Breaking New Ground – NYC

On October 17, 18, and 19, the “Women in Religion in the 21st Century” conference was held at the Interchurch Center in Manhattan. It was a gathering of academics and religious practitioners from around the country in a rich three days of panels, workshops, and films exploring faith, feminism, and “faith-fueled activism.” On each day of the conference, I was asked to speak from a different Sikh perspective: first as a Sikh filmmaker, the next day as young scholar of Sikh scripture, and on the last day as a Sikh American woman “breaking new ground.”

On the first day, I was a filmmaker. With the help of Jessica Jenkins, our fabulous Director of Research, we screened Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath before a small gathering in the beautiful space that is the Chapel of the Interchurch Center. It was an intimate setting and we had some good conversation afterward – as well as a number of invitations for future screenings: Philadelphia! Long Island! North Carolina! Michigan! Jess was busy scribbling down possibilities for the next stops on our national film tour.

On the second day, I spoke as a student of Sikh scripture and ethics at Harvard Divinity School on a panel called “The Pleasure of Our Text.” Women are often asked to defend their scripture, explained moderator Laurie Patton, so this panel asks scholars to share the pleasure of studying their text. The other two on the panel were distinguished scholars in their own fields with many books to their name: Ellen Frankel speaking on Jewish text and Asma Barlas on Islamic text; it was an honor to speak alongside them and very easy to reflect on the the pleasure of studying the poetic verses of the Guru Granth Sahib:

“Guru Nanak’s theological vision of Oneness is at the heart of Sikh scripture. It beckons us to experience the radical interconnectedness between all beings and the compassion that flows from such recognition. This opening up of boundaries, however, is often in tension with the impulse of a threatened community to close its boundaries and protect itself by ‘naming’ itself over and against others, as ‘Sikhs’ not ‘Muslims’ for example. We see both streams of ethical thinking in the Sikh community since 9/11.”

It was on the third and final day, however, when I was asked to speak on a panel called “Continuing the Legacy, Breaking New Ground,” that I had my own real break-through. It was the first time I had articulated the problems facing Sikh women in the context of post-9/11 America. While other panelists spoke of the legacies they were continuing, I emphasized the very new place of Sikh women on the stage of American religious history. I had to draw up the courage to speak with honesty; I was reminded by what my dearest friend Irene once told me: “Speak even if your voice shakes.” Here is what I said.

“I have thought long and hard about the framing for this talk and this conference: continuing the legacy. I have come to realize that for me, there is no legacy. I cannot remember any significant Sikh women leaders in American religious history. I can only draw upon the inspiration of my peers – Sikh women who are just now speaking as lawyers, scholars, and community leaders. We are blazing a path where there was none. It is often painful and sometimes extremely dangerous.

“I deeply appreciate the common language that we can share as religious women at a conference like this, but I also feel as though I am an outsider here. The mainstream women’s movement in America speaks from a place of relative stability and security. Your fore-mothers have made great gains in the last hundred years: you have a legacy that you are continuing, and although your struggles continue to be new, you are drawing upon those gains.

“In contrast, I feel as though I speak from a place of tremendous urgency and instability. I speak from a community that feels itself in deep crisis since 9/11. And from within that community, I speak as a woman who bears the burdens of that crisis. We as women bear the pressure to preserve the tradition as dictated by the patriarchs in our families and to protect those men at all costs, even if it means allowing them to take their frustration out on our bodies. I am personally connected to women in my community who are dealing with domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual incest, and patterns of abuse that follow alcohol and drug addictions, all situations exacerbated since 9/11. Here are glimpses:

“There is a woman who is beaten over and over by her alcoholic husband. She has to be taken to the hospital after he breaks her two front teeth. Their daughter finds blood on the bathroom floor. The woman won’t call the police because she’s worried that they will deport her husband back to India. And she won’t leave him because she’s afraid of ‘what people will say.’

“I know a woman who stayed with her boyfriend for two years after 9/11, despite constant emotional abuse – she knew that part of her mistreatment came from his frustration as a turbaned Sikh man walking the streets to insults everyday.

‘There is a woman whose marriage is failing under economic pressures since 9/11, but she won’t seek marriage counseling, because ‘they don’t understand our Punjabi culture.’

“And there is one woman I know who was called out to an empty park by a member of her family and threatened at gunpoint by a cousin who had molested her in their childhood. She escaped. Hours later, I asked her, ‘Why don’t you call the police?’ ‘I can’t call the police,’ she says. ‘How can I ask the police to show up at the house of a man with a turban and beard who has a loaded gun? They will see him as bin Laden in the flesh. They will pull the trigger on a sudden move; they will beat him in prison.’ I am reminded of the fear of black women in the inner-city unable to call the ‘white cops’ on their men.

“What is the meaning of security in a post-9/11 world: what does security mean for a nation on high alert? for a community often targeted as the enemy in that nation? and for women in that community who cannot call the police?

“I think back to Marion Masada, a woman I interviewed in the film. She was sexually assaulted as a child in the Japanese Internment camps by a man who released his abuse on her body. She was afraid for a long time after. The private and the public converge – the history of a nation and the history of a woman.

“This is the first time I have spoken about the dangers facing women in my community. When asked to speak in public, my impulse has been to present the best face of the Sikh religion – our ideals of equality, pluralism, and social justice – and to mask the dimensions of danger inside our own families. I urge you as fellow wo
men, activists, and academics to ask the questions that break the mask, so that real dialogue and solidarity may be possible.”

People began to applaud slowly and then loudly. Many women told me afterward that they needed to hear this perspective. For me, the conference was a turning point in terms of connecting the struggles of Sikh American women with women from longer-standing American traditions.

At the closing of the conference, a woman stood up and said: We are making history. This is history.” This is how it felt. A starting point for me personally and Sikh women in general to join the larger faith-fueled feminist movement. It is new ground we are breaking… and just the beginning.

Pictures by Bob Gore, the film’s biggest fan – and biggest support – at the conference.