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Reflections of a Sikh Man on the Tragedy of Damini -Dr. Gurpreet Singh Ahuja

Good evening. I am here today, at this very solemn gathering as a representative of the Sikh community, and as member of the board of directors of the Orange County Human Relations Council. However, most importantly, I am here as a husband, and a son of amazing women.In 15th century India, when a woman’s husband died, she was expected to throw herself on his funeral pyre and suffer an agonizing death, known as “sati”. Her life was not considered to be of any value when separated from the identity of her husband. She was worthless. Her life was worth even less than the objects in her husband’s house, which were preserved after he was dead. At that time, Guru Nanak Dev ji, the founder of the Sikh faith, spoke out vehemently against this practice. He realized that in order for society to evolve into a civilized state, the rights of women had to be upheld.

I quote Guru Nanak from page 473 of Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Holy Scriptures: From woman man is born, with woman man is conceived; to woman he is engaged and married, woman becomes his friend, though woman future generations come. When his woman dies, he seeks another; to woman he is bound. So why call her bad? From her kings are born.From woman woman is born; without woman there would be no one, at all.

​As a man and a leader in the society of his time, one of the social justice causes that he vociferously advocated for was the right of women to be independent, safe, educated, and free from violence or subjugation. This is one of the cornerstones of the Sikh faith. Along with equality along the lines of socioeconomic status, race and religion, there is to be complete gender equality, and violence or harassment against women is completely antithetical to the Sikh philosophy.

Shamefully, 500 years later, human society all over the world is still fraught with problems related to its treatment of women. Rape, particularly in areas of political strife, is rampant, as is domestic violence. Worldwide, women have less access to healthcare and education. We all know the story of Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan, the brave teenager who was shot in the head, just for wanting an education. She was released from the hospital today, but there is no doubt that she will suffer long-term sequellae from her injuries. In Africa, women with fistulas after childbirth leading to perpetual leakage of urine are marginalized and ostracized from society. Female fetocide to selectively seek male progeny is openly practiced in India and other countries. In our own country, here in America, the Defense Department has found that 1 in 3 women in the military have suffered sexual assault, in a climate that discourages them from reporting the crime. These are our very bravest women, up against a plethora of dangers secondary to the nature of the their jobs, suffering from violence often at the hands of their own comrades. These incidents, and the events of Damini’s story, are travesties, and are not the hallmarks of the civilized society that Guru Nanak Dev ji had envisioned. How then, do I, as a Sikh man, live up to Guru Nanak’s legacy 500 years later? First of all, I must recognize that these are not just crimes against women, but these are crimes against humanity. As a Sikh man, I must speak out against them. As Guru Nanak appreciated, women are the pillars of our families and society, and when we do not treat them as our equals, all of humankind will suffer. Secondly, I must take inspiration from our own Sikh history, where we have so many examples of female nobility and bravery; Mata Gujri, who stood strong in the face of the martyrdom of her young grandsons and remained steadfast in not giving up their faith; Mai Bhago, whose story in Sikh history in legendary, as she and her Sikh sisters fought in battle against the Moghul army and its tyranny; Bibi Harnaam Kaur, who with her husband, committed their entire lives to educating the girls of Punjab 100 years ago, bringing this issue to the forefront of priorities for the Sikh community. Our history is replete with other such amazing examples. As a Sikh man, I believe in the power of the vision that Guru Nanak had for society, but I also recognize that in order for that to translate into reality, my duty as a Sikh man is to not sit passively by when a man makes a denigrating remark, harasses, or abuses a woman. Tonight I urge not only all of my Sikh brothers, but all males gathered here tonight, to not let Damini’s tragic end be in vain. Let us make a pledge – to continue Guru Nanak’s mission for an equal and just society for all men and women.

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