Vaisakhi Intersectional Inspiration

We Sikhs are celebrating Vaisakhi this week, the 315th birthday of the Khalsa, a body of revolutionaries given the responsibility to tear down tyranny and oppression in all its forms. Hundreds of years ago, Sikhs had an intersectional analysis of oppression, recognizing that all forms of injustice were equally deplorable, whether based on caste, gender, economic class, or religion.

The last few days, I have been re-reading a bunch of feminist writing on the ways all forms of oppression are deeply interlocked in preparation for a workshop I am facilitating next weekend (If you or your organization/school are interested in anti-oppression or organizing trainings, get in touch!). I have long been inspired by women of color and Third World feminism and suddenly realized how related this all is to Vaisakhi — a moment when our ancestors formalized their commitment to Sikhi, to bridging the spiritual and political, to becoming freedom fighters, to initiating the Khalsa.

What follows is a passage from Marilyn Frye’s timeless 1983 essay, “Oppression,” which I find especially compelling when thinking about the necessity of understanding and challenging all forms of domination. This Vaisakhi, I am thinking about how these words connect to our collective struggles in the Sikh community and far beyond. Happy Vaisakhi, Happy Passover, Happy Spring!

The experience of oppressed people is that the living of one’s life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable, but are systematically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction. It is the experience of being caged in: all avenues, in every direction, are blocked or booby trapped.

Cages. Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would have trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.

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