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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 July 2005, 13:25 GMT 14:25 UK
Sikh 'angels' without a home
By Susannah Cullinane
BBC News website in Birmingham

Gurdev Kaur reading from the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh book of scripture
Any initiated Sikh - male or female- can lead scripture readings or other religious ceremonies

In a suburban sitting room in the Walmley area of Birmingham, about 10 women gather, dressed in headscarves and white shalwar kameez.

The sitting room belongs to Gurdev Kaur, and the women are all members of Sikh Nari Manch, the action group she founded to help empower women in general and Sikh women in particular.

Sikh Nari Manch (SNM) began with a choir in 1997 and the white clothing is the uniform of its membership of up to about 100. The group also meets to read scripture and practice yoga.

Mrs Kaur says she has tried to give Sikh women in her area somewhere to go. The nearest Sikh temple, or gurdwara, is in Handsworth - several miles away and too far for many of them.

"Some were so isolated they had nowhere to go, there was no facility."

We are taught all people are one, whether of another sex, race or caste
Gurdev Kaur

The Sikh faith - the fourth largest religion in Britain - has always believed in the equality of the sexes, Mrs Kaur says.

"It's a very liberal religion. We are taught all people are one, whether of another sex, race or caste."

Another member of SNM, pharmacist Jasvinder Kaur Bhambra, says: "Women have always been able to do whatever men can do - they have full rights and equality, theoretically.

"Culturally, men still like to pretend they're in charge."

The women are trying to live by the three "golden principles" of their faith - earn your living through honest means, give to the needy, remember God always and help their community.

Mrs Kaur describes what SNM is doing as "important on a small scale".

Jasvinder Kaur Bhambra
The problem is they see us as someone Asian, they might mistake us for other communities and they feel threatened
Jasvinder Kaur Bhambra

SNM raises funds through its choir - which has sung all over the UK from local events to the Royal Albert Hall in London.

It has used its earnings to print calendars of famous Sikh women and distribute thousands of them for free, to raise the profile of women in the religion.

The money has also been used to help the community at large.

Other SNM activities include holding lunches for care home residents, running inter-faith residential camps for women and donating money to charities.


But the organisation currently has no home, meeting at Mrs Kaur's house or in temporary halls.

With some 15,000 Sikh and Asian families living in the north of Birmingham, SNM has been trying to start a centre in the Erdington area.

This would act as a gurdwara, a drop-in centre for women of all faiths and a place for after-school activities for youths.

"We've been doing work in the community for the last seven years and there are now 15,000 Sikh and Asian families in the area, but no culturally sensitive facilities for them," Mrs Kaur says.

Avtar Singh
There's a place for Christians - why not other groups that have been living there for 50 years?
Avtar Singh

She says the first attempt to secure a building took three years, but "then there was another better choice, a better building, but we had so much hassle from other people".

She suspects the search was obstructed for racial reasons.

When SNM was looking at one of the buildings, the British National Party (BNP) called for a full traffic survey as part of the planning process, she said.

"The problem is they see us as someone Asian, they might mistake us for other communities and they feel threatened.

"It's really frustrating when they treat us with such hostility."

The BNP, who could not confirm that any of their members had called for a full traffic survey, said the issue of who was behind the request was irrelevant.

A BNP spokesman said: "It is a question of traffic - it doesn't matter who is asking.

Town planning

"If the people involved were white it wouldn't be an issue and if it was the Conservative party asking for a survey I don't think it would be an issue."

Other community leaders have shown considerable support for the women.

Businessman Alan Shrimpton, of the Bournville Village Trust, saw the choir singing in the late 1990s and helped it obtain temporary premises for its projects.

"I know you don't believe in angels, but you know, where you were standing you looked like angels to me," Mrs Kaur quotes him as saying.

Mrs Kaur's husband, Avtar Singh, says he believes there is an issue at government level regarding faith centres.

He says the 1992 Religious Education Act allows for equal religious representation - but that this legislation has not been reflected elsewhere.

Sikh Nari Manch member reading scripture

In India, Mr Singh says, local authorities must include areas for all religions when planning new developments, but in Britain no provision is made for multi-faith facilities.

"There's a place for Christians - why not other groups that have been living there for 50 years?" he asks.

"If you don't provide facilities, it provokes resentment and you'll have conflicts."

A Birmingham City Council spokeswoman said established planning procedures had to be followed in all cases.

In a statement on its website, the council says all people have a right to "equality of opportunity and equity in the way they are treated and in the services they need, want and receive".

The council's equality mission seems to echo the all-inclusiveness of Sikhism.

Mrs Kaur says that because it is an internal faith, expressed through a way of life, in a way anyone can be a Sikh.

The point, she says, is: "Whatever you are, be good."


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