July 23, 2003 : New York,
Presented to: Reclaiming
Equality: The Gurus Vision for Empowerment
Today, I come to you to speak simply from my heart, and I want to begin by sharing my own personal belief about the nature of stigmas and oppression. For many years, I worked as a grass-roots feminist activist in Texas - defending abortion clinics from attacks; doing investigative reporting on corrupt political institutions; attempting, in my small way, to help women who were abused, anorexic and addicted to drugs and alcohol. Across the board, in situation after situation, what I discovered was this. That the oppression of the raped is no less than the oppression of the rapist. The abuser is as equally disadvantaged as the abused. The master no freer than the slave. Social crimes do not exist in isolation. They signal an imbalance in the whole system. So while the rapist may seem to be in a position of power, he is not. And while the raped may seem to be powerless, she is not. It is a sick dance that we play together.
What gave me pause in my days as a feminist activist was the sheer anger women placed at the feet of men, without ever seeing that the men were equally as imprisoned as they were. A man who beats his wife will never have a clear and peaceful consciousness. A man who cannot respect a woman loses touch with his own spirit. The pain is inflicted both ways, and there are wounds on both sides. The feminism I grew up with taught me to consider men the enemy, to take away their power and give that power to the women who "knew better." But did that approach create harmony in the relationship between the sexes? It didn't. Men of my generation either became apologists for their gender or turned to the biting sarcasm of "Political Incorrectness."
My mother said she married at age 19 because she didn't have any other choices. The women's rights movement in the United States gave me far more choices than my mother had. And for that, I am unspeakably grateful. But with more choices, came new territory to negotiate - territory about sexuality, relationships, careers and children. The traditional voice of my parents and grandparents could not guide me. They didn't understand what women of my generation had to face. But the new voice of feminism couldn't guide me, either. Though I followed that siren for a while, ultimately it failed me. The feminist voice wanted me to reject men, reject my femininity, be a "bitch" in order to be powerful. Yet how can a woman live with and make a life with her mate, raise healthy children if she is constantly blaming the opposite sex for every problem women have ever faced?
Who was I, as a woman? What did it mean to be liberated from oppression, to have command over my own life? What was the proper way to be in relationship with men? These are questions that I have struggled with my entire life, and I am still searching to find the answers. But when I became a Sikh of the Guru, some of the pieces of this complex and confusing puzzle began to fall into place.
Women's Rights and The New Women's Oppression
The idea that women in the West are free is a joke. The truth is women are cheap in the West. But we are still not free. The women's rights movement did two things simultaneously. First, it gave women access to economic power by allowing us into the workforce and it gave us the opportunity for an education that has never been seen in the history of the world. This is our blessing. We needed that education and that economic power. When a woman has no other means to feed herself except by having her husband give her money for food, then women become much easier to exploit and abuse. But when a woman has other options besides her husband's home for security, when she can leave - then that changes the power structure of the marriage and the society. Simply put, having choices means we can consider relationships with men on our terms.
Yet, the women's rights movement did not give us any time to step back and consider what our terms might be. Instead, along with economic freedom came sexual freedom. We didn't have to wait until we were married to have sex with a man, we could have sex with a man any time we wanted. Wasn't that great?
Let me share my own personal experience. When I was 20 years old, I truly believed that a woman should only have one partner in her life. I believed, in a kind of mythic, innocent way, that when a man and a woman made love to each other, their souls blended - like two melodies becoming one harmony - and if a woman made love with more than one man in her life- it would create dissonance within the core of her being. Because of this belief, I wanted to wait for "the right one."
My friends smiled at me when I was 16. They teased me about it when I was 18. By the time I was 20, they thought there was something seriously wrong with me. It was constant, incessant peer pressure. There was not one person in my life who said - you have the right to wait. You have the right to make a good decision for yourself. All they said was that I was old-fashioned and out-dated, that I must be the only 20-year-old virgin left in the world. How could I possibly not have sex?
The unfortunate truth is that the women's rights movement has traded sexual favors for economic and political power. We have prostituted ourselves on a cultural level and made a deal with men. "If you give us access to money, education and leadership, we'll make it easier and cheaper for you to have sex with us." This is the voice of Western feminism. 50 years ago, it was reasonable for a woman to expect a man to propose to her and marry her before she gave herself to him - body and soul. Today? If you are a Western woman who dates a man, you are considered frigid if you haven't had sex with him by the third time he's asked you out. I'm not kidding. The first date - it's ok if you don't go to bed with him. The second date - you're being a bit of a tease. The third date and still no sex? There must be something wrong with you. If a Western woman were to tell a Western man that she was saving herself for marriage, the first question would be, "Are you a born-again Christian?" If the woman wasn't a born-again Christian, the man would have no idea what to do. And that woman, no matter how beautiful or smart or kind or giving would have very little chance of finding a mate.
The oppression of women in my culture has less to do with power, economics and education, and much more to do with sexuality. Just as we have been brainwashed in generations past to believe that a woman shouldn't get an education or be a public leader, now we've been brainwashed into believing that being promiscuous is good for us and our "right."
There are no stigmas in my culture against women who dye their hair purple, pierce themselves all over their bodies, or wear next to nothing to the club on Friday night. But there are plenty of stigmas for women who choose to live with integrity, purity and character. For a few years of my life, I lived the way many of my Western sisters live. And after being in that world and seeing the pain, the heartache and the betrayal of it, I have only one thing to say.
Sexual liberation is no liberation at all.
The Guru Gave me Back my Grace
How can I describe what happens when someone born in the United States decides to adopt the dress of Guru Gobind Singh? All of the sudden - you become a stranger in your own land. People come up to you and ask you what country you're from. Your family feels uncomfortable if you go to a restaurant with them "Are you going to wear that thing on your head?" You don't "belong" in the same way you used to. It isn't anything specific that you can point to. But it's there.
Let us say that the culture of the United States is a Culture of Desire. And the purpose of most people's lives is to make enough money to fulfill all their desires. When a Westerner makes a choice to stop living by desire and, instead, live by spiritual discipline, the culture has little support to give. The world I grew up in didn't teach me to live by the purity of my own soul and fulfill my destiny. The world I grew up in said, "Have a good time all the time." So when I walked away from the good time in order to open myself up to God's time, my culture didn't know what to do with me.
I believe women are so tuned into the notion of stigma because we have such a need to be accepted. Acceptance by our society eventually leads to a man accepting us as a mate. And when our society does not accept us, it gives us a powerful subconscious message that there are no mates for us, either. Women create the culture and perpetuate the culture. To do so, they have to represent the culture. Do you know what I mean? I lived in a certain culture for a time in my life. The intellectual Bohemian world. I wore the right clothes, said the right things, did what intellectual Bohemians do. I was accepted by that culture and there were plenty of men to choose from.
Then one day, in my early 30's, I woke up alone. All the rules had changed for me because I had changed. And it was very very difficult. Who was going to accept me, now? What society did I really belong to? Would there ever be "someone" for me, or, in choosing to become a Sikh and live a disciplined life at the feet of the Guru - was that choice going to keep me forever and always alone?
It may seem silly and small. What does this have to do with stigmas, anyway? Yet, as women, no matter who we are, there is some part of us - even if it's simply biological - looking to find a mate, wanting to have children. How we dress, how we talk, what tastes we cultivate - always there is some part of our mind asking, "Is this going to be pleasing to someone else?" "Will I ever find anyone to share myself with?"
I'm a white woman in her mid 30's. I don't eat meat, don't drink, don't smoke, don't do drugs and don't "party." Don't misunderstand me. I used to do a lot of those things. But I consciously made a choice to not do them anymore. I wear a turban, I don't shave my legs or put on make-up. I wake up between four and five in the morning to meditate and, therefore, I have to go to bed early at night. I live in a quiet little trailer on the top of a hill in one of the poorest counties in the United States and I'm committed to staying there and building the community where I live. I get negative comments about my turban when I'm out in public and every time I go through the airport with my laptop, the security people stop me and search me. But honestly, the greatest stigma I've had to face, the most difficult part about choosing this life and walking this path is the absence of a man who would be willing to walk it with me.
Because of the Guru, I chose my grace. Because of the Guru, I took a vow to stay sexually abstinent, except for marriage. Because of the Guru, I dress in a way that seems beautiful to me, but it isn't a sensual beauty - it represents something higher, something finer, something more subtle because the Guru has taught me - this is what I am as a human being. This is what I am as a women. Nobility on the earth. And I believe it.
I believe it. But is there a man who could ever believe it with me? And if there isn't one, will I have the strength to keep on this path, anyway? Giving up the hope of husband and children once and for all in order to live a life that my culture can hardly understand?
The commitment to stay abstinent has become one of the most powerful and transformational spiritual practices I have ever done. It has given me a tremendous amount of energy to focus on myself. It has given me the time and space to deprogram myself from all the Western cultural messages that say the only worthwhile woman is a sexually desirable woman. And it has forced me to confront my deepest insecurities. As a woman, it is one situation when you are rejected by society or rejected by a man. In those times, you can feel anger and play the role of the victim. But it is another thing entirely when, as a woman, you choose to be something that vastly limits the possibility of your ever being in a relationship again. It's not that I can't attract a mate. It's that I would have stop living as a Khalsa woman to do it. I would have to change what I've become, and I love what I've become. So day by day, that vow has become a fire purifying me because at every step I have to constantly ask myself - am I willing to compromise who I am to be with someone else? Or am I willing to be exactly who I am and be alone? Each time I face that choice within myself and choose myself first - no matter what the consequences - I feel myself becoming stronger, more confident. Secure in the knowledge that my relationship to the Guru is more important than anything else, and anything that would cause me to compromise that relationship isn't worth it.
So there is a huge gift in this "stigma." It has helped me anchor myself within my own Spirit in a deep and complete way. I don't rebel against the loneliness. I have come to embrace it as a gift. With the Guru, the loneliness is bearable. But the life I was living before was not. In my culture, I could be with someone as long as I was cheap, easy and didn't ask for too much in return. As a Sikh of the Guru, I am priceless and my grace reigns supreme. This is the women's liberation I had always been searching for.
It Will Take Khalsa Women to Build a Khalsa Nation
Whenever a woman is called to live by her own Spirit, her Highest Truth - society will challenge her. And where society will attack is through her creative power - her sexuality, her ability to bring forth children, a home and the future.
Women who have to marry young and are not allowed to see any other future for themselves besides husband, children and family are oppressed. Women who are trained to see sex as a game are oppressed. But 500 years ago, Guru Nanak gave us a vision of women who were truly free on every level.
What Western feminism could not answer for me, the teachings of the Gurus have. There is an imbalance between the sexes on the planet right now. And it is in the Lavan, the Sikh wedding ceremony, that the Guru teaches me how that balance can be restored. When men and women understand their relationships with each other within the Will of the Divine, then we have a chance to be something more than we have ever been. Then we have a chance to create something that has never been seen before. Because the Guru teaches us that this life is a chance to grow in our conscious awareness of the Divine, and that the realm of marriage, of family, of children is the highest arena for those lessons to be learned. Rather than rejecting family life (and therefore women), the Gurus embraced family life as the quintessential spiritual practice. Rather than men and women fighting with each other for power, money and dominance, they spiritually merge as one soul in two bodies, serving and supporting each other as karmas are cleared and Dharma develops. And the most unbelievable evolutionary step of all, the Gurus sanctified the home as the Grisht Ashram, the central arena for spiritual instruction and growth.
Gauree, Fifth Mehl:
Those who implant the Word of the Guru's Shabad
within their hearts
They alone acquire such stability,
Friend and foe are one and the same to them.
They awaken in peace and poise; they sleep in
peace and poise.
In peace and poise they eat; in peace and poise
They are at peace in their homes, and they are
at peace while detached.
In peaceful poise, they drink in the Ambrosial
Nectar of the Naam, the Name of the Lord.
In peace and poise, they assume the unchanging
With intuitive ease, they meet the Lord,
according to their karma.
This is the type of home a Khalsa woman creates under the instruction and guidance of the Guru - a home where spiritual awakening occurs, and occurs in a way that supports and honors every day life.
Stigmas and oppression against women, stigmas and oppression against different races - ultimately this is all just Maya. As we begin to explore issues of our own oppression as Sikh women, my prayer is that we look to the Guru to understand the nature of our suffering. Because the real problem is that in this day and age almost every culture oppresses the Spirit. Almost every culture denies the reality of the Divine within the creation. And that lack of awareness of who we truly are as human beings, of what life truly is - that is the enemy we're fighting. We don't need to pit one gender against another, one culture against another. We need to fight for the sovereignty of our own Spirits on the earth. The confusion of the world is the true foe to engage.
Goojaree, Fifth Mehl:
They call themselves silent sages, Yogis and
scholars of the Shaastras, but Maya has them all under her control.
The power of Maya is pervading everywhere.
Conquering and conquering, she has conquered
everywhere, and she clings to the whole world.
Gauree, Fifth Mehl:
First, they come forth from the womb.
In the Realm of Indra, death is sure and
The mountains, the trees, the earth, the sky
and the stars;
The sacred shrines of pilgrimage, gods, temples
and holy books;
Social classes, races, Muslims and Hindus;
Through the Praises of the Lord, devotional
worship, spiritual wisdom and the essence of reality,
There is no fear, doubt, suffering or anxiety
There is no end or limitation to the Supreme
The realm of the home is the realm of women. As Khalsa, we take our homes out of confusion and Maya into the realm of imperishable truth. Then, those Khalsa homes become the foundation for a society that lives in harmony with the Divine Reality of life.
What is the Khalsa? The Khalsa is a universal culture based on universal truths that liberate people from their own diseased ideas of what it means to be alive. The Khalsa protects the sovereignty of the Spirit - so that each soul born on the earth has the freedom and the support to live to its fullest potential without fear of economic, political or religious tyranny. Isn't that what we're looking for? An end to our suffering? Healing for our pain? And the Guru gave us the answer so simply:
So I say to you, you who are daughters of Guru Gobind Singh, embrace who you are because you are the ones who can heal the world, if you simply live your birthright. There are many important tools you can develop by studying the power relationship between the sexes and understanding cultural oppression. But the most powerful tool that I have found is the genuine guiding wisdom and profound practice of Gurbani. The Sound Current of the Shabd Guru transforms the consciousness from fear to fearlessness, from narrowness and pride to vast tolerance and inclusiveness. And it is in this gem of consciousness that the problems we face get solved once and for all. You become the living solution for the world. You become the culture that solves the problem of what other cultures are doing to each other. You become the women who are the example of how to live as true women. Women who have a voice in community affairs, who have economic power - but who also have respect for their creativity, balance with men and a sovereign relationship with the Divine.
A universal Khalsa spiritual culture resolves all problems of race, creed and gender when it is based on living the wisdom given to us by the Guru. That vision is there and possible. But to step forward and claim it, we have to defy our upbringing, risk rejection by men and society, and commit to live in our purity, live by that wisdom no matter what. We cannot wait for the men to start it. We must start it ourselves through our dress, our speech, our choices and our prayers.
Let us take that step. Let us lead the way. But let us do it in such a way that when the men are ready to join us, when they decide they truly want to live as Khalsa, too, when they want to enter into the Grisht Ashram - we can embrace them with open arms and, side by side, create a new home, a new society, a new world where no child will ever have to worry about stigmas again.
It isn't an easy road to walk. Nor will be the progress be quick. In fact, it may take generations of hard work to build it. But we can build it and today, together, we can begin it.
Gauree, Fifth Mehl:
One Universal Creator God. By The Grace Of The True Guru:
Dye yourself in the color of the Lord's Love.
Whatever you see, shall not go with you.
Greet the Lord's Saints humbly, with deep
Abandon sexual desire, anger, greed and
One who serves the Lord crosses over to the
Gurmukhi Guidance and English Translations
provided through SikhNet's On-Line Siri Guru Granth Sahib, Translation
by Singh Sahib Sant Singh Khalsa, MD, Phonetic Transliteration by
Kulbir Singh Thind, MD, Website Designer Kushdev Kaur Thind, Ph.D,
I want to extend my deepest thanks to Sikh Coalition for organizing this Sikh Women's Empowerment Conference and for inviting SikhNet to be part of the program. It is our honor and blessing to be able to serve the worldwide Sikh community through our website and we are grateful for the opportunity to speak with our fellow Sikhs face to face.
The author, Ek Ong Kaar
Kaur, is Director of
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