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The Soapbox: On Being A Sikh Feminist

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In light of this weekend’s tragic shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, we thought our readers would be interested to learn more about this religion. We reached out to the Sikh Feminist Research Institute for some thoughts on Sikhism. 

Often I am asked of when I first became aware of being a feminist. This question takes me back to the deepest recesses of my memories of early childhood, since it was my mother who was my first feminist role model. She would frequently give me feminist pep talks: “You want to be a pilot? Yes, of course you can become a pilot!” or “Your favourite color is blue? Sure, blue is a great color.” Often defiant of male authority, a natural and equal partner in running the household, she was both bread-winner and the CEO of our home.

As I grew older I would often wonder about the origins of my mother’s feminist ideas. Not having had the opportunity of a formal education due to the poverty following forced migration at the time of Partition, it was apparent she had no access to the feminist theorists I would come to prize in later life. Instead her ideas emerged from the Sikh historical narratives she was raised on and the strong women in her own life. The re-telling of the lives of Sikh women would provide fodder for bed-time stories, both awe-inspiring but also re-assuring of a universe that made sense where women and men are equals.

Gender equality along with caste, class and religious equality are central tenets of Sikhi, the Sikh faith and way of life. Sikhi emerged within the lifetime of its founder Guru Nanak Ji (born 1469 in South Asia), followed by a succession of nine human Gurus. On October 6th 1708, the authority of the Guru was then bestowed on the Sikh scripture, a collection of poetical compositions, the Guru Granth Sahib.

The Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib is primarily an exaltation of the Divine and gives intimations of how spiritual enlightenment can be attained through union with the Divine by “remembering” the Divine (simram) and offering selfless service (seva). The concept of seva within Sikhi is embedded with social and political responsibility with a strong focus on standing in service of the defenceless.

The revolutionary nature of Sikh religious and cultural identity first became apparent with the establishment of the first Sikh community at Katarpur on the banks of the River Ravi in Punjab by Guru Nanak Ji. The community evolved the institutions of Sikhi, such as the open kitchen (langar), sitting and eating together without class, caste or gender distinctions (pangat), and the gathering in solidarity and community (sangat), all of which are an integral part of Sikhi and demonstrative of a commitment to social and economic justice.

In confronting patriarchy many of the prevalent forms of the subjugation of women, such as dowry, female infanticide, veiling of women, and sati (burning a recently widowed woman on her husband’s funeral pyre) were all strictly prohibited and widows were permitted to re-marry following the Sikh marriage ceremony. Education for women was made mandatory within the Sikh community in the 16th century and women were appointed to leadership roles. Universal suffrage was introduced in the form of the consensus decision making in the 18th century.

As the Sikh community evolved, the requirement of five markers of Sikh faith was concretized by the formation of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh (the 10th Guru). These five markers of faith, worn by both men and women, the most conspicuous of which is the kesh, the unshorn hair tied in a top-knot (and in the case of men, but also sometimes women, on the top of the head and turbaned), serve as a unifying collective identity and a visible commitment to the Sikh faith.

This week, the faith I grew up in and came to adopt whole-heartedly in adulthood, and which informs my self-identification as a feminist, has finally been receiving attention in the mainstream and social media. However, that has come to be at the prompting of a horrendous tragedy. On Sunday, August 5, 2012, a gunman entered a Gurdwara in Wisconsin and started shooting, killing six members of the community, before being shot himself by police. [Ed. Note: According to the FBI, the shooter eventually died as the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.] The subsequent interest in the Sikh faith and community contrasts starkly with the lack of attention directed to the rise of white supremacist movements, hate crimes and domestic terrorism.

As we all seek to unpack the causes of the hatred leading to this atrocity, we need to examine the systemic and structural origins of racism, and why a community that has been present and contributing to the development of the United States for over a hundred years continues to be marginalised and targeted. The rise in hate-speech and hate-crimes over the past 10 years has continued unabated and unchallenged.

With every daily prayer, Sikhs ask for sarbat da bhalla, the well being of all. This prayer has often reminded me of the words of Pastor Niemöller (“First, they came for the communists and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist…”). Today, these words seem so much more apt.

Tarnjit Kaur is the founder of SAFAR, The Sikh Feminist Research Institute.

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