In its teachings, Sikhism is strongly in favour of gender equality. But is it like this in every day reality for Sikh women? Harjit Sarang is Family Law solicitor with a specialism in Parenting and Fertility Law for LGBT and infertile couples. She is a Sikh and a passionate feminist. I asked her about the tensions between faith and culture.
VB: The Sikh faith is, most would argue, at heart very much pro gender equality. Do you see this as the experience of most Sikh women?
HS: In my experience, for many families the Sikh culture (which is really just part of the Indian culture) is not reflective of the Sikh religion. The two are quite different. As with all religions, over time they are interpreted in many different ways to fit in with what their specific society is ready for. I think the Indian culture in Britain has and will continue to evolve toward the principles of the Sikh religion. But overall it’s not there yet. Currently Indian women in the UK have similar restrictions to those that British women historically faced in times gone by – especially in strict families. Over time we’ve seen feminism and equality becoming a reality for British women, and we will hopefully see the same happening for Indian culture in the UK.
VB: So you’d delineate strongly between the Sikh faith and Sikh culture as two different realities?
HS: Yes. The Indian culture in some families is, in many ways, very sexist . In my experience many females in Sikh households (particularly those growing up in the 60’s, 70’s & 80’s) would say that they consider the Indian culture (not Sikh religion) to be one of the most sexist and discriminatory for women. That said we are seeing less of this now.
VB: Did you find this difficult – growing up in a Sikh family?
HS: Yes. And I think many females raised in strict Sikh families did. If they knew about the Sikh religion they would have known that sexism and inequality are unacceptable and therefore challenged those restrictions. But if they did not know the religion in detail they would logically assume that the culture is rooted in the teachings of the Sikh religion – and so probably resented being a Sikh.
VB: Could you give us some examples of the discrimination that can take place in families?
HS: Sure. Here are eight examples of the discrimination that a woman may experience in very strict Sikh (Indian) households. (Of course there are many modern Sikh families who do not experience any of this):
1). Education – women are told ‘an educated woman is intimidating to a male and therefore will suffer in her efforts to marry’.
2). Freedom of expression – women are told ‘a lady should not have her own opinions but instead concur with the males in the household’. A wife is groomed to be subservient.
3). Freedom to socialise – women are told ‘a lady should not be seen outside of the home alone’. Most Indian females are not free to socialise outside of the home and certainly not out late at night.
4). Household chores – the daughters do everything in preparation for being a good wife.
5). Freedom to marry – whilst arranged marriage has an element of choice, ultimately there is pressure on the female to accept a proposal when one has been made. The male is often in the dominant position asking “is she good enough for me”. Most females would say, if they have doubts about accepting a proposal that the comments made to them are “What is wrong with him??” Again, this goes back to a culture of inequality; the female joining the male family and therefore the choice belonging to the male and his family.
6). The dowry system – the wife’s family are asked ‘What can you offer us for our son’. As a lawyer I still do divorces where dowry features quite heavily in negotiations for financial settlement. Many would assume this to be outdated but it is not.
7). Pressure to be modest – females should keep long hair and dress modestly not revealing arms or legs.
8). No boyfriends – the female is expected to be a virgin.
So those are the main eight. Some would argue that these are efforts to ‘protect’ the female. Others would argue that it is control and sexism. Those ignorant of our religion would say those practices are part of the Sikh religion, but in reality they are simply cultural rather than religious.
VB: Is this sexism typically something that only exists before marriage?
HS: It can still continue after marriage if you are married into a strict family. The system of extended family is most commonly living with the husband’s family. When you raise sons in that strict environment the daughters are already on the back foot; the female (their mother) can be seen as inferior to their father and other males in the household, so all the males in the household take precedence. However, there are also many successful modern family scenarios where there is equality in the household.
VB: Is the inheritance process equal for sons and daughters?
HS: No, not in strict families. Even though India’s laws have changed the son is commonly the heir because the female is expected to benefit an inheritance from her husband’s family. Of course, there are families who are completely modern and believe in Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s teachings of equality and provide for sons and daughters to inherit equally.
VB: Tell us about yourself – where did you grow up?
HS: I was raised in the Midlands and most families that I was exposed to were like the family portrayed in the film ‘Bend it like Beckham’! Wherever you have a high concentration of people from the same religious or cultural group, there is a pressure not to ‘Westernise’. It is seen as a weakness and that was the case in my upbringing. This is nonsense to me because what strict families call ‘Westernised’ is actually what Sikhism is meant to be – egalitarian. But it takes time for cultures to progress and realise this.
VB: How did you move from that culture to the one you embrace today as a feminist?
HS: It has been a long process! But essentially first generation Indians show their parents how to let go of strict practices without feeling as though they are abandoning their religion. They then become parents themselves and raise their children differently, thereby diluting the elements of the Indian culture that are contrary to Sikhi. The Sikh (Indian) culture is so wonderful and rich. It is a pleasure to embrace it while letting go of the negative practices.
While some families will take generations to change, there are also many modern Sikh families today. These families follow the truth of Sikhi; there is no inequality in their households. Sons and daughters are treated the same and the daughters are encouraged to be the best that they can be. The practices in relation to socialising, schooling, modesty, length of hair, dowry, alcohol, marriage etc. are rejected and they model to the families around them that life can be lived in this way.
VB: Do you ever attend more traditional Sikh functions?
HS: I still do… but very reluctantly and only after much persuasion! It’s especially challenging for me to attend events where men and women are separated, women are covered, alcohol is only served to men and even functions where the host refuses to serve meat to the females. I usually don’t stay for very long!
VB: Do you attend Sikh places of worship – and is that easy or hard for you?
HS: When my husband and I go to the Gurdwara with our young sons, we sit together. We strive to be the change that we want to see.
VB: You campaign for same sex marriage and see it as very compatible with Sikhism when many traditionalists might not accept that connection. How do you argue for it?
HS: My belief is that a marriage in Sikhism is between two souls. The body is the mere shell that holds the soul. Gender is therefore irrelevant. Respectfully, I disagree with Lord Singh of Wimbledon’ whose comments in the House of Lords argued the opposite. We need LGBT Sikh role models.
VB: How are you working to bring change?
HS: I campaign for equality (www.equalmarriagecampaign.wordpress.com). The thought of young LGBT Sikh people struggling with their sexuality is very upsetting because in my view it is not contrary to Sikhi at all. Discriminating against them, however, is contrary to Sikhi.
As a woman, as a mother, as a wife, I feel that for me there is no better religion than Sikhism for equality and egalitarianism.
VB: How can the chasm you see between Sikh faith and Sikh culture be bridged? What advice would you give to those wanting to bring change to their own Sikh community?
HS: Well, in essence, I believe that this change all starts at home. I have two sons and they will be aware from me that sexism and Sikhism are not linked. Sometimes with extended family, they see sexism in practice but I am vocal about it and reject it where possible. Each family needs to model the equality that Sikhism truly upholds.
Watch Harjit’s showreel below, to find out more about her and her work. Also you can follow her on Twitter here.