Interfaith Marriages and Isolation from Religious Spaces

 Interfaith weddings at UK Sikh temples hit by protests.

The British Sikh men trying to stop women marrying outside their religion.

55 Arrested after trying to stop interfaith wedding at gurdwara.

These are just a few of the headlines highlighting a darker side to the Sikh community. It is a fact that a negative attitude toward interfaith marriage is a wide scale issue present in the South Asian community. This can be attributed to factors such as historical conflict and racism, particularly toward the Black and Muslim community. What’s more, women tend to be disproportionally impacted on by the emotional burden of falling in love with the ‘wrong person.’  This is because (to put in a nutshell), the patriarchal nature of South Asian culture where women have to conform to being a ‘good Asian girl.’ Marrying outside of both race and religion, falls outside of this Good Indian Girl criteria and the backlash for doing so tends be more severe for women, compared with their male counterparts.

The Sikh temple is known as a Gurdwara - the place of worship for Sikhs. The Sikh wedding ceremony or Anand Karaj takes place in gurdwaras due to having to be conducted by a Sikh Priest. The Anand Karaj consists of the reading of 4 specific stanzas from the Sikh Holy book - the Guru Granth Sahib. These stanzas act as a blessing, acknowledging man and wife as a partnership rather than two separate entities.

As a young women of the British South Asian diaspora, I am heartbroken.

I am heartbroken over certain members of the Sikh community believing that they have the right to disrupt marriages in the name of Sikhism. It can be easy to appreciate how bogus the practice of protesting against interfaith marriage is when you consider that teachings of equality are central within Sikhism.

For instance, it is commonly known within the Sikh community that the first religious message shared by the founder of Sikhism – Guru Nanak, was: “Na koi hindu, na musalman.’ This message translates into ‘there is no Muslim, nor Hindu’, inferring that humans all born from the same light and discrimination therefore cannot have a place. With this message, the foundation for Sikhism was laid. Furthermore, on an architectural level, gurdwaras are made to exude the teaching of acceptance. They tend to be built with four entrances in order to symbolise that anyone, regardless of which corner of the world they come from or what religion they follow, is welcome. The teachings of acceptance are embedded into the Sikh ethos, making the act if protesting against interfaith marriage a blatant act of hypocrisy.

Upon my further research of interfaith protests in Britain, I discovered that large organisations such as Sikh Youth UK, have been responsible for many of them. This means that British born men and women are choosing to terrorise their fellow South Asian contemporaries by warranting police presence to remove them at weddings. Conservative ideas in regards to marrying within the same race and religion are not reserved for the elder, 1st generation demographic of the South Asian community, of whom are often more conservative in their attitudes toward marriage. Perhaps I can be considered naïve for thinking this was the case.

Despite negative attitudes toward interfaith marriages being present within the South Asian community rather than Sikhism itself, the problem is that this prejudice becomes institutional.

For example in 2014, The Sikh Council issued guidelines stating that marriage ceremonies within gurdwaras are to be reserved for Sikhs only. A few months ago, I was painfully reminded of the reality of these guidelines after seeing a tawdry, hand written note on the door of my local gurdwara. This note explicitly stated that the Anand Karaj ceremony is banned from taking place in this particular gurdwara. I was mortified. I said to myself that I would never step in that particular gurdwara again. However, I learnt that the shunning of interfaith marriages was not something restricted to one gurdwara. Gurdwaras that allow interfaith marriages appear to be in the minority.

Over time, proportions of Sikhs in high positions, have twisted the teachings of Sikhism in order to fit their bigoted agenda. Hate has infiltrated its way into religious spaces. Conservative groups like the Sikh Council and Sikh Youth UK, make it easy for young British Asians to feel that Gurdwaras are no longer a space for them. People do understand that the stance of many gurdwaras on interfaith marriage, is rooted in the thoughts of certain members of the Sikh community as oppose to the teachings of Sikhism. However, those who follow the true teachings of Sikhism, refuse to enter gurdwaras which enforce such bans. At the present, gurdwaras in the UK tend to reflect conservative (often all male) members of the committee who govern the Gurdwara and agree with the guidelines put forward by Sikh UK. True Sikhs cannot support these committee members by way of visiting the Gurdwaras they govern. The alternative for certain members of the Sikh Community is either finding Gurdwaras that run in accordance with Sikh teachings, or creating religious spaces in the home instead.

When I first saw the hostile sign regarding interfaith marriages on the entrance of my local Gurdwara, my immediate thought was to remove it. It occurred to me however, that this note highlighted an issue at a monumental scale. Removing the sign wouldn’t scratch the surface of the issue of hostility toward interfaith marriages. Protests are still going to taking place. Structural problems require structural solutions.

Gurdwara committees and organisations such as the Sikh Council, have a duty to distance themselves from bigoted attitudes. The disparity created between the ethos of Sikhism and what rules are implemented in Gurdwaras, needs to be destroyed.