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Mallika Kaur, Harpreet Kaur Neelam, and Kirpa Kaur: Sikh Feminism and SAFAR

Daring to celebrate an egalitarian tradition.

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Image (C) SAFAR.

By Mallika Kaur, Harpreet Kaur Neelam, and Kirpa Kaur

There are over half a million Sikhs in the United States, yet the community remained relatively obscure until 9/11 and the surge of anti-turban sentiment. The past thirteen years have seen Sikh millennials become the most visibly involved generation of Sikhs in the diaspora.

Just as many people begin to understand and recognize our community, and while we still struggle against the bigotry of those who seek to exclude peoples of color, why muddy the tentative waters with the contentious label: “feminism”? Quite simply because, as Sikhs, we are required by our faith to challenge the status quo.

On the eve of the first Sikh feminist conference in the United States at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, last month, preceded by conferences at the University of Toronto (2011) and University of British Columbia (2012), we received a note from a well-meaning university student:

“To teach the society that the equality of sexes is a reality you only need the word ‘Sikh.’”

He meant: Isn’t it quite redundant to add the “feminism” label when we are using the word “Sikh,” which encompasses equality and justice for all, regardless of sex?

Sikh feminism recognizes the emancipatory nature of Sikhism, uncovers and challenges what causes and sustains oppression in all its forms, and strives to create social equity through individual and collective efforts.

Obviously, the same can be asked of words such as “activist,” “scholar,” “community servant,” “volunteer,” “human-rights defender”—all consumed in how the Sikh gurus envisioned and illustrated the life of a Sikh.

The Sikh Feminist Research Institute (SAFAR) has, through its programming, preliminarily defined Sikh feminism as that which, recognizing the emancipatory nature of Sikhi (Sikhism), uncovers and challenges what causes and sustains oppression in all its forms, and strives to create social equity through individual and collective efforts.

In other words: the Sikh feminist lens reminds us that we are not simply talking about gender equality.

We, as Sikhs, don’t seek to be equal to any current situation; rather we constantly challenge the present status quo for a better future. “Gender equality” also misses the intersection of gender and so much else: race, class, culture—all very relevant to the life of a Sikh. Not all men are alike and neither are all women. So equality between “two” groups doesn’t even begin to cover the feminist revolution.

Sikh feminism is relevant to all the crucial issues facing us today, and refuses to be contained by “special” or “women’s issues.” 2014 has been significant for the Sikh community since it has marked the thirtieth anniversary of 1984, the year India’s 2 percent Sikh minority faced abuses on a national scale. SAFAR’s conference this year helped illustrate how a Sikh feminist lens deepens understanding of critical history while strengthening solidarity.

1984 involved India’s first female head of state, Indira Gandhi, still venerated by some as a trailblazer. Earlier this year her unsurprising association with Margaret Thatcher in orchestrating attacks against the Sikh community was revealed: they were both women. As feminists, we’ll be the first to recognize that being a woman makes no difference when it comes to genocidal policies. We reject the idea that all is solved when you “Add Women & Stir!”

Sikh feminists believe in listening to the voices of those whose experience is simultaneously marginal and central to our understanding. We are committed to providing a space for the telling of many journeys (in Punjabi: safar).

SAFAR’s unique role bridges the often perceived and real gap between academics and non-academics, as well as between those frustrated that gender discrimination is underemphasized and those frustrated that gender may be over-emphasized, to the exclusion of much else.

Such bridging has, of course, put us in the line of fire more than once. But as Sikh women we have a constant to turn to: our gurus. Scholar Dr. Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh writes, “Could we go as far as to call Nanak a feminist?” We’ve already gone there, and that is the authority giving SAFAR its dogged fearlessness in discussing issues ranging from body politics to the body politic.

*                      *                     *

Neet told us she was pregnant. After the initial smiles—“I hope it’s not a girl. I can’t do the whole negotiating, Am I a girl? Am I girly enough? Can she be girly and a good Sikh?”—her frowns complemented her fierce turquoise chunni (scarf).

Were we really listening to a respected friend express her own preference for a son? Warped sex ratios in many parts of India, including Punjab, result from biases against girls and for boys.

Minds spinning. Were we really listening to a respected friend express her own preference for a son? Warped sex ratios in many parts of India, including Punjab, result from biases against girls and for boys. But Neet, a Sikh-American woman in California, was expressing the struggle of carrying the Sikh identity, one that includes unshorn hair, while negotiating gendered ideas of beauty in society.

Most Sikh Americans belong to families originally from Punjab, a province that was partitioned between India and Pakistan in 1947 after Britain relinquished colonial control. The first Sikh, Guru Nanak, born in Punjab in 1469, spread the message of a radically new way of life, and challenged the social order by rejecting the caste system and dictating that all people, men and women, be treated equally. He required all Sikhs to not only earn an honest living, share their earnings, and be morally upright, but also to be politically involved in struggles for justice. Simply put, the first guru proved that spiritual upliftment and social involvement could not be mutually exclusive. The nine gurus who followed continued to exemplify the importance of aligning with the powerless rather than with the powerful. For this, many gurus were declared subversive outlaws (or worse) by the powers of the day and, in instances, killed.

The Sikh gurus not only began a revolution against practices that discriminated against women, but also actively encouraged women to find a place in social, political, and family life. Now, three hundred years after the gurus—our champions—we Sikh women are reclaiming and celebrating this guru-given place, while trying to make sense of the unique challenges of the countries and contexts in which we find ourselves.

Sociologist Barbara Omolade famously pointed out, “Black women are not white women with color.” And Sikh women are not simply women of color with unshorn hair. But hair has a lot to do with it.

The Sikh gurus gave us a unique identity, which includes the mandate to keep long, unshorn hair (kesh). Sikh men’s turbans and beards particularly distinguish them. Post-9/11, the community has made many efforts to create spaces for discussing the uniqueness and challenges of the more obvious Sikh male identity. Sikh women’s kesh, including unshorn hair on the legs, might have seldom prompted public discussions in the Punjab of the 1700s or 1800s, but in today’s locker rooms, on basketball courts and beaches, and during proms, it is sure proving challenging. In North America, at least, we are slowly finding spaces in which to discuss the challenges of the external identity of Sikh women as well.

During the first SAFAR conference in 2011, a groundbreaking survey of Sikh women’s relationship to their body hair was presented, discussed, and debated. Are we perhaps in an environment where Sikh women feel they are failing expectations on two fronts? Firstly, they must contend with expectations of “femininity” in the wider, non-Sikh society. And then, simultaneously, with still being rejected by fellow Sikhs based on societal expectations of beauty (per which many Sikhs encourage Sikh women to pick shaving over faith tradition even while reprimanding Sikh men who shave their beards).

A friend’s grandmother told one of us, “Yes, I see these issues bother young girls and even boys, but after all that has happened in our recent history, this is all our educated kids are discussing?”

Our fearlessness in talking about our own bodies fuels our fearlessness in creating conversations that affect our community and world.

She had a point. The challenges to Sikhs have been severe in recent history and such questions often seem trivial. But Naniji (Grandma) was also mistaken in her assumption that Sikh feminists, including Neet—now the proud mother of a rambunctious daughter who ensures she is the center of her mother’s world—who are invested in women’s identity politics are somehow removed from the other realities of their community. Rather, our fearlessness in talking about issues such as our own bodies fuels our fearlessness in creating conversations about pivotal topics that affect our community and world.

*                      *                     *

As we mark thirty years since the traumatic events of 1984, when the Sikh minority community was targeted across India, a Sikh feminist lens is critical to better understand our history and our present. During the Our Journeys 2014 Conference, we applied three feminist questions to conversation about gendered violence in 1984.

What Do We Know?

Sikh women survivors of the violence are most emblematically known through the narrative of the “widow colonies,” which resulted from the killings of male members of Sikh families. Thus labeled and approached year after year around the anniversary of the violence, these women are often captured as grieving, even powerless, although a few accounts capture their defiance as well. We know that euphemisms abound when describing the violence against women and girls in 1984. We know how 1984 informed activism among feminist, largely non-Sikh, circles in Delhi that showed solidarity with the women survivors. We also know that academia often labels and analyzes Sikh accounts of 1984 and the violent decade that followed using a male-dominated lens, without room for women’s experiences. Many have noted the dearth of information on gendered violence in 1984.

What Don’t We Know?

A large history of 1984 survival encompasses women’s responses—hiding to protect themselves and their children; fighting the killers head on; agitating in front of the army and police knowing they would lose their lives. SAFAR partnered with the 1984 Living History Project this year to help capture these accounts. The stories told “off camera” included experiences of sexual violence, forced prostitution, and other (often literal) skeletons in the closet. Largely, as a collective, we don’t know these stories, because they are not shared in a formal setting. Upon encouragement, one gentleman submitted a supplemental video to his original account in which he narrated his memory of the predicament his Sikh sisters found themselves in after 1984—the type of predicament that, he realized, remains untold thirty years later.

Praxis: How Do We Couple Knowledge and Action?

A Sikh feminist lens on 1984 firstly recognizes that a fuller telling of the story requires an eye on gender. It does not ask only for “her-stories,” for surely all of the violence in 1984 was gendered: Sikh men were targeted because they were men, and disproportionately constituted those killed. Often, Sikh men were subjected to sexualized humiliation, and were forced to watch women being raped or forced to let down their long, uncut hair and dance while being burned to death. The stories of these men are central to a Sikh feminist understanding.

Sikh feminist voices: women who were raped, who took to the streets in civil disobedience, who took swords to fight, who lived in the countryside of Punjab and encouraged men to die rather than give up their faith.

At the same time, the stories of the women are essential to the Sikh feminist project—not only the voices of those women in Delhi or those women who were raped or those women deemed appropriate faces of victimhood, but also the women who took to the streets in civil disobedience, those who took swords to fight, the women who lived in the countryside of Punjab and encouraged men to die rather than give up their faith, the women who refused to cry as well as those whose tears have not ceased thirty years later.

Further, we must keep an eye on Sikh ethics and traditions. Anthropologist Cynthia Mahmood concluded from discussions with Sikh women actively resisting violence in the ’80s that “Western feminism, with its refusal to defer in any space, strikes many Sikh women as rather silly…. From the viewpoint of women who daily risk death, discussion of who washes the dishes seem absurd.”

At the same time, in her 1996 book Mahmood mentions Sikh-American activists holding meetings: “The idea that men might take the initiative in freeing women from some of their activities to make a delegate role at a convention possible, which I expressed with hesitation, seemed not to be taken as a serious possibility.”

Sikh feminists also demand accountability from our own. While a lot has changed by 2014 and Sikh-American organizations have visible and prominent female leadership, ideas of role distribution remain entrenched for one too many women. We challenge the problematic assumption that only men wish to speak on “hard” topics, as much as we reject that the topics relating to women’s experiences are inherently “soft.”

Finally, a Sikh feminist lens challenges the simplistic argument that sexual violence is not spoken of because of a male hegemony over the 1984 history. As feminists, we prioritize agency and privacy for any abuse survivor—for example, a sexual-assault advocate would never tell a rape victim-survivor she must print her story in a newspaper. Then, we ask, when it comes to state violence, why are the demands on women survivors so different? The demand that they re-expose and tell their stories of sexual violence is misplaced. Is not privacy also a form of agency to respect?

The Sikh feminist lens also grapples with the question: Would more women speak out in a different culture? While respect for their privacy would be justice for some, the ability to scream out their stories would be justice for others.

The Sikh feminist lens demands much. But if it were easy, it also would not be necessary. If it were easy, we would not have such lacunae in our knowledge and analyses of world events.

During our conference, we repeatedly spoke about the various ways to decouple rape and shame. To change how rape is represented, to move away from the gory pictures of screaming women, and to avoid re-victimization. To stop looking at every 1984 female survivor with a question in our eyes—Were you raped; what happened to you?—and rather as a community that believes in collective strength and healing. To ask, with openness: Who are you? What is your story, as you wish to tell it?

*                      *                     *

“[M]aybe doing the work of feminism is more important than identifying as a feminist. After all, the word isn’t just an identity—it’s a movement. It’s something that you do,” Jessica Valenti recently wrote in a brilliant piece in The Guardian. Employing the word “feminist” is barely a pre-requisite for working with SAFAR—asking feminist questions and bravely acting on the answers received definitely is.

We employ “feminist” in our name—the Sikh Feminist Research Institute—because it immediately forces the conversation. Without apologies, and without judgment, we ask, for example:

  • Who speaks? For how long?
  • What constitutes leadership in our community spaces? Who are the academic chairs? Who are the community leaders?
  • What forms of leadership—say, a mother championing her daughter to a leave an abusive marriage, even in the face of the community’s widespread antipathy to intervening in domestic violence—are seldom recognized?
  • Why do we praise a man, with much admiration, for cooking a meal, but neglect to thank the woman who does the domestic tasks every day?
  • Why is dowry, cloaked as gift-giving, as alive and well in South Asia as it is in the diaspora?

At the same time, we ask:

  • Who carries the Sikh identity on their body?
  • When Sikh women are less encouraged to carry their faith, what is lost? Who loses?
  • How do we keep our various struggles and discussions in perspective and thus relevant to each other as we occupy vastly different realities, and differing levels of privilege—the professional thinking about the glass ceiling, the graduate student struggling with a lack of mentorship, the woman in a Punjabi village today supporting her family after her husband has committed suicide due to agrarian debt?
  • How many Sikh women speak up for other Sikh women challenging the norms?
  • Who relegates the “difficult” topics to whom?

These questions are interrelated. All are acts of resistance to dominant cultures—whether a culture of impunity; a culture of hyper-sexualization of women’s bodies; a culture of reserving certain exercises of faith only for men even if contrary to the faith’s teachings. Sikh feminism looks at culture, in whichever form, as malleable, as something we can change together, rather than as something set in stone.

All our gurus were active change-makers. For anyone to expect their daughters and sons to be passive recipients is simple-mindedness.

This writing is informed by the collective knowledges and contributions of many: SAFAR is comprised of academics, educators, activists, community organizers, and independent researchers committed to promoting and sustaining Sikh feminist research, praxis, and activism.

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2 comments for Mallika Kaur, Harpreet Kaur Neelam, and Kirpa Kaur: Sikh Feminism and SAFAR

  1. Comment by Sangeeta Luthra on December 13, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    Great article!

  2. Comment by Tej on December 17, 2014 at 7:13 am

    Sikhi, if practiced correctly doesn’t require the warped double standard ideology that is feminism. I mean “Could we go as far as to call Nanak a feminist”, what a joke. Modern feminism has little to do with actual meaningful equality and more to do with positive discrimination, double standards and sexual freedom (which of course has created the very objectified image of modern women which feminists now hate!). Don’t be fooled into comparing the true equality given by our Gurus to this nonsense.

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