Does everyone seem to be talking about women’s rights recently? Conferences, talks, vigils, kathaas, blogs, counter-blogs, and now non-profit SikhNet’s recently announced theme for its eighth annual youth film festival: Sikh Women. If not for the current popularity of the theme, why this focus? And isn’t it dangerous to focus on “Sikh women” as one collective group, despite all the differences among different Sikh women? Also, is giving a ‘special’ status to women in fact increasing discrimination, and ghettoizing women’s issues?
In 1469, first Sikh Guru Nanak sahib preached a very new way of life, challenged the social order of the day, rejected the prevalent culture. Often, to break it down for elementary school kids we talk about Guru Nanak’s three golden teachings: earn an honest living, share your earnings, and be morally upright. But Guru Nanak required much more of his Sikhs: be actively involved in struggles for justice. To sit back and think “I’m a good person—I work, I pray, I share” wasn’t quite enough. Since Guru Nanak, all Sikhs have been expected to care about the culture and society around them. The nine Gurus who followed also continued to exemplify that spiritual upliftment and social involvement cannot be mutually exclusive. For this, many Gurus were declared subversive outlaws (or worse) by the powers of the day and in instances, killed.
Guru Nanak’s first subversive action came as a very young boy. Most Sikh kids hear the story about when Guruji was standing in his village home, center of attention, for a traditional special family function of his time. His family wanted to tie the janeu on him; the janeu, a thread tied in religious ceremony on upper-caste Hindu boys. And Guru Nanak rejected wearing the thread. The janaeu discriminated between people, between different caste backgrounds and between girls and boys. By articulating his disagreement to the priest, family, and all their gathered guests—we understand he remained polite throughout, yet threw everyone in a tizzy—the young Guru taught society very important lessons: in equality, solidarity, voice.
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?
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.