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A Crime a Community Would Prefer to Ignore

“There is this very distinctive and self-incriminating silence within communities that have a history of ‘honour’ killings,” he says. “The so-called community leaders, the influential religious groups and the local language newspapers remain deafeningly silent when these killings happen. But that silence makes them just as guilty as the people who kill in the name of honour.” [link]

21killing1_279355s.jpgStatements like the one above, has made Jagdeesh Singh (pictured) a controversial figure within the suburbs of west London -home to many of Britain’s 400,000-plus Sikhs. While many young Sikhs consider Jagdeesh a role-model for the way he stands up and speaks against parochial traditions, many older and more conservative members of the community believe he is a troublemaker “who needlessly provokes controversy by shining an unwelcome spotlight on things that should not be aired in public”.

Eleven years ago, on 15 December 1998, Surjit Athwal disappeared during a holiday in the Indian Punjab with her in-laws. The 27-year-old customs officer at Heathrow had been desperately unhappy in her 10-year marriage to her husband Sukdave and had found love in the arms of another man. After years of abuse, she finally plucked up enough courage to seek a divorce but was persuaded by her domineering mother-in-law Bachan to travel to the Punjab for a family wedding in what she thought would be a final act of reconciliation. Instead, she was lured to her death. It took Jagdeesh Singh years to persuade the police to investigate his sister’s disappearance properly, and many more years of painstaking detective work to encourage one of the Athwal family members to testify. Finally, nine years after Surjit disappeared, Sukdave and Bachan Athwal were found guilty of ordering her death at a family council meeting. [link]


Sexual Trafficking In India

Yesterday was International Human Rights Day where people across the globe were asked to recognize and take action against the many forms of human rights abuses that take place in the world. A powerful talk on TED by Sunitha Krishnan brought insight into the grueling ground realities of sex trafficking in India- a human rights abuse that affects millions of women, their children and families.  Krishnan addresses both what it looks like and the difficulties of rescuing women and their children from this $10 million industry.  Krishnan says, “It’s normal to be raped by 100 men a day and abnormal to live in a shelter.  It’s abnormal to get rehabilitated.  It’s in that context that I rescue children. I rescue children as young as 3 years and women as old as 40 years.” Krishnan has rescued 3,200 girls.

She highlights how this modern day slavery and third largest form of organized crime affects those of all backgrounds-from middle class IS officers’ daughters to street children.   You can watch the talk here (disclaimer: the talk contains graphic images and descriptions of violence).

Her work on commercial sexual exploitation is powerful because of her courageous attitude towards rescuing victims.  Krishnan’s tenacious spirit coupled with her collaborative approach of bringing government, NGOs, and corporations together to fight sexual trafficking  is unique.  While listening to her talk, I found her organization’s approach to moving women in the commercial sex trade industry into new jobs particularly unique.  An essential part of these women’s rehabilitation is to gain a  new economic skill set that utilizes the power from their pain while harnessing their potential.  Thus, girls are being trained as professional welders, carpenters, and mansons instead of working on computers.  Often providing technical skill sets in information technology is seen as powerful form of empowerment, particularly in a place like Hyderabad-the technological capital of the world.  So, “why welding and not computers?”  Krishan says,

“They had an immense amount of courage without any “pardahs” inside of their bodies. They could fight in a male dominated world very easily and not feel shy about it. [By working] as carpenters and masons …  as security guards and cab drivers … they are gaining confidence, restoring dignity, and building hope. “

These women excel in their careers and works for large corporations.  However, the biggest obstacle they continue to face is not  economics but the lack of empathy from civil society.  The stigma that these women live with even after moving out of the sexual trade industry forces them to suffer in silence.  Krishnan says that civil society has “Ph.D.s on victimizing a victim”.  She requests that within our  limited worlds, civil society needs to open their minds and hearts to accept these victims of sexual trafficking as human beings.  It is an essential part of their rehabilitation as is gaining an economic skill set.

Holiday Brides in Punjab

Almost two years ago I blogged about an NPR story that highlighted the issue of Runaway Grooms. Today, I once again write about the same issue – this time the media terms it “Holiday Brides” – a different name telling the same story.  We should be outraged that years after we first heard about this issue, we are still having the same conversation.  We are told that about 20,000 women have been deserted by men in the UK, US and Canada who promise to return to India and never do.  The most recent questions is then, why are Punjabi women still falling for this obvious scam?

_46764969_280720094871.jpgIn a dusty village in the Jagraon district of Punjab, northern India, 35-year-old Suman (which is not her real name), lives with her widowed mother in a small room in a crumbling building. Four years ago, the secondary school teacher married a British man in a wedding arranged by relatives. Shortly after the ceremony, her husband, who is in his 50s, left for London with the promise he would send for her. At first all appeared to go well. “He would visit two to three times a year. “Whenever he came to India, we had a good time,” she said. However, on one visit he claimed her application for a spousal visa to the UK had been refused. It was like being a prostitute you take along and have a good time with and then leave behind ‘Suman’, 35 “He told me he had applied for an appeal. “But he has never shown me a copy of that appeal. He’s never shown me any documents.” The visits and calls ended, and for the past six months Suman has had no contact with her husband. “In hindsight, it was like being a prostitute you take along and have a good time with and then leave behind. [link]


Nov. 21: Women in 1984 (SF) & Lahir(NY)

Two great events are happening this Saturday: in San Francisco- “Women in 1984”; in New York- Lahir.

If you’re anywhere near either of these 2 cities, you better be there, or you’ll regret missing out!

Women in 1984flyer.jpg

Dr. Cynthia Mahmood (Fighting for Faith and Nation), Navkiran Kaur Khalra (daughter of Jaswant Singh Khalra), and Jasmine Kaur Marwaha (Ensaaf) will share their narratives and links to the struggle of the post 1984-period.
Dr. Cynthia Mahmood’s work deals directly with the issue of militancy and she will discuss the violence in Punjab from the macro lens of India as a democracy.
Navkiran Kaur Khalra will speak of her own experiences as the daughter of S. Jaswant Singh Khalra and the heritage of his vision. The Khalra family’s narratives is inherently linked to the states backlash against movements desiring human rights and autonomy.
Jasmine Kaur Marwaha, human rights lawyer for Ensaaf, will be discussing the the right to reparations for victims of the November 1984 pogroms, as well as victims of the Punjab counterinsurgency, from a gendered perspective.
Saturday, November 21st, 2009 | 12—4pm | 166 Barrows Hall (UC Berkley)


Sikh Women’s Reflections of 1984

The role of Sikh women often remembered in 1984 is that of victim.  Yes women were raped, killed, and left to care for their families when their male relatives were kidnapped and killed.  However, the strength and perseverance to move forward without justice is often glossed over.  I find it powerful to hear Sikh women’s  stories of “moving on” while continuing to speak out against the horrific injustices of 1984.  Often there is talk about how Sikhs have been in a state of “victimhood” for the past 25 years.  I believe the stories of the women below show how some Sikhs have empowered themselves to move forward with their daily lives in the past 25 years while living with the pain and not giving up on the demand for justice.  This is agency and not victimhood.

Yes institutions, memorials, and marches show how Sikhs are attempting to move forward as a community; however, these women have done something that is far more difficult-picking up the pieces of their  lives in the midst of devastation and mending them together as best as they could for themselves, their families, and their community.  These women are inspirational and their lives for the past 25 years show why.

Watch the videos below in Hindi to hear their stories (hat tip: Mallika).  One of the most powerful reflections of 1984 I have seen.


Reviving Trinjan in Punjab

How can Punjabi traditions, environmental awareness, and women’s space all be nurtured at the same time?  Trinjan.  Two organizations in Punjab recently teamed up to begin this.  The Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM),  09aug13.jpgworking towards sustainable agriculture, conservation of natural resources, environmental health and eco-sustainable technologies teamed up with Pingalwara, the org started by Bhagat Puran Singh in Amritsar as a refuge to care for those who had nowhere left to go.  [Hat tip: Big B!]

These two groups combined efforts to revive the lost tradition of Trinjan.  KVM created a new initiative- the Women Action for Ecology to encourage women’s participation in an agro-ecological revival movement in Punjab.

From pictures on Pingalwara’s site, it seems that Pingalwara may have envisioned this first attempt at reviving Trinjan to be more a display of Punjabi traditions- natural foods, arts, and crafts.  However a report from KVM envisions a much more active and central role for women in reviving Trinjan.

Since women are the first and worst victims of the agro-ecological crisis here and elsewhere, women need to work towards the mitigation process, for their own sake and for the sake of the community. Trinjan is an effort to mobilize women to appreciate their own traditional wisdom and role in the preservation and conservation of the environment in Punjab. Platforms for sharing of knowledge and spreading of practice are the main tool for empowerment of women in Trinjan. (emphasis added) [KVM report]


Every Time We’ve Had Our Babies, People Have Almost… Commiserated
Star reporter Raveena Aulakh, posing as an expectant mother, is handed bags of pills in an industrial area in Mississauga by Kanwar Bains, news editor of a Punjabi-language newspaper.

Toronto Star reporter Raveena Aulakh, posing as an expectant mother, is handed bags of pills in an industrial area in Mississauga by Kanwar Bains, news editor of a Punjabi-language newspaper.

Just in case the rest of the world didn’t know what a sorry state Punjab was in with respect to its gender imbalance, there has been two headline reports from Canada’s biggest newspapers in recent weeks. The first deals with the problem in India and the second talks about how the problem has been exported to Canada.

The first from the Globe and Mail entitled “Land of the Rising Son”, examines how India has responded to the decline of female births. There’s two sad learnings from the article. One is that Punjab is still in the worst position with respect to male-female gender ration and the second is that an individual’s level education has does little to reverse generations of discrimination.


Breaking the Silence around Punjabi-Sikh Women

Coblogged by Reema and Sundari

There is a deafening silence that surrounds Punjabi-Sikh women.  Too often, when discussing challenges that some women may be facing, the conversation is shut down and de-legitimized by one or two angry voices. Interwoven into this is the unrelenting identity debate of labeling actions “Punjabi” versus “Sikh” which often distracts us from the true issue at hand.

focusgroup.jpgFor example, recent posts about issues affecting women turned out to be way more controversial to a few commentors than anything in the original post merited. A post on forced marriages drew virulent ire from a few readers for discussing forced marriages under a title that included the word “Sikh.”  A post on a change in asylum law which also included “Sikh” in the title drew the same virulent response. Earlier in the year, a post named “The Rise and Fall of Sikh Girls,” was accused of creating unnecessary attention with it’s title.

This reaction is reminiscent of the treatment that was meted to Harshinder Kaur by an Indian government official when she attempted to talk about female feticide in Geneva.

She said in her talk at Geneva she had pointed that it was very essential to educate the women and girls of Punjab to make them aware of their rights and to alleviate their sufferings. For this, UN must give aid to needy girls in their education directly as it should reach at grass level where the aid is not reaching.  She said he is giving monetary help to 300 needy girls for their education through her own trust. This issue was disliked by a participant P. Srivastava and she [sic] threatened her after she finished her talk and came out of hall and advised her not to visit UN ever again if she has to utter any [words against the] government. She clarified repeatedly that said [sic] she has not uttered anything about government but was worried only about education of poor girls of Punjab. [PunjabNewsline ]

Besides the insult felt by readers at the idea of Sikhs not living as Sikhs should and the fear that a negative image of Sikhs was being portrayed, there is another stream of thought shutting down these conversations that I think needs to be addressed.


Jasmeet Kaur Sidhu: Top 10 College Women

jksJasmeet Kaur Sidhu is a 21-year-old aspiring journalist, who currently writes a climate blog for the Toronto Star (she even has The Langar Hall listed as one of her links!).  She was recenly chosen as one of the Top 10 College Women for Glamour Magazine (hat tip: Maple Leaf Sikh).  The award is usually given out to college students in the US, however, Jasmeet (a Canadian) was picked to be part of the group this year!

Jasmeet is the founder of the Peel Environmental Youth Alliance (PEYA), a network of students in the Peel Region working to implement environmental programs in all 220 Peel Region schools.  She is currently studying Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto.  Her dream is to become an international journalist.

As a sophomore, Sidhu wrote to the Toronto Star suggesting ways for the paper to improve its coverage. She was promptly asked to join the Community Editorial Board—the youngest member ever—and soon started writing opinion columns for the Star, Canada’s largest newspaper. Sidhu, whose family moved from Malaysia to Canada when she was a baby, has covered everything from HIV/AIDS in Africa to climate change. As the peace and conflict major says, “My mother used to deliver the Star when we first came to Canada. Now her daughter writes for the very same newspaper. Amazing, right?!” 


A new kind of Joan of Arc/(Punjab?)

Blogged by: Amritpan

harshinderkaur.jpgFor many years UNICEF India has attempted to survey and document the declining sex ratio and female feticide in India.  And for many years the government of India has maintained that Punjab (and thus Sikhs) consistently registered the highest number of ‘kuri maar’  cases, as compared to states such as Haryana, Himachal, Rajasthan, and Gujarat.   So when a Punjabi doctor took the stage at United Nation’s Geneva Conference and dared to question the validity of the government’s survey methods, she was met with a ruthless legislative backlash so typical of Bharat’s political response to its human rights advocates that it almost doesn’t even prompt a second glance.

A renowned, outspoken crusader of women’s rights and a pediatrician at Rajindra Hospital, Patiala, Dr. Harshinder Kaur presented a paper to the Geneva Convention that explicated upon the abject conditions of women in India, disputed female feticide as being a Punjabi cultural phenomenon by asserting that Rajasthan has the highest number of feticides, and challenged India’s injudicious spending of the UN’s funds, urging that the UN redirect this monetary support to specialized NGOs.


Gurbani – A Sikh Solution to Female Feticide

It might partly be the scarcity of female voices and public female faces in the Sikh community that makes Nikky-imagining_the_fetus.jpgGuninder Kaur Singh’s so distinctive and refreshing. But in addition to her position as one of the few public female voices in the Sikh community, her original and creative work is really what makes Ms. Kaur-Singh so refreshing. As we have discussed in the past, in the context of “Relocating Gender in Sikh History,” the vast majority of Sikh history has been written by men. And thus, despite their best intentions, for the most part, women’s voice in Sikh history has been non-existent. It is silent.

In this realm of mostly male voices, Ms. Kaur-Singh has taken an original position on a much-needed project: to explore a feminist perspective in interpreting Gurbani. Many translations of Gurbani have been written, some of which are quite good, and others that are quite lacking (in terms of staying close to the feeling of the original shabad and being easily understandable for today’s audiences). One of the most popular translations today, if not the most popular, is Sikhi to the Max. It’s heavily used in gurdwaras, at weddings, and by individuals at home. And in this translation, the divine is interpreted as He/Him/Lord. Not only is this archaic, it creates a framework of masculinity that limits our understanding of Waheguru.  The Sikh conception of gender embraces as well as goes beyond gender.

In a piece we discovered recently, Ms. Kaur-Singh contrasts current practices of sex-selective abortion with the place of the feminine within Gurbani.  In a chapter of “Imagining the Fetus: The Unborn in Myth, Religion, and Culture,” Ms. Kaur Singh orients readers with the history of sex-selection in Punjab.  She then goes on to show how Gurbani holds the power to turn today’s practices on their head. In a few short pages, we are treated to a celebration of the feminine, reminded that our spirituality can focus on our source (the physical allegory of which is the mother) rather than its current infatuation with the end, and given a gender-neutral interpretation of excerpts of Gurbani which resonate as closer to a truer meaning than some other more widely used interpretations today.


Half The Sky

AI_04260901_Aug._26_11.47.gifThe 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.


New immigration option for battered Sikh women

It used to be the case that women who came to the US as dependents on their husbands’ immigration status were punjabi_woman.jpgsometimes caught between a rock and a hard place. In cases where one spouse was abusive, the other spouse wouldn’t leave the relationship for fear of losing their immigration status and being sent back to their original country.  If they returned to their original country empty handed and without their spouses, they would be perceived as failures.  And so, many women have just endured extremely abusive relationships.

One option that has been available if the abuser is a permanent resident or a US citizen is a self-petition under the Violence Against Women Act. But this wasn’t available if the abuser was in the US on a temporary visa, as many immigrants initially are, or to women outside the US.

Thus, a recent development in asylum law has the potential to open a door to safety for at least some women who are most seriously abused in domestic violence. To qualify for asylum (or refugee status), one must have been a victim of  persecution, or have a well founded fear of persecution based on their race, nationality, religion, political opinion, or “membership in a particular social group.”  Before this summer, women who were victims of horrendous domestic violence were not recognized as a particular social group, though the issue has been argued for 14 years in a battle to allow battered women to seek asylum in the US. [link]

The government’s prior position under the Bush administration was illustrated in the case of R-A-, a woman who suffered horrific violence at the hands of her husband, a former soldier of the Guatemalan army.  She was kicked, whipped, and beaten unconscious, nearly had an eye pushed out, was repeatedly raped, sodomized, threatened with machetes and guns, dragged by her hair, and had windows and mirrors broken on her head. [source 1, 2]. The Guatemalan police refused to help each time she went to them, deciding that hers was a domestic matter. RA fled Guatemala and her husband, seeking asylum in the US.


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