Saturday, December 18, 2004

Behzti: Sikh Community in Birmingham, UK in Uproar

A play about corruption in the Sikh community in England has caused an uproar, peaking Saturday night when some members of a group of Sikh protestors outside of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre attempted to storm it. See the BBC report. Apparently, only two of the protesters attempted to enter the theater, but the headline is still, effectively, "Sikh mob storms theater."

Five police were hurt trying to control the mob.

My first reaction to this is pretty simple: folks, please leave off with the censorious hysteria. People are on the streets protesting "negative representations," but in doing it in this way the Sikh community comes off looking considerably worse ("fatwa mentality"). No matter how offensive a work of art is, it's much better to just say your piece about it and walk away than to start a 'movement.'

I should also say that I'm a little hesitant to let loose on the Sikh community partly because it is already so vulnerable -- and so poorly understood. Despite my disappointment at how this is playing out, I do think there are many positive things about the community and its history. So if you're new to it, start here, not with the mess below.

But a few things need to be said. To begin with, a reader in England sent me an email a couple of days ago (before this latest "protest"). Here is a link to a review he sent me, and here is some basic information about the play.

The play is called Behzti (Dishonour), and it is written by a Sikh woman named Gurpreet Bhatti. Here is a two-sentence description of it:

Behzti is currently showing at the Birmingham Rep theatre and is set in a Sikh Gurdwara (Temple). It tackles a variety of issues from corruption, drug abuse, domestic violence, rape, murder, mixed race relationships and paedophilia.

All rightie, then; clearly not a barrel of laughs. But is the mere reference to dirty laundry a reason to protest (or even, storm a theater)?

For a moment, let's take the complaints by the protestors seriously:

This is because there is a well established principle of equality in Sikh religion (even if not always practiced in the private family sphere) and women have always had equal and free access to religious institutions. Indeed the current president of the most powerful Sikh religious body in India is a woman. It is to guard the free access of women to religious institutions that the Sikh religious community takes abrupt action against any degrading treatment of women in a religious institution.

Yes, the president of the SGPC is a woman, Bibi Jagir Kaur. Did we forget to mention that she was indicted for murdering her own daughter in an honor killing? The SGPC is not exactly a pillar of credibility these days -- or feminism. And the bit about gender equality is quite deliberately phrased. Women do have free access to religious institutions, but the institutions are dominated by men to a tee. Let's continue:

To stage a play around such a feature [meaning, sexism] in a Sikh religious institution not only shows ignorance of the community, but a deliberate attempt to be offensive and sensationalist for the sake of it. It is a theme imported from a different culture and a different life experience, desperately and dysfunctionally exploited in a play to seek approval from the white arts establishment which subtly imposes its racism in the name of ‘artistic licence’ with the funds of the public

Well, no. To stage a play about the mistreatment of women in a Sikh religious institution is merely to talk about a real problem in Indian/Punjabi patriarchal culture.

Still, notice the sophisticated language here. Even though everyone involved with the production of this play is Indian, they still find a way to levy the "racism" charge. It sounds heavy, but it has nothing to do with anything. (Abuses like this make me particularly hesitant to casually throw around the word "racist"...)

It's pretty easy to tear apart the case of the protestors here -- there are other weaknesses in their statement -- even without having actually seen the play. But there is one place where they might have some rhetorical high-ground, though they don't directly exploit it as far as I can tell. Behzti is a play about corruption (and presumably, pedophilia) amongst senior management in a Sikh temple (Gurdwara). It would help defenders of the play if they could argue that these representations are based in an actual historical event. Can they?

[Discussion of the protests and censorship at Crooked Timber]