Faith In Feminism

A bold appraisal of Sikh culture vs Sikh religion

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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?

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// Harjit Sarang //

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.

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Watch Harjit’s showreel below, to find out more about her and her work. Also you can follow her on Twitter here.

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About The Author

Vicky Beeching is a theologian, writer and broadcaster who focuses on the areas of religion, feminism and technology. She is a regular on TV and radio discussing her areas of interest. Vicky is currently doing PhD research on the ethics of the Internet, exploring how online technology is shaping society. She lives in central London.

9 Comments

  1. Karamjeet Singh September 29, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    Harjit Sarang’s feed on Sikh feminism is a balanced appraisal of the situation.Families do restrict their girls and keep a watch.Here is my take:
    Gurus’ advice is to do most things in right proportion.Too much liberty leads to unhappiness at the end-because some families have not groomed their girls the result is what you see in pubs and bars and the other men groom them.
    Sikhs give equal opportunity to girls that’s reason many Sikh girls are in professions.
    Inheritance is equal,
    Men and women are two species with different role models,in order to balance,the two should introspect and play their roles to achieve a blissful living.
    Sikhs believe in the natural laws-marriage,raising family and worship with socializing in a congregation leads to a balanced living.Any other form is against Natural laws.

    • Mikayla October 5, 2014 at 12:18 am

      I agree that its good to dress modestly and what not,but I don’t agree in Religion.But I do believe in Jesus Christ and He is the reason why I am going to Heaven.Im not trying to get there Im working in love because Im going there.”For by the grace of God are we saved that not of ourselves it is a gift of God”.And Because ”All have sinned and come short of Gods glory”,I am sinful and wicked and there is no way I could make to Heaven on my own.”But God commendeth His Love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us”.And some people say well thats too much liberty But God is a God of Freedom and Love not Fear.And that why I serve the Lord bc even though I fail Him So often,Its just like C.S.Lewis Said;”Nothing binds me to my Lord more than a strong belief in His Changless Love for me”. ”For God So Loved the world that he gave his only begotton Son that whomsoever believes in Him should Perish but have Everlasting Life”.

  2. nirvir October 5, 2013 at 11:52 pm

    My personal opinion is that Sikhism is common sense and guides as you a higher state of being than the temporal world and its petty issues in line how Waheguru has made us.

    The natural order of things is there are male and females created for a purpose. If we look at nature it is very brutal… most male animals will chase their female prey until they submit for intercourse…can be seen as rape. Humans are animals too but we have intelligence and have been gifted with religious values and morality. If a female dresses immodesty she attracts a rapist and perverts similarly if you go out at night with your bling bling jewellery and a mugger happens to see what you got on chances are you will be robbed of your goods if not harm to your body or your life taken. And in Sikhism scriptures tell women explicitly that women should dress modesty if they want to be honored in this life and the next… also if we take the example of a man running around with next to nothing on inappropriately showing off his body….quite rightly he would be called a pervert but its hypocrisy why is he called a bad name and in western society a woman can dress next to nothing yet feminists will stand up for a woman to wear next to nothing and wear what she wants?

    I’m not a fan of feminism or feminists. I believe in treating people fairly and equally but the neo-feminism we have today has got a bad name for contributing hugely to social ill’s from laddette culture to single mothers who have been empowered to have families without any father figure leading to male kids running a mock in uk streets in gangs looking for father figures among their peers. Sikhism doesnt teach feminism thankfully it lays great importance on traditional nuclear family unit. Nor does it say oppress women or treat them like 2nd class human beings. Sikhism doesnt hinder women from doing jobs, fighting in the armed forces, running for religious and political roles, getting education, choosing their life partner (but must be a fellow sikh), etc

    As for gay marriage such things are unheard of in sikh culture, religion and traditions so its a modern day issue and problem. Accepting gay marriage within Sikh communities would be completely against the teachings as they say a man marrys a woman not a man marrys a man.

    The dangers for religion and society in allowing homosexual marriage and partnerships in Sikhism is that it becomes accepted as a norm thus decreases the birth rate and fabric of Sikh institutions and community cohesion. Already we can see in places like russia which has banned gay propaganda to teens because they know have a low birth rate and need their population to produce more kids in heterosexual relationships in order for their culture and nation to survive. Contrastingly the western govt’s are keen to push forward the gay agenda in order to bring down the birth rates of the overall population. Also homosexual relationships do not last as long as heterosexual couples do, they are very promiscuous. Gay men higher rates of STD’s than straight men as recent research has shown.

    I can go on and on with a whole range of reasons why homosexual relations or marriage can not be accepted by the sikh community but i think i’ve put my case quite clearly.

  3. Param October 14, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    As a Sikh I feel quite embarrassed reading the above comments. First of all, the Sikh community does not see men and women as equals. All this talk of giving a girl ‘liberties’ is exactly what is wrong with the community. A woman is not someone that you can ‘allow’ to do things, she is a person in her own right and should be allowed to make decisions, whether they are good or bad. No one should have the right to make a decision for her. If a Sikh man was to go out to a pub or club there is no problem but for a Sikh girl it would be frowned upon. It is also insulting to say that just because a Sikh girl is at a pub or club then she is automatically doing something wrong. These are the prejudices that are holding back our community. Men are allowed to get away with anything and all is forgotten but if a girl makes one mistake then she is punished for the rest of her life.

    Saying that a woman attracts attention from rapists because of her clothes is a worrying comment. Women don’t ask to be raped. Again it is her choice, she is a human being, its not her fault that some men lack self control. Sexual predators will always be a danger regardless of clothing ( I refer to the case that occurred recently in India). It is more about our culture overcoming its idea that women are somehow owned and can be treated anyway in which males see fit.

  4. Aman March 14, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    I second Param’s comments,I think they are very honest and food for thought. I would also like to add that ideologies such as Nirvir’s ‘homosexual relationships do not last as long as heterosexual couples do,they are very promiscuous.’ are frankly, laughable. If your arguments are based on opinions rather than facts then sadly you fall into the large majority of people who hinder progression of Sikhi and its true meaning.By using these words you demonstrate to me personally that males have the right to ‘groom’ their females in the family and have been doing so for years? When in fact they do not. Just as much as females do not have the right to ‘groom’ men.
    Karamjeet Singh, by using the words ‘groom’ and phrases such as ‘role models’ or maybe you mean play roles that are meant to be in the natural order? For example, there is evidence that in the wild in certain animal species males mating with males is present. they of course cannot pro-create so what does that mean? Has their mother (tiger,lion,bear,wolf,whatever animal) mother raised them incorrectly? Did their mothers instincts in nurturing them make a difference to them suddenly doing something so wrong? Or about the species of frog which changes sex itself, it becomes the mother and father during different periods to help preserve the line of their species? That, surely is not normal. Because God says you need a man and woman to pro-create, one cannot do it itself. So why did god create this species of frog which changes its owns sexual organs functions? Think beyond where we are now everyone, we are forever evolving in every single way. We must open our minds to these questions or we will be stagnant, left behind and wondering why we were so obtuse.

    Yes we all interpret Sikhism according to the Guru Granth Sahib in different ways. We must respect this, to preserve a beautiful faith which seeks to spread spirituality to get to God.
    I feel the fear of diluting indian, ‘westernising’, culture means the indian communities think this is diluting the Sikh religion. This is key, religion and culture walk too closely or ‘hand in hand’ in Sikh communities. When in truth, and ironically, Sikh religion was born to abolish everything our culture has built itself upon. Caste systems,unequal treatment of gender’s, consuming of meat for certain persons,alcohol or any other form of drugs. Because Sikh families in Britain have integrated into societies with hardship which has taken time, there is a fear that now they are integrated that any form of change/acceptance of something unorthodox is deemed as a danger to the preservation of their beliefs. Sikhs are very proud,protective and loyal to the preservation of who they are.The question is that are they preserving things which hinder progression for their own future generations? I for one know that I would not want my daughter to judge another Sikh if they are of a ‘lower’ caste, why is this acceptable in British culture when Guru Nanak Dev Ji abolished the caste system? It is not permitted to judge a person by their caste, we are all equal, men and women. Food for thought?

    Change is good,move forward and be progressive like Guru Nanak and our nine other guru’s.

    Waheguru Ji ka Khalsa Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh

  5. Dr. Shelley Fernandez PhD May 29, 2015 at 8:37 pm

    Please look at my website http://www.keikofukudajudofiundation.org
    I am carrying out the legacy of Keiko Fukuda the only woman in the world to receive 10th degee in Judo.The first project is in Patalia India where I recently got judo included in the physical education curriculum on many government schools.
    Many of the students are Sikhs.All are female. Any help or suggestions would be greatly appreciated. I will be returning to India to check on progress. Dr. Shelley Fernandez

  6. Japinder May 25, 2016 at 5:24 am

    how is she sikh, if she wears a hijab

  7. Amanpreet January 23, 2017 at 8:15 pm

    There is no equality or women’s rights in Sikhism. There were no female Gurus. No female saints, preachers, 5 beloveds, no female jathedars. All Gurdwaras, committees are male dominated. Even in charge of langar is always a male.
    Till date women are not allowed to perform kirtan at Golden Temple, the Sikh religion’s holiest shrine.
    Sikhs have the worst sex ratio among all religious communities in India.
    Dasam Granth also has lines against women. The Sikh rehit maryada is also biased and allows Sikh men to marry anyone but say Sikh woman should be married only to a Sikh.
    In Sikh wedding ceremonies also, women walk behind the groom.
    Sikh dominated state Punjab has never had a female chief minister.
    As we can see comments here, Sikh culture is patriarchal and they give preference to men and think women have no rights, no mind of their own and are only meant to be groomed by others. And are only meant to stay at home and get married and produce kids.
    Sikh religion does not have divorce either. Divorce was allowed only after modern laws came into being post 1947.
    In Sikh religion, God is compared to a man aka groom and soul is compared to a woman. Sikhism assumes God is only male. It honours women only as mothers who give birth to sons aka kings and as companions of men.

  8. Amanpreet January 23, 2017 at 8:19 pm

    Sikhs also used to practise polygamy and Sati. Sikh emperor Maharaja Ranjit Singh had many wives and after his death his wives also committed Sati (burning women alive on funeral pyre of husband). Female infanticide and sex selective abortion, dowry violence, domestic violence are all extremely rampant among Sikhs all over the world.
    LGBT rights are impossible. Sikhs are yet to give rights to even heterosexual females!

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