Being Punjabi and divorced shouldn't define my life

Aged 40 and divorced, Minreet Kaur had to overcome ingrained prejudice to regain her independence

…As a 40 year-old Punjabi woman, I am seen by most men within my community as being about as covetable as a scratched second-hand car.

I have presented television programmes, had articles published in national newspapers, pushed myself in my career and remained devoted to my spiritual beliefs. But, as a 40 year-old Punjabi woman, I am seen by most men within my community as being about as covetable as a scratched second-hand car.

My crime? I am a Punjabi Sikh divorcee. Or, a woman who was brave enough to leave her husband because she refused to accept a miserable emotional existence in order to still be considered ‘respectable.’ I realise that saying this out loud, in 2021, may well confirm many of the outsider prejudices of the Punjabi community. That all our women are downtrodden, that there is something highly suspicious about how wcan still rely upon ‘arranged’ marriages to find life partners.

I want other Punjabi women to hear my story and know they are not alone. 

Tragically, some of these prejudices are true. Which is why I have decided I want other Punjabi women to hear my story and know they are not alone. That no one should be suffering in silence. When I got married 12 years ago, it was with the intention of having what my parents have; a long and happy relationship. They came here as first-generation immigrants in the 1960s and had an ‘arranged’ marriage the anglicised way – through a family friend and based only on a photo and scant information.  

Despite their traditional introduction, my parents are not typical Indian folks. My mother was a working-class Punjabi woman who defied convention, went to work outside the home, and now works at Harrods, while my father is best known as the ‘Skipping Sikh’, whose enthusiasm for wanting to do his bit during the pandemic has made him an international news star and helped him raise thousands for the NHS.

Ever since I can remember, our family life has been woven into the spiritual fabric of the Southall Gurdwara, now the largest Sikh temple in London, built with £17.5 million of devotional contributions. Like my mother, I have regularly volunteered there. Strange as it might seem for aeducated, liberated, woman born in 1980s Britain, often helped the matrimonial team, a group within the temple set up to help observant men and women to meet and find love.

The matrimonial group works rather like an old-fashioned dating agency…Often, it works. But equally, it doesn’t.  

This was where I was introduced to my ex-husbandThe matrimonial group works rather like an oldfashioned dating agency, which, set against the cut and thrust of the new online dating apps, is rather charming. There are details given, biographies mainly, of family, work interests and hobbies, but no photographs are offered. The idea being is that choices are built less on immediate physical attraction and more on a tick list of mutual compatibility. Often, it works. But equally, it doesn’t.

The relationship was very controlling and I was expected to cow tail to his mother and family at all times. 

We were married very shortly after our introduction; I was 26 years old and feeling the pressure to ‘get on with it’. After a year though, I realised he wasn’t the guy I thought he was. I felt like I had suddenly stepped back in time. The relationship was very controlling and I was expected to cow tail to his mother and family at all times.

Luckily my parents were understanding (many would not be) and so I returned home, which is where I remain 12 years later.

I feel now, to get what I want, I will have no choice but to choose between my faith, or love.   

Lockdown has made me reflect and think about my life. I feel now, to get what I want, I will have no choice but to choose between my faith or love. Mainly because the available Punjabi men see my divorce as an issue and reject me, immediately, on this basis. My appeal is tarnished, even among those who are also divorced. They want a younger, purer, woman who can give them children. I would also like children, but have to battle the ageism that most 40-something women face.

Whichever way I turn, my community is riven with double standards and Punjabi women struggle to have their voices heard.  

Whichever way I turn, my community is riven with double standards and Punjabi women struggle to have their voices heard. This is never more obvious than when I go to worship at the Gurdwara. It’s always a scene that conforms to a cliched view of our community. The women in the kitchen preparing the langar (food) while the men promoted as the Pardhan – the temple leaders. There are over 300 Gurdwara in the UK and not one of them has a woman running it. Why?  

There are over 300 Gurdwara in the UK and not one of them has a woman running it. Why? 

I am not alone in wanting this change, so many Punjabi women are seeing themselves having to choose between their faith and a life with a voice. For so long, we have stayed quiet and accepted that the men are the leaders because we grew up seeing this played out and the women who came before us were too nervous about standing up for themselves. Even now, there is friction among those of us women who want change and those who are fearful of rocking the boat. This is most obvious in the reactions to my divorce. 

I remember when I told some female friends my marriage was over. Many turned their back on me, and the community I had felt safe in, had made me feel ashamed. On several occasions, I have been advised to give up and find a husband in India. But if I am struggling to get Punjabi men already living in London to accept my independence, how is that going to work? Are the divorced men of the same circle told to meet a wife from India if they were adamant they didn’t want to? No. of course not.  

My choice to stand outside the expected behaviour of a Punjabi woman has been tough, and continues to be so. Frequently, I am asked: “Have you met anyone?” When I say that it’s really hard to meet a decent guy who doesn’t judge me, they invariably think that there is something wrong with me.  

At 40 I should be in the prime of my life, not feeling ashamed of my place in the world…Is it too much to expect that I would meet someone who is going to add value and light to my life?

At 40 I should be in the prime of my life, not feeling ashamed of my place in the world. I want to continue building my career and making a difference, I don’t want to simply fill a hole in my life. Is it too much to expect that I would meet someone who is going to add value and light to my life? A man who is intelligent and understands that British Punjabi men and women can be equal?

We need this voice for change, as for too long men in my community seem to be at the forefront of decision making and power over women’s lives 

Recently, I set up a weekly panel for Punjabi women called the Inspirational Women series, giving us the opportunity to share our stories of shattering glass ceilings and standing up for change to make a difference. We need this voice for change, as for too long men in my community seem to be at the forefront of decision making and power over women’s lives and this needs to be shaken up a bit. It was frowned upon at first but it is gathering momentum.

I want women to know all of us are special, regardless of our status. 

I was one of the first of any Punjabi women I knew who got divorced and I remember that feeling of being alone and not having anyone to talk to. Stepping out of the house I would feel so worried about what people would ask me about why I got divorced. Twelve years on and I now openly talk about my story because I want women to know all of us are special, regardless of our status. I have had people tell me how women who get divorced bring shame to their Punjabi families, but there is no shame in being divorced and 40. Just because you are getting older doesn’t mean life is over. I can now see many women starting to stand up to having their voices being heard.

Punjabi women need to shake things up by speaking up. We must not be afraid of labels and judgement, but be tenacious, strong and brave.   

The inequalities that exist will always be there in part, and it seems at times it’s a man’s world, but I am not going to sit back and stay silent and let history repeat itself for the younger generation. Punjabi women need to shake things up by speaking up. We must not be afraid of labels and judgement, but be tenacious, strong and brave. 

Society will always make us feel a certain way, but I want to say: Ignore the noise my Punjabi sisters and Power Up. What matters is that you, along with all midlife women, know that you are amazing and beautiful and can achieve anything you want. You just have to believe you can.  

Minreet Kaur

 

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