When I was 14, I went to my very first Sikh camp. I was excited to learn and meet new people from all over the US, and the week-long experience ended up exceeding my expectations. But what happened after the camp was something I did not expect, and something that, to my own surprise, I seemed to have erased from my memory until recent conversations unlocked the cabinet inside my head that it had been filed away in.
After I left camp, I started getting texts from one of the counselors, which, at 14, seemed weird but nothing more than that. There is no way for me to even know how old he was at the time, but I know he could not have been younger than 21 or 22. I wasn’t sure how he got my number — I know I did not personally offer it to him — but now I realize that he most likely got it off of my camp registration form. I could not tell you what the texts said, because I genuinely do not remember, but I do remember that eventually, they escalated, and he wanted to talk on the phone and so, being a child and not understanding why that was inappropriate, I said ok. Then the calls escalated — he wanted to talk every day, he was saying things that made me uncomfortable, but I also couldn’t really comprehend why they made me feel uncomfortable. Not really understanding the situation, but knowing that I didn’t like the way it made me feel, I trusted my instincts and blocked his number. I am 24 now, and it was in a moment of discussing other similar experiences with members of the Sikh community that I recalled this story after effectively burying it in my brain for ten years. While my emotions and instincts were very real, I — like many women and men, girls and boys with similar experiences — did not have the words to describe why his behavior was inappropriate.
In 2006, Tarana Burke founded the #MeToo movement to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly young women of color from low-income communities find the language they had been missing to talk about their experiences, build systems of support, propel conversations, and put themselves on pathways of healing. The #MeToo movement is an individual and collective declaration that women and men share experiences and struggles around inequality, harassment, and violence, and it redirects the already existing narrative, taking the position that shame should be held by those who have abused and who continue to abuse, rather than by those harmed. It is not limited to workplace harassment or sexual violence. The goal of the movement as stated on their website is to “uplift radical community healing as a social justice issue” by “disrupting all systems that allow sexual violence to flourish.”
October 2017 saw #MeToo grow into an international movement after going viral on social media as a hashtag used to break the silence that empowers perpetrators and to illustrate the prevalence of sexual assault, harassment, and gender-based violence around the world. The growth of the movement and its push into the mainstream has given survivors around the world a space to share their stories and ears to hear their stories.
The momentum of #MeToo is only continuing to grow as more communities, especially those whose voices are usually on the margins, begin to demand individual accountability from those who have caused harm and collective accountability from communities that have silently allowed such violence to exist so pervasively. It has been incredible to see women and men call out their abusers publicly, and it takes great strength and bravery to take that step. But the movement has also been criticized for its lack of representation of women of color. In communities that are more insular, women and men face more barriers in taking the steps necessary to begin healing, and it takes the effort of the community as a whole to help our most vulnerable take those steps.
The Sikh community hasn’t had our #MeToo moment yet. When we do, what will it look like? And what can we do as a community to create comfortable and safe spaces for survivors to share their stories and heal?
There are unique problems and concerns that we face as a minority community which will require a different manifestation of #MeToo, and a different support system than what we might otherwise expect. But for each unique problem, our Gurbani and our history offer a push toward healing and the formation of a violence-free panth
Sikh communities — especially in the diaspora — tend to be close-knit and insular, both as a necessity for survival and for the comfort of cultural familiarity. But there are drawbacks that come with being so tight-knit — of gossip and judgment, where one person’s actions or experiences reflect on the reputation of their entire family. Survivors may hesitate to speak up because oftentimes, their abusers are in the family, close to the family, or part of the same community. This can include religious authorities or other well-known personalities within the community who have the weight and respect of the entire community behind them. There are questions of how people will respond if the survivor speaks out, whether they will be blamed, or whether they will even be believed at all. Before speaking out and involving themselves in #MeToo, those who have suffered from gender violence have to weigh the outcomes, and consider the possibility of being shamed or cast out — by their loved ones and the community members they are closest to.
What if we took this quality of the close-knit community and looked at the ways it can manifest in positive solutions for the very problems it creates? The Guru Granth Sahib itself begins with Ik Oankar — the One All-Pervading Force flowing through all of creation, and the recognition of the Divine light that exists in all beings. Gurbani reveals to us that the aim of life is to act in the world with that recognition as the foundation of all of our actions:
O Nanak, having created the living beings, the Divine cherishes them all.
The Creator who created the creation, takes care of it as well.
The Creator who formed the world, cares for it.
— Guru Granth Sahib 467¹
All of creation is equally Divine, equally cherished by and cared for by the Creator, and so we too, as part of creation, must do our best to see Ik Oankar in all, and not just see it — to act on it in our daily lives and in our interactions with other people. This foundational principle translates into acting as allies for other marginalized communities and fighting for those who are not being treated equally or with compassion either by individuals or by entire systems of oppression. Simply put, it means taking care of each other, and in this context, it means supporting survivors and helping them speak up or speaking up on their behalf if they do not feel comfortable speaking up themselves. It means believing them when they do speak up.
Because of socially-constructed taboo, we have not created spaces to have much-needed dialogues about sexual violence, about harassment, consent, Panjabi masculinity, male entitlement, and enabling. Although efforts to have those dialogues are happening in small, majority women-led spaces, we have not worked as a community to create space to even begin to make people feel comfortable enough to speak about their experiences. The taboo of even discussing issues of sexuality and what a healthy relationship looks like (never mind delving into the experiences of survivors) is troubling, and all of that taboo means that survivors are vulnerable to being manipulated by their abusers into silence. Because these topics are taboo, we have no concept of what a healthy sexual interaction is, what a healthy sex life is, or what a healthy relationship is, leaving us with nothing to compare our experiences to. With no education with which compare one’s experiences, it is hard to know when something one has experienced is abusive or unhealthy.
The issue of taboo places individuals at the margins of our community, particularly LGBTQ Sikhs, at higher risk. The heteronormative construction of violence — with men as the perpetrators of violence, and women as the victims — makes it harder for folks who have experienced forms of violence that do not match this narrative to come forward and seek help. This narrative makes it especially difficult for men who have experienced abuse to seek help.
In order to create spaces for people to feel comfortable to move past that taboo and shame, we must listen to and believe survivors. There are multiple stanzas within Japuji Sahib (Sikh prayer) alone with a clear emphasis on listening:
Listening and believing with love and humility in your mind,
Cleanse yourself with Nam [Divine Identification], at the sacred shrine deep within.
— Guru Granth Sahib 4²
Our guidance from the Guru is to listen, accept, and keep love in our hearts and minds, especially when it comes following the Guru’s instructions. This is a practice that naturally extends into daily life and in the context of gender-based violence. It is easy to listen and feel love when we agree with something. The challenge comes when we disagree with people. When it comes to gender-based violence, our community’s inclination is to question and doubt. But remembering the strong need to listen, accept and love as an alternative practice is essential in the fight for a violence-free community.
There is an added issue of a lack of distinction between religious ideals and cultural ideals, where masculinity is seen as something integral to the Sikh identity (think of all the various times in which Sikh men who do not fit into that ideal of masculinity are viewed as anti-Sikh or as threats to the Sikh brand, because any behavior that is construed as feminine is seen as a subversion of the history of our people). Masculinity practiced by Sikhs today is antithetical to the humble and compassion-centered feminine-masculine behavior that the Gurus inspired within our community.
Masculinity — both in the Panjabi and the Western contexts — is valued based in large part on the (unfair) treatment of women — being involved with multiple women at once, pressuring them into actions that undermine their agency, and still, at the end of the day, gaining social clout amongst their friends while her reputation suffers. I have heard too many stories recently of boys as young as 14 pressuring girls into sending nude photographs, engaging in harassment and demanding what they feel entitled to. But the narrative is commonly framed by boys and girls alike in a way where the girl is at fault and must have been begging for attention. Men and boys feel entitled to women’s bodies and they are enabled by other men and boys and by other women and girls in our community who protect them while shaming their counterparts.
And this sort of macho posturing where women and girls — or, more generally, those deemed to be vulnerable, regardless of gender — are used as instruments in the power games of boys and men is not new. In fact, we see Guru Nanak Sahib address this very issue in Babarbani. The ruler at the time of its composition was the Sultan of Delhi: a Pathan named Ibrahim Lodhi. Mughal emperor Zahir ud-din Muhammad Babar invaded from Central Asia, and a confrontation between these two power centers, the conquerors and the indigenous, lead to an immense battle for power. Guru Nanak Sahib describes his own eye-witness accounts and documentations of the atrocities of Babar and his men in Saidpur (now Eminabad, Panjab, Pakistan), and violence against female bodies, using them as tools of subjugation through violent and systemic violation:
The Hindu, the Muslim, the Bhatti, and the Thakur women —
Robes of some are torn from head to foot (dishonored/raped),
some are [dead] dwelling in burial or cremation grounds.
— Guru Granth Sahib 418³
Heads which were adorned with tresses and filled with vermillion are shaven and throats are choked with dust ... Ropes are put around their necks and their strings of pearls are broken ... Order was given to soldiers: dishonor them ...
— Guru Granth Sahib, 417⁴
It is important to note that Guru Nanak Sahib does not draw a conclusion about the nature of the Divine or the “Problem of Evil” from his descriptions, or make existential excuses for the actions of these men, but instead paints a vivid picture of the horrific acts he is witnessing for the purpose of documentation and giving voice to those being abused. Even the act of documentation is revolutionary. The act of calling out oppressors and perpetrators of such harm is revolutionary. Guru Sahib uses his place of privilege as a man and as a respected member of the community to speak up for those who are suffering. It is his example that can lead us in the right direction toward allyship and support for survivors within the community.
Another barrier standing in the way of survivors is that they often find themselves stuck between wanting to call out abusers within the community and feeling like they have to stay silent to keep up the image of the community as a whole, especially in the current political and social climate.
The South Asian diasporic community, and the Sikh community especially is classified as a model minority, and we are very comfortable in that classification. We even drum it up, focusing our time and energy and money on PR and building up the Sikh brand, framing ourselves as model citizens who can be counted on to do no wrong — as always good and always willing to fight against oppression and for those who are being treated unfairly or unjustly. But it also means that we are protective and careful about what sort of information we let out about members of our insulated communities, and we see anything that does not fit our already existing narrative as a threat to the brand. Stories of sexual assault and domestic violence are particularly threatening to the brand, so we silence and ignore victims.
It certainly does not help that the stereotypes often associated with brown bodies are those of extreme misogyny, abuse, patriarchal communities, and vast inequality between women and men. There is a fear that exists in the Panth (and in many other minority communities as well) of making the community look bad, or painting members of the community in a bad light, especially in a way that will bolster already-existing stereotypes. We do not have the luxury of differentiation or nuance when it comes to the majority’s gaze and classification of Sikhs. For minority communities, the parts are always substituted for the whole. But the burden of protecting the community from generalizations thrust upon us by the majority always falls on the victims. And it is not the responsibility of women or men in our community to safeguard people who have caused harm for the purpose of keeping the community’s public image positive and on-brand. We cannot place the onus of protecting the community’s brand on the victims of gender-based violence. And it is unfair to expect them to or shame them when they do not carry that undue burden.
We can turn to the example of Guru Harigobind Sahib on Bandi Chhor Divas for guidance. After being imprisoned by Emperor Jahangir upon his release, he refused to leave until the 52 wrongly-imprisoned hill rajas were also freed. Jahangir’s condition was that only those who could hold onto the Gurus robes would be freed, so the Guru had his robe adjusted so that it would be big enough and long enough for all 52 rajas to hold on.
The overarching message here is that Guru Harigobind Sahib oriented himself not around getting justice just for himself, but for the prisoners who were not yet free. He could not embrace his own fortune at the expense of the other prisoners, reminding us not to solely think about ourselves, or about what will benefit us as individuals, but to focus on the needs of those around us. And if our focus is on orienting ourselves around our branding, that is not about the community’s best interest — it is self-serving. What should be in the community’s best interest is protecting the people within the community who are most vulnerable and suffering. And so, orienting ourselves around expecting better of our community, and fighting for the empowerment and freedom of all members of our community is essential.
We need to start having, or, have more conversations about sexuality, gender norms, masculinity, privilege, power dynamics, consent, and healthy intimacy with our boys and girls, and with each other. Once we open up that dialogue, and use the example of Japuji Sahib to make sure we are truly listening and believing with love and humility, we will slowly be able to create spaces where our friends, our family, and our wider community members may feel comfortable coming to us to share their stories of gender-violence. Revolution and healing do not have to happen on a public twitter account for the world to see. They can happen within small, safe, comfortable networks of safety, where individuals feel empowered to speak up.
We can make sure to disrupt conversations that objectify women and girls, and actively dismantle ideals of Panjabi masculinity in our day-to-day lives, understanding that those ideals are informed by patriarchal stereotypes that only work to further endanger our most vulnerable and perpetuate victim-blaming rape culture. Men, especially, can positively influence these conversations, sharing their own stories about how they too are harmed by toxic masculinity. They can use Guru Nanak Sahib’s example to actively engage as allies by speaking up in situations where they feel toxic masculinity and rape culture are being perpetuated.
We can have conversations about consent versus coercion, about boundaries we can set for ourselves when it comes to our relationships, and about how to make those boundaries clear to our partners and how speak up when they are crossed. We can educate ourselves about the concept of personal boundaries in order to make sure we, ourselves, are not the ones crossing people’s boundaries. We can talk with our family members about these same issues, and actively work towards moving them from the category of “things to never talk about” to “things we are open to talking about.”
Ideally, our community could experience the tipping point that we have seen in other communities, where women and men come forward publicly on twitter with hashtags and our community responds with open arms and thinks about appropriate consequences. But given the four unique issues outlined, the reality of the situation is that this is not likely to happen any time soon. So until that time, we can use our close-knit community to our advantage, basing our actions in the foundational principle of Ik Oankar by taking care of each other — working to create networks of safety within the community, where abusers can be called out and warned about without putting the lives of the empowered and their families at risk. Women, in particular, have been doing a lot of this work — a lot of us can point to a person who we have heard whispers about that we have then gone on to warn others about. It is important to continue to have those sorts of dialogues, maintaining and expanding our networks of safety even when they are not in the public domain.
Most important of all, we can believe women and men, girls and boys, when they do come forward with their stories.
Transcreations by Harinder Singh
Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839 left a big void in the rule of the Sikh kingdom, which led to the annexation of Panjab by the British. His throne was inherited by multiple claimant heirs, none of whom could survive the intrigues and the schemings of the succession war in the royal court. Maharani Jind Kaur’s story is the narrative of a brave woman, who through all the trials and tribulations of the succession war, with all her faults, proved her mettle as a regent to the young Maharaja Duleep Singh, while also maneuvering through the diplomatic chicaneries of the British to the extent that even the British were wary of her.
Sexuality is a confusing and often avoided topic. It is generally relegated to being a "private" matter, and therefore not openly discussed or engaged with, even within close circles and small communities. Due to the taboo of discussing sexuality, many people struggle individually, often turning to religion for guidance or, more concretely, moral pronouncements.