A Sikh feminist journey

This is a guest blog post by Herpreet Kaur Grewal, a journalist and writer. Check out her blog here.

sikh temple.jpgI spoke at a conference called Our Journeys, organised by the Sikh Feminist Research Institute (Safar) in Vancouver, Canada recently. It was enlightening and inspiring. I got to hear a whole range of perspectives that root from Sikhism as a culture, history and an experience that I don’t usually get to hear. Perspectives that are not just linked to Sikhism’s physical religious identity that may initially come to mind – especially after the Wisconsin shootings and Balpreet Kaur standing up to ridicule about her facial hair on Reddit.

The aim of the conference was partly to turn that old patriarchy dominated identity of Sikhism on its head and present the feminist perspective. For instance, I presented on the last queen of the Punjab, Jindan Kaur. Her struggle included having to deal with British Imperialists but also the infighting of her own people, that helped the British take over the former Sikh kingdom. Jindan tried to stand up to both. Her very acts are stories not told often enough and ones which challenge the common depiction of brown women only as victims of honour killings, forced marriages, domestic violence and foeticide (all serious issues that need to continue to be fought against of course, and these empowered stories can help).

Other speakers presented on the perception of honour in the west and pioneering Sikh immigrant women in Vancouver, including one who was instrumental in the building of the first and oldest Sikh place of worship (gurdwara) in the Americas.

Why do we need conferences like this? Well, after the whole Caitlin Moran/Twitter storm, it is quite obvious, is it not?

In an interview with American news website, Salon.com, Moran responded to her controversial Tweet in which said she “literally couldn’t give a shit” about the lack of black or minority women in Lena Dunham’s show, Girls, explaining:

I’m bemused by the notion that there should be rules in story-telling that mean you should have to tell everyone’s story, all the time. Clearly that’s not the case. No one’s ever done it, and no one ever will…I would never presume to speak for 3.3 billion women. There is no ‘one voice of feminism.’ There is no ‘one voice’ of anything. We need whole gangs of girls, hundreds of them, thousands of them, all speaking for themselves about their experiences and their truths and their missions.

She’s right. I feel “minority” women do and are creating platforms for themselves to do this. The Our Journeys conference is an example of that. We have to make sure these platforms are visible to the majority just as much as the opinions of the Caitlin Morans of this world are. A conference like Our Journeys has an important role to play in planting seeds of change within local communities by challenging what people think they know, and also in larger society, which presumes a lot from limited information.

A lot of what we hear about most religious traditions is the patriarchal interpretation, so it’s no surprise that Sikhism has been portrayed in the same way. But it has a huge feminist dimension that has been little explored or revealed in the mainstream – an important perspective that this conference was committed to bringing out and discussing, despite it not always being easy.

Kirpa Kaur, one of the organizers of Our Journeys, told local Vancouver website, Straight.com, that one of the first teachings of Sikhism by founder Guru Nanak, was that men and women are equals. “We come from a history where women were not just uplifted but were treated as equal and given dignity and status,” she says. “And so to know where you came from, I think, can give you the inspiration to realise the changes that need to be made today.”

This is exactly what the point of Our Journeys was. Many who organised and took part in the event see it as a collective, empowering movement for “minority” women, especially those from Asian backgrounds who often get missed out by mainstream feminism. The next step is an Internet journal incorporating the presentations into a readable, accessible online forum, due next year. It seems the momentum is only just beginning to build.

Photo of a Sikh gurdwara in Delhi by abmiller99, shared under a Creative Commons licence.