I think this is a really important topic to discuss in our community. As a Canadian-born Sikh I was interested in being able to understand the origins of the concept of izzat and how it continues to affect us today. I've been working on this post for a while now and my heart goes out to all those women who have died due to honour-based violence.
Most of us are aware of the pull between Punjabi values, Sikh values, and western values as we try to make sense of conflicting beliefs. I remember sitting in a group of my peers and trying to explain that even though it’s against Sikh values to drink alcohol, you can’t assume your patient doesn’t drink because of the differences between cultural values and religious values. The book Emotions and Religious Dynamics describes this triangle of conflicting values very well, and goes on to describe Izzat as coming from the “Punjabi culture” part of that triangle (1).
In terms of Sikh religion, “A brief guide to Honor Based Violence” by the Metropolitan Police Sikh Association did a really excellent job of describing the religious context. I’ll quickly summarize what they have written. Guru Nanak Dev Ji lived at a time when women were considered inferior, however he made a huge cultural shift by encouraging equality via ending discriminatory cultural practices like sati, dowries, female infanticide, etc (2). As described by Sikhpolice.org, Guru Nanak “redefined honour as self-appraisal in the eyes of Divine-Nature. Guru Nanak advocated that it was immortal to enslave or force individuals to act against their will, and that individuals should be empowered with ethical teachings helping them to police their own behavior (as opposed to allowing themselves to be policed by others, such as family or the community, whose subjective laws go against what is natural)”(3). Therefore, the concept of using honor to discriminate against and commit violence against women is entirely against Sikhi and falls into the realm of Punjabi culture.
This brings us to the topic of honour killings. Honour killing is defined as “the premeditated murder of a relative (usually a young woman) who has allegedly impugned the honor of her family”(4). Since I’d only ever heard about this happening in Sikh and Muslim families, I was really surprised to learn that honor killing happens in families of various cultures and religions (5). Honour killings have happened in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia (5), dating back to the times of ancient Rome (6). The concept of honor killings is based on patriarchy (5). “The power dynamics of patriarchy reduce women to their reproductive potential, and in the process deny them agency as human beings. The preservation of a woman's chastity and fidelity, through segregation and control, becomes the responsibility of the men to whom she ‘belongs.’ The concept of women as property and honour remains deeply entrenched in the socio-cultural fabric of many countries. As a result, many individuals, including women, support this ritual” (5). Common reasons for honor killings therefore include: premarital sex, rape, adultery, inappropriate dress, etc (7). The book Emotions and Religious Dynamics states that for the Punjabi culture “Crucial to the maintenance of izzat is the conduct, actual and perceived, of women, and of unmarried daughters in particular. For women the correlates of izzat are the expectation of modesty, the fear of disgrace or shame (beizzati)… and the necessary suppression of romantic love, especially when aroused by a member of a lower caste” (1). In the context of Sikhi many would use lust as a reason for honor killing, but as stated by Sikh Polis “the Sikh view is to manage lust through a loving partnership and spiritual connection with divine power, whilst shunning the company of those who subscribe to the honour-mindset” (3). No where did the Gurus ever teach us to be killing our daughters and daughter-in-laws in the name of honour- it was clear that our sword is to be used as a last resort in defense only defense only (8).
I want to extend this idea of izzat now to sexual reputation and how it affects females in Sikhi. From everything above, it’s obvious that the control of a woman’s sexuality in Punjabi culture happens through the concept of izzat. Sexual experiences- consensual or not, create a bad reputation for her. This creates an environment in which, if a woman is raped, she is deemed damaged/devalued, and becomes ostracized from her community in the time that she needs the most support. Males have the power to use her reputation against her in cases of sexual assault, abuse, or harassment, which is used to keep the victim from speaking out. It’s not a question of being believed anymore, even if she was believed to be a victim of sexual violence rather than an active participant in a consensual sexual encounter, she carries the same shame and dishonor. I spoke to a sexual assault counselor about these crimes. She told me that it is well-known to men in the community at large (not just the Sikh community) that Sikh women will not speak out due to issues of family honor and therefore are more vulnerable as targets for sexual offenders. It pained me to hear this reality- that we have propagated a cultural environment that causes our girls to be targeted, and that they are suffering in silence. We have smothered their power to speak out by making it about honor, when they are the innocent victims of a crime.
I think it’s really important for each of us to not only educate ourselves, but also teach our children the human rights and ethics that our Gurus have taught us, and end the cultural practices that go against them. As a community we need to make it unacceptable to be discriminating against women and rather treat women as free individuals who have the power to make their own decisions. Let’s give our Kaurs a voice.
1 Warne, Nathaniel. Emotions And Religious Dynamics. E-book. https://books.google.ca/books?id=o_soDAAAQBAJ&pg=PT54&lpg=PT54&dq=sikh+family+izzat&source=bl&ots=ZNew-qPZrk&sig=yF5AQ4-eaTk9z7Wg4qCBvTrAJzE&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiBx4jT55zNAhVhHGMKHXtlBZAQ6AEITjAK#v=onepage&q=sikh%20family%20izzat&f=false
2 http://ksghauser.harvard.edu/index.php/content/download/70240/1253770/version/1/file/Honour_Violence_Booklet.pdf CHECK THIS OUT IF YOU HAVE TIME!