By Alex Sangha
I was raised by a single mother. She raised three boys with the help of her two brothers and their families. My childhood, therefore, may be very different from other Punjabi Sikh families. I have observed, however, the sacrifice of “some” Punjabi Sikh women in my life throughout different phases of their lives. I have watched how girls, daughters, sisters, mothers, and grandmothers are forced to put their needs second to the needs of a culture, tradition, and society that values men and boys.
During the first 20 to 30 years of life, the woman is under the protection and care of her parents. Times are changing, many parents provide every possible opportunity for their daughters. It is important to note, however, that even though Sikhism espouses gender equality across the board, there is a strong preference for boys in practice. One father explained to me that having a daughter is like watering the neighbor’s garden. This is because the daughter leaves the family to live with her in-laws when she gets married. Punjab also historically has the highest rate of female infanticide in all of India. Girls are gaining more opportunities while in their maternal homes, but boys still benefit from more flexibility and freedom. In addition, inheritance and property usually pass to the male children.
After a woman graduates from university, she is expected to quickly get married. Her biological clock and desirability are ticking away. This may even be an arranged marriage, although this is less likely. The new bride usually moves out of her maternal home and lives with her husband’s family. You can imagine, how difficult this would be and what limited power she would have in the new home. In a way, the new bride gains her status in the family after having a male child. She has done her duty. If she fails to have children, she is constantly reminded and pressured to start a family. Furthermore, God forbid, a new bride living with her in-laws is a victim of domestic violence.
LIFE AFTER CHILDREN
You would think, a mother could settle down and relax after her children are raised. This is a half-truth. Many immigrant women from Punjab work in labor-intensive jobs and then come home to a full day of domestic work. Basically, until her children are married, the mother is still doing a lot of chores like daily cooking and cleaning. Having a job and grown children do provide the mother with some earned freedom but not all mothers are in this situation. They are dependent on their husband and in-laws.
BECOMING A GRANDMOTHER
Once their children are married with kids, then these new grandmothers often find themselves as lifetime babysitters. And since they get a pension from the government, they are often not compensated for their labor.
My mother started a group for South Asian senior women in North Delta. It made me so happy to see the friendship, laughter, and joy they are finding in their elder years together. They understand and appreciate each other because they have all struggled and sacrificed so much for their families and are finally now finding some time for themselves in their golden years.
WOMEN FORMING SOLUTIONS
I feel women in our community need to propose their own solutions with the support of their children, including men. I think it’s a good idea for women in our community to gather and find peer support, where they can talk, and discuss their issues and concerns with other women. They can identify their own solutions. Hopefully, this will be the first step toward more gender equity and equality for women. The second and more difficult step would be the men in their lives to support them.
Happy International Women’s Day!
Alex Sangha is a Registered Clinical Social Worker and Registered Clinical Counsellor. He is the recipient of the Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada
THE SACRIFICE OF PUNJABI SIKH WOMEN
By Alex Sangha