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Punjabi Sikhs Everywhere: We Need to Have a Talk About Our Misogynoir

Rihanna isn't 'Rihanna Kaur'


On February 02, Rihanna, a Barbadian singer, actress, and businesswoman tweeted to her 90 million followers about the ongoing #FarmersProtest in India. Punjabi Sikhs on various social media accounts were overwhelmed by how influential Rihanna’s tweet was turning out to be given it garnered criticism from the Republic of India’s Ministry of External Affairs the very next day. People are also comparing the attention a Black woman celebrity with 90 million followers garnered to the silence of Bollywood celebrities (many who profit from the caricaturization of Sikhs in Hindi cinema). While women in the diaspora, such as Canadian Punjabi Sikh poet Rupi Kaur, gave thanks to Rihanna for her tweet, Punjabi Sikh men responded very differently but also predictably with misogynoir.

Misogynoir is a term coined by Dr. Moya Bailey and was developed to describe “the specific hatred, dislike, distrust, and prejudice directed toward Black women.” Many people are still unaware of misogynoir and how it manifests to collectively harm Black women, and this includes Punjabi Sikhs in India and especially those in the diaspora.  

“Rihanna Kaur”

Stop saying that. So many Punjabis are calling Rihanna, Rihanna Kaur, drawing images of her wearing green salwar kameez with a long braid. Rihanna is not a Sikh woman. Kaur is not her last name. Kaur is not an honorific that one forces upon anyone, ever. Sikh ethic and values are not about the cultural domination of non-Sikhs, especially not a Black woman who on the second day of Black History Month took time to raise awareness about injustices impacting non-Black people of color, the Kisaan (farmers) and Majdoor (laborers), many of whom do identify as Punjabi Sikh themselves. All too often, Punjabi Sikhs in the diaspora, such as those in the United States, specifically men, will claim “Sikh values are American values” and the burden of correcting men seems to fall on the shoulders of women, see: Sikh Values Are Not American Values. But the allegiance of Sikh men in America and elsewhere in the diaspora to such notions does reveal something the women have always known that our men wish to experience America, Australia, Canada, the UK, in the same way that White Christian men do - dripping in unapologetic privilege and power with the ability to abuse it without consequence often at the expense of Punjabi Sikh girls, women, and women of color.

Now, Rihanna is a proud Black woman and instead of erasing her Blackness, and calling her “Rihanna Kaur,” we would be better served educating ourselves on how to respectfully acknowledge solidarity from Black people, especially Black women from around the world. Sikhs, especially Sardars, turbaned men, often speak in offense and contrary to Guru Nanak’s philosophy of universal siblinghood by defining who they are in relation to what they are not in the diaspora. For instance, the offensive phrase “We are Sikh, not Muslim” is so widespread that when I mention I’m Sikh in any environment, that phrase is the point of reference for most people, thanks in large part to Punjabi Sikh turban wearing men who work hard to erase non-turban wearing Sikh women and turban wearing Sikh women alike from the notions of Sikhi. This is true for me in my lived experience as a Sehajdhari Sikh woman, someone who doesn’t embrace all the articles of Sikh faith on my being, like unshorn hair (at least anymore). Images of Rihanna illustrated by some South Asians also began to circulate painting her in digital brown face, yet another form of anti-Blackness and misogynoir. 

With that said, I find it surprising that a community of people, especially Punjabi Sikh men, who are deeply offended at being misconstrued for belonging to another religious community (Islam) are so quick to impose Sikh religious markers, especially markers of identity which belong to Sikh women upon a Black woman who is not Sikh. This very act of imposing ‘Kaur’ on Rihanna, reminds me of exactly what place Kaurs have in the Sikh community amongst Sikh men: secondary. It reminds me that Kaurness itself, being a Sikh woman, is not defined by Sikh women but rather by Sikh male patriarchs, the same ones ignoring our calls to stop this aspect of misogynoir directed at Rihanna. Kaur is not something Sikh men impose on other women, nor is it something that they can take away from those it is already bestowed upon. Read that over as many times as needed. Punjabi Sikhs need to respect Rihanna for who she is, for being a Black woman, not for how Punjabi Sikh men imagine her or want her to be.

Diljit: Rihanna’s Rang/Color is not “Kanka di jayi”

 

On that note, the day after Rihanna’s tweet, Punjabi singer and actor, Diljit Dosanjh released a song titled “RiRi (Rihanna).” And this song is just one example of the ways misogynoir is rampant in ways that are not realized by the community. The lyrics begin with “oh beautiful girl from Barbados” and then proceeds to describe her skin color as being anything but Black. First, Rihanna’s skin is not the color of wheat, and she would know because she is a businesswoman with a makeup line featuring at least 50 shades of foundations to choose from. Second, I imagine that if she heard a translation of these lyrics she’d probably @diljitdosanjh like she has in the past to anti-Black folks reminding them: “I’m Black bitch!”  Third, Punjabi Sikhs need to understand that describing a Black woman as being beautiful for not being dark-skinned is not a compliment. And in the very first line of Diljit’s song, he does just that. He calls her beautiful for not being Black. That is not okay. That is toxic, it is harmful, it not only perpetuates colorism, but is distinctly anti-Black, and reeks of misogynoir. Some of my Punjabi Sikh brothers were quick to reply that Dosanjh was being "clever" and that this connecting her skin color to wheat/grain is Dosanjh executing artistic liberty connecting Rihanna to the #FarmersProtest movement. I call bakwas. Nonsense! His lyrics perpetuate a race-sex hierarchy where women are deemed beautiful based on how light the color of their skin is.  Essentially, Diljit sees Black women as the object of some Punjabi Sikh male fantasy. Tell me, how is that different from the ways white men/colonizers or right-wing Hindutva men have seen Punjabi Sikh (and Kashmiri) women as the infantilized object of their fantasy, as women who are sexually available, eager to please? From where I’m sitting it seems like Punjabi men aren’t trying to dismantle oppressive notions of white male supremacy here, or right-wing Hindutva extremism abroad, but rather they just want to replace white men and upper-caste Hindu men. And a quick search of any South Asian matrimonial or dating website will show that "wheatish" is indeed a skin color option to choose from when searching for a partner. Or is Shaadi.com, like the lyrics of Dosanjh's song also being "clever"? Punjabi Sikh men need to start being honest with themselves. The time for excusing our anti-Blackness is up.

The Lewd Jezebel: A Harmful Archetype Perpetuated by Punjabi Community

(Trigger Warning: References to racist/sexist tropes and historical violence against African American women)

A quick visit to Diljit’s Facebook post with a link to the song “RiRi” reveals a thread with thousands of Sardars men remarking on Rihanna as a Lewd Jezebel. Black historians, such as Deborah Grey White, explain that the Lewd Jezebel archetype was constructed as the mirror opposite to the ideal Victorian-era white lady. Ruby Hamad writes in her 2020 book, White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color, that a “Jezebel is a Godless and promiscuous woman, a sensual, animalistic creature governed by her physical sensations and carnal desires.”  Folks from the community posted demeaning comments perpetuating the archetype that Black women are Lewd Jezebels. Their comments on Diljit’s Facebook post reveal that they do not consider Rihanna’s agency as a human being, including as a sexual human being. Hamad describes that this archetype has historically served three functions:

  1. Terrorizing the Black population in order to reinforce white domination
  2. Providing a source of continuous labor
  3. A sexual outlet that white men took advantage of in order to maintain the illusion of the moral superiority of white society in an era of supposed sexual chastity. 

Punjabi Sikhs, especially men, should not be complicit with the domination, exploitation, and violence against Black women. Sikh men don’t get to get away with this illusion of moral superiority. Note, this is not just about Rihanna and nor is this just about Diljit’s video or his facebook post. This is about how patterns of systemic racism and sexism compound to perpetuate misogynoir in the Punjabi Sikh community, amongst people who proclaim to follow Baba Nanak’s abolitionist teachings. The lack of any racial or gender consciousness on the thread is disturbing as racial and sexual violence is justified by this archetype, both in the past and in present-day against Black girls and women. I ask all the Punjabi Sikhs speaking in defense of the lyrics to ask themselves this question and answer it honestly: Do you know any Black women in your life beyond her being a work colleague, or someone you see in a capacity serving you? Have you ever sincerely talked to a Black girl or woman about their thoughts and feelings on being told they are beautiful for not being Black? If your answer is no, then any excuse you come up with is your privilege as a non-Black person of color speaking in its defense. Instead of being defensive and deflective about this blatant misogynoir so that you can be oblivious and unbothered for a hot 3 minutes, how about you consider the ways Baba Nanak calls upon Sikhs to be anything but avoidant of others' pain and suffering. Punjabis don't like it when white people don't understand our experience. For instance, when white people remain unbothered while they dance to bhangra and enjoy our culture. So, why do we think we can do the same to Black people and women? Enjoy their music and culture but remain blissfully unbothered by the ways we harm them? 

In this same Facebook thread, there are comments calling Rihanna a sex worker. Punjabi men are disgusted that a Black woman, who they archetype as a Jezebel, dared to garner international attention in the way that they had not been able to. It’s as if these men seem to suggest- “We didn’t need that Black woman to speak up about or for us.” This is what Dr. Koritha Mitchell, describes as Know-Your-Place-Aggression typically experienced by Black women from mediocre white people. What the comments of these men are angling at is that Black women are not valued for their contributions in the cause for speaking up for humanity, for the #Farmersprotestor. Furthermore, we need to address the hatred harbored towards sex workers. Sex work is work. Sex workers deserved to be safe, protected, and earn living wages. Victorian-era views of chastity don’t serve humanity. 

Now, it is not my intention to speak for Black women, or Black Sikh women, but it also can’t be the burden of Black women or Black Sikh women to constantly point out the misogynoir of Punjabis either. Kaurs, have to call misogynoir out alongside our Black sisters. And yet, I know there are risks to our own safety and wellbeing for doing just that. I know that in pointing out misogynoir in our community, I risk being accused of airing our “dirty laundry.” I’ll be reminded that it’s “Not ALL Punjabi men.” Some will say I’m perpetuating harmful stereotypes about Sikh men in a society that already villanizes them for being brown, bearded, turbaned and stereotypes them as hypersexual, violent, and aggressive. And others will use my being a woman, a sehajdhari Sikh woman against me and explain “She’s not really Sikh."

I wish I was kidding but some Sikh men will be the first to say my voice and opinions are outside of the "Sikh-Sphere", suggesting that Sikhs live in some separate hemisphere in isolation, not on the same planet alongside people of all different cultures, but rather one where only Sikh men determine who is legitimately Sikh and who isn't. So much for Baba Nanak's universal siblinghood, right? Well, I’m not one to race to the bottom of oppression olympics but I’m tired of heterosexual Punjabi Sikh men defining who is and who is not Sikh enough according to their maleness. Punjabi Sikh men need to stop believing they have it the worst when it comes to their encounters with discrimination and prejudice. I’m tired of Punjabi Sikh women being silent about the harm we as women of color survive not only in a racist and sexist society in the diaspora but also within our own patriarchal community being brushed off as misunderstandings, hypersensitivity, or my favorite “being westernized." Sikh men do experience racism, but Sikh women experience both racism and sexism.

This is why I refuse to be silent about misogynoir. Although I am not a Black woman and will never know what it feels like to be a Black person no matter my proximity to my Black kin, I do know as a non-Black Woman of Color, the pain of surviving gendered and racial trauma and the way it compounds when that trauma is minimized. American congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez recently spoke on being a survivor of racial and gendered white supremacist violence and the toll trauma takes on women's mental health and wellbeing   This call to confront the Punjabi Sikh community's misogynoir is about creating a world where all beings are able to live their lives as whole beings with dignity, and respect, this is about our collective survival in the face of global white supremacist violence. The pressures I feel calling my community in are similar to the pressures Black women feel when they name sexism they experience from Black men. Women of color are asked to walk the same tightrope, to find the right balance between supporting Black/Punjabi Sikh men by simultaneously fighting racism and advocating for ourselves against both racism and sexism. We have so much work to do to be better Punjabi Sikh people no matter where we are in the world, to be anti-racist and confront anti-Blackness in our lives, in our minds and hearts. We need to unlearn the ways we have internalized anti-Blackness and we can begin by learning how to respect Black girls and women. 

How Might Punjabi Sikhs Address their Misogynoir?

First, it is important to note that Black women owe us nothing: not their time, not their attention, least of all their solidarity, especially not during Black History Month. Now, since it is February and Black History Month, the least we Punjabi Sikhs can do is lift our consciousness and raise awareness about misogynoir in our community so that it might be eliminated. Second, what does it look like for us, especially Sardars, to respect Black women? I have some suggestions:

Raise awareness about misogynoir in our community by refusing to be silent when harmful archetypes about Black girls and women are perpetuated by Punjabis on public forums and platforms 

  1. Sikh male celebrities should/should be encouraged to use their platform to take a stand that they will not tolerate misogynoir/patriarchal abuse or violence on their social media platforms. They should hold themselves accountable when their own misogynoir or complicity with it is pointed out and #ProtectBlackWomen
  2. We can each commit to attending a Black History Month event this month and learning more about the contributions of Black people every day of the year, not just during February
  3. We can reciprocate care and solidarity for Black siblings and amplify calls to #SayHerName by not only posting about #BlackLivesMatter when it centers Sikh engagement - Yes, that’s great, but it’s not about us, it's about ‘Sarbhat Da Bhala’ i.e. Blessings For Everyone, Welfare of All Creation.
  4. We can center the voices of Black Sikh women, such as the Black women who founded The Black Sikh Initiative and support their efforts to combat discrimination within and outside the Sikh community 

I have a stake in this because I am a sister, to Punjabi Sikh men. I believe that when Sikh men learn and know how to respect and honor Black women for being Black and for their full humanity, the world will be safer for us all. My intent is not to shame Sikh men, but to empower Punjabi men and women, siblings of all or no genders, to join one another and point the finger at the structures of domination which harm us all instead of at one another. I need Punjabi Sikh men to help us actualize Baba Nanak’s message of universal siblinghood by protecting Black women and to understand how our oppressions are linked as we are joining each other across the world, across cultures to demand justice for the #FarmersProtest #KisaanMajdoorEktaZindabad. 

About the author

Simran Kaur-Colbert, MA, is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University of Ohio. Her research explores the intersections of religious, secular, spiritual diversity and racial justice in student affairs in higher education. She is of South Asian descent, born in New Delhi and raised in Queens, NYC. Some of her work has previously been published in HuffPost, Tikkun Magazine, and Convergence on Campus. LinkedIn: Simran Kaur-Colbert


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