Beyond Gender: A Mindset for Freedom

Kaurs Singhs Sikhs Climbing a Hill

I am writing in response to Anonymous Kaur’s account of how her feelings, her mind, and her spirit were all treated in connection to a Singh she loved and the potential family she’d be a part of. Her account was compelling enough to pause and think about what is happening here for young women in the Sikh community.

Kaur’s response was posted in a moment of reviewing Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s, “We Should All Be Feminists”. How ironic a title for Sikhs as a spiritual people who are embedded with gender equality ideals and yet as a community we are still struggling with the reality of gender equality. This gap between principle and reality is one of pain and suffering at the cost of the community which then in turn deprives the world of enlightened and capable leaders, Kaurs, across all spheres of life.

Adiche is adept with recognizing and understanding how much she has had to undo internally when it comes to gender socialization. For us as a community, the inner work to undo both Punjabi and American gender socialization is tough, but we owe it to the future generation of girls and boys to engage in this inner work, this deep spiritual work for us as Sikhs.

Adiche states, “Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.”

For me, Adiche captures the Gurus’ intention towards gender equality. The Gurus recognized to embody both our ability to nurture and love as well as our ability to hold authority to advocate and protect others as the full expression of our Sikhi. One without the other creates imbalance and lacks a grounding in the world. As a global society, we are experiencing a hyper masculinity across genders that is aggressive and violent in nature.  Right now, we must focus on our ability to nurture to correct this imbalance. We can nurture ourselves and others when we are nourished by the gifts of baani.

I see diligent and loving Sikh parents preparing young Kaurs through sports, the arts, theater, music, girl scouts, and cultivating a zeal for academic ambition. The efforts are noteworthy and noticed. I also see an emotional nurturing towards young Singhs which is refreshing. Parents are instinctively doing what Adiche cites as focusing on “ability and interest” instead of sculpting children towards gender roles, children are “seen” for what they are not how they should be.

I also see more and more Singhs pulling their weight with domestic duties and cultivating deeper emotional bonds with their loved ones. They are understanding the invisible unpaid yet critical emotional labor of raising a family. But if all of this family effort and the ambition and talent Kaurs express is to be met with unspoken community contracts that assign them to pre-assigned gender roles and expectations in future families, then what? If we keep assigning power to Singhs in personal and familial relationships, then what? Let her talents sit on the shelf? And let that effort by parents languish? I believe this moment of investment in women and girls is critical to the emotional well-being of our future community and the rippling effects it has in the larger world.  I also believe we need Singhs who are in leadership positions to make this effort a priority on their agenda.

We must write new contracts now.

We must do our part in teaching our young Singhs emotional literacy. This is not an ask to sacrifice masculinity but to re-define masculinity as a full expression of their humanity. We must create safe spaces for both Singhs and Kaurs to engage in this expression. This “access” is not only for the resourced and connected, but for all children regardless of economic or educational status. Adiche states, “The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations.”

In an emotionally literate community, Anonymous Kaur would have been met by this Singh’s family with curiosity, wonder, and a commitment to knowing her from the inside out. I imagine they’d ask about her dreams, her vision, her commitment to social justice and what she wants for her future family as the topics of conversation. They’d see the beauty that radiates in her eyes from being connected to Wahe Guru, and not treat her as an object that can be returned for a new purchase.

When we ask our girls to shape themselves according to the “ideal woman” or the “ideal wife”, we are asking them to not be themselves. This can lead to silencing women and girls and then it can lead to performing in a role because it is silently demanded and that is oppression as we know it. If future Kaurs have to face the silencing that many across generations have faced and continue to face, we are silencing the entire community.

As a community, we budget large sums of money to protect our men and boys from social injustice (which is great and we should continue to support Singhs). But, out of convenience, or out of habit, or out of maintaining status quo, we seem to be comfortable pushing our women and girls into narrow ways of being that reinforce power for men. Kaurs need to be on the community’s radar for support, and we need dollars backing Kaurs with a strategic agenda for empowerment.

The time is now to look at girls and women with the same capacity for success outside the home with the same need for support and emotional connection in the home. Both genders can serve as givers and receivers of this emotional support. It is not too much to expect that the care-taking in domestic spaces flows both ways and while it may be uncomfortable for both men and women to step into these new roles, these are steps towards neutral approaches to gender in the home.  The home is where we start to change society.

We can start at our kitchen tables to create room and open up the space in our minds for how girls and women along with boys and men occupy space in the home. Home is a sacred space for teamwork and contribution; everyone pulling their load. It is a place where we can be ourselves and express ourselves freely. It is the primary place where we learn gender roles and how fluid they can actually be when it comes to the labor we know as love.

We must pause to understand and recognize Sikh women and girls as critical resources to not only the community, but to the world. And with this recognition and steps to realize gender equality as the Gurus intended, we will give rise to a new world.

by Meeta Kaur

Meeta Kaur has written for NPR, Hyphen MagazineSikh Chic, and Asian Week, and has been awarded the Hedgebrook Residency for fiction and The Elizabeth George grant for fiction. She is the managing editor of the Sikh Love Stories Project, a storytelling project that reveals the inner lives of Sikh American women and men exploring love in revolutionary ways. Meeta Kaur is also well known for the book she edited, Her Name is Kaur, in which Sikh American women explore the concept of love from many angles, offering rich, critical insight into the lives of Sikh women in America.

Feature photo by British Organization of Sikh Students (BOSS) Sikh Camp

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