ill of woman, the one from whom even all kings are born?). Perhaps even more powerful and beautiful are the overall deeds and teachings of the Guru through his lifetime that exemplified how the quest for physical and spiritual well-being is not merely the prerogative of men. Guru Nanak’s close relationship with his first true follower, Bebe Nanki, his own sister—beautifully illustrated in Inni Kaur’s Journeys with the Gurus—is yet another example of how his actions spoke louder than most people’s words. And in fact, his actions went contrary to prevailing wisdom. Brothers living in married sisters’ homes is still made culturally unacceptable in most South Asian families. Guru Nanak spoke about Sikh women and related practices, disenfranchisements, and cultures in the fifteenth century.
So perhaps this trending topic of “Sikh women” is important precisely because it is in fact trending with Guru Nanak?
Solidarity. Guru Nanak didn’t only speak against that which hurt his own biological family—he could have worn the janeu and been merrily on his way. Rather he asked questions: why do some get this supposed honor and not others? What does this mean for those ‘others’? And he realized that those with privilege must carry the responsibility of asking these difficult questions aloud (those without privilege, for example the caste-less during Guru Nanak’s time, often face dire threats for publically asking the same questions).
If we find ourselves thinking that “in our family” “in my experience” “in the way my parents raised me” women do not face discrimination or hardship simply for being women, and so this whole discussion is moot, we have missed a serious Sikh lesson. Our family is always our larger family, Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike. (More over, if we truly believe our own families are post-gender—that is, beyond any defined roles for men and women that inhibit men or women’s achievement of their full potential—we are likely kidding ourselves; but that is for a separate discussion). The larger family has diversity. Just as saying “My family has always had shelter and healthcare, so there is no urgency to discuss class issues” or “I have never faced religious discrimination since 9/11, so the whole civil rights theme is misplaced” or “I have never been singled out for the color of my skin, so there is no racism,” would be laughable, so is the idea that “Sikh women I know never seem to face any special hardship or issues, so let’s discuss something else.” Remember Guru Nanak’s message that simply working hard, sharing some, and being a good enough person isn’t in fact enough? Guru Nanak noticed discrimination wherever it existed and stood up for those who perhaps could not stand up for themselves.
Standing up for women’s rights is as essential as recognizing that all women, even all Sikh women, are certainly not alike. Our journeys are diverse, and our stories cannot be monotone, monologue, or monolithic. To stand in solidarity with these different journeys, to respect their differences, and to stand against things that might be threatening some of these journeys is the whole game that Guru Nanak asks us to play.
Today, Guru Nanak would ask about the high rates of feticide, about domestic violence and about child abuse. But he would also ask some of the things that do not make headlines: the dearth of Sikh women role models at Sikh camps and retreats; the lack of women’s representation on our stages; the imbalance in gurudwara committees, Punjabi schools, and in our homes. The lack of female voices on our dining tables (though not kitchens) and on our TV sets. He would ask why of 190 heads of State, only nine are women. Of all the parliaments around the world, 13% of seats are held by women. Of full professors around the United States, only 24% are women.
And he would prod us to ask about what we are doing to change this? Do we check the habits that hold back women, including Sikh women?
And to Sikh women, he would ask, what we are doing to check our own discrimination of other women—based on race or caste background (do we always remember that women of certain backgrounds might be bearing discrimination primarily for the color of their skin or immigration status?); based on education background (do we speak in a language that is accessible as well as intriguing and intellectually stimulating to all or do we reserve discussions about women to conferences etc.—for example, will I translate this article in Punjabi, for starters?); based on class background (do we simply assume everyone has access to internet and can find the same resources we do?); based on age (do we simply use “Aunty” as some sort of dismissive/even supposedly funny jibe, and sideline those carrying wisdom differently and/or longer?)
Perhaps the topic of Sikh Women is trending precisely because Guru Nanak would have so much to say about it?