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Silent crisis within a community

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source: http://www.thestar.com/comment/article/431244

Silent crisis within a community

May 27, 2008

Jasmeet Sidhu

Community Editorial Board - The toronto star

Although I often have struggled with my cultural identity in this patchwork nation of Canada, I have always retained a sense of pride and devotion to my religion, Sikhism.

The Sikh community's integral contribution to Canadian society in business, politics and philanthropy has helped me to maintain this unbroken connection.

As an ardent feminist as well, I have always been especially proud of the fact that Sikhism, a religion born in patriarchal 15th-century India, holds gender equality as one of its core tenets and explicitly advocates respect for women as equals.

But my pride in my religion has not been an unwavering one, especially when actions in the community are completely antithetical to what the religion advocates, and what I believe in as a person.

One of these is the seriousness of physical and emotional abuse of women in the Punjabi-Sikh community, and the accompanying complacency surrounding the topic in the community at large.

The Punjabi Community Health Centre (PCHC), an advocacy group based in Peel Region, has called violence against women "the most silent kept secret within the Sikh community" and described the role of the Sikh community in confronting the problem and aiding abused women as "pathetic."

With a religion whose holy scriptures written more than 500 years ago explicitly challenged the inferiority of women and whose founders elevated and emphasized women's social status to that of equals, why then, in a research study conducted by the PCHC, is wife abuse in the Sikh community considered a serious problem by 75 per cent of the Sikhs surveyed?

Wally Oppal, British Columbia's attorney-general and a Sikh, has even called domestic violence a "cancer" in the community. His comments were made after a string of Sikh women were murdered, allegedly by their husbands, in the Vancouver area in 2007. After such blunt claims, Oppal was accused by some in the community as being a traitor to his ethnicity and culture.

On top of this troubling accusation of "treachery" and the obvious denial within the community, the harrowing possibility exists that gender-based oppression is not just limited to women in intimate partner relationships, but to unborn Sikh daughters as well.

While the nationwide average according to Statistics Canada is 105 male births to every 100 female births, a 2003 study by the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada found that in Surrey, B.C. – populated heavily by Sikh Canadian families – there were 109 boys to every 100 girls.

There is no conclusive public data that would prove these numbers were the result of sex-selective abortions. However, the statistics are deeply troubling in light of allegations last year that several Punjabi Canadian newspapers (including a Mississauga-based one) were carrying advertisements by ultrasound clinics promoting female foeticide. The allegations, made by the head of a B.C.-based immigrant society, were countered by one of the ultrasound clinics that claimed there was no proof regarding how couples were using ultrasound data.

The gap between the gender equality explicitly called for in Sikhism and its practice is deeply disturbing, though in some ways, not surprising. Indeed, other religions also have been labelled as racist or sexist when in reality only a chosen few engage in these behaviours and there is absolutely nothing within the faith that promotes or supports such attitudes or actions.

Regardless of whether violence against women in the Sikh community is the result of a deeply rooted chauvinism in Punjabi culture or other reasons, what is more disconcerting is the complacency of Sikhs in terms of understanding and tackling the issue.

By publicly acknowledging what now are regarded as individual or private matters, by engaging Sikh men and challenging the still very male-dominated atmosphere of Sikh temples by including more women in leadership roles, a sense of community consciousness can emerge that will not tolerate the physical and emotional abuse of Sikh women.

In the more than 100 years since Sikhs first immigrated to Canada, they have proven to be a resourceful, dynamic and engaged religious community that has tackled issues of external prejudice and religious rights in Canada.

However, the same level of will and leadership must be shown to end one of the most serious yet least acknowledged problems within the Sikh community.

Jasmeet Sidhu is a university student.

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good article. However, one thing that I've noticed is that Sikhs are paranoid of being negatively stereotyped (in many cases, justifiably so). This leads many within the community to avoid dealing with such problems as openly and honestly as needed.

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