Over the last year, I’ve come across a number of incidents where a Sikh female is bullied online because of the type of clothes she chooses to wear. This is not a problem unique to the Sikh community, far from it, but it is an important one to raise in the context of Sikh culture so that an ongoing conversation can be instigated. This problem is one that stems from deeper issues concerning the way in which females are perceived by males, how that subsequently impacts male-female interaction, and most importantly the role that females play in a 21st century society. Whether one supports or disagrees with the viewpoint I express here, what I want the Sikh community to understand is that we cannot brush these happenings aside, or continue to treat them as a topic of the week on Twitter; we, more than any other community, have at our fingertips the resources, acumen and motivation needed to find long-term solutions to this, and we owe it to ourselves to explore what they are.
‘Click’; selfie shot; image edited; filter added; status drafted; hashtag(s) inserted; … “no, there’s too much glare on my forehead, God my forehead is big 🙁” [starts again]. Vanity didn’t arrive with social media and the smart phone, but it certainly intensified it. It’s little wonder that bullying is on the rise when we put so much more of ourselves in the public domain, particularly imagery, whilst at the same time allowing unfettered opportunity to establish anonymous personas access to comment online without repercussions. This was what I saw in a few unconnected incidents on Twitter and Instagram last year that ranged from unnoticeable to ‘people in Gurdware Langar halls talking about it’. Some females had published innocent photographs of themselves in various settings – with friends, in front of a mirror, at a city landmark. These photos were then commented on rebuking the females in question for wearing make-up, showing their naked back, wearing shorts etc.; one photo had the comment (by a single user I might add) that the girls chest was too big – no cleavage on show, it was just her chest was too big and in publishing the photo she had incited the comment. In some cases, these photos were being selected because the individual in question was wearing a dastar or keski, in others it was because they had a Sikh name or were wearing a kara. What drew my attention to these incidents and led me to find other cases of less infamy, was that some of the comments were coming from individuals who were evoking Sikhi to justify their bullying.
When some of the more prominent incidents occurred, I reached out to a handful of females I know who I thought could write about the issue from a Sikh perspective. I even asked one or two of those who had been targeted in this way to do so. I had a few responses, but nothing substantial. It left me pondering if this was a big deal; there were a small number of these incidents all seemingly localised to North America and who knew, perhaps there was some personal animosity or prior disagreements that were behind the comments. But I’ve come to conclude it is a big deal. These specific incidents magnified the issue in a singular way, but the wider problem should not be ignored. My fear in authoring and publishing this piece is that it is going to appear to some readers as disingenuous, or worse still, irrelevant. It’s easy to see a piece like this as click-bait, or naujawani reaching out to a different demographic, or like me you might think that a man writing this piece is part of the problem in tackling female issues in a male-dominated community – every voice you hear is male. But I’ve overcome this fear and have published this largely down to one simple fact: the incidents I had come across of Sikh women being advised to cover up, or ‘dress down’ weren’t female problems; they are male problems.
In these particular cases, the Sikh women were seen by the commenters to be acting in an un-Sikh-like fashion. Let’s consider first those women who were targeted because they wear a dastaar or keski. The wearing of a dastaar is a powerful statement in the Sikh World as adorning one emulates the spirit of the Guru. It has both spiritual and political connotations, especially the latter I’d argue, and is seen as a symbol of membership of the House of Guru Nanak. I can appreciate that many Sikhs (dastar wearing or otherwise) have certain expectations when they see Sikhs who adorn a dastar, but it is all too easy to be selective with whom we apply our standards to. Whilst female Sikhs wearing a dastar are being expected to dress and appear modestly, male Sikhs wearing a dastar are celebrated for fashionable attire and extroverted appearance. Secondly, some of those female Sikhs wearing dastars were acknowledged to have taken Khande-di-Pahul and so as members of the Khalsa, were being chastised for not living up to a certain standard. If we as a community hold Khalse to a higher standard, then we need to be aware of what it means to be one. A Khalsa is not beholden to any individual and answers only to the Akaal Purkh, or the Guru personified by the Panj Pyare. Where a Khalsa is seen as behaving in a less than acceptable fashion, it’s not for all and sundry to become judge, jury and executioner; there is a process within the Khalsa fold to deal with this under the Panj Pyare, which also provides accountability if the boundaries are not black and white, but as here where they are very grey.
There is a separate discussion to be had about how we ‘police’ our own community. Just as Sikhs are angered when a fellow Sikh is seen smoking tobacco, some of those proffering advice to Sikh women about what to wear (or not wear) are in some way coming from a similar place. But that is a conversation for a different day. In these instances, the principal motivation for males telling females how they should dress, appear or present their bodies was based on the female’s ‘brazen’ self-publishing of themselves. It is in my opinion, immaterial that these woman were wearing a dastar, a kara or had a Sikh name. Their images radiated a confidence and an attitude that doesn’t require a male to tell their story (ironic that I am doing just that then). They are independent, young and single, the latter being immensely important because it threatens some Sikh males to know that other, non-Sikh males will view the images of these Sikh females and dare I say it, have the same thoughts they did. Perhaps one of the most interesting accounts I came across pertaining to this idea came earlier this year on Twitter. In this thread, a young North American female argued that the sexualisation of females plays a significant part in why some males publicly enforce their opinion onto them of how they should dress. I felt that her tweets were partly touching upon something unrelated that had occured at the time, perhaps not to her directly, but the ideas she expressed are relevant here nonetheless. One of the key notions of the thread is that some Sikh males divide women into two camps – those they lust over and those they wish to raise children with; not only is it statistically likely that some Sikhs would do this, but I have personally experienced some who speak in these terms (although certainly not as graphically). Moreover, there are many Sikh males who might not speak in these extremities, but think in this way. An indicator of this can be seen by the normalisation of sharing home-made videos of a sexual encounter once it is clear the female has not consented to the video being made public. These videos are shared openly by too many Sikh males with the justification that if the female in question did not want to be seen in this way publicly, she should not have permitted a camera to be brought into the activity. This argument troubles me as it should you for it’s absurdity, but to some extent reveals that such males do not consider the sexual relationship between two people as a private affair when it is for a purpose outside of marital reproduction. The male in such videos is never socially ostracised, and quite to the contrary in some circles he is celebrated, whereas the female is acceptable only as subject material for entertainment and objectification.
There is an element of repression that has taken place here, of carnal desire that is not under control, but instead ushered into the recesses of the male mind. My concern at this point is with the Sikh male who should be outside of this complex having accepted Guru Nanak as his teacher, and herein lies the solution to the male problem at hand: many Sikh males have not given themselves over to the Guru. The malady of self-centred action resulting in male domination continues to plague the mind. I also believe that some Sikh men who engage in this bullying are suffering from an inferiority complex. They fear ‘our’ women publicly displayed will opt for the attentions of the non-Sikh male gazer, which if true, masks an inner turmoil that the Sikh male is flawed and unworthy. It should come as no surprise that there are Sikh males who do not consider themselves beautiful, although they won’t shout that from the rooftops. Sikh males, like Sikh females, are growing up in an age where the commercial ideals of what it means to be attractive dominate the mainstream narrative, and where our appearance is outside the norm. It doesn’t help that the depth of our conversations about beauty as a community, centre on modesty in the Gurdwara, but fairer skin in the home. That our level of conversations on any of these issues is in the gutter can be surmised from how many readers will think that I hold these views because I am the father of a daughter and ‘have to think’ this way for her. Those who know me will understand that I have long held these views; they were introduced to me by my mother, ingrained into me by my sister, and affirmed for me by my wife, but vitally they were embedded into my psyche by the males who shaped me – my father, brother, and mentor.
A similarly tiresome question that I keep hearing is ‘what if your daughter dresses this way when she grows up and attracts the wrong kind of attention?’ My reponse is always the same: I can’t control that – I can influence her values, and it should be pretty clear from reading this which way that’s going to go, but I think this question reflects the heart of the problem and shows how deeply embedded this problem is in society: it suggests that I should perceive my daughter as an object over whom I have a sense of ownership, for whom I should act as a protector; I should feel threatened by what other men are going to think of when they see her. If having read this last sentence you don’t realise just how crazy this direction is for a Sikh to take, consider the fact that the problem put forward is how other men will think about my daughter (which we are generally told to simply accept because ‘boys will be boys’) and instead of working to fix generations of young men from causing this problem, I and the Khalsa should devote time to removing the temptation for those men by getting my duaghter and her female peers to dress modestly. That is not the Khalsa I signed up to. Mine is not a left wing, liberal or feminist attitude, it is Khalsa ideology. We’re better than this. We take on oppressive regimes and challenge Governments; we don’t waste our time getting that girl Preeti to stop wearing a shorts and vest combo with her dastar.
People will have strong opinions on this topic – in fact pretty much everybody I discussed it with or in front of had a viewpoint on it. I was moderately surprised at how many people cited katha that they had heard advocating modesty, or a line of Gurbani taken out of context about humility, or the Sikh Rehat Maryada (nothing specific, just saying the phrase Sikh Rehat Maryada means something now, apparently). It seems that when it comes to controlling the appearance of others, particularly women, there is considerable knowledge in the Diaspora, contrasted with the question of statehood or political aptitude which tends to draw blank looks and swift changes in conversation. I’m genuinely stating that my views here are not finite; I am happy to reconsider them through long term discourse. My intention is to get this conversation going (like so many others that are needed) and to try to have it in an inclusive and open a way as possible. Some of my male Sikh peers will read this and feel that I am being too hard on our gender, perhaps even ‘selling out’, but I ask you, if what i’ve written is true even to some small extent do we not owe it to the women we share this World with to give this conversation a wider platform? Shouldn’t we ask difficult questions such as why our profanity in the Punjabi language revolves around the sexual molestation of mothers, sisters and daughters and how that influences how we see women and try to control them?
If you think the process of taking a selfie I shared early on in this article is stereotypical and far too banal to have been real, think again – that was me forcing myself to take a selfie. I don’t much like being photographed as it is, let alone take a selfie, but in trying to do so I retook the photo four times before eventually giving up and putting the phone away. Twice my pugg wasn’t right, once my eyes looked droopy and on that first shot my forehead looked too big (the pugg was shunted lower when I thought my forehead was too big and it was downhill from there on). Granted, it was an exercise in contemplation to aid my writing this piece, and perhaps that played on my mind forcing me to notice things that I wouldn’t ordinarily see. But that is the point entirely because the way females are perceived in society, I can’t begin to imagine what they go through when taking photos or allowing themselves to be photographed, knowing that their image will be judged in a thousand ways by people they know and don’t know, and all in the tragic backdrop of a World where they remain second class citizens, without the power and agency afforded to males. Surely, the least we can do is stop telling them what they can and can’t wear?