Blurring culture into religion

I’m often asked if I’m religious. I respond by saying I’m more spiritual than religious in that I believe in the principles of my faith but aren’t practicing (keeping uncut hair, maintaining a veg die, etc.). One of the reasons is that I find a lot of practices are blurred between culture and religion.

I went to a wedding where the bride’s mother – who was a widow – was forbidden by her family from giving her away in a custom known as kanyadaan. This woman had raised her daughter alone after her husband passed away yet her late husband’s brother was expected to step in for the custom.

That was a Sikh wedding. The equivalent is expected at Hindu weddings. If a woman is widowed or divorced; she’s denied the right to giver her daughter away at her wedding and an uncle and aunt step in. Why?

The feminist in me questions why there’s even a “giving away” custom in weddings of all faiths in this day and age? As if a woman can’t take care of herself and must be the responsibility of her father or husband! Anyway, I digress.

Back to the uncle stepping in when the father is absent – as far as I have read and understood, there is no such custom dictated in Sikhism or Hinduism so it falls down to Indian culture that imposes such patriarchal customs. Such practices over generations have been passed on as religious customs, so people follow them blindly without questioning them.

This week, India’s Supreme Court imposed a prominent Hindu temple in Kerala to lift a ban on girls and women aged 10-50 years old from entering because they’re of “menstruating age”. Yet, I’ve spoken to Hindu priests who say its not written in any scriptures that a menstruating woman can’t enter a temple.

I remember when I was a teenager we were invited to a pooja (Hindu prayer) but my mum was specifically told not to bring me because I was an adolescent. I didn’t understand why I was denied an invite at the time but remember feeling upset that the family friends in question didn’t like me…that was the only logical explanation I could think of to be singled out.

Last year at my mum’s funeral when we were getting her ready, I was forbidden from bathing her because of some nonsensical rule that “daughters don’t do that”. The funeral director was there and she looked more angry than me about it and said: “It’s daughters who wash and care for parents when they’re alive and they’re denied the chance to do it when it matters most?” My aunt in question fell silent at this point. And the reality was that I did bathe Mum regularly because she was ill. So why didn’t society question a daughter doing that when Mum was alive?

I hail from a faith that prides itself for equality. Sikhism preached this notion 500 years before the Equalities Act was passed in the UK. Yet, sadly, because of cultural customs most Sikh temples are still managed by men, the priestly position is held by men and even the kitchen – where langar (blessed, free food) is provided for everyone – is managed by men but women are expected to cook.

It feels as though my faith was trailblazing centuries ago but has regressed over the years because of patriarchy.

On the upside – festivals such as Lohri that celebrated the birth or marriage of a son have now caught up with celebrating the birth of a daughter. That’s a cultural festival, not religious. So it proves there is hope that we’re becoming more progressive.

But the next time you’re told “girls are meant to do that” or “it’s a boy’s job” – question it. Where did such a rule come from? What’s the logic? We live in the 21st Century where women are as educated as men, we’re as ambitious, we also have careers and most households rely on incomes of a man AND woman. So why are women sidelined when it comes to certain traditions that are falsely labelled as religion?

It’s only when we question and challenge that there will be change.


Should British Asians follow wedding traditions?

The wedding season is well and truly upon us. For Asians that means many days of festivities, eating food that can only be described as a heart attack on a plate and forking out ridiculous amounts of £££ on new, colourful outfits (if you’re a woman that is). But its not all that bad – the buzz at an Asian wedding is like no other. The days leading up to the big day add anticipation and you’re surrounded by family you would otherwise hardly see (I suppose that could be a pro for some and con for others!) But with it all, come the customs and traditions – how can you keep up with all of them? And does it really matter if we follow them?

My passion for event planning turned into a mini business when I set up Epic Events. With every booking clients would ask me advice on what each function entails and what they should remember to do/buy. So I created A Guide to Punjabi Weddings, which gets hundreds of daily hits from all over the globe. So, clearly the need to know is there but not everyone understands what the customs are. More and more at weddings that I attend, I notice people evolving and curbing some traditions. Namely, the bride and groom were expected to remain in their house once their maiyan (ceremony to purify the skin with a natural body mask) is put on. The logic behind this concept was simple – you look as yellow as a Simpson character because of this turmeric mixture on you (and you can’t wash it off for two days!) but also there was a worry that you could get hurt or involved in an accident if you’re out running errands for your wedding.

But quite often today, this custom is broken because a lot of pre-wedding parties are held at function venues. I suppose it makes sense if you don’t want the hassle of hosting such an event at home or can’t accommodate so many people. But some elders still shake their head – but does it really matter if the bride and groom are partying at home or in a venue so long as they’re spending that time with their family?

Another example is girls wearing make-up in the days leading up to the wedding. The notion is you look as simple as possible, let the maiyan work its magic to condition your skin and on the wedding day you’re a glowing bride…but quite frankly the effect of the maiyan is hardly noticed once the MUA has caked on all the make-up. And if you’re paranoid about your skin, what harm is it to wear a little make-up? Granted going all out would look odd and a contrast to your bridal look is nice. But anybody who has an issue with a girl wearing a little concealer or lick of mascara can shove their old skool thinking in the bin.

Having said all of that I love Punjabi wedding traditions. They add life and joy to a wedding. And as odd as some things may seem – like a mother skipping over the rangoli design at the maiyan ceremony – ultimately the traditions are there to act as blessings and times to rejoice. If we scrapped all of them would there be much difference in an Asian wedding and any other wedding? Besides, you’re only going to do it once in your life so why not go the whole hog?

Would love to hear your thoughts on this. Share your comments below!

What does it mean to be a British Asian woman in 2018?

For women the world over; patriarchy and inequality has been a constant struggle. Although some cultures strive to address it, others refuse to change. So on International Women’s Day – as a woman of Indian descent born and raised in Britain – I couldn’t help but wonder whether the struggle can be tougher.

In the year that we’re celebrating 100 years since the Suffragettes successfully fought for women (albeit over 30s only) to have the democratic right to vote; why is there still little or no mention of non-White women who were part of this noble movement. Namely, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh who was of Indian and English heritage. She was at the forefront for the suffrage movement yet she only appears to be celebrated by the Sikh community because she was the granddaughter of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh; the only Sikh king of south Asia.

But there is some hope – she has been featured on a British stamp: the only woman of South Asian descent to do so. But even then she’s on the most expensive stamp…how many people buy them? Is there still an element of inequality at play here?

Bringing it closer to home – there’s been a lot of talk about equality in the workplace. Women are often paid less for doing the same – if not more – work than men. Maternity leave often stunts their careers. Boardrooms with senior management are still full of (mostly White) men. Even in 21st Century Britain, women are fighting to reach equal treatment in the workplace. Now throw race into the mix: an Asian woman has the added challenge of racial prejudice to contend with. Comparatively, there are far fewer Asian women in top management than White women. If you’re older and have a disability? Well, the odds are stacking higher against you.

Bringing it even closer to home; Asian girls and women face discrimination within their own families and communities. As a Punjabi, historically the birth of sons is celebrated with the annual winter festival of Lohri, which is also marked by families where a son has married. The notion behind it is that the family is growing – a son is thought to stay with the family and carry the family name whereas a daughter will eventually marry and become a part of her husband’s family. And this mentality is common across South Asia. So from the very day she is born; an Asian girl is considered to be an outsider of the family. My own father cried when I was born – and they were not tears of joy – because he was upset he had a second daughter. Thankfully, some people are demonstrating progressive thinking. My cousin threw as big a Lohri party for his daughter as you would expect for a son and the whole family supported him. There are initiatives like Pink Ladoo where pink Indian sweets are shared on the birth of a girl (ladoos being the traditional Indian sweet at celebrations).

But then as a girl grows older, the differences become more apparent. She may not go out as late as her brother, she may not dress as she pleases, she may not enjoy a night at the club with friends or a drink at the pub – which her brother could do every day if he pleased. And God forbid she were dating…”what will people say?!” – or so is the narrow-minded thinking. If a daughter does anything considered to be out of line, the family’s honour is at stake. If a son does the equivalent, he’s commended for being ‘a man’.

Gender stereotypes have been challenged for decades in the western world. But for South Asians, its only recently become more rife. Women in India are living out their ambitions, which previous generations could only dream of. My mum was a postgraduate in the early 1970s – a Punjabi woman with two degrees in her early 20s and unmarried at that time…she was a trailblazer. But education and careers are fast becoming accepted and sometimes even expected of Asian women, which we should all celebrate.

However, not all perceptions or expectations are changing. Asian women may well be celebrated for their academic and career successes but once they’re at home – they’re still expected to get married in their 20s, they’re still expected to start a family soon after, they’re still expected to be a dutiful wife who cooks and cleans for her husband and kids after a day at work (whereas men quite often use the “tired after a day at work” line) and Asian women in particular are expected to be the obedient daughter-in-law who tolerates taunts from in-laws yet is expected to treat them like her own parents.

For the rebels like me who refused to settle down or accept any Tom, Dick or Harinder’s marriage proposal in my ripe 20s – I’m considered to be fussy. I’m often warned that I’m getting too old and my biological clock is ticking. The same complainers overlook my career progression, my travels that have opened my mind and exposed me to much more than marrying at 23 and being a mum at 25 would, living away from home that has taught me essential life skills and how to be independent. Oh no, that’s all unnecessary.

What they also overlook is that young Asian women today tend to be educated and goal-focused. They’ve not only fought prejudice at work but prejudice in the home where their male counterparts are prioritised. So when it comes to settling down, they don’t want a man who relies on his parents wealth or feels he is more superior simply because he is male. And that’s precisely what I’ve found a lot of British Asian men are like – their parents raise them on a pedestal so they develop an inherent sense of entitlement, which translates as arrogance. Is it any surprise then that more and more Asian women are settling down with White men who aren’t raised with the same inequality at home?

Sadly, I find its often mothers who are to blame. They sometimes prioritise sons over daughters so in actual fact its women holding other (younger) women back. There are signs of this changing with Asian mothers who are born and raised in Britain, but I think there’s still a long way to go.

But what’s more important is how far British Asian women have come. We’re third and fourth generations carving our futures through our own drive, tenacity and strength. We are superwomen who have the astounding power to be doting daughters, wonderful wives, marvellous mothers and dutiful daughters-in-law. Few communities can boast such remarkable women.

On this International Women’s Day, I salute the amazing British Asian women who – despite the odds being against them – are going from strength to strength to prove we are worth it, we can do it and we will bring about positive change.

Goodbye 2017

As the countdown for 2018 begins I thought a moment of reflection on 2017 was worthy.

For me the year has brought more sorrow than good. After losing the love of my life, Ma, I went through a rollercoaster of emotions that I couldn’t quite understand. My thoughts and actions felt out of my control. My anger towards some people in the present and others in the past was unbearable and clung to me like a nasty rash.

It took six months and three holidays for me to breakdown and realise I was grieving the biggest loss I’ve ever experienced. A loss I had never imagined let alone fathom how to cope with. And when I struck a dead end, many suggested getting help – talking therapy, commonly known as counselling.

For those who are familiar to my blogs, I’m a strong advocate of talking about mental wellbeing. I’m constantly trying to raise awareness of mental health but at this stage in life I didn’t understand why I was being recommended therapy when I was mourning. Turns out, significant changes in life can have a profound effect on your mental health.

In all honesty I approached counselling with doubt. I didn’t understand how it would help with coping with the loss of Mum. Six sessions on, I was pleasantly surprised.

Counselling didnt help me get over losing Mum – nothing can and I’ll never cease to miss her. That’s life. But talking and sharing emotions allowed an impartial person shed a new perspective on how I was seeing things. She made me question things from a different angle, put myself in others’ shoes. As simple as the concept may be; we often get so consumed in our own lives – my loss, how it affected me, how I feel – that we don’t acknowledge what’s going on around us.

I realised how easy it was to latch on to anger and hold a grudge…but what does that achieve? Wasted time and energy on a past situation you can’t change? You’re frustrated and upset but nobody else is affected. In such a state the most empowering thing is to forgive and let go. Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting, but it brings you peace of mind, wellbeing and peace. Surely, you owe yourself that much…right?

So as we close the chapter of 2017, its time to turn a new leaf for 2018 and pen the life we lead, ourselves. Cherish every moment, live every minute and let go of everything that is out of your control. Because life is too short to procrastinate or wonder “what if?” Seize the day.

Happy 2018

Vain humility

I was at a religious function recently that was at a gurdwara (Sikh temple) and something that took place there has compelled me to vocalise my rant.

Sikh prayers culminate with what is known as Ardaas; when you ask God for forgiveness and pray for whatever you desire. Some gurdwaras have adopted a practice that is in no way religious but has become cultural, and goes against the very grain of humility.

Sikhs are known to be charitable. It’s part of our values; “seva” meaning selfless service. As part of this, its common for congregations to give donations to the gurdwara. These donations are used for the upkeep of gurdwaras where food is served seven days a week.

However, some people – rather than make a private donation – insist on their name being attached to it and being declared in the Ardaas. So you hear the gyaani (priest) announcing “X family gives £X” and this list is tirelessly long! In fact, at times the list of “humble donors” can be longer than the actual Ardaas itself!

I appreciate gurdwaras – like churches and other places of worship – rely on the generous giving of their congregations. After all, they’re registered charities. But isn’t the true meaning of charity ‘selfless good’? Isn’t the aim to help others without expecting anything in return – be that praise or acknowledgement? And surely when it comes to a religious donation; that transaction is between you and God. So why should the whole community hear that you donated £5 or £50?!?!

It becomes an issue of status. People who give more will be seen beaming with pride. As if to imply “I’m doing well and I can prove it by dishing out so much to the gurdwara.” That may be the case but if you were truly humble, you wouldn’t need your name announced.

At this last function I’m referring to, a woman donated money on behalf of her late husband. So now people are giving to God even in their death!

When did faith become so selfish? When did it become about you and not about God or the less fortunate? And yet so many elders in the community wonder why younger generations are gradually moving away from their local gurdwaras.
The corruption at places of worship and other such politics I’ll leave for another blog on another day. For now, all I can end on is think twice before a “humble” act and question who you’re doing it for…

Blurred lines of harassment

If there’s one thing that virtually every workplace has discussed in the last couple of weeks; it’s the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Every day more women are coming forward claiming he harassed them. As if this wasn’t shocking enough – a multi-Oscar winning media mogul disrespecting women in the most crude way – then what’s amazed me is how many people are coming forward saying such harassment is common in many industries.

Before I go any further, I just want to clarify that I’m only talking about harassment and not sexual abuse or rape, because neither need defining. They’re as black and white as it comes to intolerable behaviour towards women.


The Hollywood scandal has led people questioning harassment in the workplace. The #MeToo campaign got me thinking about whether I’ve been harassed at work but I couldn’t recall a single time, despite virtually every woman on my timeline joining the social media campaign. I’ve been complimented, asked out and treated better by some men, which others would consider positive discrimination. I wouldn’t consider any of these things as harassment – although some men have persisted in asking for my number or asking me out without taking the first rejection as an answer. But isn’t it human nature that if you’re attracted to somebody you would do something about it? When does flirting become harassment?

I wonder if men, and women for that matter, will now be too afraid to proclaim their attraction for a colleague and ask them out. Will we see a drop in workplace relationships? I work in a busy media environment where you spend more hours in the week with colleagues than you do at home, so its little surprise many couples have met at work. Will that no longer be the case?

Women represented in media

Then there are the music and film worlds. Every world cinema seems to portray the same thing. In Hollywood and English cinema there’ll be pointless sex scenes that add nothing to the screenplay where the woman is portrayed topless. Likewise in Bollywood: men will be dressed head to toe while women will be revealing as much skin as possible. It makes me wonder if this is done for the audience’s benefit – if so, what does that say about us as filmgoers? Or does it reflect filmmakers, who – lets face it – are usually men.

And speaking of harassment, could it be argued that films like Hitch with Will Smith or Akshay Kumar’s recent hit Toilet: Ek Prem Katha; promote harassment? Will and Akshay are shown wooing their love interests by making grand gestures of affection, following them, giving them gifts and assuming the ladies will be receptive. But when we watch the films, we think of them as love stories, romance, affection. So when does pursuing someone who you’re attracted to become harassment?

A couple of weeks ago I saw a film based on Michelle and Barack Obama’s first date; Southside With You. Of course some artistic freedom would’ve been exercised so you can’t take it word for word, but overall Michelle repeatedly asserts that it isn’t a date and argues why they can’t pursue such a relationship. Barack is persistent and doesn’t back down. But if you see the film you can’t help but feel butterflies at how beautifully Barack woos Michelle and wins her over. Now this is a confident, educated woman telling a man sternly – repeatedly – that they can’t date. This intelligent (and suave!) man doesn’t take no for an answer and although he doesn’t physically harass her, he sways her with his words and gestures. Is that harassment? If anything, after watching the film my love for the Obamas has grown even more and Barack truly appears to be the perfect man every woman would dream of marrying. So is it not harassment if the attention is wanted or mutual?

And then there is the music industry – from lyrics to music videos, women are seen as objects of desire. The likes of Nikki Minaj and Rihanna seem to perpetuate this sexualisation with their dance moves, choice of attire and lyrics. But they’re seen as powerful women who know what they want and are proud to declare it. I think Charli XCX’s song “Boys” is a refreshing twist to the traditional take in songs where women talk about how desirable they are (Kelis’ “Milkshake”) and men proclaim what they’d like to do to them (Akon’s “Smack That”).

Women in society

The way women are portrayed in media stems from our culture; what we believe as a society. Quite often we see eastern, developing countries associated with patriarchal views where women are often considered subordinates or secondary to men.

As a British Asian, I’ve seen too often how men are prioritised over women by women themselves – be it mothers, wives, sisters. Festivals celebrate men – be it Lohri where the birth or marriage of a boy is celebrated, or Karva Chaud – where a wife fasts all day to pray for her husband’s long life. When do we celebrate women?

I was raised in a home where the men and children were fed first, then my mum and aunt’s would eat after. Even today, although there has been a generational change and we eat together, it’s the women who will cook and serve.

It used to really bug me when my brother would have a cold and my parents would fuss over him as if he needed hospital care. If my sister and I were ill, Mum was always concerned and nursed us but not in the same way as she did for my brother. Was he treated with more care because he was a boy or did they think he needed more care because men needed more nurturing (in their eyes)?

When you think about rishtey (marriage proposals) – traditionally the demands are for a woman to be tall, slim and fair (academic or career achievements are secondary). For a man, his education and job are promoted – even if he is a bulging, balding five footer! So why the contrasting demands? Why are women judged by their aesthetics, and a man on his earning power? Are we encouraging the archaic notion of “men are breadwinners, women are homemakers”? This is despite so many career women who are also wives and mothers, and in many cases more successful than their spouse.

The more I dissect my cultural heritage, the more I found men were treated far superior to women – sometimes consciously, other times subconsciously. So when I hear or see cases of harassment in South Asia it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Yet why do they happen in the west which is considered to be a modern, educated, developed society? Why are the likes of Harvey Weinstein able to prey on women and abuse their powerful positions to make women feel vulnerable and powerless? It’s not just one culture or community that treat women with less respect, it happens the world over.

Animal instinct

Weinstein has claimed he needs therapy to change his habits. It’s a great way for a wealthy man to deny all responsibility of his wicked, seedy, filthy actions. But actually, it comes down to a very simple notion.

In the animal world, males woo females to procreate. And I’ve seen enough Attenborough to see how damn hard the males work to fight off (literally!) the competition. But have you ever heard of animals raping each other? Ever heard of animals forcing themselves onto another for sexual gratification? Yet sexual abuse and harassment is so rife in humans – so are we less evolved than animals?

Are we all complicit?

From what’s emerging in the Weinstein scandal; his actions were well known in the industry. Actors, filmmakers and designers have said it was laughed off as “there goes Harvey again”. So women were being harassed, manipulated, made to feel vulnerable – and bystanders just let it be…let that thought sink in for a moment. This is twenty-first century Hollywood, advanced in technology, the epitome of glamour, one of the most successful industries in the world – and women are being mistreated but nobody is saying anything. Eyes seem to be open but mouths are shut. Why?

The intensity of the situation hit home when Angelina Jolie – who is testament to a strong, powerful woman – said she was victim to Weinstein’s harassment when she was starting out as an actress. Yet she never spoke out. What does that say for how vulnerable he made women feel, how powerless they were in this empire that was controlled by men? Its a chilling thought.

But if you relate to us lay people – if you knew that a woman was getting unwanted attention from a man who was abusing his position, would you intervene? Isn’t it time that everybody not only opened their eyes but their mouths too and put a stop to women being harassed, manipulated and abused?

Dealing with the loss of a loved one

I’ve often expressed my thoughts in written form. But this time, I felt it was easier to vocalise them.

So here is my first vlog about the different stages of grieving. Talking about it has helped. I hope sharing this will help others going through something similar…


Click image to play

Many thanks to Pria Rai for the beautiful filming and editing.