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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

My First Sikh Conference - Miami

Unlike most Sikh Americans my age, I never spent my summers at Sikh camps as a kid or attended Sikh youth conferences when I got older. As a third-generation Sikh American (my family has lived on the same plot of California farmland for nearly a hundred years), I had a very American name and couldn’t speak Punjabi well. So I grew up on the edges of the Sikh community. I always felt like an outsider – until I began the journey to make this film five years ago.

Through making Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath, I found a way to use my outsider/insider perspective to raise the voices of Sikh Americans in the aftermath of 9/11 and fight for the expansion of who we ‘count’ as American. Now that the film is on national tour, I am discovering new ways to connect and understand my community.

This weekend, I attended my first conference for young Sikh professionals – JAGO in Miami. The film’s director Sharat Raju and I were invited to be part of the conference and screen Divided We Fall on the last day as the feature film in Florida’s first Spinning Wheel Film Festival.

The three days of the conference were packed with speakers, small group discussions, prayer sessions, skits, and incredible meals. T. Sher Singh, the founder of the original Spinning Wheel Film Festival in Toronto (and thus the person responsible for first introducing Sharat and me back in 2003), gave the opening address. He spoke on the topic of Sikh identity.

While much of the discussion at the conference focused single-mindedly on the necessity of the five articles of faith, especially the turban, as markers of identity, I was grateful for Sher’s definition:

Sikh identity is a state of mind: the resolution to act as leaders. We have a legacy of leadership in Sikh tradition, whether in battle, on the streets, in the classroom, or at the roundtable. You are saint-soldiers – leaders in our world– above all.

As someone positioned at the outskirts of our community, I was relieved that Sher did not decide to rehash the old debate on who ‘counts’ as Sikh and who does not. For a long time, the main discourse in Sikh gurdwaras (temples) and homes has centered on what constitutes ‘the good Sikh.’ Some say that only those who keep their long hair and turbans are ‘true’ Sikhs. Others say that wearing the five articles of faith is the only way to realize the ideal of the saint-soldier. Many say that one must read Gurmukhi (the script of the sacred book) in order to become the gurmukh (the Sikh ideal). Some condemn all use of English translations, not to mention the giving of English names to children – names like mine.

I have always been baffled by this discourse: it encourages people to spend more time judging one another rather than deciding how to walk one’s own path. In my family, my grandfathers wear turbans, my father does not; my mother reads Gurmukhi fluently, my aunt does not; my cousins have Punjabi names, I do not. There is so much diversity in my family alone, I can’t help but think that any attempt to construct a single definition of a ‘good Sikh’ is impossible – and dangerous.

I prefer the idea that there are many ways to be Sikh in the world, that we can embrace one another’s differences, and recognize that this diversity enriches our community. Even if we walk the path differently, we can still walk it together. I often speak about how Sikhs wish to be recognized as part of the American mosaic – but the Sikh community itself is its own mosaic. There is as much diversity within our own community as there is in our nation. Resisting the impulse to judge others can free up our energy for solving real problems in our struggles responding to hate crimes, employment and educational discrimination, the ban on the turban and other religious articles in France, serious health risks such as diabetes and high blood pressure, and widespread domestic violence, and more.

When Divided We Fall made its Florida premiere on the third day of the conference, it was the first time the film screened before an all-Sikh audience. In my Q&A, I shared these thoughts on the need to embrace our community’s diversity – and was surprised to hear applause after I made my remarks. The audience received my message warmly, many offered donations, others signed up to help spread the word.

This incredible reception has given me the courage to continue speaking what I feel to be true – even at the risk of angering others or standing alone. I am grateful for the opportunity to make use of my position as a filmmaker, student, and third-generation Sikh woman to help expand the boundaries of discourse both in my community and country.

Thank you to Sheena Kaur and all the organizers of Jago & Spinning Wheel 2006 for inviting us! Click here to find out where we're going next!

[This entry is cross-posted at "Into the Whirlwind."]

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