Breaking the Silence: Reflections on Surat-Lalkaar

I spent this weekend in Fort Lee, New Jersey across the river from Manhattan at the Surat-Lalkaar Conference, “Kaur Voices: Exalt, Express, Empower.” As discussed previously, this event was a new collaboration between organizers of the popular Surat Conference in NY/NJ and California’s Jakara Movement. Never having attended a conference put on by either group, I was curious what the weekend would bring and eager (and a bit nervous) to help facilitate dialogue in our community about gender, sexism, and intimate violence.

Perhaps others will also have report backs and reflections on the conference in the coming days and weeks (feel free to share your thoughts in the comments), but for now I wanted to share a few highlights, a few aspects of my experience as both participant and a facilitation at Surat-Lalkaar while it’s fresh.

What struck me the most this weekend was simply the theme of the conference: issues of gender and gendered violence in the Punjabi Sikh community. As I was co-facilitating an intense discussion about a case study (based on a real situation) about child sexual abuse in a Sikh family, I looked around at the dozen or so Singhs or Kaurs in my group and realized I had never talked about this issue with a group of Sikhs. Nor had the rest of the participants in my discussion group.

A shared experience of nearly everyone in the group (and likely everyone at the conference) was the resounding silence about domestic violence, sexual assault, and child sexual abuse in our families, our gurdwaras, and our communities. There was a sense from many that these issues are indeed problems in our community, but problems that are hard to know the scope or seriousness of because no one talks about them openly. Many participants saw a tendency in our Sikh families to brush any “problems” under the rug to preserve the reputation or “honor” of the family.

These conversations are not easy to have. These conversations hit home for many of us. A woman is sexually assaulted every two minutes in the United States. One in four women are sexually assaulted in the lifetimes, most before the age of 18. One in six men are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Much of this violence occurs in our own families. Including our Sikh families.

I was encouraged to see so many young Sikhs at Surat-Lalkaar willing to open up to these difficult, painful conversations. While we often see many try to distance themselves or their families from these issues with rationale like, “This only happens in the pind, not amongst us ‘educated’ Sikhs,” I was encouraged to see participants at this conference taking on these issues, thinking through their root causes, and strategizing about Gurmat-inspired responses.

We also delved into workshops exploring the social construction of gender and the specifics of Punjabi masculinity and femininity. Again, I looked around in the room I was in — this time a group of all Singhs — and could hardly believe this conversation was happening: A group of Sikh men talking about masculinity, male privilege, and the ways we might be able to challenge gender dichotomies and the oppression of women in our Sikh community. Needless to say, this was the first time I have seen such a discussion happening amongst a group of Sikh men.

The subordination, objectification, and exploitation of women should be reason enough for us to commit ourselves every day to fighting sexism in all its forms, in the Sikh community and beyond. But one of the points I tried to emphasize to the group was that patriarchy has costs for us men too. While we receive privilege and power solely because of the bodies we we were born with, that power is based on an extremely narrow box of what it means to be a “real” man. We learn to be disconnected from our emotions (unless those emotions are anger or rage), we often lack the ability to have deep emotional connections with other men (and often women as well), we often don’t know how to effectively communicate about our feelings or how to be intuitive thinkers.

The costs to us as men are not only emotional but also spiritual. How can we men grow spiritually and get closer to Waheguru within the confines of hegemonic masculinity, which emphasizes always being aggressive, tough, stoic, and hyper(hetero)sexual? And what does it mean for our souls if our gender identity depends on the subjugation of our sisters, mothers, daughters, and partners?

While the conference was entitled “Kaur Voices,” it is clear that these issues are not “women’s issues.” These are issues of our entire community. These are Sikh issues.

We barely scratched this surface this weekend. We began to have some tough conversations and began to start imagining what action against patriarchy in the Sikh community might look like. But for sure, we broke the silence.

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7 Responses to “Breaking the Silence: Reflections on Surat-Lalkaar”

  1. PunjabiGabroo says:

    Wow! Thank you brooklynwala. I’ve been to the Surat confrerence in the past and this year was like NO OTHER. It was hardly the same experience as any other Surat Conference. The Jakara group added a whole new level to the conversation. I had hear of them before and seen some of there stuff on Facebook. I left in awe. From Gurmat to that document on Guru Gobind Singh, I left with new eyes. I cannot be blind ever again. I can’t be quiet to injustice. Thank you brooklyn, thank you Jakara. We are putting on a Jakara Jrs. Camp in our community in the next few
    months. I haven’t been excited like this in years. Wow!!

  2. NJ Kaur says:

    I attended Surat-Lalkaar this year and thoroughly enjoyed it. I appreciated the new issues being raised and thought it was pretty liberating to discuss issues like female Sikh identity and domestic violence. I thank all of the organizers for that. But one thing that bothered me was the minimal emphasis on Gurmat. The lesson plans were great, but me and my friends had a hard time relating to it because we pretty much only focused on social issues. It was fun, and I learned a lot, but usually I leave Surat feeling that I'm closer to my Guru and religion. I didn't really feel that this time.

    Still good, just different.

  3. Anonymous Kaur says:

    My fingers are shaking as I write this email. In my second year at uni, I was raped by my longtmie bf. I felt shame and hurt beyond belief. Even now I have spent years trying not to think about it, but still i think about it. This weekend I didn't have the courage to tell anyone, but I felt catharsis. I felt my Guru. Just being there in a sangat that cared and showed compassion during the case studies, that was my Guru talking to me. I know NJ Kaur feels that social issues and being close to her Guru are separate things. For me, this weekend I found that they are one in the same. My Guru came to me in the sangat when we were talking about these issues. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Waheguru Waheguru Waheguru

  4. Gender Kaur says:

    Thank you so much for sharing, Anonymous Kaur. I was one of the facilitators at Kaur Voices. Its great to hear that you too felt Guru within the sangat. It takes tremendous strength and courage to overcome intimate partner violence, especially if you're doing it on your own. If you ever want to talk, know that our support does not end with the conference. You can reach me at [email protected] anytime, to talk, for information on resources, or to get in touch with anyone else from Kaur Voices.

  5. Meeta Kaur says:

    Excellent post. I love that you see and articulate the impact patriarchy has on men and their inner emotional lives and how much men are robbed of their ability to feel. Super happy there was a group of men talking about gender roles and how to change!! Love these quiet revolutions! :)

  6. […] general and from the Sikh community specifically. While it’s important that we continue to discuss issues that impact our community, such as gender roles in the home, female infanticide, dowry etc., it’s also critical that we […]