awe, humility, hope and a few other things I might notice

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Quebec Charter and Feminism, Only One or the Other

I take issue with several recent Globe and Mail articles (Sept. 20 and Oct. 2, 2013) calling out a “deep split within feminist ranks” over the proposed Charter of Values in Quebec. In one article the only reference to the split is that “[one member] did concede she had a “very difficult” conversation with Ms. Miville-Dechêne on whether a hijab ban is good for women.” I am all for people having difficult discussions, especially about such important issues as freedom of religion and equal opportunity. However, that does not mean that there is a hidden rift between feminists.

Despite the inflammatory remarks in the comment sections of the articles, I don’t believe that those who support the charter are evil, but they are not feminists either. The Parti Quebecois claims that “imposed secularism, including a ban on highly visible religious symbols, is a way to ensure equality for Quebeckers in the workplace and while obtaining government services.” Quite the opposite, the charter has nothing to do with guarantying equality, unless by equality they mean mandatory homogenization. Rather, it is a governmental control mechanism and power play on multiple levels.

My purpose here is to point out the obvious, that the charter does not promote women’s rights, nor does it reveal a division among feminists. The charter is based upon uninformed and prejudicial understanding of religious articles of faith and rationalizes this as sufficient cause to denigrate and impose ‘protection’ on religious minorities. The charter and many of its vocal supporters are telling women (especially Muslim women) that their very religion is offensive and that their choices around expressing that religion is a form of participating in their own oppression. This kind of posturing is a demonstration of ignorance and arrogance, not feminism. Taking away a woman’s choice is simply patriarchal. Also, we must not automatically deduce that the oppression of women in the Middle East is a valid reason to censure a woman’s choice in Quebec. Nor can we conflate the historical abuses and inequalities of the Catholic church in Quebec with Sikhism, which is founded upon and has greatly demonstrated ideals of equality. To anyone who believes that it is feminist to assume that Quebec women have not made their own choice, I urge you to consider that the assumption is as oppressive and belittling as the removal of choice.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois has stated that “a daycare educator wearing a hijab, … “gives a connotation of a gap with respect to the equality of men and women, a kind of submission.” Furthering this notion one commenter on the Globe article made statements that face coverings by definition are demeaning to women and only instituted to control women, and another wrote that head coverings denote slavery and human chattel. Some Globe commenters write that religious clothing is meant to intimidate and flaunt superiority, while many write words like Premier Marois, that the same clothes enforce women’s inferiority, subjugation and submission. Which is it? Instead of supporting women, the current debate about the charter is giving rise to intolerance and xenophobia. Recently numerous Mulsim women across Quebec who wore hijab have been spat upon and verbally and physically attacked.

How does insulting women who wear head coverings promote feminism or secularism?

Once more, the assumptions about face covering and the connection to an appearance of submissiveness and a less secure environment are over stated. When wearing a turban or a hijab most of the face is actually more visible because hair styles such as bangs, feathering etc do not obscure the face. The charter and much of its support reveals an imperialist and xenophobic attitude that western styles of clothing are best and anyone who does not comply with it is abusing the system with requests for “accommodation”.

Even a quick study of the Muslim and Sikh faiths would reveal the sacredness of the turban and other head coverings. The wearing of these articles is part of daily religious practices. When wrapping a turban, prayers are often recited, religious history is remembered and honored, and fundamental sacraments are upheld. They are not removable as a hat or able to be tucked in like a necklace. These articles of faith are a part of the faithful, a defining characteristic of their public and private life. To remove a turban is not like asking someone to change their clothes or hairstyle. Over years or perhaps a lifetime of choosing to wear articles of faith, each time it is a conscious choice and becomes part of one’s identity.

I have chosen Sikhism, not by birth, but as an adult. I have chosen to wear a turban. I feel more equal to a man and more confident wearing a turban than I had ever felt in my life before wearing a turban. I cannot speak for women in the Middle East. Choices and repression, laws and obligations are different in every country. I do know that every woman I know and have ever met that wears a turban has chosen that turban out of love, devotion and many times as a statement of grace and fundamental freedom and privilege to choose how she practices religion. There is not one iota of submission to a man or any council of men or The Man.There is not one ounce of obligation or subjugation or intimidation; it is a statement of personal accountability to our faith and our practice.

In stark contrast, there are layers upon layers of contradictions in the charter’s proposal regarding head coverings. Many Sikh women wear a chuni, a Sikh scarf often worn on the head and also/or over the shoulders, but this is not banned under the proposed charter. Some women wear a chuni for religious reasons, some for cultural reasons.

The charter makes no distinction, but seems to not need to ‘protect’ women from the cultural practice. According to the charter, is a woman who wears a chuni less oppressed?

How would the law determine the difference? I prefer to wear a turban as part of my Sikh religious practice, but Sikh woman who chose to wear a chuni who have more work opportunities available to them because the chuni is not banned under the charter. That’s not equal.  There is no proposed ban on Islamic head coverings for men, so a Muslim man would have more opportunities than most Muslim women. That’s not equal. Politicians would be exempt from the ban. So, the politician could wear any religious article, but the employees in their office could not. That’s not equality, that’s hierarchy. I would like to emphasize to Premier Marois that the only submission or control enforced upon me based on my religion would be the control of the state and the submission to its laws under the proposed charter.

Surely, living in Quebec is a choice, a choice made by many citizen and permanent resident immigrants and many people of faith including those born in Quebec and in other parts of Canada. Many have come to live here specifically for relief from religious and political discrimination in other parts of the world where the government was forcing people towards or away from certain religious practices including the wearing of head scarves, burkas, etc.  In its efforts towards social cohesion, the charter would enforce the same kind of control in Quebec.

Whether a government defines what a person must wear or what a person must not wear, the action is the same; it is the removal of choice.

Further, it implies that some people’s choices are correct, while others are wrong.

Through the charter, the attempt to legislate secularism through restrictions on religious minorities actually risks creating inequalities and repression. In Quebec far more women are wearing head coverings than men. Ask a woman who wears a religious head covering of any kind if she will feel more or less equal to a man when he has to make no sacrifice or compromise to comply with the law but she is asked to choose her religion or her job. Ask anyone who wears obvious religious clothing if they feel safer or more equal if no one in the health center, school, or public services wears any religious clothing? The charter states that religious clothing would also have to be removed to receive public services.

Since it is naïve to suggest that a person could remove and replace their religious clothing anytime they walk through certain buildings, the charter would compel a disappearance of religious minorities from public spaces.

This kind of forced homogenization in the government funded spheres which make up so much of Quebec public life makes me feel less safe, more outcast in all public places, and certainly is an infringement on religious freedom even for those not working in public spheres. Furthermore, the charter will require that the Quebec government change its constitution regarding religious freedom. Isn’t that detrimental to all Quebeckers?

I could go on about the hypocrisy of exceptions for nearly all things Christian, but it is poignant to note that head coverings are no longer a large part of most Christian sects, so the removal of choices and the imposition of ‘protectionism’ and the inequality will predominantly fall upon Sikhs and Muslims and more upon women than men. If the current rhetoric continues it is unlikely that the ban will stop at clothing and necklaces, rather the “otherness” will more likely deepen and the divisions, real divisions between people of faith and the charter supporters will grow. We know this because articles like those in the Globe and Mail are already driving us there, the spitting has already begun and France is also leading the way. The charter of values would do more to guarantee inequality, unequal opportunity and spur on discrimination and hate crime than any imagined benefit of secularism in the public sphere. I do not think any feminist can support those kinds of values.


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Longing to belong

Baba Prem Singh Ji, Anandpur Sahib, founder Dera Moyian di Mandi (dead men’s market, referring to our Maya world)
I used to think that choosing a monastic life was a way that people like me might escape not only from the world, but also from the pain of love, its loss or its absence. I thought that a commitment could be made, a discipline adopted, or a code agreed to that could fulfill the needs of our heart and provide ample solace because it would organize humanity’s chaos. Since I am a person who wants very little from the world and often as not want to recoil from what many call freedoms but I consider to be confinements I have felt the paradoxical need for some extremes in my life. I wanted to separate from Maya (illusion) and find truth and simplicity. I wanted to surrender to something larger than myself because it seemed only reasonable to observe that this world was crazy. I dreamed about living like the early New England colonists, but my parent’s and aunts quickly disregarded me for being overly romantic about dirt floors and naïve about living without penicillin. My personality could not accept any of the more common extremes like anorexia, drugs, suicide or even living in a cave, because, if for no other reason, they were ends rather than journeys. Also, I was never able to commit to those outermost extremes. I can’t even maintain a fast for more than a few hours. However, I did draw up plans for fasts in my mind and that’s exactly where they stayed, as psychological malnourishment. Then a path chose me by showing me, through the experience of yoga, that renunciation was a tool but without awareness it was an avoidance.

I began to understand my hunger. Through meditation and prayer my hunger grew and it expanded into emptiness and reached towards nothingness. The emptiness obliterated my collected emotional scars and made ridiculous and futile my attempts at deprivation. In the emptiness I realized that all I had was profound longing. That longing was a divine gift and for that gift I felt tremendous gratitude. I began to thrive on the source of that longing; it was love.

It has since become clear to me that not only as an ascetic, a nun, or priest of any persuasion, but as a simple adherent you cannot truly adopt a religious life, a spiritual life, unless you embrace love as a way of life. Disciplines, articles of faith and codes of conduct are guides. A very wise friend told me they are only signposts, don’t confuse the signs with your destination or you may never arrive. In Sikhism and I believe at the core of any faith, when we surrender to God we surrender to our profound longing; we surrender to love in all its wild abundance, its simplicity and its chaos.

With dedication to Baba Diaal Singh Ji, Anandpur Sahib, Dera Moyian di Mandi, who left his body 2/2013.

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post Wisconsin

I want to tell the story of a woman who was dramatically changed by the attack on the Sikh Gurdwara Sahib in Wisconsin this past August. I would like to write the story of an everyday sort of heroine, a woman who ardently worked towards something important after the attack. I know that at first she would follow the news, in shock like many others, deeply saddened in a way that she did not expect. She would publicly contribute kind words of solidarity to the Oak Creek community and maybe travel there to help. She wrote and spoke to her family and shared some of her grief. She sank into her husband’s arms at night and they spoke in soft tones of their pain that once again Sikhs had been targeted.

In the days that followed she sharpened all the kirpans in their home although many could not hold an edge. She reflected on a friend who is a knife maker who complained about the quality of kirpans most Sikhs carry. She was dismayed that the attacker at Oak Creek was not impeded by a kirpan. She speculated that not even the president of the Gurdwara Sahib had a kirpan that he felt would be effective and instead took a knife from the kitchen to try to fend off the attacker. Due to the president’s courage, strength and persistence he did slow down the assailant, but maybe it would have been different.

She wrote to her Sikh friends to encourage them to read the Siri Guru Granth Sahib ji, their sacred text and living Guru, to read it together in what is called a Sahej Path in an act of prayer, unity and hope and to offer solace to herself and her community. She enrolled in a self-defense course. She worked with others in her community to develop a knife skills class and lobbied to find an instructor of Gatka, Sikh martial arts. She attended services at her local Gurdwara Sahib and joined an interfaith group to share life experiences and shared love of a universal God with people of many other faiths. She volunteered where there were needs both inside and outside of her Sikh community. She contacted her local news stations and government officials to increase awareness about Sikhism. She actively campaigned for gun control. She did all these things and she was changed, strengthened, more prepared, and so was her community. The very definition of what was her community expanded.

I wish I knew that woman. I would like to be that woman. I envy her strength and her ability to take action. I know there are many men and women out there that have done these simple yet great acts with spirit and fortitude that I admire. As for myself, I feel disconnected from my base Sikh community by geographical distance and from a local community by a psychological distance, but that is more excuse than reality. I did do some of the things imagined here, but I don’t feel changed and I will never feel that it is enough. I still feel mournful. My grief is combined with sadness about Sandy Hook, about rapes and the status of women in India, about stories that I cannot write about, not yet. For myself, isolated as I am from a Sikh community, I feel my best option is to write. However, I have to find a way to layer the fiction and craft in my attempt at writing those stories. I have to explore more of this imaginary woman.

As I write, I realize something has changed, but not in a way that I had expected. What has changed is that finally I am writing and writing publicly. I am not so bold as to call it courage but certainly it is hard for me and has taken me a long, long time to be willing to allow others to read my expressions, my attempts.

A wise friend once told me that among women our gift is sharing our vulnerability to help others; it conquers fear and makes us more free, more open to new possibilities. Perhaps I will never be the passionate heroine, boldly fighting injustice, but I am more open to the possibility of re-defining what is my community and the possibility that through this we all can be strengthened.

Resource highlights stories of real life courage