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[Image above: Lady Singh addresses the audience at Billion Women Parliamentary event]

The NSO hosted an event in the House of Lords last week in aid of charity Billion Women to celebrate International Women’s Day.

The event focused both on the successes and challenges faced by women in modern society, from both a cultural and religious perspective.

Speakers included Lord and Lady Singh, Lord Sheikh, Lord Loomba, Criminologist Prof Aisha Gill from the University of Roehampton, Spoken Word Artist Jaspreet Kaur, the founder of Billion Women Mani Bajwa and business woman Mrs Amar Kaur Maker.

Event organiser Lady Singh told the audience the Suffragettes had fought tirelessly for women’s equality in Britain over a century ago. She told audience members they had thrown themselves under horses, chained themselves to railings outside Parliament and had suffered huge indignities. Referring to Emily Pankhurst Lady Singh said, “We owe her a lot.” But she warned Sikh women who had been given equality from day one by Guru Nanak – over five hundred years ago, that they should not be complacent.

She said, “Women have been fighting for equality with men right up to the twentieth century and in some ways even today. The Gurus gave Sikh women equality. It was handed on a plate. They did not have to hold rallies, protest marches, hunger strikes, getting under the hooves of horses or chaining themselves to the railings. They did not have to struggle to get rid of the obnoxious social customs such as sati, purdah, dowry and female infanticide”

She went on: “We Sikh women having got equality need to discharge our responsibilities to ensure we do not loose it. If we do not practice equality in our own homes and gurdwaras, our women in the future will loose it. Guard it by practicing it.”

Entrepreneur Mrs Amar Kaur Maker told the audience that she took inspiration from Sikh teachings when her husband passed away. She was left with the daunting prospect of supporting her family and running a business. Despite her challenges, in 2009 she was given a national ‘entrepreneurial excellence award’. Mrs Maker said, “I felt abandoned but somehow carried on with strength from my faith and inspiration from the life of Guru Gobind Singh.”

Attendee Rani Bhilku from Slough based organisation Jeena said, “It was refreshing to see so many women from across the generations attend, and I particularly resonated with Jaspreet Kaur’s poetic words on the night.”

Sikh teachings on gender equality are “way ahead not only of society at that time, but of much of society today”, says Lord Singh

Marking International Women’s Day last week, peers debated the role Britain plays in promoting gender equality across the globe following a question tabled by Tory peer Baroness Shields.

Talking about this year’s theme “Be Bold for Change” The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and Home Office said, “In some regards, it is a sad indictment that despite the integral role that women play in every aspect of life, we still struggle to be considered equal. In the opening years of the 20th century, courageous women joined hands and stood beside each other in solidarity.” She went on, “Outside this very House, suffragettes fought for women’s rights in our democracy, yet more than 100 years on, we are still striving to become a society that is truly equal.”

Lord Singh, the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) told peers true equality is reflected in a society where opportunity and respect is given parity for both sexes. Lord Singh stressed greater equality in society had moved on from the traditional view of men being ‘bread-winners’ and women the ‘main carer’. This he told peers, had resulted from an acceptance that there is nothing demeaning in men playing a greater role in the home.

Reflecting on his own faith Lord Singh said, “Sikh teachings place a strong emphasis on the equality of all human beings. Right from the start, Guru Nanak—the founder of the faith, born in 1469—made clear that this teaching of full equality and dignity included women. In a memorable line, the guru criticised prevailing negative attitudes to women, saying, “How can we call those who give birth to kings and rulers, lesser beings?”In 1699, when Guru Gobind Singh gave Sikh men the common name Singh—meaning “lion”, to remind us of the need for courage—he gave the name or title “Kaur”, meaning “princess”, to women, to remind them and others of their elevated status in Sikh society. On reflection, that seems to be a bit more than equality. I would rather be a princess than a four-legged beast.”

He went on, “The Sikh gurus were aware then—as is sadly still true today— that war is often used to justify brutal treatment of enemy women. Sikh teachings remind us that in times of conflict, women and girls should, as appropriate, be regarded as mother, sister or daughter and be treated as such. Sikh teachings on the equality and dignity of women were way ahead not only of society at that time, but of much of society today.”

Lord Singh warned of being complacent, adding, “In some Sikh families, the still-negative culture of the sub-continent sometimes overrides religious teachings, with girls being treated less favourably than boys, promoting a false sense of male superiority. Today, Sikhs and non-Sikhs need to do much more to make the dignity and complete equality of women the norm, within our different faiths and in wider society.”

 

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