Monthly Archives: September 2009

To The Last Hair, To The Last Breath

A few weeks ago, while at the park with my family, an elderly woman dressed in a sari came over to say hello. After a brief introduction, she said to us “wait here for a second” and called out “Alex…come here!” A little boy with light skin and brown hair ran over to us. The lady in the sari bent down and said to Alex, “See…this is what your grandfather looked like. He wore a turban and had a long beard just like him.” Alex wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but he forced a quick smile and ran back to the swings.

As a dastaar-wearing Sikh, I come across these interactions quite often – some pleasant, some not-so-pleasant, and some downright awkward. But because they happen so frequently, I tend to brush it off and forget all about them quickly. For some reason, this incident stuck with me.
It made me think about the days in Gurmat camp decades ago when the Uncles would scare us in to keeping our kesh or else keshdari Sikhs would become a “thing of the past” and “only be seen in museum exhibits.” I never bought that theory, but the incident in the park did shake me a bit.
Although Sikhi is such a large part of my life, truth is…I really don’t think about kesh much. As a matter of fact, when I lead presentations about Sikhi to Sikhs or non-Sikhs, I make a point to downplay the kesh aspect. Not that it is any less important than any of the other kakaars, but with non-Sikhs, the “mystery” behind the kesh seems to overtake discussions, and we miss some of the most important and central tenets of the faith…equality, self-less service, self-realization, and universality of the message. And even with Sikhs, kesh is made such a focus that many in our community feel that as long as we retain the external image of a Sikh, the rest of maryada and discipline does not apply. It is essentially a “free-pass” and gives us the right to criticize those who do not keep their kesh.
Being the only Sikh boy in my school in the early 80’s was difficult and I always questioned why I needed to keep my kesh in the first place. I was given all kinds of answers – some said it was Guru Sahib’s way of giving us a unique identify we “couldn’t run away from” after the circumstances of Guru Tegh Bahdur’s shaheedi. Some said that hair has traditionally been a sign of saintliness, as many other saints from other religions kept long hair. Others said we should not cut something that grows naturally from our bodies (yes, the finger nail debate would quickly follow), while others gave more “alternative” reasons – that hair served as “antennae” to gather and channel energy from the sun. At a recent seminar I attended, one of the more “scholarly” elders referred to kesh as a “custom” and well, customs after time…do change. I’ve heard just about everything. Strange how I was so consumed with this question throughout most of my childhood and adolescence, but as I’ve gotten older and learned more about Gurmat, I’ve started to wonder less and less about it. Instead, I’m consumed with what I find difficult now – waking up at amritvela, focusing on my paath, being compassionate and forgiving, letting go of my ego, attachment, and anger, seeing Waheguru in everyone…it’s as though keeping my hair is the easiest thing my Guru has asked of me…I mean, I don’t even have to try! And for everything my Guru has given me, isn’t this the least I can do as an expression of my love?
In the end, we all have to come up with our own reason. Personally, I keep my kesh because my Guru has asked this of me…and I accept it as his gift – that’s it. It is neither a symbol nor a custom…it is a part of me…a part of my history. It is what Bhai Taru Singh gave his life for rather than a strand be cut. It is what Sikhs all around the world reflect upon daily in our Ardas, remembering those who gave their lives, “Kesan Suasan Naal Nibaahi” (with their hair intact, to the last breath). Just like a soldier wears his/her uniform proudly because it reflects the principles and tenets for which the country stands…my kakaars serve much the same…it represents the principles and tenets of my faith…equality, justice, service, compassion. And every time I stand before a mirror I am reminded of those principles and the code by which I live. Everyone around me is aware of it too…I cannot run away from it. And if my appearance means I am excluded from joining my co-workers at the bar after work or I’m randomly selected at airports from time to time…so be it. It is an honor and a privilege to bear the image of the Khalsa. And with my Ardaas and His grace, I shall live up to the ideals for which it stands.
Just about everybody I talk to or every article I read about the state of the panth tells me much the same…youth cutting their hair, trimming their beards, moving away from Sikhi etc. etc. Although I don’t ignore the realities of our situation, I don’t dwell in it either…I choose hope instead. I’m convinced through further reflection of our history, our traditions, and inspiration through Gurbani, we (individually and collectively) will reflect the Guru’s love and message. I look forward to a day at the park where a mother will bring their child over to us, lean down and say “This is a Sikh family…if you are ever in need…you can always count on them to help!

Half The Sky

The issue of forced marriages and domestic violence clearly struck a chord with many of the TLH readers. But somewhere deep in the comments over titles, or whether these are Sikh or Punjabi issues, or whether or not we should air our “dirty laundry” in the first place – I feel some of the issues themselves got lost.

In formulating my own thoughts on the topic and trying to build a broader perspective on women’s issues in general, I came across a fascinating article in last week’s New York Times Magazine called “Saving the World’s Women.” The premise of the article is that many of the countries that are disproportionately poverty-stricken and absorbed in fundamentalism and chaos, are also those same countries where women are the least educated and most marginalized. And by focusing (and investing) on women and girls, a dramatic impact can be made to fight global poverty and extremism.

Take the example of Saima Muhammad (pictured above) from Pakistan. Saima didn’t have a rupee to her name, was routinely beaten by her unemployed husband and other family members, and had to send her kids away due to lack of food and other basics. Even her mother-in-law contributed to her troubles by encouraging her son to marry again because Saima was only giving birth to girls. However, after Saima signed up with the Kashf Foundation, a Pakistani microfinance organization, things turned around.

Saima took out a $65 loan and used the money to buy beads and cloth, which she transformed into beautiful embroidery that she then sold to merchants in the markets of Lahore. She used the profit to buy more beads and cloth, and soon she had an embroidery business and was earning a solid income — the only one in her household to do so. Saima took her elder daughter back from the aunt and began paying off her husband’s debt.

…Saima became the tycoon of the neighborhood, and she was able to pay off her husband’s entire debt, keep her daughters in school, renovate the house, connect running water and buy a television.

As the economics of Saima’s situation changed, so did the relationship with her family. She now has a better relationship with her family and has earned their respect. It is unfortunate that this is what it took for Saima, and many will never have the golden opportunity Saima had, but it does send a clear message – that although it may seem impossible to break down cultural barriers, economics can change the game quickly.

The article explains case after case of how investment in women’s education and assistance in starting businesses can help impoverished women support their families, communities, and country – “They represent the best hope for fighting global poverty.”

Some of the author’s arguments seem a bit far-fetched based on their evidence. They claim that the “little secret” of global poverty has much to do with unwise spending by the poor-especially men, and that women are more likely to spend on family needs, health, and education more so than men. That could be debated at a family level, but a macro level, I feel we cannot realistically measure this until women hold more offices of power in these countries. But to be fair, this article was adapted from a book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide“, due to be released next month…perhaps I’ll be convinced after reading the full book.

What I liked most about the article was that it offered specific solutions and recommendations. It outlined an agenda on what “fighting poverty through helping women” might look like, based on studies by respected economists., more than just “throwing aid” to developing nations. It also explained models that have produced results in other countries. So you may be wondering…(and hopefully I’ll save a few angry responses)…what does this have to do with us? That’s simple:
– The UN has estimated that there are 5 million honor killings a year
– 130 million around the world have been subjected to genital cutting
– 1 percent of the world’s landowners are women
The list goes on and on…

This is not a Punjabi issue or a Sikh issue…this is a human issue. We know how our Gurus (through Bani & history) promoted gender equality, and one of the commenters last week beautifully laid out examples of courageous women throughout our history…from the stories of Mir Mannu’s prison to Mai Bhago and the women who fought alongside her. So if we are to be “activists of the world” why shouldn’t we be at the forefront of this cause? Shouldn’t our Sikh NGO’s work with President Obama’s new White House Council on Women and Girls? Shouldn’t our Sikh institutions partner with organizations like CARE, that works alongside poor women in fighting global poverty? And shouldn’t we create our own organizations that serve as a forum for discussion and activism both for global women’s issues and that of our local communities? And what about the author’s theory on how such focus can address global poverty…doesn’t that affect us? And even if we prefer to believe none of these issues currently affect our Sikh and Punjabi communities – given the proximity of where the article’s examples take place (several references to India and Pakistan) and similarities in culture, should we not be proactive in preventing it? Perhaps by implementing some of the recommendations the article suggests at a micro level, we can mitigate the issues discussed in previous posts on forced marriages and domestic violence.

I don’t believe there is any “silver-bullet” to addressing the issues above, but I’m glad to see TLH and its active readership discussing and debating them. As the Chinese saying goes, “Women hold up half the sky”…the issues affecting women cannot be silenced.

I look forward to hearing other’s thoughts and comments on the linked article!