Sikh Women and the Community Kitchen

Sikh Women and the Community Kitchen

There are around 336,000 Sikhs who live and worship in Britain. A key component of a Gurdwara, the building where Sikhs worship, is the kitchen. Food is always served at a Gurdwara regardless of their religion. By sitting and eating together it symbolises that everyone is equal. However, despite this principal of equality, the overwhelming majority of people preparing these meals are women.

Sikh women serving langer
Sikh women serving langer during the 2010 Vaisakhi Festival Parade in Southampton, Hampshire

Since Sikhism was founded in the fifteenth century India, women have always been though of as being equal to men. Guru Nanak, the founder of the religion stated: “In a woman man is conceived, from a woman he is born … why denounce her, the one from whom even kings are born. From a woman, women are born. None may exist without woman” Throughout Sikh history there have been stories of women undertaking all sorts spiritual activities alongside the men. However, I think gender roles prescribed by society and its customs have been gradually incorporated in to the religion and reduced the participation of women in Sikhism today.

Girls of every religion in India are taught how to cook, keep house and raise children. Women are not cooking in Gurdwara kitchens because Sikhism tells them to, it’s because society expects them to cook. Another example is in the reading of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book that is treated as a living teacher by Sikhs. Anyone is allowed to read it during a service, but only men tend to do so. This is because it is treated as a paid skilled job which needs a certain amount of education.

A photo of a Sikh Kitchen
Sikh Kitchen, Photo taken by: Andrew Miller

There is a concept of Seva or selfless work in Sikhism and cooking in the community kitchen counts towards this. But I would like to see more women involved in other work to help the community, like getting involved in the running of the Gurdwara. Men do help out in the kitchen, but as it is seen work for women they don’t help out very often.

Older male Sikhs who grew up in India often talk about keeping their traditions alive and use this excuse to ensure their daughters dress modestly and learn how to cook. But interestingly, when I visited Gurdwaras in India I saw more men helping in the kitchen and more women reading the Guru Granth Sahib. It appears that these Sikhs are less concerned with gender roles and more concerned with spiritual matters. Away from the Gurdwaras, there were Indian women wearing mini skirts, something that would be unthinkable in the Indian community in Britain.

In the Sikh community in the UK, culture and religion have become entwined. Unless these are separated, Sikh women will still be stuck in the kitchen.

By Shiha Kaur

Shiha Kaur is a contributor to The F word, feminist blog

Disclaimer: I am a Sikh. A principal of my religion is not to engage in missionary work and by writing this I am not trying to convert anyone but simply want to explore the gender roles in Sikhism.

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