Why is this topic so popular today?
BY: Mallika Kaur
Voice. Different from mere noise, voice is the learned, deliberate practice of finding the courage to speak truth, to articulate that which might go against prevailing wisdom. The essential lesson about voice that the Sikh Gurus taught was in fact not even about our own voice, but the voice of others: to be attentive and notice what voices might be stifled or not heard. Guru Nanak didn’t remark “O, I don’t hear lower castes complain about the janeu, so they must not really care about this issue!”
Sikh women’s voices are often marginal and central to our understanding about Sikhi. The experience of many women is marginal in that women have traditionally been sidelined or at best after-thoughts—in academia, gurudwaras, decision-making, representation—but the experiences of these same women is central because they afford us the opportunity to rethink the trajectory of our community and what we want to get done right.
Christine Littleton has said “feminist method starts with the very radical act of taking women seriously, believing that what we say about ourselves and our experiences is important and valid, even what, or especially when, it has little or no relationship to what has been or is being said about us.”
Women of faith have related to this sentiment and at the same time grappled with what feminism means to a woman of faith.
In doing so, Muslim feminist Azizah Y. Al-Hibri has for example remarked, “Why is it oppressive to wear a head scarf but liberating to wear a miniskirt?”
Similarly, Sikh feminists, organized for example in the charitable organization SAFAR: Sikh Feminist Research Institute, are asking how to ensure (first by dealing with everyday inequities and then making structural shifts) all women and men have equal opportunity to walk the path towards the spiritual transcendence that the Gurus described for us.
Perhaps the topic of Sikh Women is trending because including these voices is not only fair, but essential and functional: in understanding the mission of our Gurus, in realizing our individual and collective power, in ensuring half of our voices are not simply left out.
Reflecting equality and solidarity in ensuring these voices are included is the first step. It’s an important first step and one to which SikhNet’s film festival will contribute. The next step is not stopping at one film, film festival or discussion about Sikh Women.
Needless to say, if equality, solidarity, and voice don’t translate to Action, then we have missed the point of the divinely inspired revolution that Guru Nanak brought forth. Beyond just articulating the ideal, Guru Nanak and the successor Gurus empowered the most marginalized—turning them into the Queens and Kings that rise after the Panj Piare grace them with Amrit (initiation). The Gurus didn’t ‘give’ us voice (what’s empowerment without effort?), but gave us enough space to find our own voices, informed by equality and fortified by solidarity.
Progress surely requires we don’t use women simply as ‘subjects’ for events and books and papers, but rather recognize women as agents. It’s to realize that far from being too narrow, the topic of “Sikh Women” is dizzingly broad. Sikh women are involved, very centrally in every aspect of our community, whether as teachers, mothers, organizers, sisters, mentors, friends, writers, spiritual guides, leaders, wives, and as inspirations. SikhNet filmmakers can talk about pretty much about everything and anything—provided they don’t forget asking difficult questions, showing solidarity with experiences that are not their own, and listening for different voices. It might not be easy. But if it were easy, it won’t be revolutionary.
Mallika Kaur is a lawyer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the United States and South Asia. She has a JD from UC Berkeley School of Law and MPP from Harvard Kennedy School. She serves on the Board of Directors of SAFAR: The Sikh Feminist Research Institute and works with several civil society initiatives, international advocacy organizations, and academic institutions, to combine research, advocacy, scholarship, and the law. Currently she is a staff attorney at CORA, a domestic violence agency in the Bay Area, California.