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I have a problem with our cultural attitudes. A big problem. And although the problem isn’t a new one I’m still going to write a post about it so bear with me.
Sometimes I feel so out of place when I’m with a bunch of Sikhs. Perhaps it is because I didn’t grow up in a tight-knit Sikh community. Perhaps it was my way of maintaining distance from certain superficial cultural attitudes that I had no intention of perpetuating or adopting. I thought I could be a contributing member of the sangat and simply ignore the nonsense.
Easier said than done.
Earlier this month, Harbhajan Singh, a popular cricket Indian player also known (slightly cheezily) as “The Turbinator,” was accused of making a racist comment towards Andrew Symonds, Australia’s only black player. Although the Australians are currently under investigation by the International Cricket Council for equally not-so-nice remarks towards South Asians and Africans, it wasn’t pleasant to hear someone who identifies himself as a Sikh espouse beliefs inconsistent with Sikh doctrine and see it splashed all over worldwide media.
It’s even harder to contain my expletives when I hear similar crap in person. Especially when it comes from a specific group of highly identifiable aunties gathered in langar halls around North America. They scour the sangat under a cloak of narrowminded beliefs and regurgitate their definition of beauty under hushed tones: that to be ideal is to be fair-skinned (the lighter, the better), tall (above 5’5″ and you’re all set), thin (but body fat percentage doesn’t matter), sharp-nosed (but not too sharp) and have long luscious hair (but don’t you dare have a hair anywhere else). Even L’Oreal, Garnier, and Ponds are aware of the power of auntie-think as they have pushed chemical-laden products that help lighten skin throughout markets in India and the US. How ironic that mega-corporations are looting aunties through their deeply embedded sense of self-hatred and laughing straight to the bank because of it.
I often refer to my thinking (and the thinking of some of you awesome readers) as progressive or revolutionary, but it isn’t, dammit! The ideas of equality, anti-discrimination, and empowerment were outlined by the Gurus not too long ago. What the hell is it going to take to get rid of the hurtful and ridiculous auntie-think that pervades our community? It may take readers like you to make an auntie afflicted with auntie-think aware of her ignorance. [Note: must be done with extreme politeness and respect to be effective. I’ve done it before (and in Punjabi I must add), and she stopped her remarks although I did get a strange look from her as we walked away.] It may take the form of young women speaking up in women’s groups and gatherings. It may be time for our young men to step in and confront their mothers, sisters, and wives. And, oh yeah, don’t purchase the disgusting products like the ones mentioned above.
The cure is in our possession, my friends; are you ready to help administer it?
Bowne Street in Queens, New York makes my inner spirit smile. Three places of worship lie within feet of each other: a gurudwara at one corner, a Buddhist temple directly across the street, and a Hindu temple next door. The sights, smells, and sounds that erupt on that corner during weekends or on holy days lure people of all faiths together. I love seeing the distinct but common beliefs of bald men wrapped in red robes swirl together with long bearded men wielding kirpans.
The sweet nectar of community and remembrance of God that attracts the hungered soul was described in a recent article in the travel section of The New York Times. Why, there’s more to the holiday season than just the birth of Christ. We musn’t forget the devotees of other faiths: Hindus, Jews, and Muslims.
Oh, but wait. Let us opt to not mention the Sikhs. Even better, let us describe the Hindu temple on Bowne Street in painful detail but not reflect on the gurudwara that neighbors it.
This article is screaming letter to the editor. Okay, maybe not screaming. Perhaps just a gentle nudge that Sikhs make up a large proportion of the multifaith milieu as well.
I’m not the biggest Bush fan. And with his approval rating hovering around 24%, I don’t think many of you are either. Yesterday, however, Mr. Bush managed to get my respect. (But only for a moment. Too bad he had to screw it up with his ridiculous press conference banter earlier in the day.)
President Bush became the first US leader to appear publicly with the Dalai Lama despite threats by the Chinese government that such an event would bring about “a severe violation of the norms of international relations.” The White House acknowledged China’s displeasure with the event by not releasing photographs of the two leaders at a private meeting on Tuesday. Yet, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader was presented with the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal as Bush praised him as a “universal symbol of peace and tolerance, a shepard of the faithful, and a keeper of the flame for his people.” Photographs of the ceremony were released this time around. Talk about a diplomatic dance to the death.
So the Chinese are pissed that the US honored a man who promotes so-called secessionist activities and political unrest towards the motherland. And the Chinese may be partially correct in their thinking as the CIA contributed millions of dollars during the 1960’s to support the exiled Tibetan administration in India. We have a lot to lose by further angering the Chinese; they could totally kick our rear-ends by supporting governments we’re trying to destabilize or by diverting their capital surplus away from underwriting our ever-growing debt.
Yet, in the midst of this tortuous love-hate relationship, each party has somehow humbled himself to ascribe to the message of gratitude. We showed our love to the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama gave us some love in return. The Dalai Lama passed some love over to India while expressing no hatred towards the Chinese. The Chinese didn’t show much love to anyone but toned down their rhetoric somewhat. I even had a moment where I respected the Bush administration.
Whether Christian, Sikh, or Buddhist, lame duck president, spiritual leader or civilian, we each have unique qualities that can be celebrated and shared. I could have come to a similar conclusion and been spared of the sillyness of this week’s news if I had just remembered that Guru Nanak Dev Ji devoted himself to highlighting the oneness of humanity by exploring the differences that separate people. That he promoted open discourse and interfaith dialogue without press secretaries and journalists meddling in the process. That it is possible to co-exist while respecting what makes each of us distinct. That ultimately all of creation has the same origin and end and that during the short time we experience life through human-form we should practice being tolerant, humble, honest, and compassionate towards one another.
In high school, my closest group of friends and I all somehow managed to work on Yearbook. After a long night of cropping photos, making layouts, and reciting lines from Titanic* we decided to call it a day. A friend joined me as I walked home. “So do you think we’ll have much of a weekend?” she asked. I snickered. “Yeah. A weekend dedicated to writing papers. I’ll probably go to the gurudwara with my family just to change things up a bit.” She laughed as she adjusted her peach-colored hijab. “Oh yeah? I can’t go to the mosque this weekend.” “Why not?” I asked. She paused for a moment. “Well, it’s because I’m having my period now. Women aren’t allowed to attend then.”
I didn’t say anything at first. I was debating whether to reply with either:
1. Um, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.
2. What the fuck?
3. May I ask why?
4. I see. Interesting.
I chose #3. “You have to be clean and pure when you go to the mosque to pray. We aren’t seen that way when we are bleeding.”
Although I respected her reply and the beliefs she maintained, I couldn’t help but feel helpless, sad, and a bit angry for her. I was completely unfamiliar with such a scenario: the idea that something could restrict me from entering a place of worship. My friend, an educated, moral and spiritual young woman, was going home to help her mom feed her father and brothers (and probably clean up after them by herself) and yet she wasn’t allowed to attend prayer services because her body, designed by a higher power, was undergoing a process that she had no control over. A process that in part played a role in her ability to bear children without gender discrimination.
It was this conversation some 10 years ago that came to mind today as I sat behind and respectfully waved the chaur sahib over the Guru Granth Sahib. It was quite a moment for me when I realized that I,:
1. a woman
2. wearing jeans
3. with a cough and runny nose
4. in the midst of her period,
am able to tend to the embodiment of the gurus without fear of being criticized or punished. Neither time, place, appearance, nor circumstance dictates my ability to remember Waheguru. I can argue this using the ultimate feminist manifesto: it’s my choice and my choice alone. (Well, with Waheguru’s blessing of course, but you get what I mean.)
If only everyone could experience what we as Sikhs sometimes take for granted.
To the guys: please respect the period as a continuous cycle and not limit it to the time when someone may be PMS-ing. Respect its implications. And more importantly, to the women: Look inward and respect yourselves. Look outward and demand it from others. Honor your body and the sacred gift it shares.
* = denotes mild embarrassment