On Being a Sikh Woman

Guest blogged by Neesha Meminger

Admin note: In an effort to further cultivate the conversation on Faith and Feminism within the Sikh community, panelists from the Open Heart/Closed Fist event in NYC will share their thoughts with us.  To learn more about the panel, please read Sikh Women Speak Out on Faith and Feminism.


2303941_md.jpgI walked away from our panel with mixed feelings. On the one hand – how exhilarating to sit in a room full of South Asian men and women and put a spotlight on the thoughts and experiences of Sikh women! I tried to remember when I ever sat in a room like that and spent two hours or more talking about what it means to be a Sikh woman and the importance of that in my life – never mind the validation by others I barely knew or had just met. The fact that this space was created at all was enough to leave me feeling full, and bursting with the need to create more such spaces and conversations.

On the other hand, I realized, from some of the questions asked, that we are just at the beginnings of this dialogue. I have a lot of faith in our community, because I believe that out of all the other spaces in my life, this is where an honest conversation can take place; one that not only encompasses politics and radical discourse, but spirituality, as well. For if not here, where?

Sikhi was built, in part, on challenging the status quo. The founders of the faith were outraged at the injustices of their time and spoke up for the voiceless. They took to arms for the defenseless. The other, perhaps bigger, part was the right to own one’s own relationship with god – to not entrust a middle person to interpret the word of god and to seek enlightenment from within. “Sat Nam: Truth be thy name” is one of the first teachings that resonated deeply for me. It encourages us to seek out the truth because that is where we find god. The relationship to the Divine is a deeply personal for everyone, and Sikhi acknowledges that the Almighty is neither male nor female, without image, without form. This, along with the fact that caste was rejected, and social equality upheld as a goal, allowed a gateway for all to worship as one, while owning their own spirituality.

Spirituality is the shape of our life force. Corrupt governments learned, long ago, that the quickest way to control a people is to control that life force – to create religion with strict doctrines and guidelines so that people conform to them in the interests of the powerful elite. Evolved spiritual beings, like the founders (and here I include not only the gurus, but the mothers, sisters, and wives who nurtured them, guided them, supported them and sustained them on their journeys) of this and other faiths, saw beyond the greedy motivations of unscrupulous leaders and fought for the right to own their own spirit. Their own life force. In fact, the founders of Sikhi took up arms against the corrupt leaders of their time.

Freedom necessarily means justice for all. And that encompasses all kinds of human rights: women’s rights, LGBQT rights, the rights of the poor and working class, the rights of immigrants and people of color, the rights of anyone under siege to live free of fear and brutal violence, with humanity, dignity, and all basic human needs met. To me, this ripples out from my personal sphere—where I fight for the right to choose my own path and for control over my own body and thoughts—to the global sphere, where I stand shoulder to shoulder with others for justice.

This is not about being “western”, “imperialist”, or “liberal.” This is about looking around and noting the egregious violations of human rights that are taking place everywhere. People are, on a daily basis, being stripped of their very basic human rights—whether it’s in our own homes and neighborhoods, or across the oceans. Our founders were awake. They saw the violations and not only spoke up, but armed themselves to defend those being violated.

So, I definitely concur with one of my fellow panelists who said she was more of a human rights advocate than anything else.  That goes along with the saying that “none of us are free unless all of us are free.” And that should answer the young man in the audience who came up to me afterward and asked why we needed to have this conversation in the first place. Why do we even need to discuss feminism within the context of Sikhism when equal rights are already written into the holy text?

For one thing, if we don’t discuss an issue, it is never addressed. Not discussing the experience of women and girls silences women and girls. The texts are available to all of us, but not all men and women practice the same way, nor are the texts interpreted the same way by all. Additionally, women don’t need men to speak for us—we are perfectly capable of speaking for ourselves. Many, many young women and girls experience violations within their Sikh homes—and many of these homes consider themselves quite pious and observant. These violations are not always violent and physical (although sometimes they are); most often, they are subtle and not easily pinpointed, even by the one being violated. Silencing and shaming are the most prevalent ways to control girls and women—in any culture or faith. Saying that we don’t even need to have the conversation as Sikhs is a quick and effective way to dismiss the concerns of Sikh women and girls.

But none of this is unique to Sikhi. Women and girls are violated, whether psychologically, emotionally, physically, sexually, or otherwise, on a regular basis in every country around the globe.

We have to always keep in mind that Sikhi exists within a cultural context. Yes, most of us know and understand that Punjabi culture is not synonymous with Sikhi. The scriptures are pure and preach justice and equality. But the culture at large is full of greed, oppression, and power imbalances. If we are to follow the example of the gurus and the women who helped found Sikhi, it is imperative that we challenge the culture around us. It is not enough to say “Yes, but that is Punjabi culture, not Sikhi; Sikhi preaches equality.” It is naïve to believe that the culture doesn’t in some way, however small or subtle, seep into our day-to-day lives, our perceptions and attitudes.

A fellow author, Nalo Hopkinson, once said that racism is like shit. We are all swimming in it. None of us can get out and come away clean. Culture is the same—it is all-pervasive. Whether it is Indian, Punjabi, British, American, Canadian, Chinese, German, French, whatever, we are steeped in it. The media, news, education, politics, and myth-making all affirm the dominant culture. All of those messages, every minute of every day, have to have some sort of impact on our psyches. The culture around us helps shape our psychology and attitudes, both collective and individual. As Sikhs, we can reach for the wisdom of the Guru Granth Sahib to help pull us out of the crap, but we first have to acknowledge that we are swimming in it.

The very founding of Sikhi was based in radical revolution. For me, this is part of what it means to be a Sikh woman—it means looking around at the crap I’m swimming in, calling it what it is, and fighting it every step of the way. It means standing in solidarity with others who are engaged in the struggle for equal rights and justice. It means fighting out of a love for humanity and to protect those who cannot defend themselves. If I see that injustice and inequality is written into the policies of a workplace, or if those in power are not honoring agreements, or if someone I know is violating another who is more vulnerable, it is my responsibility as a Sikh woman, and as a spiritual being, to speak up and stand with others who are speaking up. Because the power is with those who take ownership of their spirituality – those who are awake, and those who fearlessly advocate for justice in the face of corruption.


Neesha Meminger was born in Punjab, India, and moved to Toronto, Canada, when she was five. That’s where she grew up until her mid-twenties when she moved to New York City. She holds a BA in Film and Media Arts from Ryerson University in Toronto, and an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School For Social Research in New York City.  Her independent films have screened at international film festivals, she has taught literature and creative writing courses to undergraduate freshmen in New York, served as a board member for many arts and cultural organizations, and counseled women and youth in crisis.  SHINE, COCONUT MOON, her first novel, made the Smithsonian’s ‘Notable Books’ list and was selected as one of the Top 100 Books of 2009 by the New York Public Library’s ‘Stuff for the Teen Age’. JAZZ IN LOVE, Neesha’s second novel for young adults, was selected as a top YA pick by the Pennsylvania School Librarians’ Association and was listed on Bookslut’s Recommended Summer Reading list for 2011. For more information about Neesha and her work, visit her online at www.NeeshaMeminger.com.

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6 Responses to “On Being a Sikh Woman”

  1. Sahib says:

    Wonderful post! The punjabi culture vs sikh faith debate is an interesting one. Didn’t the culture exist during out Guru’s time? Why are we still explaining these inequities on the culture when our own Guru’s already fought this fight. We have to take accountability as humans, as individuals.

  2. SAFAR says:

    "The very founding of Sikhi was based in radical revolution. For me, this is part of what it means to be a Sikh woman—it means looking around at the crap I’m swimming in, calling it what it is, and fighting it every step of the way." – certainly not an easy fight for any man or woman, but I've been finding so much inspiration in women like yourselves that are immersed in this fight, and committed to it, against all odds. Thank you for this brilliant post that speaks so much of the truth that resides in all the sikh women's voices and silences.

    I'd like to encourage you to please check out our website at sikhfeministresearch.org, and the upcoming "Our Journeys" conference, which would be much enhanced with your presence, feedback, and thoughts!

  3. Parandhi says:

    There are so many definitions of what it means to be a Sikh woman. I really enjoyed reading Neesha’s take on it. I celebrate these conversations – even if they’re only happening online!

  4. Ajaib Kaur says:

    Lovely post, thanks Neesha for the thought you put into it. Great to see the work you are doing.

    I was just thinking about the tendency to see Sikhism and Punjabi culture in opposition to each other, i.e. behaviors that are seen as inconsistent with Sikh ethics are blamed on Punjabi culture. I'm not sure where this began, but I do hope that we can see Punjabi culture as being something rich and positive and not the moral opposite of Sikhi..

    Punjabi culture has so many positive representation, language, idioms, ethics, poetry, folk songs, literature, giddha, bhangra, festivals, traditions, food, many of which we can be proud of. It saddens me when people blame issues like alcoholism, sexism, on Punjabi culture, since the current shape of these issues take today is a fairly recent phenomenon.

    Hope that we can move beyond this Sikhism vs. Punjabi culture dichotomy, since our Gurus would never actually blame this on 'culture' but would be able to see right to the main issue of separation from the Divine – on a societal and individual level.

  5. Carla says:

    You made some decent points there. I looked online for that problem and found most people goes coupled with with all your website.