When customs hinder your grieving

In the last few weeks I’ve undergone an unbearable pain I wouldn’t wish on anybody – the sudden loss of a parent. I’ve lost close relations in the past, including my grandparents, which meant the mourning process was done in our home. But this time everything felt so much worse, for all the wrong reasons.

Maybe it’s my age – I’m older thus more involved in everything. Or maybe it’s because the person I loved more than anybody else, who meant everything to me, who I revolved my life around; was suddenly snatched away by fate.

From the start I’ll specify I’m about to explain the British Sikh way of mourning. In India, it’s quite different. And elsewhere, I have no idea what grieving families are expected to do leading up to the funeral.

In Britain, Sikhs usually start a Sehj Paath (prayer) in the house the day after a relative passes and lay white sheets on the floor until the funeral (depending on whether a post mortem is needed or availability of the crematorium; this could take a week to even three weeks). The prayer means two meals must be cooked daily to be blessed by a priest – although this doesn’t necessarily have to be cooked in the same house. And the door is left open during the day for people to come and go to pay condolences. Tea is served throughout all of this, as well as the blessed food.

It’s not guests eating I have an issue with – they don’t always expect to be fed a meal and some travel from different cities so its fair play. But it’s the custom of providing food at such a tragic time in a household that I don’t understand. Historically, people would travel by foot or cart to villages or towns in India to pay condolences. So food would be provided because of the distance they’d travelled and the time it took with restricted modes of transport. Moreover, as Sikhs we provide langar (blessed food) wherever the Guru Granth Sahib Ji (holy book and living Guru) is kept.

But in an age where virtually all households have a car, thus travelling is more efficient, people paying condolences don’t necessarily stay for long enough to expect a meal. As for those close relatives who are there round the clock – and they’re the ones who do much of the cooking and housework – of course they would need to be fed. But maybe we should adopt something similar to Muslims – relatives bring dishes to the mourning house. No cooking is done in the grieving house. Or what Namdharis (Sikh sub-sect) do – food is provided at a certain time of the day and anybody to arrive before or after is only served tea.

When you’re coming to terms with the loss of your mother, you barely have time to shed a tear or see to guests when you’re consumed in cooking two meals a day. You spend much of the day in the kitchen cooking and cleaning when your deceased parents’ blood has hardly gone cold. To any other community, such a custom would seem unbelievable. And as Sikhs, yes, it’s in our faith to serve and provide food but essentially that’s for the needy. A lot of what happens has become custom because of societal expectation.

You may think I’m coming across as unwelcoming; ranting about having to feed guests. If you’ve ever been to my house you’ll find my family’s very much feeders. We don’t let guests leave without providing food. But at the most tragic time imaginable, such a practice feels overwhelmingly tiring and unfair on a grieving family.

Aside from this are the comments you have to hear. I’ve lost my mum, the person I loved most in the world, the person who I revolved my life around. And I have biddies saying: “Your mum has gone, you’re all alone now, you’ll never get a mother again, mothers are irreplaceable.” – don’t you think I know all of this? Are these meant to be consoling words?

The worst has got to be: “If only she married you off first then died the following day”… f***ing unbelievable. And what hurt the most was: “Your brother will be happy in his family, your sister will be happy in her family, but you’ll be all alone now.” Wow. So apparently I have nobody left in the world now.

I appreciate people come to pay their respects and say what they feel is best. But at times like this, the less said the better. There’s no ‘right’ thing to say but all of the above are definitely the wrong things to say.

Despite all of this, my family and close friends have been an absolute Godsend. Their continued love and support has been the strength you need to cope with such a loss that makes you feel crippled. And it’s times like this you realise who will be there for you. People I least expected have put themselves out to show their support. Whereas some of those I’ve grown up with have shown their true colours.

Ultimately, it’s all an eye-opener: how unhelpful Punjabi customs can be, how insensitive ‘standard’ comments from the community at bereavements can be and how distant you feel from people you once considered your dearest. Conversely, it’s the love from the genuine friends and relatives that is your biggest strength and a blessing from God.

Rant over.

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…

A thought for Brexit and Trump voters…

As we all hold our breath over the Supreme Court’s decision over whether Parliament has the power to impose Brexit, it got me wondering – what will Brexit actually look like?

The biggest issue drummed home by politicians supporting Britain to leave the European Union was migration and “protecting Britain’s borders”. Likewise, migration was a big issue for voters who elected Donald Trump as US president.

My family moved here in the 1960s when the British government was appealing for Commonwealth citizens to come here and take up jobs to fire-up the economy. At the time there was a lot of resistance from locals – racist attacks and segregated areas are testament to this.

But overtime society evolved. Migrants appeared to adapt to local customs and culture and even the Brits adopted the curry as the nation’s favourite dish. South Asian migrants were becoming entrepreneurs and business owners, not just factory workers. This wave of migrants was making an identity in the British way of life.

Equality legislation was established, race relations were considered the pinnacle of a modern society. People became more aware and respectful to cultures and faiths, which gave birth to a politically correct society.

Fast forward fifty odd years and suddenly more and more hate crime is being reported. People are questioning why some Muslim women wear headscarves and some Sikh men wear a turban. People are questioning why there is a huge wave of Poles, Somalis and Romanians who are “coming over here and taking our jobs”.

It all seems eerily similar to stories I’ve heard from the 1960s when the first wave of South Asian economic migrants were coming to Britain.

Is history repeating itself? Are we regressing as a society?

A lot of (granted, not all) Brexit voters here and Trump supporters in America took migration as their key voting decider. Many of them are indeed descendants of migrants themselves, which I find particularly interesting. Even Donald Trump is of German descent!

Some 40% of the NHS workforce is from Europe and beyond: think about when you go to see your GP or you’re visiting someone in hospital, now imagine no “foreign” workers there…

From the medical profession to the legal, building contractors to beauty salons – ethnic minorities have made an impact across the broad spectrum of the economy. Be they first, second or even third generation – when are you defined as British and no longer a migrant?

As a journalist I have come across people who have suggested that the reason I am where I am is because there is a need to promote diversity and apparently I tick the relevant boxes…need I explain which party such people have been politically aligned to?!

I’m bored of hearing the tenuous argument about controlling migration to secure jobs. So my suggestion to Britain and America – stop all of your ethnic minorty workforce, or whoever you consider a migrant (European and further afield) – stop them working for one week, just seven days. And let’s see how your respective countries cope.

Why blow out hot air with rhetoric. Let’s see if your arguments come to any fruition and “locals” can manage their economies alone. Let’s rewind the clock to a world where globalisation was a thought and not a way of life (that’s the direction Donald Trump’s America seems to be going).

So seven days. One week without any minorities working. Let’s see how the countries function.

Are Trump and Farage our alter ego, or our reflection?

I had only just got over Britain’s vote to leave the European Union when the shock of a divisive reality TV star winning the most important position in the world stunned me.

Maybe this was predicted. The only constant in elections is that polls cannot be trusted so maybe we should’ve expected Donald Trump to be elected President and we should’ve expected Nigel Farage to ‘win’ with Brexit. Even at the 2010 general election polls predicted Nick Clegg was serious competition for Labour and the Conservatives – quite extraordinary for a – then – new MP so early in his career. Instead the Lib Dems didn’t quite stir the ballot box as much as they thought their poster boy could influence, but he made it as Deputy PM – suppose we can give him that!

But on to the present, it seems politicians who the media find divisive and regressive for modern, literate democracies are in fact swaying voters. Be it the largest democracy in the world; India, where Narendra Modi made it to PM. At the time the Western world saw his win as a step back for India because of his controversial history but the majority of the country (of over one billion people) backed him.

Likewise with Brexit – the media was convinced leaving the EU would be a catastrophe nobody in their right mind would vote in favour of. Even David Cameron was so convinced he had the public’s backing that he called for a referendum to shut-up the likes of UKIP supporters. And how sorry he looked on the morning of the Brexit result when he resigned, which to me proved he no longer understood the electorate or the demands of the – albeit small – majority. The result was so very close to 50:50.

And more recently, there is the race for the American presidential candidate. When Barack Obama won eight years ago, the world rejoiced. The first Black man in the world’s top job; now that’s what was seen as modernity, development, prosperity. Hopes were high for the first female president to break the record this year if Hilary Clinton were to win. Instead, a man who has no history in politics, is a TV reality star and managed to lose billions with his ‘business mind’ won the hearts of Americans by a significant majority. 

This is the man who wanted to ban Muslims in America. This is the man who wants to build a wall between neighbouring Mexico. This is the man who was recorded making sexist comments. Yet he appealed to the Latino, Muslim and female voters. Why?

In my broadcast career I have worked for stations that appeal to various demographics – young, old, various races and ethnicities, various social groups. And the one common factor in all of these audiences is prejudice. More often than not, I have come across listeners and viewers – and maybe the loudest don’t speak for the majority – who are, quite frankly, racist. It could be a White person, Asian or Black – there has always been a sense of “them and us”, dislike for other communities with a tinge of threat felt by diversity.

And it doesn’t just stop at racism – sexism, casteism, homophobia, faith prejudice; I have come across it all no matter which broadcast outlet I have worked at. And even in my social circles – be it family, friends, colleagues – some people are overtly prejudice and some have an undertone of dislike for people who are different to them.

This leads me to question are we all racist? Do we dislike people who are different to us? Is there a fear of the other?

Quite often us journalists get wrapped up in our own liberal worlds where we decide right and wrong and judge others if they fall out of our parameters of right-mindedness. But maybe there is an innate insecurity in everyone of different communities, maybe they’re seen as a threat to personal development or their differences are ridiculed as being degenerate. This could explain why so many residential areas across the country are segregated; people tend to stick to their own, or why there has been an increase in reported hate crime.

It may seem like sweeping generalisations, and maybe I’m high on coffee on a 5.30am train to London but just think about it. How many of your relatives and friends have expressed distaste or looked down on people from other communities, the other gender, other ethnicities, sexual orientation, caste or class? 

It’s a sombre thought but maybe the rise in political correctness and diplomacy was just a smokescreen to make us feel we’re educated, moral and progressive people. Now that the mist is clearing, the real us is exposed; raw and indifferent to what others think because of disdain in the political system and all that it brings with it – rising cost of living, employment challenges, NHS waiting lists, spiralling cost of a decent education.

I’m not entirely sure how to end but to question how many Donald Trumps and Nigel Farage’s I know. We may be in the 21st Century, living in the developed Western world but our mindsets may never evolve from cave man days of fight what you fear, or run away from it.

Should Sikh gurdwaras be open to mixed marriages?

Should Sikhs be able to marry whoever they like? Course they can – like anybody of any other faith.

But can they marry anybody in a gurdwara (Sikh temple)..? That’s not a simple answer.

Most religions dictate that you should marry somebody of the same faith. Of course that isn’t always taken as gospel – no matter which religion you identify with. After all – love is blind. Your heart doesn’t look at race, colour or creed before it sets on somebody.

But major world faiths take the view that marriage with somebody of the same belief is more practical and effective. And to some extent I agree that it’s easier to be with somebody who has the same/similar principles as you. It would be easier to raise a family if you have a joint understanding of faith too.

But it’s not impossible to have a successful marriage and family if you both follow different religious paths.

In a progressive society we come across people from all backgrounds. It’s only a fact of probability that people of different views will be attracted to each other. Enter – mixed marriages.

In recent years there have been public protests over mixed marriages in gurdwaras. The Akal Takht (the Sikh governing body) passed guidance that a Sikh should only marry a Sikh.

But who do you class as Sikh? This is a much more complicated question than it looks at face value. Being born into a Sikh family surely doesn’t define you as a Sikh, does it?

Taking different perspectives and religious doctrine in to consideration, last year Sikh Council UK made an agreement with all UK gurdwaras that a Sikh can have an Anand Karaj (Sikh marriage) with anybody who believes in, or adopts, Sikh values.

There are many Sikh principles and to avoid a religious studies lecture; some of the basics are – believe in one God, make an honest living, believe in and exercise equality and take God’s name (pray).

These principles mean different things to different people. Hence, every religion has sub-sects of groups who practice in different ways.

For a Sikh to marry somebody not born/baptised a Sikh; the partner has to agree they believe in Sikh principles and prove this by adopting Singh (male) or Kaur (female) in their name.

I spoke to Gurmail Singh from Sikh Council UK who gave several examples of this marriage policy working. He pointed out that Sikhism believes in equality – it doesn’t discriminate against race, ethnicity, caste or any other social standing (at least you’re not meant to). But to honour the Anand Karaj – where you’re taking vows based on Sikhism – you have to demonstrate you respect/believe in that very faith.

Otherwise – why would you be so precious to have an Anand Karaj?

However, not all gurdwaras have been practicing this policy.

And some Sikhs who don’t agree with this policy, have protested at a Sikh marrying a non-Sikh in a gurdwara. Incidents have occurred where the couple’s big day has been disrupted and they may not even be aware of the marriage policy passed by Sikh Council UK.

There was controversy at the recent protests by Sikh Youth UK at Gurdwara Sahib in Leamington Spa, where 55 people were arrested, many of whom were in possession of a ceremonial dagger (kirpan).

Although they claim this was a peaceful protest – I can only go by what I have seen of mobile footage circulated online – there is no doubt if it was your wedding, you would feel intimidated by dozens of men wanting to put a stop to your celebration.

No doubt I am going to offend many Sikhs who do not agree with me – and everybody is entitled to an opinion – but surely what should be taken from this is that young Sikhs want to have an Anand Karaj.

If their faith meant nothing to them they could just have a registry marriage and disregard their religion altogether. In order for a faith to survive, it needs to embrace modernity and adapt to changing times.

This is a challenge faced by all religions and the answers are not always clear because faith and practice are so unique to individuals.

Having said that, I respect tradition and customs. But not all religious customs are set in stone. The Sikh Gurus promoted equality.

Guru Nanak Dev Ji said we are human before Hindu or Muslim – so if a human wants to take the Guru Granth Sahib Ji’s blessings for marriage, the living Guru, who are we mere mortals to be an obstacle in a person’s dreams?

I’m anticipating a backlash to these words. Even people in my own friends and family circle will not like what they’re reading. But I’m saying this with pride and confidence as a Sikh who is part of a progressive faith that sees every person as equal.

If there was more love in the world, there would not be so many boundaries.

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?