Balvinder Kaur Saund and Zubin Mistry
Balvinder Kaur Saund has been at the frontline of activism within the UK’s Sikh community for over two decades. “They don’t want their gurdwara tainted with the words domestic violence, ‘honour’-based violence, female infanticide,” she explains. “They say to me, ‘It’s in the other communities, it’s not in our community. Why are you making us look bad?’”.
But Saund knows these problems exist inside, not just outside, her community. Underlying them is a misogyny that endures even as times have supposedly changed. Centuries ago, she reflects, some families resorted to burying their daughters alive. Then modern technology enabled sex-selective abortions while richer families still attempt to use reproductive technologies to get the son they want. These are the most extreme expressions of a preference for boys that persists to this day. Saund is not surprised whenever she belatedly learns about the births of girls almost as an afterthought. “If it had been a boy,” she notes, “I would have had a phone call, I would have had ladoo, I would have an invitation to the party, an invitation to the gurdwara – and they would announce it on Punjabi radio!” Women’s lives are still devalued.
But groups like the London-based Sikh Women’s Alliance (SWA) galvanize women to tackle the deep-rooted attitudes and structures that fuel gender-based violence and constrain communities from tackling it. Originally launched in 2001 by a male-based Sikh studies group, Saund and four other women quickly took over the reins because “we didn’t want men to tell us how to run the group”.
Founded to empower, inspire and educate women, the SWA is a cross between a support group, social network and consciousness-raising organisation. At monthly meet-and-greets the group holds workshops on everything from emotional well-being to financial independence. If it’s somebody’s birthday, they’ll bring along food and everyone has a song and a dance. Each year on International Women’s Day they celebrate achievements of ‘Sikh Women of Substance’ like Preet Gill, the first female Sikh MP, and Jasvinder Sanghera. SWA conferences have addressed the sexual exploitation of South Asian women and the silence that isolates women in difficult and dangerous circumstances.
With a wealth of experience as a local councillor and magistrate as well as community activist, Saund knows those circumstances all too well. Working out of a safe room at the gurdwara, she has used her know-how to direct desperate women to domestic violence groups and navigate them through the court system. She is hopeful the SWA really has had an “invisible impact” that is not easily recorded. But she also recognises how challenging it is for women to leave violent situations. Like many people at the front line, she knows the pandemic has only made things worse.
Gender-based violence is, of course, not unique to Sikh communities. Far from it. As Saund puts it, “We are just a reflection of the wider world.” But she also has little time for the kind of hand-wringing that inhibits talking about the specific challenges of tackling problems within particular communities. In her estimation Sikh women have lost out because the police and other agencies become complacent if communities like hers “don’t make much noise”. Women’s trust in the police has long been an issue. That trust has hit “rock bottom”, Saund fears, following the terrible circumstances of Sarah Everard’s murder and the police’s much criticised response.
But reticence within her community is also a problem. She once overheard a group of men point her out as the person who was going round breaking up marriages. “Excuse me gentlemen,” she responded, “if you treated your daughters-in-law like your daughters, they would not come to me for help”. The loud energy that typically greets perceived slights against the religious book contrasts with the deafening silence when a woman from the community is raped. Saund is endlessly frustrated that the gender equality promoted by the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, gets spouted in sermons, but is all too rarely put into practice.
Community leadership is a case in point. “The men like to hog the seats”, Saund explains. One or two women might be put in charge of the kitchen for langar. Saund has long advocated for targets on national councils and local gurdwara committees.
Leadership has failed to acknowledge, let alone address, a very serious issue: the abuse of women and children in gurdwaras. While the #MeToo movement has energised women to speak out against abuse – and while some religious organisations are belatedly having a painful reckoning with entrenched histories of sexual abuse – Saund is troubled that safeguarding remains a word she almost never hears uttered in gurdwaras.
Things are changing. A new women’s group, Kaur Sisters, is exploring legal routes to expose abuse. Many people within her community “love [their] children no matter what gender they are”. She sees plenty of high-flying younger women gaining an education and securing financial independence. But many have prospered precisely by “reaching out into the mainstream”. This is one reason why Saund is more pessimistic when she considers how much her community has truly changed. “I would have liked to say after twenty years,” she says ruefully, “that we’ve had an impact, a big impact, but I’m afraid there’s no way I can say that we’ve done that…the community still digs in its heels and refuses to accept problems are there”.
What would she have done differently if she could start over again? “We have more or less become a support group for women now,” she ponders, “but I would have liked us to be more of a group where we pick up our banners too”. Women’s support for one another is essential. But, looking back, Saund‘s advice to young women willing to “pick up the gauntlet and carry on” is clear: “Be loud and make yourself heard”.
Balvinder Kaur Saund is the Chair of the Sikh Women’s Alliance. A former local councillor in Redbridge, London, between 2006 and 2014, she has also served as a magistrate. In 2013 she was profiled in the inaugural iteration of the BBC 100 Women series. This blog is based on a conversation between Balvinder Saund and Zubin Mistry (University of Edinburgh) in October 2021.