Growing up a Sikh I would proudly tell my friends that one of the key Sikh teachings was of equality between men and women. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, actively promoted the role of women in all aspects of life – worship, society and even the battlefield. He spoke of the true power and importance of women (see excerpt below), which was pretty progressive considering this was written in the 15th century, don’t you think?
From woman, man is born; within woman, man is conceived….
So why call her bad? From her, kings are born.
From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all.
Guru Nanak, Raag Aasaa Mehal 1, Page 473
Despite the religious scripture being so unequivocally clear on the position, importance and promotion of equality between men and women, why is the reality so far from this “ideal”? Now that I have a daughter myself, I find myself questioning the real position of women in Sikh society and I’m struggling to correlate the Sikh scriptures with the everyday reality of being a Sikh woman.
I am one of four sisters. “No brothers?” I hear you ask. That’s right, no brothers.
Does that affect the way you see me? Does it make you think less of my family? Does it make you think, “her poor parents, they don’t have a son to carry on the family name, what a burden they must have had to have 4 daughters?” Or are these the views of previous generations that will disappear in the not too distant future?
Growing up, whenever someone asked my mum how many children she had, she’d say 4 daughters. And rather than leaving it there, guaranteed, she would be asked, “no sons?” No shit, dumb-ass! If she had sons she’d have said 4 daughters and x sons! I never got why people had to ask the “no sons?” question to my mum. It hit a nerve with her every time anyone said it and it made her feel inadequate. And what right did these people (actually 9 times out of 10 they were women) have to make her feel like that?! My mum is amazing, resilient and growing and I’m inspired by her every single day.
My Dad on the other hand…if anyone even so much as hinted to him being inadequate for having 4 daughters, he’d have shut them up. “My daughters are my sons, he’d say”. I loved that. He never made us feel like we were second class citizens, in fact he empowered us every time he made that statement. He made us feel as though we could achieve anything a man could. He was one of a kind, my Dad. He wasn’t entirely religious, so he wasn’t just implementing a religious teaching, he was just progressive in his own thinking and he embraced his role to build us up, not knock us down.
I bet you’re thinking “The world isn’t like that anymore!”
But I still see it now. Molly-coddled Sikh males, adorned by their family with the Sikh cloak of protection, power and privilege. Accompanied with a mindset that ‘my son can do no wrong’. There is little realisation that this can be really restricting for the males themselves, who can often find it suffocating to stand on their own two feet, deal with responsibility and make their own path in the world. Sure, not every Sikh family treats their men like this, but I bet you (male and female) can all relate to this ‘favouritism’ within the community.
When Simran was born, while everyone congratulated me, especially after the journey we’d been on to have her, a short time later I started to get comments from the older generation like “you can have another one [implying a boy], to complete your family”. I was taken aback every time someone said such a comment. I felt nauseated. That people in the community were STILL making these types of statements, which have the power to make someone feel inadequate, just like my mum was made to feel over 30 years ago. But not me. They will not make me feel inadequate. Ever.
Sons. Daughters. Both are a blessing. A completely equal blessing.
Thank God for this generation of change-makers
Change doesn’t happen by accident, it happens because people have the will and courage to be the change they wish to see in the world. And while change is always a long and often difficult journey, I’m so proud of everything that is going on right now to get us moving in the right direction.
Congratulations, it’s a girl!!
There’s a real movement to change the cultural views surrounding the birth of a girl into a Sikh family. We are increasingly seeing ladoo (sweets) being distributed and lohri (cultural celebration) being celebrated for girls, not just boys as has traditionally been the case. While these may sound like small things, let’s not downplay their significance. They represent a real shift in the mindset of the new generation and that can only be a good thing. The Pink Ladoo Project have had a massive role to play in encouraging and promoting these practices in the South Asian community. They are also challenging deep rooted customs such as a father giving away his daughter at her wedding. If the father isn’t around, then why do we seek another father-figure to perform this duty? Why can’t a mother do this without becoming the talk of the town?
“Muscles don’t make a man”
I recently met a Sikh stay-at-home-dad. In normal circles and at work this move to equality of roles is looked upon favourably, is actively encouraged and seen as a progressive thing. But the stay-at-home-dad told me how he’s been judged massively by his Sikh friends and has now distanced himself from them in order to do the right thing for his own family. He said something which really struck a chord with me. He said, “muscles don’t make a man, it’s the ability to stand up and make a change in this world”. So it’s not just women, men are also bravely and boldly challenging the norm. I’ll talk more about this in a future post because boy does this story showcase how judgemental people can be! Subscribe so you don’t miss this.
Women mean business
I recently joined a Facebook group called Asian Female Entrepreneur Collective and felt so inspired by the founder Sharn Khaira and all of the female, Asian, entrepreneurs in the group. They have all set up their own businesses and are doing it for themselves. This group is just a drop in the ocean in terms of the strides women are making in business, but the bit I most love in this group is the support these women are giving to one another. It is so beautiful, powerful and refreshing to see.
“I don’t want to be a doctor, I want to be an actor!”
We all know there are accepted career paths in our community – Doctor, Pharmacist, Accountant, etc. How many aunties have you heard at the temple boasting about their daughter who wants to became an actor? Or a weightlifter? Or a comedian? Or God-forbid, a social activist? You don’t right? We don’t boast about the women who dare to be different and carve out their own path in the world. But they exist! They are out there. And boy are they making a stand in a very public way.
Mandip Gill (Actor) – Mandip has starred in UK shows Hollyoaks, Doctors, The Good Karma Hospital and Doctor Who! Yes, Doctor Who! Mandip challenges conventional stereotypes through the roles she chooses to play. She isn’t the owner of the corner shop, or the doctor, or the pharmacist. She’s making a name for herself in unconventional roles, which is so refreshing to see.
“I’ve never felt the pressure from my parents to do a career other than the one I enjoy doing. However the entertainment industry generally speaking has a different idea. In 2019 there is still a glass ceiling for women and minorities but thankfully cracks have been made.
My major hope for the future is that young girls are heard and seen both personally and professionally.”Mandip Gill
Rupi Kaur (Poet, Artist & Activist) – The brave young girl who caused an uproar by posting photos of her period on Instagram and who’s gone on to top the New York Times bestseller chart with her books ‘milk and honey’ and ‘the sun and her flowers’. While Rupi’s poetry may seem simple, the thoughts and emotions it evokes are intense. She is an effortless poet who started writing when she realised “what I had to say was so much more powerful than my fear of what people might think.” This message alone speaks volumes to me.
Beyant Kaur (Weightlifter & Bodybuilder) – Beyant is a Canadian blogger known as ‘Kaur Strength’. She’s a weightlifter, personal trainer, body builder and has recently become a mum. She embodies physical, mental and internal strength and I absolutely love her tagline “Represent the lioness within.” LOVE IT.
“ Growing up I was constantly told by my parents ‘girls don’t do this, girls don’t do that, etc’. And I constantly challenged them and didn’t let this hold me back. Now that I’m a mother to a beautiful daughter, I am determined to raise her up to be a strong independent woman who will not succumb to cultural or societal pressures of what a ‘woman should do’. I want her to be a free spirit and truly embrace her own unique self. She will learn from the get-go that there is NOTHING she can’t do. She can do it all and still be a girl.”Beyant Kaur – Kaur Strength
Valarie Kaur (Revolutionary Love movement) – Valarie is a lawyer, filmmaker, faith leader, Sikh and mother. But I am most moved by her Revolutionary Love movement. If you haven’t heard about it, please, stop reading my blog post and go and watch her TED talk instead. She moved me to tears with her vulnerability, her message and her power as a Sikh woman.
Lilly Singh (Comedian) – who doesn’t know Lilly Singh?! She’s a global phenomenon with 14 million YouTube followers. Yes, that’s right, 14 million! She’s going from strength to strength as she’s just landed a late night chat show on NBC. And in a recent tweet she showed us that she’s completely embracing who she is – “Female, coloured, bisexual…I’m fully embracing these as my superpowers. No matter how many ‘boxes’ you check, I encourage you to do the same.”
These are just a handful of powerful, influential Sikh women who are putting themselves out there, I happened to pick them for this blog post because I personally admire each of them for different reasons, but ultimately for embracing themselves, breaking free from cultural expectations and just living the lives they were born to live. If that isn’t inspiring for each and every one of us, then I don’t know what is!
So let’s not see these women, and others like them, as rebellious, black sheep or being too big for their boots. Support them. Encourage them. Celebrate them. Share their stories with your daughters to give them a role model and expand their horizons so they too are motivated to be who they were put on this earth to be.
You don’t have to be the next YouTube sensation to make change in this world
While these powerful influencers are changing the dynamic of gender stereotypes, we must never underestimate the role we all play in making change happen on the ground within our own families. We all have the power to create, support and embed change to move the dial on real gender quality. Let us not be afraid to confront and challenge the outdated views of family and friends and let us be really conscious about what we are teaching our sons and daughters.
Let’s not burden our sons and daughters with cultural baggage that won’t serve them in any helpful way in their lives to come. Instead, let’s encourage and empower our daughters, not just our sons, to dream big and take risks. Our daughters don’t have to be perfect and it’s ok if things don’t work out. Teach them resilience and resolve to just get up and try again.
We must also challenge the messages we give to our sons about masculinity. Adult male suicide rates are worryingly high. We must teach our sons that it’s ok to ‘talk’, feel emotions and process what’s going on for them rather than to ‘man up’. Teach them how to navigate through difficult emotions now as it will serve them in all of the challenges they may face throughout their lives to come.
We have so much power if only we choose to take the responsibility that comes with it. The responsibility to raise empowered daughters and the heart to raise considerate sons. Let us be guided by our scriptures and teach our sons and daughters what real equality is.