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  • On Sikhism and progressive discussions

    by Emma
    11th September, 2006 at 2:23 pm    

    “Feminists aren’t cool, Sikhs are cool”.

    I found this a while back on a message board and thought it would be an interesting way to start off a conversation that needs to happen more often - how exactly is Sikhism incorporating present day progressive ideas into religion?

    Is feminism antithetical to Sikhism? I would disagree because as a woman, a Sikh, and a staunch feminist, I’ve never really had a problem incorporating my faith with my political beliefs. I should say I’ve never had a problem personally, but I do have many problems with the ways Sikhi and politics overlap in the public sphere.

    My first issue is with the influence that the events of 1984 have on political discourse in Sikh communities. I grew up in the aftermath of Operation Bluestar and its aftermath and know people who lost loved ones so I’m not taking it lightly.

    These issues need to be discussed but I also wonder if 1984 doesn’t sometimes serve as a smokescreen to prevent airing out issues that are perhaps more relevant to here and now and too uncomfortable to discuss.

    Problems such as domestic violence, female foeticide, gender discrimination, and casteism to name a few can be explored using religion as a framework. So I wonder why they don’t garner the same amount of attention as 1984?

    Secondly, I take issue with the role of the governing body of the Golden Temple, the SGPC, in defining the relevance of Sikh scripture to present day issues.

    An obvious example was the recent statement denouncing gay marriage. It came across as an edict and I’m very uncomfortable with the introduction of these authoritarian sentiments into a religion where we are seen as equals and therefore equally capable of interpreting scripture.

    There was much discussion of the SGPC going too far and I feel this needs to be taken further. Not just on the role of the SGPC, which may be a “safe” issue, but the homophobia that led to this statement because it signals larger problems. The SGPC would be irrelevant if the larger Sikh community became more involved political and perhaps became more comfortable in discussing these supposedly personal issues that do have political relevance.

    The continued importance of Khalistan in Sikh political discussion is an important indicator of this lack of solutions.

    Instead of working within existing political frameworks and seeking out solutions to problems within the community, a very vocal fringe is often allowed to hijack discussions and posit a utopian homeland as an answer without considering that all they have managed to come up with so far is empty, pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric.

    I don’t think the vast majority of Sikhs buy into this deeply flawed and completely bogus “solution”, but I also think it’s time that everyone sitting on the fence commit to speaking out and creating space for uncomfortable issues and self-criticism. There are other solutions, more practical and more progressive ones, and these should be given the same amount of time and thought.

    These issues cannot be dealt with by creating self-contained and very conservative communities based on outdated ideas of religius practice. It also cannot be done by excluding dissenting opinions based on contrived definitions of authenticity: who is a Sikh and who isn’t.

    They can only be dealt with by actively discussing issues that affect us all and then finding ways of addressing them. I’m aware that some of these discussions are happening but this is not a reason to be complacent.

    It can be safely said that those who visit and comment on political blogs or go to activist youth campus don’t constitute a majority of British Sikhs and assuming that this minority speaks for the majority is a huge mistake; the same one that the SGPC made when it assumed that all Sikhs would unanimously agree with their edicts.

    These discussions may or may not lead to one answer or a multitude of solutions but at least they will lead to a better understanding of religion as a force for progressive change.

    This is a guest article. The author blogs at Emma (Goldman) is an alias.
    Picture by Kesara.

                  Post to

    Filed in: Religion,Sex equality,Sikh

    24 Comments below   |  

    Reactions: Twitter, blogs

    1. Jagdeep — on 11th September, 2006 at 2:38 pm  

      Conservatives and ideologues tend to set the agenda in all communities. I agree with everything you said, but I can’t see that space being created as yet.

      However, I just finished reading a book that I reccommend to you, because all the issues you touch on are discussed and placed in context and written about with depth and acuity.

      Sikhs in Britain: The Making of a Community

      It touches on everything and I would actually say that this is essential reading for all British Sikhs. Get yourself a copy.

      I also reccommend reading this academic report on second and third generation British Sikhs and how the process of integration and ‘acculturation’ to British society is negotiated relatively successfully. I would also describe this as a must-read for British Sikhs and anyone else interested in the variants and dynamics of British Asian life generally. It is a pdf so you have been warned don’t blame me if you crash!

      Conceptualizing Ethnicity and Acculturation
      of Second Generation Asian Indians in Britain

    2. Jagdeep — on 11th September, 2006 at 2:45 pm  

      The problem Emma is that there is a process of integration and secularisation taking place amongst the majority of Sikhs and by that very process, the impulse to engage in communitarian politics is lessened, leaving the most vocal conservatives to assert their agenda. I agree with everything you say, but I am not that optimistic it will change. You will see this gap widening.

    3. Leon — on 11th September, 2006 at 2:47 pm  

      Interesting article, it also goes someway to countering accusations that we only talk about Muslims on here.

    4. Jagdeep — on 11th September, 2006 at 2:49 pm  

      Leon we need an article on Rastafarians to balance this out a little.

    5. Leon — on 11th September, 2006 at 2:49 pm  

      Interesting article, it also goes some way to countering accusations that we only talk about Muslims on here.

    6. Kismet Hardy — on 11th September, 2006 at 3:46 pm  

      ““Feminists aren’t cool, Sikhs are cool”

      What a bizarre thing to say.

      “Trees aren’t cool. Sheep are cool”

      “Sausages aren’t cool. Antelopes are cool”

      “Puppeteers aren’t cool. Donkeys are cool”

      But well done Emma for coming up with such an interesting article from such a pointless pronouncement. The important thing to remember is: animals are cool. I know why

    7. funkg — on 11th September, 2006 at 4:37 pm  

      rastafarism with all due respect and however influential is more of a sect

    8. Leon — on 11th September, 2006 at 4:53 pm  

      Why do you say that?

    9. Don — on 11th September, 2006 at 6:31 pm  

      Birds of prey know they’re cool.

      Interesting article, Emma.

    10. Emma — on 11th September, 2006 at 11:38 pm  

      Thanks for your comment and the article and I agree with you. The gap is widening and I don’t really know if it’s leading anywhere good. Like the article mentioned, religion is a way for second gens to acknowledge the values of the “home country,” which many of us do to a certain extent. But then, do second gens get any real say in religious debate or are we supposed to accept some rarified version of it that’s supposedly the one way to look at things? I’ve sometimes noticed that while integration is expected in immigrant communities, integration also makes a person less “authentic” to whoever decides they can label people that way, and since they’re not Sikh enough, they can’t have a say in religious issues.
      Ack, sorry if I’m not making sense, not nearly enough sleep. Basically, I agree :)

      Kismet, yes animals are very cool. Sheep especially, they can eat anything I hear :)

    11. Kesara / StrangelyPsychedelic — on 12th September, 2006 at 12:46 am  

      Nice to see my photo making an appearence *cough*


    12. Sunny — on 12th September, 2006 at 2:07 am  

      Heh, no I remember where I got that picture from. Credit given Kesara.

      On the article, I have to say that I am in full agreement and have been constantly frustrated by the narrow discussions that have traditionally taken place around Sikhi. I hope this marks the start of a series of articles to engage our brains. Other than that, er, nothing to disagree with.

    13. Jagdeep — on 12th September, 2006 at 11:39 am  

      You can’t win on issues of orthodoxy for the simple reason that they will always be able to pull out the ‘more Sikh than you’ card. What you can win on is reform around surrounding issues societal and cultural. Trying to fight them because of an edict against gay marriage is fighting them on their own territory. The nature of all religions on that issue except trendy C of E vicars is that it is wrong. But campaigning on a secular footing specifically amongst Punjabi communities and in wider ‘Asian’ contexts on these issues can bring about results.

      By the way, Emma and Sunny, do try and buy and read the book I linked to in my first post, ‘Sikhs in Britain’ by Gurharpal Singh. I don’t exaggerate when I say it is essential reading for all Sikhs in the UK. Emma, you will find the issues you raised dealt with in some depth in that book.

    14. Kismet Hardy — on 12th September, 2006 at 11:44 am  

      “Kismet, yes animals are very cool. Sheep especially”

      Sikhism condones bestiality?

      Now that IS cool

    15. Jagraj Singh — on 12th September, 2006 at 12:14 pm  

      Its a good point of view..
      I agree that the debate should move beyond the “Khalistan is the answer” and “well thats indian politics for you”.

      Its interesting that the writer has not given much thought as to what discussions should be taking place.

      Would you care to put them in so that perhaps you could start the wider debate going?

      I do agree that the SGPC ruling out hoosexuality without a debate was just plainly silly. The textual basis for such a edict and also the consultation of the sikhs should have taken place.

      The problem with such a debate starting is what she has already pointed out….credibility.

      If you want to open the debate on Sikhi and current issues, then should it matter if you are a practicing Sikh or not?
      Of course, These issues are important to debate for those who are looking to adopt the “Guru” or progress their personal “rehat” and contribute to the panth.

      Yet its sometimes questionable whether :
      (a)someone who does not understand the scripture in its original or/and
      (b) Someone who does not observe the mystical practices (paat, kirtan) that Guru instructs leads us towards giaan (knowledge).

      is then credible when it comes to lead a debate on Sikh issues.

      It is akin to the current voting system in most Gurudwaras where anyone can sign up to be a member and vote on the future of the Gurus property but where the criteria of eligibility is-
      (a) address, age, nationality (Caste?)
      (b) time spent as member, whether you are part of another gurudwara committee.

      rather than
      (a) attendance at kirtan, early morning simran programs, langar and other seva.
      (b) personal discipline - nitnem, intoxicants
      (c) understanding gurbani, memorising basic paat.

      I’m not making a statement here, but hoping to open a debate.

    16. Jagdeep — on 12th September, 2006 at 1:09 pm  

      Jagraj Singh

      The endgame of what you are saying though Jagraj is that nobody should have a say unless they are fully qualified in the knowledge or practise. And then the whole debate becomes a miasma of finger pointing accusations. To an extent it is true that people talking about Sikhi have to be engaged and seeking knowledge, but in practise it collapses into the squabbles we see so much of, as to who is qualified to discuss this.

      Personally I think those issues are above the heads of most people, and there are plenty of intellectuals and jathas and sects and theologians who can discuss and debate both progressive and conservative views, orthodox and un-orthodox. I think that Sikhs could avoid those traps and concentrate on social practical matters in other ways, dealing with issues in practical ways - domestic violence, alcoholism, destroying the ‘pendu’ mindset, all these things are issues that need to be addressed, and are not really being addressed when you get involved massively in esoteric discussions of Gurbaani, for example.

    17. Jagdeep — on 12th September, 2006 at 1:11 pm  

      One more thing - sometimes it seems that Sikhism in its current paradigm is more concerned with discussing who is and who isnt a Sikh than anything else, and the most passionate thing some people are about is turning people into ‘lesser Sikhs’ and setting up a theology of exclusion and division!

    18. Emma — on 12th September, 2006 at 7:06 pm  

      Jagraj Singh,
      As far as discussions, I think I brought up a few points, feminism for instance is something I would really like to start a debate on. And not just an esoteric level, i.e. are women equal to men or not. Gender discrimination manifests itself in much more concrete ways that are a daily way of life for too many Sikh women. If we actually started discussing these in a religious context, I think it would leave patriarchy less to stand on (yes, yes, optimism but I work with what I got). Also, the point of writing this article was also to find out what sort of things people wanted to have discussions about. I write from my own political and personal standpoints and don’t pretend to speak for anyone but myself, so yeah chime in with whatever’s bothering you and what you think can be done.
      I also agree with Jagdeep that these discussions are often ignored because we can’t get beyond the first steps of deciding who can participate in them. And in some cases, that’s important, and in others, it’s just a waste of time. Someone who goes to Gurudwara regularly but embraces patriarchy at home, should they be seen as leaders of discussions because of the simple fact they attend Gurudwara and do Kirtan? We all see scripture differently and this person may find validation in scripture, I don’t know. I’m not trying to belittle your points, I just want to know how you would deal with such a case.
      What I’m trying to say is that attendance at Gurudwara should not serve as the basis of inclusion or exclusion in these debates on what the community can be doing to counter sexism or any of these everyday problems. It’s better to have more people than less having their say and becoming involved in creating social (secular) change and it would also be nice to acknowledge people who respect Sikhi in their personal lives without harping on about it in their public ones.

      I’ve ordered the book, thanks :)

      No! Animals are our friends and friends means no hanky-panky.

    19. Jagdeep (v2.0) — on 12th September, 2006 at 10:35 pm  


      Interesting discussions. Although there’s no constructive debate taking place amongst the third generation Sikhs in UK regarding issues specific to women within the Sikh community , there is a grass-roots organisation in California, Jakara, who organised conference, Kaur Voices, this summer; check out the trailer:

      There’s also a paper on the conference at:

    20. tired & emotional — on 13th September, 2006 at 11:25 am  

      Interesting article Emma.

      It’s always struck me how often debate within Sikhi comes down to competitive piety among the participants rather than people making an argument and then providing scriptural support for it. This doesn’t seem to be the case with Islam and Christianity. Maybe its because as a community most Sikhs (and by this I mean the wider community who define themselves as Sikh) have left the reading of the Shri Guru Granth Shaib Ji to the professional granthis and patis and so are no longer familiar with its contents?

    21. Jai — on 13th September, 2006 at 11:56 am  


      Excellent article.

      Obviously you know all this already but I guess it wouldn’t hurt for me to add my 5 cents to the discussion:

      Women are completely equal to men in Sikhism — not necessarily identical, but equal in their intrinsic value, human rights, and right to be treated with respect, consideration, and dignity. In some aspects I would even say women are exalted, as per some well-known scriptural quotes by Guru Nanak himself; as far as I know, there aren’t any verses doing the opposite, ie. proclaiming the virtues of the male gender. There are also various other examples relating to the later Gurus; a disproportionate number of women being appointed to lead missionary-type projects, and so on.

      I would not say Sikhism is a feminist religion in the orthodox sense of the term. Before everyone goes nuts on me, hear me out; the religion is humanist. It’s basically about the equal worth and equal rights of both genders on a fundamental human basis, and neither gender is regarded as intrinsically superior to the other or given any kind of spiritual or temporal authority over the other.

      It’s not about patriarchy or matriarchy, but both genders equally and in partnership.

      The issue is a no-brainer and anyone arguing with this is either ignorant of the matter or a hypocrite. Some men (indeed, some women, especially amongst the older generation) reinforce patriarchy and misogyny due to various local Indian cultural factors; it’s nothing to do with the religion itself. There is absolutely nothing within the faith to promote or support such attitudes.

      It’s also worth re-emphasising that Sikhism is not an excessively litigous or “literalist” faith, where one is meant to pore over scriptural texts and overanalyse it to death. The emphasis is on practising the fundamentals, which are the starting point to enable one to gain greater spiritual clarity; the associated intellectual and emotional clarity one would simultaneously gain would enable one to correctly extrapolate the basics — everything will subsequently flow naturally if one is sincere, honest with oneself, and does the basics “properly”. It’s actually quite simple.

    22. Kulvinder — on 13th September, 2006 at 10:29 pm  

      Nice article :) I think the differing opinions within sikhism is largely due to the fact a seperation is occuring between sikhs living in different parts of the world. The exposure to different cultural attitudes and people will make it increasingly impossible for their to be a central sikh dogma. The actions and attitudes of the SGPC are completely alien to how i live my life and the values i hold dear. The other issues you raise (domestic violence, female foeticide) tie into that. Im not overly worried about this seperation since its occuring with every other faith - the CoE has split over the ordination of women and homosexuals, the catholic church over abortion and birth control.

      Obviously as has already been mentioned the argument will inevitably degenerate into who is or isn’t a sikh but i don’t really care. Even if SGPC excommunicate me it’ll have no impact on how i live my life.

    23. Sunny — on 13th September, 2006 at 11:22 pm  

      Heh, I was thinking of doing a new post on this but now I can’t be asked.

      Apparently some granthi in some gurudwara in Panjab, during marriage, did two of the lava with the woman ahead of the man. Now the amusing thing is there is an uproar not with a discussion about equality (according to my mum who listens to Panjab radio) but rather because Hindus do their ceremony with the woman ahead of the man. Ohmigod we’re becoming Hindus!!!!! Cue moral panic!!!!!!!!!!!

      Btw the T&E, my experience is that Muslims also have big fights over who is more pious and thus allowed to have discussions.

      As Jai says, and I completely agree, it is dangerous to make Sikhism into a very literalist religion. This is exactly what Guru Nanak warned against. I think the focus should be on the general gist of knowledge and understanding, not on who has read what.

      In addition, I don’t understand why philosophical / theological debates should be left to the learneds. To be honest I don’t think they do it that well. I did plan to write another article on this - while many Muslim orgs have some excellent debates on theology, current affairs and applying religion to modern circumstances (I’m thinking City Circle primarily but I’ve been to more) - Sikh organisations in contrast are largely lame. There is absolutely no focus on Sikh philosophy.

    24. Hardeep Sandhu — on 14th September, 2006 at 9:05 am  

      This Jakara group is interesting. Following on Jagdeep v.2.0 I found that they conducted some sort of survey.

      Here is some background on the survey!OpenDocument

      Here is a link to the results:!OpenDocument

      And here is something from a newspaper!OpenDocument

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