- Defending the Sikh TraditionA Sikh American Feminist Perspective on Interfaith and Interracial Marriage
On my wedding day, our officiant, the pastor from my husband’s historic African American church in downtown Lexington, started our ceremony by citing Guru Amar Das Pyaare Ji of the Shri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. He quoted, “They are not said to be husband and wife, who merely sit together. They alone are called husband and wife, who have one light in two bodies.” This message is central to the Sikh approach to understanding marriage.
Contrary to the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee and the Sikh Rehat Maryada (Code of Conduct) that states, “Persons professing faiths other than the Sikh faith cannot be joined in wedlock by the Anand Karaj ceremony,” I took ownership of my sexuality and decided whom I would marry. The Sikh Rehat Maryada dictates that “when a girl becomes marriageable, physically, emotionally and by virtue of maturity of character, a suitable Sikh match should be found and she be married to him by Anand marriage rites.”
I met my husband during my time in graduate school. I wanted my family to welcome our engagement and our marriage, but as a Sikh daughter I had stepped out of the traditions of the Sikh faith as ascribed in the SGPC Sikh Rehat Maryada. I made the decision to believe in love, and for that I was cast out and labeled a pariah. The patriarchal tradition of my family and the Rehat Maryada dictate that I do not have the authority to decide whom I marry. By stepping outside of the gender and familial traditions defined by that code of honor, I not only dishonored my family but also became a woman who had betrayed her faith.
My Sikh American upbringing taught me to see all people as equal in the eyes of Waheguru and to recognize that living in American society poses racial and class-based challenges to equality. In Sikh Day parades in the mid-Atlantic, many Baisakhis were celebrated with faith and community leaders announcing the need to “recognize all humankind as a single caste of humanity.” Yet I was disowned for loving and marrying an African American man of the Christian faith. The tradition of love, welcoming all and any to sangat, to langar seva, seemed limited to just the insides of our gurdwaras, despite being displayed in Baisakhi celebration parades and social justice marches. This tradition would not welcome “outsiders” in our homes or our families, or recognize the legitimacy of an interfaith, interracial marriage.
In my journey since engagement, I’ve learned that other Sikh American women in interfaith and interracial marriages more often than not cope with this painful reality of exclusion from their families and sangats. I have also met women who are able to have functional and healthy family relationships with boundaries: zero tolerance for emotional and physical abuse, toxic language, or racial slurs. I have met women whose families are welcoming of their daughters’ life choices in marriage. But in other cases Sikh women must walk away from their home gurdwara sangats and families in order to live their truths and to avoid the threat of domestic violence or isolating experiences within the sangat.
Sikh American women refuse to be regarded either as second-class citizens or as women who have somehow attacked the Sikh tradition by living their truth. I refuse to walk away from the gurdwara and the sangat. Yet, I find that Sikh American women like me are not easy to love in our communities and encounter much hostility. Introducing a feminist perspective and critique to Sikh identity and Rehat Maryada should be an urgent priority for the Sikh community.
Redefining What It Means to Defend Sikh Tradition
Sikh American feminist concerns include protecting a woman’s freedom to marry whom she wants without fear of honor violence or domestic violence, forced marriage, or the hurt of being outcast from her sangat. It is important to actively create spaces and platforms that celebrate and defend the female Sikh identity. Our centers of worship must empower girls and women and actively engage men in ways they can support...