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?
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.