Does preaching make you humble?

How many of you know somebody who constantly quotes religious scriptures or will be seen active in public service at the local temple, yet their morality is questionable?

This popped in conversation at work and it turns out everyone – and we’re all from different ethnic backgrounds and faith identities – but all of us could think of at least one example.

As a child, my parents encouraged me to go to the gurdwara (Sikh temple) every Sunday. This was partly because I attended Punjabi classes there but also because they wanted to instil faith in me from a young age.

By the time I got to college, I started to notice many of the people whose parents would boast about their “good” children who practised their faith, were another picture the night before on Birmingham’s clubbing scene.

Now you might say it takes one to know one – of course I was on a night out to notice these people enjoying themselves, and most of them were just having fun, as we all do. But it’s those few who feign this mask of humility and judge others for their care-free lifestyle, yet act in the most disrespectful way when their guard is down, which truly irritates me.

Why can’t these people just be who they are, all the time? Why must they lie and act God-fearing, yet in privacy be deceitful and malicious? Why must you be judged on how often you go to the gurdwara instead of your good deeds in everyday life?

And the bigger question – why do some ‘religious types’ think its okay to quote religious scriptures to the world yet treat the opposite sex in the most perverse manner?! 

I suppose the same could be said for the gossips at places of worship. I’ve always found it laughable that people – and it’s not just women who are guilty of this – will come to the House of God and rather than focus their attention on worship, they’ll be exchanging sneers and comments on others, or juicy snippets of gossip!

Moreover, the management of places of worship – again this is across all faiths – seems to be power battles of the older generation – who clearly have little other focus in their lives – play the political charade that is ‘management committees’. The corruption in some places of worship is shocking and makes you question whether people really are fearful of the God they claim to believe in.

Of course these are generalisations. Not all worshippers are immoral or corrupt. I’m referring to the few religious types who act one way to maintain a public image, yet go against the basic principles of their faith by being deceitful, disrespectful and lying. Do they have a conscience?

At the end of it all, there is only one judge and jury who the truth can never be hidden from. And He should be feared.

Where is the honour in honour crime?

“Honour crime” is a term I find so frustrating for two reasons – quite often Western media coin this term for any form of domestic abuse involving South Asians, and secondly I fail to understand how hurting, or worse, killing your own flesh and blood could be honourable in any way.

The term first hit home personally when five years ago my home was broken into, which left my father shot in the chest and brother stabbed in the abdomen. By the grace of God, the injuries were not life-threatening. However, the police inquired whether it was an honour crime…can you believe it?!

Apparently a witness had seen an argument between me and one of the attackers – who was White – and from this the detective investigating the case questioned if that was my boyfriend who apparently came to attack my father because he allegedly was against the relationship. The detective clearly asked: “is this an honour related incident?”

I’ll never forget those words because it was such an absurd conspiracy he had concocted from virtually no evidence and based it on my ethnicity. Ridiculous!

Ironically, if this story had circulated as a rumour at the time then it would be considered dishonourable by my family and community – an Indian girl with a White man.

In the past week, something much more sinister happened in the name of so-called family honour.

A brother killed his sister because he believed she was bringing shame onto her family.

This sister happened to be a Pakistani social media star, Qandeel Baloch, who exercised her freedom to speak her mind, act as she wished and wear what she desired. But such basic human rights many of us women exercise were unbearable for her brother.

If any consolation can be found in the 26-year-old’s tragic story, then it’s her elderly father who described her as his son and “best friend”. I find it amazing that somebody from the older generation had no qualms with her lifestyle, yet her brother, who was a year younger than her (25), was proud of murdering her. Shocking!

Violence, mental abuse and murder in the name of honour are nothing new in South Asian cultures. It’s often directed at women but men can also be subjected to it if they’re considered to be bringing shame to the family.

It’s not just archaic traditions that impose certain expectations on people to live a certain way, marry people from a certain community, dress a certain way, and so on; but the overriding misogynist view of supressing women.

Female empowerment is intolerable by people who exercise such warped views. And this fear is usually rooted by insecurity.

If a woman shows she is intelligent and talented enough to have a career, bold enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with men, hardworking enough to hold a family simultaneously and courageous enough to speak her mind; she is showing she doesn’t need a man – be he in the form of a protective father, brother or husband. This must freak insecure men out.

A few years ago my cousin said something that we found funny at the time but it clearly defines patriarchy that exists in British Asians too.

She wasn’t allowed to cut her hair short because it “doesn’t look very respectable”. She would say “the whole family’s izzat [honour] lies in my hair”. Yet her brother could cut his hair however he liked.

As I said, it may sound comical but this was a simple act of freedom she was not allowed to exercise, despite being born and raised in Britain.

Another frustrating thing about patriarchal thinking is the blame on women. Victims of rape are often blamed because they were at the wrong place or dressed inappropriately or somehow luring a man to a state that he can’t control where he forces his genitalia.

One of the most read newspapers in Britain, The Sun, ran a headline this week that did just that: elude to a rape victim’s responsibility over what she endured.

The paper’s tweet claiming “Woman ‘drank six Jagerbombs in ten minutes on the night she was raped and murdered’” received a huge backlash from men and women questioning why the woman’s alcohol consumption had anything to do with her rape and murder.

It’s this sort of character profiling and stereotyping of women being a certain way if they do certain things that feeds into misogyny and claims of dishonour. And this paper is far from South Asia where such attitudes are often reported about.

I too have faced hurdles of what my family does or doesn’t permit because as a girl there are things that don’t bode well in the community.

But can you ever please a community? People who have no lives of their own will snoop on others – usually through mediums like Facebook – and judge others because they simply have nothing better to do.

Qandeel Baloch was a celebrity and she faced the same backlash, but that didn’t hinder her spirit to live her life as she pleased.

Before people question their daughters, they need to question their sons who sexually abuse women verbally, physically and mentally.

If they don’t like their sister being looked at in a derogatory way, why do they feel its okay to look at another man’s sister in the same manner?

If you fear your sister being treated or perceived in a certain way, it’s most likely because you look at women in that same light. What does that make you?

Why must women be repressed or abused because of others’ insecurity?

Live, love, laugh…

I’ve spent a week with my nieces who are at an age where magic and fairytales are the first and last things they think about in a day. You’ve passed their tough approval test if they name you after a Disney princess – but Jasmine, Rapunzel and Aurora are off the cards because these titles are reserved for their mum and them. My title seems to vary from day to day…

Dressing in “pwetty” dresses, wearing princess jewellery complete with crowns (tiaras) and Princess Anna and Elsa hair (c’mon, you must know them from Frozen) you step into a land far, far away. A land of imagination, magical fairy dust, where everything is “bootiful” according to two-year-old Mahi.But there are some relapses when fantasy merges with reality. Age gets the better of them and they’re due a visit to the naughty step. When one gets told off, the other gets upset and tries to negotiate a way to their freedom. It’s almost like watching sisterly love in Frozen being played out in front of me!

And minutes later, after the crying and moaning they’re back in their princess world where everything is pink, “pwetty” and “bootiful”. It’s as simple as that.

Watching their childhood unfold before me, I can’t help but wonder how my childhood flew by so quickly. How did the blassé life of no worries, playing all day and being rewarded by questionable amounts of sweets by my gran – all fade away? When did life become so serious and challenging? Why can’t I let it go (promise no more Frozen references but I’ve seen the film so many times this week!) and move on as easily as I did when we bickered as kids? 

I’ve fallen into this rat race of do’s and dont’s, expectations, demands and living up to roles at home or at work. When do you get a break from these roles to immerse yourself into a magical world of endless possibility? To just break away from the monotony of reality and give the mind and soul a much-deserved vacation?

It’s taken me a week with my nieces to realise how beneficial a break from ‘normal’ is to remain sane. By thinking and playing like a little princess, my mind feels lighter and cleansed by everyday smog that mounts and weighs me down.

Unleashing the inner princess, even for a few moments, can make you realise a situation that may seem like the be-all-and-end-all; is simply a chapter of your adventurous fairytale that you’ll get through to reach your happy ever after.

Is scaremongering the best way to persuade?

Fear is a powerful emotion that everyone can relate to. It’s often used to sway opinion and evoke reaction. There is no better example than UKIP leader Nigel Farage this week encouraging people to “bully” others to vote out of the EU if “we want our country back”. It got me thinking – is scaremongering the best way to persuade?

It seems politicians often use fear and anxiety to predict a grim picture of the future, unless voters take their side.

During the British Raj in India, authorities adopted a divide and rule approach to justify how and when they left India. Dividing a once united nation for independence to believe a separate state for Muslims was crucial resulted in 200-years vented frustration over British occupancy being diverted to the potential of another alleged dictatorship by the Hindu majority.

Paradoxically, the majority of Muslims remained in India after the partition. And what ensued has marred families for decades. The partition of India in 1947 made friends enemies, and millions of lives were lost. Seventy years on, tension in the region is still rife. But the British authorities made an escape, avoiding bloody anarchy against them.

This political charade is no less today – we were made to fear weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify a war that claimed countless lives and probably gave birth to many more terrorists. But those weapons were nowhere to be found.

Since unrest in the Middle East, we have heard constant media reports on the “migrant crisis”, implying there is an “unprecedented” situation. Such terms do nothing but exacerbate an issue and convince people there is a problem they should be afraid of.

I am in no way condemning the number of migrants seeking refuge in Europe is not an issue. But the way in which it is reported and spoken about by politicians and the media is grossly exaggerated and makes me wonder what our attention is being diverted from…

Donald Trump has been swaying voters in America with his distrust and fear-spreading rhetoric about migrants, and Muslims in particular. Such preaching has a powerful impact on people who may not go out of their way to read up on the facts, to inform themselves of the truth. It’s a worrying thought that people who listen to the loudest, scariest voice will base all their political views on it.

Likewise with the recruitment of extremists: terrorist groups use fear and scaremongering to brainwash people that the world is against them, their faith and their beliefs to justify the slaughter of all those who are different to them.

And I’m not only referring to Islamic extremists – there are radicals from all faiths and cultures. The recruitment process works in the same way.

As I learn more about the world; working in news, speaking to more people with different perspectives and experiences – I’m growing more aware of the impact of scaremongering.

Ironically, I’m afraid of how the world is evolving and how this will impact my unborn children and generations to come.

Maybe it’s easier to believe charismatic and charming people than making the effort to educate and forming an opinion of your own. Maybe it’s easier to be herded like a sheep than having the courage and strength to stand your own ground. Maybe its human nature to be easily influenced and there are the few who are bold enough to carve their own way.

But it is these few that change history forever. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela’s legacies leave me with a glimmer of hope that positive persuasion can empower people.

Does empowerment for Indian women mean they need to bare all?

I came across an Indo-Canadian artist’s latest work on Buzzfeed India in which she portrays “Badass Indian Pinups” and I couldn’t help but feel both impressed and bewildered.

Nimisha Bhanot is a creative and talented artist – there is no doubt about that. But her recent series of paintings illustrating confidence and independence in Indian women got me wondering what empowerment is truly about.

Her paintings are seductive and colourful, which entices you as a viewer. There’s a cheeky play on stereotypes and all the women appear to be staring at you in defiance – mocking Indian tradition of the lowered gaze being a sign of a respectable woman. I especially like the painting called “Serving Looks, Not Nashtha” (breakfast).

But in all of the pictures, the women are baring their legs, and others go on to bare more flesh. Now those who know me will know I’m far from the timid, conservative type. In fact, I have challenged archaic traditions in my own household to wear whatever I like that elders once considered dishonourable – like sleeveless tops and make-up!

But these paintings implying Indian women can only be independent by baring their skin troubles me. By this logic, is a woman who dresses moderately trapped by restrictions?

Surely, independence and empowerment for anybody – man or woman of any race – is to be able to exercise freedom of speech, dress and (to some extent) action. I say the latter with caution because of course an act that harms others isn’t empowerment, its abuse.

I find it so frustrating when I hear people assuming women who wear headscarves (hijab) or face veils (niqab) are trapped in a patriarchal society. I suppose it can’t be denied that some of them may be forced to be wearing them but why can’t the world see that some women opt to cover themselves. The fact that they are choosing to dress as they wish is the very core of empowerment. It may insinuate otherwise to the rest of the world but just because somebody wants to interpret it as a negative doesn’t automatically deplete the positive.

I was once asked by a friend if I would ever wear a bikini in front of my brothers. I said “no” (not least because they would ridicule me as expected in sibling banter) but this wasn’t because I wasn’t permitted. It’s because I would feel embarrassed for them and for myself. And that’s the Indian cultural upbringing in me coming out. Does that imply I’m repressed?

What if we flip this to the opposite sex – are men who reveal their abs or bare their pins more empowered than those who don’t? Sounds ridiculous right?

I was discussing this with a friend who is originally from Poland and her understanding of Indian attire is that its very seductive – if you think about sarees in which the midriff is exposed – but they are still elegant. In my friend’s words: “You don’t have to bare skin to be sexy” – and I completely agree. I mean let’s face it, Catwoman is covered from neck to toe but she oozes sex appeal! Okay, so maybe I’m digressing. And sex appeal is different to female empowerment but these paintings are sexy.

If Nimisha Bhanot is reading this – its nothing personal. Your work is great. I just don’t think bare flesh is the key to emancipation. If anything, it further highlights narrow minded views of strong women having to use beauty to excel.

The true meaning of charity

This week I experienced what I can only describe as my most humble evening. I helped to serve food to rough sleepers and the less fortunate in Birmingham City Centre. I was volunteering with Midland Langar Seva.

What amazed me was the waiting list to volunteer. I was told I may have to wait two months (!) but I managed to join the team a week later.

Speaking to one of the co-founders, it’s a beautiful story of how they transcended from a life that they felt was draining them morally, to adopting Sikhism and fulfilling the desire to give back to the community.

They began Midland Langar Seva in Walsall on a weekly basis two and half years ago. They invested £40. It is now a daily voluntary service in more than 10 cities with no monetary exchange. The organisation runs on only food donations and volunteers.

The co-founder described how they have been offered money on several occasions but they have point blank refused and asked these donors to provide food instead. The offers were as much as tens of thousands of pounds.

I was left gobsmacked at this. Having worked in the ‘voluntary’ sector I have seen first-hand how uncharitable charities can be. Even places of worship are run like a business. Profits seem to be the fuel of this sector.

Yet Midland Langar Seva has kept everything simple and transparent. No money is involved. It runs on basic Sikh values of voluntary service, or “seva”, as advocated by the first Sikh guru; Guru Nanak Dev Ji.

I was overwhelmed by such a noble and honest practice being observed in 21st Century Britain, when the origins were from South Asia, 500 years ago.

Moreover, it was the passion with which the volunteers were participating. You could see they were experienced in what they were doing but they seemed as enthusiastic as I was as a newbie to the organisation.

Midland Langar Seva provides hot and cold food and drinks, and sometimes even sleeping bags, gloves and scarves to the less fortunate EVERY day – come rain or snow. The co-founder was laughing and saying he can’t remember the last time he watched EastEnders because every evening is dedicated to this noble cause that he holds close to his heart.

Such dedication is commendable.

On returning home that night, as I tucked into my homemade hot meal, in my cosy pyjamas watching television in my warm home; I couldn’t help but wonder all those hundreds of people Midland Langar Seva feeds every night.

We take so much for granted. We raise our nose to food we don’t find appetising. We throw away leftovers. We don’t hesitate when spending on dining out. Yet there are so many people on the streets who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, or perhaps not even a meal but something, anything, to eat.

I donate to charities but I couldn’t say with confidence how much of my donation goes to the people it is intended for. However, when food is offered to someone less fortunate, you can guarantee you are helping somebody in need.

It is such a basic act but could make a world of a difference to somebody. A difference that we, the more fortunate, could not even relate to.

It really makes you put things into perspective. We talk about the richest in the world being millionaires and billionaires. But maybe the richest in the world are those who have food on their plate and a warm home to share with their loved ones.

Food for thought.

Lohri

It seems every week there is an Indian cultural or religious festival of some kind to celebrate. I suppose Indians enjoy food and rejoicing so we need any excuse to celebrate! And today we do just that.

Lohri is a Punjabi cultural festival that originated to mark the traditional time to harvest sugarcane. And for farmers the day after Lohri; Maghi, is seen as the start to their financial year.

Food traditionally associated to this time of year is linked to the harvest as well – radish, rewri (sweet snacks made from jaggery), and the Punjabi trademark dish; sarson da saag (made of mustard leaves) with makki di roti (chapatti made of corn flour).

Over generations it became a trend to use this day to honour a new member of the family. Thus, when a son was married and brought home his wife, or when a son was born; the family would rejoice around a fire (seeing as its winter).

Daughters were not celebrated because in Indian culture generally – and other cultures from the subcontinent – a daughter is seen as an outsider because she will eventually marry and be part of another family; taking their name and adding to their family with children.

However, recently more and more Punjabis have been breaking free from this patriarchal tradition. They are using Lohri to celebrate the birth of their sons AND daughters, who are more commonly being regarded with equal footing.

It’s been an absolute pleasure and honour in my family that in the past few years we have celebrated the birth of my four nieces. Moreover, elders in the family have acknowledged that it is wrong to say daughters are “outsiders” because ultimately they are the ones who will support and take care of their parents, regardless of whether they are married.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that when a boy marries, he becomes more of an outsider to his family than a daughter who has moved home and adopted her husband’s name. That daughter will maintain a close, loving relationship with her parents and siblings; she will be there in times of need and celebration.

A good daughter-in-law will also build this relationship with her in-laws…a good daughter-in-law will.

This year, a campaign has been launched to highlight gender inequality and to encourage people to celebrate ALL additions to their family, regardless of their gender. So pink is being worn by those who have had a baby girl in the family.

Pink and blue ladoos (Indian sweets) are being shared to mark the birth of girls and boys respectively.

I think it’s a great visual concept that adds to the impact. However, I can’t help but wonder whether it exacerbates the notion of difference between genders rather than encouraging equality.

It shouldn’t matter what colour you wear, or what colour the ladoos are; simply celebrate the extension to your family. Embrace your baby son or daughter with equal love and happiness. Make a daughter feel AS valued as a son from birth, and they will grow up to be strong pillars that hold your family together.

I celebrated Lohri at work by sharing some Indian snacks and sweets. My colleagues thought the concept of marking the addition to the family was great. Here’s to hoping this festival will continue to spread happiness and joy in all families without a gender stipulation.

Did you know…

You may have heard the traditional folk song associated with Lohri: “Sunder Mundriye”. But do you know what it means and where it originates from?

The song is based on folklore about a Robin Hood-esque Punjabi man called Dulla Bhatti during the Moghul era, when Akbar was emperor.

Dulla Bhatti stole from the rich and saved women who were kidnapped and forcibly sold in slave markets. From his stolen fortune he would then marry these women off. Two of these women were called Sundri and Mundri.

Happy Lohri!