Understanding Sikh Gender Inequality

Looking at the local Sikh internet forums, at least the ones that can be accessed publicly, there is marked lack of conversation regarding the tragedy of little Rajvinder Kahlon, who was allegedly murdered by her fathers own hands. Lakhvinder Kahlon, the accused, made his first court appearance yesterday, but was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation to see if he is fit to stand trial. We can expect to see him back in court around the middle of February.   http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/news/story.html?id=0e6f06b9-bb87-435d-a9c3-f630bfc5634e&k=16658

The Indian community is a divided one. Within the Sikh religion itself, there is much disagreement internally regarding some of the enduring archaic attitudes and treatment of women, although it is not often shared with the general public. The very prominent Indo Canadian wife killings last year  publicly exposed a growing discontent within the community, however there are still repercussions to some who actively speak out against the poor treatment of Sikh and Indian women. It comes in the form of  abuse from their own families, slander and lies from others within the community and social ostracizing.

To qualify the statement that all Sikhs treat women badly would be a tragedy. It is simply not true. However, as in other patriarchal cultures and societies around the world, there are those within the community that still believe and practice the “old” ways and attitudes- dowry, gender preference and arranged marriages. One must look at the difficulty in changing practices and beliefs that have been practiced  culturally for centuries.

The dowry is still the main reason for so many abortions of female fetuses in India as well as Canada, and in areas of India where ultrasound is not routinely accessible , the practice of female infanticide still occurs. In Canada , most births take place within a hospital rather than with a midwife at home, so it is that much more important for the sex to be determined before birth -again – for those who chose to bear only a son or sons. To the man’s family who still subscribes to the practice of providing a huge monetary/material “gift” to the prospective grooms family, having multiple daughters may bankrupt him, or he mean that he may not be able to marry them off -making it clear why girl babies are liabilities .

However, if he has sons, he will be on the receiving end of such gifts and wealth, as well as obviously receiving another female within the home, who would traditionally be made to do the lions share of chores within her in-laws home. One can see the obvious dilemma for a man like Lakhvinder Kahlon, who had three daughters , no sons, and was obviously not a rich man. I could go on, but the post written on this man’s blog , sums it up very well. http://www.mrsikhnet.com/index.php/2006/11/27/women-in-sikhism-gender-inequality/   The discussion that follows in the comments below his post are revealing and I urge you to find understanding within them. Kudo’s to him for talking so frankly and openly about his beliefs and those of others.

To most Canadians who have no experience with this within their own religion or culture, it is clearly not an acceptable practice, and while it may be easy to vilify all Sikhs, it is ignorant to do so.

Hate never achieves greatness, and support for those who do stand up within the community is what is needed, not religious bashing. It is easy to sit on the side and criticise, but it is only those who are fearless and noble who put themselves out there for the good of others.  Remember, there are many within the Sikh community that feel as we do, but are afraid to speak out, and the best thing we can do is back up those people who are advocating change. Hopefully , it will pressure those who are at the root of this ongoing and outdated practice to realise that women are not possessions or liabilities, but wonderful and essential  components of any successful civilization. With time, the practice may be completely eliminated.

This is Canada, and regardless of your religion, or culture or beliefs, a women here is born free. Free. And with that birthright comes the ability to grow and learn and choose her own way in life. Taking away that child’s birthright is as much of a crime as killing her. Reach out and do something constructive. Small changes can lead to great movements.

I welcome all input, especially from the Sikh community, in the interest of change and understanding.

21 thoughts on “Understanding Sikh Gender Inequality

  1. GetReal

    There isn’t one community that has a lock on either criminality or sainthood. There is however, in some communities a penchant for ignoring the laws and customs of the newly adoptive country.

    The only way to deal with such egregious behavior is the highly visible condemnation by the people and justice system. Persons determined to thwart the laws, and are recent arrivals, should be expelled. Others should be harshly dealt with.

    We seem to take a soft touch to any imported issues, which is a mistake. If we condemn inequality for women or any other group we should be willing to vehemently enforce our laws.

    I do not give any credence to any barbaric customs or inherent disregard for equality, regardless of it roots in religion or custom. If you were born here from 8 generations or arrived last week, such activity is totally unacceptable.

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  2. The Vancouver Sun is famous for vilifying Sikhs. This is in no way a Sikh issue, in fact Sikhism is completely opposed to this kind of thing. Sikhs were the first society in the world to give equal status to women over 500 years ago. When the British conquered India they were scared to see such an empowered people. A minority who faced holocausts and wars with the imperial armies of the Moghal and Afghan invaders and still stood strong and resolute. The British could not honestly defeat the Sikhs on the battlefield and so they tried and were successful at eroding the practices of the Sikhs. One such tactic was to bring the prevading culture of both East and West back to the Sikhs and take power away from women.
    Those modern Sikhs who live as true Sikhs have the highest respect for women and all people. That is the fundamental belief of a Sikh is that all people are equal. Our history has shown us standing against all odds time and again to protect the religious freedoms of others. When the Afganis would raid Delhi and bring captured women back to Kabul, the Sikhs would raid their camps and personally escort each woman back home so that the chauvinists of the other faiths could have the word of a man that the woman was not touched. Our history is one of complete respect and honor of women. This is not a Sikh issue, it’s one of Indian/British culture. Furthermore, the practice of dowry, female foetocide, and sati (widow jumping on the funeral pyre of her husband) were specifically mentioned and strictly forbidden for Sikhs over 400 years ago. Additionally widow remarriage was encouraged. For those who really know something about Sikhs, they will know our history, before the British and negative cultural influences crept back into the Indian Sikh society, that Sikhs were the first to give women total and equal respect.
    If you visit my hometown community of Sikhs you will find that women are very empowered and we don’t have any problems with mistreatment of women or men.

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  3. lailayuile

    A thoughtful comment- thank you for sharing your views with me. I did research some of the teachings and writings of Guru Nanak, and you are confirming what I had already discovered- women are to be revered.

    Within every faith and culture , there are exceptions to the rule – I don’t condemn the entire Sikh religion, nor do I condemn any other. Interpretation of religious faith is the cause of much dispute, and old ideals are still around in many cases.

    I would be very interested to find out more about what is going on with womens equality and gender preference with Sikhs and Indians. Google these terms together, and you will find there has been quite a bit written about some of these problems still occurring within the local Sikh community, as communicated by sikh women.

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  4. Jasleen Kaur

    I have to agree with Prabhu. What you’re seeing and describing is not the Sikh religion’s treatment of women, it’s Punjabi cultural treatment of women. Women have equal status in the Sikh faith. We can and do lead Gurdwaras, political groups, charities, schools, and anything else associated with the faith.

    Sikhism is the only religion I know of that does not proscribe explicit and separate gender roles for men and women. That’s because we’re considered to be equals in God’s eyes.

    As Prabhu said, female infanticide and dowry are actually prohibited in our faith. Knowing this, I think it’s really unfair to categorize it as “Sikh” behavior.

    With the exception of “arranged” marriages (which I don’t think are sexist, as both parties are given equal opportunity to evaluate the other and say yes or no), I’ve never personally seen or experienced any of the practices you describe.

    I’m not saying Sikhs don’t do these things, but it’s really important to note that they’re going against the faith when they do.

    Please don’t judge our faith on the basis of condemned and prohibited cultural practices.

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  6. Jasleen Kaur

    I hope we’re not ignoring the problem… but I think many people see it more as a cultural problem than a religious one.

    Maybe that’s the wrong angle… maybe we should see it as a cultural problem with a religious solution. Maybe we should take advantage of our strong religious community to effect change within it. A hundred new ideas are running through my head right now.

    I have to admit, when I was pointed toward this blog, I expected to be indignant or upset or even angry. Instead, I’ve been inspired to get out and DO something.

    thanks!

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  7. Jasleen is exactly correct. We need to follow the Sikh Rehat Maryada (Code of Conduct) – SRM – and drop the Punjabi cultural practices that our Gurus from the very beginning of the religion have condemned.

    We need to be Sikhs and throw off the chains of unjust antiquated Punjabi cultural practices. If we would just follow our religion, these problems wouldn’t exist.

    For example, the SRM instructs that a Sikh is to have nothing to do with one who kills his daughter.

    Now. We know what to do. The problem becomes how to do it.

    It is never easy to convince a privileged class to give up their privileges, just because it’s the right thing to do!

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  8. lailayuile

    Fantastic response!

    “I’m not saying Sikhs don’t do these things, but it’s really important to note that they’re going against the faith when they do”

    This is what I am trying to convey. I have witnessed so many cases of ” bad behavior” among Sikh men in my neighbourhood, and I know womens domestic abuse workers who have personally seen a huge increase in abuse among Sikh women in particular,and they are seeking assitance without their husbands knowledge.

    This is obviously a touchy subject, but ignoring it any longer will not cut it. It is happening, and those who commit these crimes against women and girls need to be pressured and motivated by those within the religions to ensure it does not continue. I would like to know how incidents like these are handled when it happens within the Sikh community, and by those in other faiths.

    I like to be very honest,and open. I live in a neighbourhood that is predominantly South Asian. I cant speak for anyone else but myself, but I personally have been treated badly at times by complete strangers on the street who happened to be Sikh men. Not by all, of course,but it has happened many times.I have always wonderered why? Is it because I am white, or a woman, or because of some idea they might have about who I am , because I have done nothing to warrant such behavior by running alone with my young son. I have not broached this subject with my Indian friends because, as I say, it is a sensitive subject. I do understand the local community has experienced quite a bit of hatred after the wife killings last year, but something needs to be done, to educate everyone, and stop the violence against women.

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  9. The Sikh Activist Network

    These social ailments are not particular to the Sikh or Punjabi community. Acts of violence towards ones spouse, child or fellow human are widespread and transcend any socially constructed community.

    It is time all communities start looking into the root cause of such issues and problems. For example, when looking at the so called “honor killings” of a child who marries outside of caste, we must understand that the only reason caste has slowly crept back into the Sikh community (when the religion is completely opposed to it) is to assert domination and superiority.

    Although, the caste system and superiority complexes are driven by greed and ego, they also share the characteristics of class domination and capitalism. In the same way Capitalism and Western Society, introduced methods to subordinate and marginalize women, blacks, aboriginals etc, as a means to increase capital, what is occuring in the Punjabi community is similar.

    Unfortunately, people begin to believe the “hype” of distorted facts that we as people are inherently different and begin to “other” one another eventually legitimizing the exploitation and violence against our own brothers, sisters, children and friends.

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  10. lailayuile

    Violence against women IS universal, as is exploitation of those less fortunate for the gain of those who seek more.

    For me, it is a personal pain to see women treated badly, especially when it is quite publicly apparent in some cases. Although many women suffer in silence, I have seen Indian women treated so badly in stores, that it is hard to ignore. I feel bad, I know the humiliation one can endure living this way. Especially the thought of a young female child being treated the same way.

    Jasleen, you inspire me, and I am glad that you feel the way you do. We come from different backgrounds completely,yet we share so much.

    I think you have hit the nail on the head, and in my city, I would love to see a community forum to educate the public about the Sikh religion, and let the truth about it be known. Meetings for those within the Sikh religion should be held to let it be know that this violence must stop- whether it is behind closed doors or public.

    This alone may help to pressure those Sikhs who are committing violence against women and children, and those perpetuating old ideals – to stop- in theory. At least the truth would be known, would it not?
    Great revolutions began with such thoughts.

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  11. I wish that those behaving like Neanderthals would stop referring to themselves as Sikhs and then true Sikhs wouldn’t have to defend their name against such atrocious behavior.
    I was born and raised a Sikh. I’ve always practiced precisely the lifestyle/Dharma (righteous living) of a Sikh, but not of any particular culture. I’m an American of European descent and don’t have any strong cultural ties. Nothing binds me but my commitment to live as a righteous human (Sikh).
    I hope that the community of all people, whether Indian or not, can come together and do something about these behaviors, certainly turning to the teachings of Guru Nanak could help. Guru means the enlightener. Guru Ji has brought so many people from the darkest depths of their consciousness to the lightness of the infinite creator within.
    I pray for those women suffering and I pray for a future of real Sikhs leading by example so that all may know that we stand for values. Sikhs led the world in fair treatment for all. Sikhs led the world in the breakdown of meaningless social, religious, and racial divides. Let us do it again!

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  12. Suki Dhillon

    The problem in Canada is that alarge % of the immigrants to Western Canada from the Punjab in the last 20 years are very uneducted and backwards.They make no effort to intergrate into western society and instead live like they are back in the Punjab in Surrey and Abbotsford. And within the last decade they have become a big voting block that can decide the fate of half dozen MLA and MP. Because of that all the political party’s suck up to the community and now many run indo-canadians[some who can’t even speak proper English] in those districts, so they will not speak out against these problems, otherwise risk losing votes.

    The sexism in the community is out of control. The only 2 honor killings this decade in BC are of punjabi sikh girls[Jaswinder Sidhu, Amandeep Atwal] and there was little outrage in the community. Amandeep Atwal was killed for having a white boyfriend and yet at the same time her brother had white girlfriend at the same time, but the father didn’t do anything cause to him and 95% of the punjabi men all white women are nothing but sluts and he looked at his son girlfriend as nothing but white meat. Any white girl that dates a punjabi guy should know that there a 90% chance he just using you as a sexual plaything and does not respect you as a person. Now back to Amandeep the father was worried that she had ruined the family honor among the other punjabi’s in the community. So he killed, cause god forbid she end up with a guy that would treat great and instead he could marry off her to some punjabi guy who she didn’t want to be with, but would make her family happy.

    I was lucky that I was born in BC, but was born and raised in the Casltegar/Nelson area which was about over 95% white and only 10 other punjabi familes so we had to intergrate into western society and not have to deal with all the crap that we would have had we grown up in Surrey. But in the last 5 years, I have lived in the Lowermainland and amazed at the sexism here in the punjabi community. I have lost count how many times how have heard story about familes being exicted they finally had a son and the countless women who have been forced to get abortions. I have 1 child a girl and I been asked about 1000 times by some random punjabi person in the last few years when I’m gonna have a percious son, cause otherwise my life is incomplete. People I barely even know have told me that they will prey for me to have a son.

    I predict in the up comming weeks, most of the talk from the punjabi community leaders and punjabi media will be about the mainstream media coverage and say they try to make the community look bad and bring up story about some white guy who killed his family. There will be very little talk about the actual issue. By playing the racism angle they will get the focus changed from the real issue and off to sweep the issue under the rug. That is same thing they have done with violence against women and the gang problems in the community.

    The amazing thing is that you don’t see these problems as much in the United States south asian community. A couple of reasons for that is the melting pot instead of multicultrism, the south asian are so spead out[ unlike Canada most are in Toronto or Vancouver] is harder to keep you ways from the homeland. Plus the fact the average immigrant from India to the United States is very educated compare to Canada plus punjabi only make about 15% of the Indo-american population compare to 50% of the Indo-canadians.

    When it comes to the issue of violence against women the mainstream women rights groups need to take some of the blame. They are so PC and have so much “White guilt” they are scared to speak out against the backward cultural practices of some immigrant groups that they are only making things worse for minority women.

    As longer as Canada has the policy of mulitcultrism, it current immigration policy and is a PC country, these problems will go away.

    I sometime wonder if I’m the only punjabi male that is sick of the sexism in the community and where as most other like it cause it is to there advantage.

    P.S you will get alot of personal attack from my community I’m afraid for speaking about this issue and I’m sorry about that

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  15. Kaur :)

    Hello everyone,
    I’m a volunteer with Kaurs United, the first international Sikh women’s organization founded outside of India. Kaurs United was founded in British Columbia, although they venture out to other areas as well, in hopes of strengthening and uplifting Sikh women around the world – regardless of their knowledge, understanding, or experience with Sikhism. I just wanted to agree briefly that the differentiation must be made between Punjabi culture and the Sikh Faith.

    The 10th Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, condemned female infanticide to the degree that a Sikh in those days was not even supposed to meet with or interact with a person who killed their daughter. This is a sign that female infanticide (and the general trend of oppression against women) has been carried on for hundreds of years in India. All trends of anti-woman violence and persecution were to stop with the creation of Sikhism, which strictly DEFIES violence against women, female infanticide, dowry, purdah (concealing the face as to avoid causing lust to men), sati (the mandatory burning of women at their husband’s funeral pyre, which was a tradition commonly followed by Hindus and discouraged gravely by Sikhism).

    Throughout Indian history, we see horrible trends of the effects of patriarchy on women. Even looking at other old scriptures (e.g. the Manusimritti for Hindu folks and the Holy Quran for Muslim folks) – we see these trends and these scriptures shed light on how India became rooted in a misogynist culture, so to speak. For example, the Hindu law of Manusimritti prevented women from listening to prayer even, and the Kuran has also mentioned that Muslim men have the freedom to have sexual rights over all women and slave girls (Hadith, No. 61) – they are also allowed to beat “their” women lightly, but never vice versa. Even in Christianity, Eve was said to have been born from the ribs of Adam.

    What I’m trying to say is, before Sikhism was brought to life in India, misogynist elements were already prominent, and were deeply rooted in the culture of Hindus and Muslims. In Sikhism, women were given equal rights to lead prayer, to become preachers, to become warriors, and so on. Women are seen as the gateway to salvation, according to Bhai Gurdas Ji’s scriptures, which are the “key” to the Sikh Holy Scriptures, which we respect as our ever-present Guru.

    I think it’s all a balance between culture and religion. Like people have mentioned previously, there are good and bad people everywhere. Something that is improper that I want to mention is: the names “Kaur” and “Singh” are only supposed to be given to baptized Sikhs who very strictly follow the code of conduct and become pure in their thoughts, deeds, actions, and so on. These days, any Indo Canadian man (who may as well be a drug dealer, or a murderer), is given the name “Singh” – which is COMPLETELY wrong. This may be one reason why people get confused! Sikhs are not to be confused with Punjabis or Indo -Canadians. Although many true Sikhs may be Punjabi (e.g. from Punjabi) or they may call themselves Indo-Canadians, there is no way that the majority of Indo-Canadians/Punjabis can be called Sikh. You become a Sikh by your actions, you’re never born a Sikh. For these reasons, I think people like Lakhvinder Kahlon are doing a horrible injustice to other people in their community, allowing for people to paint us all with one brush.

    In closing I also wanted to mention that although many Sikhs may not be discussing this on public forums, most Sikhs I have met have been deeply disturbed by this occurrence. It’s really heart-breaking. We have been talking about it day in and day out in our individual lives and are praying it will open the eyes of other men and women with similar intentions. We are praying this stops, and we are working for our future generations to recognize that women are divine, women are blessings, women are the creators, women are life.

    May little Rajvinder rest in peace and may she never have to witness such pain again… 😦

    -Kaur

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  16. lailayuile

    Hear , hear! She is in a wonderful place now, I’m sure and watching over her mother and sisters.

    Thank you, all of you, for your inspiring comments and for the understanding and educating thoughts you are sharing. I have yet to hear from many in the local Sikh community as to their thoughts, and the comments made by Suki reflect what I see here in Surrey, out in public- I hate to think of what goes on behind some closed doors.

    I sincerely hope that the local Sikh community finds it within themselves to pressure those among them who still practice and perpetuate these barbaric cultural practices. Ignoring them, or minimizing the incidents offers a tacit acceptance to the ones committing the violence. I know that many locally feel the way I do, and that many Sikh are aware of what is going on and are unsure as to how to handle it. Strength to all, in numbers.

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  17. Lady B

    Again though Laila, it’s not just a Sikh issue, as the people committing these crimes can not be called Sikh, and female infanticide is wide spread across countless communities! Although it can be seen as an issue in the Indo-Canadian community, I think it actually transcends one particular culture as well because the rates of female infanticide and feticide are alarming in China, Bangladesh, Korea, etc. as well. Have you heard of the “Dying Rooms” in China where baby girls are strapped to chairs all day, sitting in their own feces and urine and basically crying themselves to death – without any food, love, or care? And then at night they are strapped to their beds to sleep. This is a cruel world. We didn’t choose to be women, but we’re facing the consequence, every day, with every breath.

    I think people are shocked with this as it’s never been done so overtly in a Western neighborhood. It’s still true though, that countless Asian Canadian folks (Chinese, Japanese, Bangladeshi, Fijian, etc.) do have sex-selective abortions even in the West, to eliminate the possibility of giving birth to baby girls. It’s not just a Sikh issue, again, people are not born into a faith but they become a member of that faith if they follow the teachings of the faith. If my friend was born to Catholic parents, but she denounces the presence of God completely, how would that make her Catholic at all? It’s the same with these people.

    It’s just a shame. God bless her little soul. I saw her picture today and couldn’t believe it. Precious little thing. To second what Laila has said – strength to all…

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  18. lailayuile

    Excellent point , Lady B, it does happen all over the world and in many cultures. This really has just been on my mind since last year,trying to understand my neighbours and this culture/religion, Sikh, Hindu or other.
    It is tough being a woman, and its a shame that the people choosing selective abortions dont think as far as what, or who, their daughter may have become, had they allowed her true fate to play out. As the Sikhs say, women give birth to Kings……how could one treat such a person badly?
    I have three children. I cant imagine harming any one of them, at any age, let alone one so young, so defenceless. I try not to imagine what her little eyes were like as she realised her fate. Hopefully , she did not, but I’m sure her spirit feels the betrayal.
    And the truly horrid thing is, that in a week, most people will have forgotten all about her, and about this continual injustice, and gone on to the next tragic news of the day. I can’t forget , because I live in this neighbourhood where I know, and see, women and girls being treated badly as often as we get the paper delivered.

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