* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Sikhism is highly prevalent in the UK. Due to that thousands of Sikhs fought and died for Britain and the Commonwealth in the First World War and many remained in Britain once the war was over. In fact, according to the 2011 census, there are approximately 423,000 Sikhs resident in England and Wales.
Despite this, the British public still have a general lack of knowledge about what Sikhism is. I for one, have to admit before writing this article, my knowledge on the subject was patchy at best.
Even though, Sikhs who live in Britain have embraced British culture and show pride in being British. The British Sikh Report in 2014 showed that 95% of respondents were proud of their ‘Britishness’.
Out of these British Sikhs naturally a large proportion of them are women. Women who have strived to defy expectations and reclaim their Sikh identity. In fact, there has been a rise in Sikh women wearing the turban.
The turban, has been seen, as “the one thing that identifies a Sikh more than any other symbol of their faith.”
Unsurprisingly then, Sikh women have begun to want to wear the turban to show their pride at being Sikh. When speaking to the BBC, Doris Jakobs, a professor in religious studies at Waterloo University in Canada, said that:
“Wearing a turban is so clearly identifiable with being Sikh and so women now also want that clear visual sign that they are also Sikh as well. It's a play on the egalitarian principle of Sikhism."
There seems to be a new rise of empowerment and pride in being Sikh, despite international pressures. After all, post 9/11 being a Sikh and wearing a turban in the US carried many risks, as it was often mistaken to be the uniform of the perpetrators of 9/11.
Valarie Kaur, in an article for The Huffington Post wrote about how after 9/11 in America, Sikh women had to put feminism to the sidelines:
“After the terrorist attacks, we women tacitly agreed to put our issues on hold. We needed to protect our men first — our brothers and husbands and sons whose turbans and dark skin marked them as primary targets for hate in the years after 9/11.”
She later goes on to say that now is the time to start celebrating and advocating Sikh women and their achievements. I think then that there is no better time to celebrate the Sikh women in the UK who not only are inspirational through their achievements, but also challenge stigmas and taboos against women.
Manjit K. Gill (Binti)
The Sikhs are known for their charity, as, one of their most important teachings is Seva. Seva also known as Sewa, refers to the concept of “selfless service”, so work or service performed without any thought for reward or personal benefit.
This was reflected in the 2016 British Sikh Report that showed that British Sikhs give £125 million and 65 million volunteer hours to charity each year.
I think that it is fitting then that I start off this list by talking about Manjit K. Gill, the CEO and founder of Binti. Binti is a charity that seeks to change global attitudes around menstruation (especially concerning the shame surrounding periods), raise awareness through menstruation education and make sure that every woman has access to sanitary products. #SmashShame
Significantly, she is also committed to making sure that Binti runs a sustainable program:
“Binti assists entrepreneurial, self-help women groups to create micro factories to produce, distribute and sell low cost sanitary towels within their local communities. We hire self-sufficient local women. We provide funding options for the equipment. We supply the machinery, raw material, distribution channels, training and support to establish the micro factories.”
In short this basically means that Binti enables women in local communities to be able to start producing their own sanitary towels and sell them. By providing them with the machinery and support to establish their factories, Binti paves the way for these women to continue the work in the future.
As a founder of a charity, Manjit K. Gill clearly demonstrates the Seva principle at the core of Sikhism, but at the same time she is a revolutionary because of the work she does to tackle menstruation stigma against women in society.
Shay Grewal (journalist)
Shay Grewal is part of the husband and wife dream team, Sunny and Shay, who host a show on BBC WM (95.6) and also a show on BBC Radio London.
When speaking to The Birmingham Post, Shay said that she started her career “in human resources”, but that she “always wanted to go into journalism”.
Shay also proves girls run the world as, in the same article it was revealed that she has “a BA in Sociology and an MA in Comparative World Studies”. As a masters student myself it is always inspiring for me to see women in education. Shay’s education definitely shows, as Sunny and Shay frequently explores hard hitting social topics, like MuslimsLikeUs, which looked at how Muslims are treated within the UK.
For me, Shay demonstrates not only the success that Sikh women can achieve, but also that Sikh women can and should be represented in journalism.
Fitness Kaur (fitness inspiration)
Fitness Kaur or Gurpreet Kaur, defies everything society thinks of when they think of a Sikh woman. After all, she is an Instagram fitness inspiration who works out while wearing a turban. She specialises in Calisthenics (Bodyweight Training), and proudly states on her Instagram profile that she is a Sikh.
She was also recently interviewed for the BBC Asian Network, and spoke with the Sikh Press Association before the interview, who only had kind words to say about her:
“Bhenji is a great role model for Sikhs looking to get fit and healthy, with her videos depicting mind blowing feats of strength making for inspirational viewing. Gurpreet Kaur (her real name) is also very open about the prominent role Sikhi plays in her drive for fitness.”
Fitness Kaur not only shows that women can be strong, but importantly makes it clear that it is her faith that encourages her to go from strength to strength.
Jez Kaur aka Hipster Veggie (social media influencer)
While, I personally do not agree with some of Hipster Veggie’s arguments regarding clean living, I support anyone trying to get their voice heard and who’s objective is to make people healthier. For those of you who don’t know, Hipster Veggie runs a YouTube channel that tries to influence people to live a more ethical life through eating a healthy vegan diet.
But she also is a big supporter of a number of important movements. For example, she supports “The Brown Girl Movement” and appeared in a video first viewed at New Jersey City University that captures the voice of this new identity that has been spreading all around the world.
To give you more of a glimpse into the video, here is what the video’s creators had to say about the production:
“All of the women in this video are from different countries, different religions, different backgrounds, but they're actually saying the same thing...”
Seriously, if you haven’t seen it already, go watch it. It’s so inspiring to see women supporting each other (no matter where they are from or their religion) and making sure their voice gets heard.
Jez has also spoke at such events as Badass Vegan Women celebrate International Women’s Day, which also coincidentally charged ticket prices as a donation to the charity, Binti.
Sukhmani Kaur Rayat
The next women I am going to mention, has broken boundaries by being, according to South Asian Arts “one of the only young female Tabla players to emerge from the British Asian classical music scene”.
By fighting against what is expected of women in music, Sukhmani has made her mark as a truly passionate musician.
She is proof that there is hope for women to have a space in the British Asian classical music scene, and if women can find a space in this scene, why not other scenes?
Preet Kaur Gill (Councillor)
Preet Kaur Gill is a Labour Councillor in Sandwell, and I think that this is so important. The representation of Sikh women in politics is incredibly inspiring for young women to see, and important for the future of making sure Sikh women’s voices are heard.
Preet especially is an important figure, as she regularly campaigns for human rights issues, and has been involved with Sikh Network events. Significantly, these events involved talking about better Sikh and female representation in politics.
She also was a supporter of Britain remaining in the UK, something that I whole heartedly support telling Asian Lite News that Britain, “with its rich diversity… cannot and should not be a country that becomes insular but continues to be outward facing and addressing matters like immigration, terrorism and the economy with the EU as together, we are stronger and better."
Jaspreet Kaur (Spoken Word Artist, Poet, Writer and History Teacher)
Jaspreet Kaur is a ‘jill of all trades’ (see what I did there), as not only is she a History teacher at a secondary school in central London, but she also known through Behind the Netra where she showcases her poetry. She is also well known as a spoken word artist and her “thoughts on gender issues, historical topics and taboo subjects both in the Asian community and wider society”, are visible both in her poetry and spoken word.
As you may have noticed all these women are not afraid to speak up and talk about things that are taboo (or enter a place where women were traditionally not permitted), and Jaspreet is a brilliant example of this.
Her poetry is truthful and unafraid and tackles such topics of being proud of the colour of her skin and saying that people who say they don’t see skin colour are not helpful, and saying it doesn’t make you more politically correct. She has also covered such topics, as Asian women’s body hair (which, is upsetting in itself that this is taboo) and how it is beautiful.
Mandip Sahota (CEO of the BW Foundation)
Mandip Sahota is CEO of the human rights charity, the BW Foundation (or The Baroness Warsi Foundation). The charity was created to improve social mobility, increase gender equality and promote religious understanding.
The 3 key pillars of the foundation, as stated on their website are to:
Improve Social Mobility
The charity does this by promoting equal access to education and employment for everyone, no matter their background.
Although, the organisation is not a religious organisation, it does valuable work supporting programmes to build peacebuilding between different faith communities.
Women still have fewer opportunities available to them in the world then men and less political power, the BW Foundation is challenging this by trying to break down those boundaries, address inequalities and challenge every societal norm, that should not be something that is normal in society.
Sukhvinder Kaur (SOPW) Sikh Relief
Sukhvinder Kaur works for the charity Sikh Relief, which was briefly known as SOPW (Sikh Organisation for Prisoner Welfare).
Sikh Relief in fact still keeps to the main mission aims of SOPW, but has just expanded on their scope.
Originally, The Sikh Organisation for Prisoner Welfare according to their website was “run by volunteers, working to achieve justice for those, who have been illegally imprisoned and tortured”.
The charity then was created to address the amount of Sikh people in prisons (in India), and how they have no hope for leaving prison because they don’t even have enough money for their basic needs.
Many prisoners have also never been officially convicted or charge of an offence, but yet have been detained for as long as 20 years.
SOPW helped by providing monthly support to prisoners by providing them with clothes, soap, etc. and funding legal cases, as well as drawing attention to these cases in the international community.
How Sikh Relief differs from SOPW is that they have widened their approach and now according to the Sikh Relief website the “overall focus of Sikh Relief [is] to provide help and assistance to the poor, needy and destitute predominantly in India but also worldwide where there is a need”.
Again, I am amazed and humbled by the compassion the Sikh people show for other human beings, which I think is evident by the amount of women who are CEO’s or work for charities.
Harleen Kaur (Sportswoman)
Harleen Kaur, aged 17, is a WMKF World Champion Silver Medallist, as well as an Asian Sports Foundation Ambassador. She’s been training for nearly 10 years.
I think her and Fitness Kaur are such inspirations as women are already underrepresented in the sporting world, let alone Sikh women.
I have talked a lot about how representation is important in this article. And this is something that has only become evident to me in recent years. I am not Sikh; I am a British white woman so I have not had to struggle with not seeing my image reflected in the media as much. I did though struggle with finding strong women who made me feel like women could be the main character (and I understand this is a different issue entirely). However, I was able to find shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and characters like Hermione Granger who provided me with strong role models that I could find solstice in (though these characters were still few and far between).
I can’t imagine what my life would have been like if I did not have that image available at all. This is, however, something that a lot of women, not just Sikh women have to face, as they are not able to find strong role models in the media who look, talk, act, or dress like them.
So here is my challenge to you. Whether you are Sikh or not, first, see how many women you can name in each of the fields I have mentioned, and then see how many Sikh women you can mention that are not on this list.
I know for me before writing this article, I would have been able to do the first challenge, (though I feel this is because I consciously make sure I pay attention to female influencers), as for the second challenge, I would have been able to name one person, and only because I know them personally.
This challenge does not have to be done just for Sikh women, repeat it for every ethnic and racial group you can think of. And then challenge yourself to fill the places where you find gaps. I know that is something that is on my list of New Years Resolutions to make sure I do next year...