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A Conference Like No Other:
Safar - Our Journeys 2012





Do you think Sikhi is feminist? 

I don't think so anymore. And it doesn't matter.

What I do think is that I am a Sikh who feels deeply compelled by my Guru to align with causes that enact his teachings. "Feminism" is one such set of causes that speaks to me in the particular set of life circumstances in which I find myself bound up. 

I was not able to articulate these positions until I attended this weekend's Our Journeys 2012 conference at the University of British Columbia, where I got to be in the presence of impressive human beings who are my Sikh sisters. 

The conference was the second such event coordinated by the Sikh Feminist Research Institute (SAFAR, which itself means "journey"). Conversations with thinkers at this event reminded me that engaging any intellectual movement from a Sikh perspective means putting Sikhi first. 

For the organizers, coordinating a Sikh event clearly meant putting Sikhi first. This conference was like no other that I had attended.  It was powered by community involvement, as local gurdwaras provided some very important resources, including the langar.

Before eating, we were led to reflection on the meaning of the meal in the context of Sikh life, and the particular questions about social justice in which we were engaged. We remembered Mata ("mother") Khivi -- -the earliest Sikh woman mentioned in the Guru Granth Sahib -- who ran the refectory during her husband Guru Angad's leadership of the community (1539-1552). 

Did you know you can use uncooked linguini as a perfectly good (and cheap!) coffee stirrer? 

The conference was extremely focused on sustainability. SAFAR is partnered with EcoSikh, whose mission recognizes Guru Nanak's idea of mata dhart mahat ("The earth is the great mother") and was held at UBC's Center for Interactive Research on Sustainability.  In following with the Guru's emphasis on karni ("action"), praxis -- informed action on emancipatory ideas -- pervaded the atmosphere.  Moreover, artists showcased their work, reminding us that our ethics cannot be divorced from aesthetics.  In other words, how we see the world we live in is related to how we imagine the world, and to how we imagine ourselves bettering it.  Art reminds us about the ways we see, imagine, and participate. 

Particularly enlightening were the artistic presentations in the panels. Through presentations of her radical painting and performative art, Gurpreet Kaur Sehra stirred in me a self-reflection about my own masculinity.The American Hip Hop scene gave me a soundtrack to survive as an embattled adolescent minority in suburban America. But it also provided me ways of thinking and being that may not be helpful in being a good femininst. Toronto-based Punjabis are also using hip-hop culture in problematic ways that Gurpreet brought to light. 

Three literary pioneers -- Meeta Kaur, Nina Chanpreet Kaur, and Sangeeta Luthra -- reported on lessons learned from compiling an upcoming anthology of Sikh women's love stories, which I am eager to read. 

In another panel, Jakeet Singh made me aware of how my desire to engage modern, western intellectual traditions should not eclipse my focus on informed practices as a Sikh.

Is "feminism" a concept imposed on Sikhi?  Is ensaaf the Sikh word for social justice?  Can there even be a Sikh word for social justice?  Members of the editorial board and board of directors of SAFAR graciously fielded questions, and heard complaints, on such issues of terminology even though they had already considered the critiques and and very consciously decided to bracket them in favor of moving conversations forward.  I don't think they meant to stifle such reflective conversations.  Rather, we should have these conversations while we are engaged in thinking about and acting out our Sikh lives.

What I was able to glean for myself is that Sikhi is not "feminist," just like it is not "green" or "eco-friendly." Rather the Guru's word (shabad) calls me to respond to oppression of women and environmental catastrophe (and uncountable other issues) through committed, informed engagement. Does it call you, too?

Sikhi is certainly big enough to contain these viewpoints, "feminism" may or may not be one of yours. "Ecology" may or may not be one of yours. But that is okay, because through engagement with the Guru's shabad, we seek mukti ("liberation') not just hereafter, but here; not just for our individual selves, but for the community.

We may not know what to call it, but a new diasporic Sikh social justice effort is here, it is happening, and it is transformational.


[The author is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion, and Associate Director of The Center for Equality and Justice, both at the California Lutheran University, California, USA.]

October 29, 2012

Conversation about this article

1: Sarjit Kaur (Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.), October 29, 2012, 9:55 AM.

Thoughts to ponder for the best answer from gurbani. As for a coffee stirrer, why not use a cinnamon stick, for excellent flavor, and scent ... idea from Him :)

2: Sandy (USA), October 29, 2012, 3:32 PM.

Feminism, the second wave, is more a reflection of the group it originated from: middle class white women. It is therefore the ideology of middle class white women and embodies liberal politics that goes along with it. For the second or third generation immigrant children, feminism is about resolving their identity confusion. And yet, rather than help them resolve their identity confusion, it makes them even more confused, leading them on a path that ends either with spinsterhood or divorce. Look around yourself at the western society: broken marriages, adultery, meaningless existence. And while one cannot just explain it all as resulting from feminism, it surely is not unrelated. Rather than understanding that what is going on around us is a game that capital is playing with people -- both men and women -- feminism sets up men as the cause of the problem. And therefore young western women, including second or third generation immigrant ones, grow up with an antagonistic mindset against men. Ever more, girls born to parents who have migrated from rural parts of India develop a healthy sense of hatred of self and their father. Why? The parents were products of an agricultural society. And agricultural societies are patriarchal societies because they cannot depend on women to do agriculture, which requires upper body strength. Of course, the social ideology -- which makes male children more important than females -- is reflective of this underlying truth. The second generation children cannot understand the reality that their parents were produced by the system that they grew up in and even when the parents move to the west, they just cannot change their ideas of reality (which has been with them from the get go). Equally, the children with their western notions of gender as performance cannot understand the reality that it is the post 1960 world in which office work became dominant in the west -- and thus women were able to make a claim to equality -- that explains the rise of feminism. And thus we see the reality of these clashing modes of production in domestic family life where the girls grow up hating their fathers. And if they cannot love their fathers, they also cannot love their husbands. And thus we get a cycle of immense suffering in the form of divorce, single motherhood and children growing up in broken families further perpetuating the cycle. I am of the opinion that the crisis of capitalism we have unfolding now is going to destroy lots of office jobs and take us back to the physical world (from which we have been disconnected from at least in the west) and this will reconfigure gender relations again. Is this the death knell of the second wave of feminism (and God only knows that the third wave is just pure garbage)?

3: Pushpinder Kaur (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), October 29, 2012, 9:00 PM.

I cannot agree more with Sandy. Without understanding the wider contexts, this kind of half-baked activism does more harm than good.

4: Jaspreet (Canada), October 30, 2012, 3:12 AM.

You cannot blame feminism for things like broken marriages or girls hating their fathers. Girls don't hate their fathers due to being feminist but if the fathers are abusive. Also, keeping a marriage alive at any cost is wrong. Men do hold much of the power in this world and it should be shared. Of course, many people resist the liberation of others, be it women, lower castes, coloured people, etc.

5: Jaspreet  (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), October 30, 2012, 4:53 AM.

I believe the world wars gave women a big leg up. A lot of women took over men's jobs when the latter went to war. If it were not for past feminists, no women would be voting in this country. They would not be doctors, lawyers, and even farmers (women can be farmers, contrary to what some might think). In India, the divorce rate is low, but there are a lot of unhappy women bound by all sorts of restrictive customs. So many women are killed for dowries and before they are born as well. Can one blame feminists for that? Upper body strength is not the only explanation for societies mistreating women and keeping them subjugated. Feminism might include some angry women who are antagonist towards men, but it is also about changing people's thinking, changing society, changing the laws. Feminism needs to be supported not just by women but by men. Of course, it takes generous, big hearted, uncowardly, clear-sighted men to see that they need to support women. Some men and women who listen to them or feel dependent on them for their thinking still have the first generation reactions that the anti-feminist 'whites' surely must have had.

6: Rahuldeep Singh Gill (USA), October 31, 2012, 9:19 PM.

Some of these comments tell me that Sikh feminism is absolutely necessary.

7: Pammi  (India), November 15, 2012, 10:25 PM.

I totally agree with Pushpinder ... a lot of issue is being made out of a non-issue. Sikhism is about faith and need not get mired in the gender issue. Gender was declared a non-issue right from the beginning. Surely, there are no Sikhs left who don't believe that men and women are equal!

8: B B Kaur (USA), November 28, 2012, 3:07 PM.

I think it would have been helpful if the author had left the question of what is "Sikh feminism" open. This article seems to dismiss or foreclose the question, which is unfortunate because I don't think that was what was intended by the conference organizers or attendees. Is Sikhi feminist? This is a question that has never been asked before. The answer to this question does indeed matter because for a lot of people it informs the karni/rahit that Rahuldeep pointed out in this article.

9: Rahuldeep (Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.), December 02, 2012, 10:43 AM.

BB: I appreciate your comment. I'm not trying to foreclose the question at all. In fact, I'm anticipating the kind of sentiments that attack "Sikh Feminism" as evidenced by the above comments. The question of Sikh Feminism has been asked before, and this is not the first time it has been asked. The majoritarian view quickly dismisses it by shifting the conversation to the imposition of western categories ("feminism"). What I'm trying to dismiss is that talk of terminology so that the real work can be done. Karni and Rehat exist regardless of what we call them, when we find ourselves enacting the Guru's call. Again, the work is being done regardless of what the old guard thinks of it.

10: B B Kaur (USA), December 28, 2012, 2:41 AM.

With all due respect, Rahuldeep, it is not for you to decide what the "real work" is, or whether the "terminology" accurately reflects that. Too many rhetorical acrobatics in your essay obscure your position that the conference is ... unnecessary. Smells rather old guard! I'm not sure why you decided to write an opinion piece rather than a journalistic one, reporting the conference papers. That is what I was looking for, so I could decide for myself whether the conference was worthwhile.

11: Rahuldeep (Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.), January 09, 2013, 10:13 AM.

Dear B B, I thought it was the best conference in Sikh studies I have ever attended. I learned so much from the conference that it changed my perspective on certain things and I was trying to report that. In the future I will try to improve my blogging skills so that I can make my point more clearly. Thank you for your critique. I do hope you get to attend future conferences.

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