An interview with Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, OBE

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Dr Jhutti-Johal is a Reader in Sikh Studies in the Department of Theology and Religion, University of Birmingham.  Dr Jhutti-Johal is a board member and trustee on a number of organisations and is very involved in voluntary work within the community.

I was lucky enough to meet with her and interview her – here is that interview:

Shonagh: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Jagbir: So, I am a Sikh woman of faith who is very interested in learning and understanding what is happening within my community. Issues such as inequality between the sexes, Sikh identity in the diasporic community, mental health and other medical issues, racialisation and mistaken identity and how other contested issues that confront the diasporic Sikh community are addressed. Understanding contested issues is really important to me because as time has moved and advances have been made, especially say in the realm of medicine which allows us to go down the route of IVF and surrogacy, or organ donation, it is clear that there may be conflicts/contradictions with the theology and it is important to learn and address the issues that theology raises, but also the advances so that we can still live within the divine will of God i.e. Hukam.

Within all these contested issues, I am very interested and focused on women’s representation, especially how their voices and concerns are heard within the community, but also at policy level.

My interest on women’s equality is grounded in the teachings of the founding Guru of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak a strong advocate for gender equality and he raised his voice against discrimination against women.  The importance of women to society is emphasised in this verse: 

From woman, man is born; within woman, man is conceived; to woman he is engaged and married.
Woman becomes his friend; through woman, the future generations come.
When his woman dies, he seeks another woman; to woman he is bound.
So why call her bad from whom kings are born.
From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all.
O Nanak, only the True Lord is without a woman.
That mouth which praises the Lord continually is blessed and beautiful.
O Nanak, those faces shall be radiant in the Court of the True Lord. ||2|| (Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Ang[1]473)

With this is mind and through witnessing discrimination against women in some Sikh quarters I have been on a long journey of trying to learn and understand the contradiction between the religion and the culture. It is also important to note that alongside this debate the Sikh community is also trying to address the whole debate about how and where the LGB community fits in the religious community.  On this topic, I am focused on making sure that my faith community understands our LGB community and their needs, but also allows them a space within that religious domain. Obviously now the LGB issue has expanded with LGBT+ and Q+, which I am still not fully versed with, but I am trying to learn about.

So, in a long-winded way as a person of faith and as a woman within the faith community I want to understand and challenge contradictions. In my own life I have challenged norms, expectations and barriers but also tried myself to break glass ceilings within my family and community, i.e., being the first girl within the family to go to university. But also to do a subject that many Indian parents in the late 1980s had not heard of, and then enter into a profession and subject which not many Indians were in.

Shonagh – Tell me more about that…

Jagbir – So, one of the things to know is that within the Asian community, particularly the first generation of migrants, my parents’ generation from the 1960s and 70s, many of them were factory workers and were very determined on giving their children a better future and for them this was going to be achieved by their children going to universities and studying subjects such as medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, accountancy – leading to jobs for life. I was very lucky that in terms of my schooling, but also with the support of my mum, and reluctantly my dad, I was able to explore history, anthropology and religious studies. They saw my real interest in trying to understand what was happening within my own community. You know when I would ask my parents why we did ‘x’ or ‘y’ my parents would say, “that is the way things have always been done” and I would persist by saying, “but there must be a reason”. To get answers to some of these questions I went on to study anthropology with a particular focus on how religion and culture within the community sometimes conflicts and becomes conflated.

Shonagh – So your whole career, and it sounds like to me, your personal interest, is in how you can marry up your faith in shifting cultures and how you can help your community and those shifting cultures and trends marry up with each other and be a peace with each other. Is that right?

Jagbir – Yes, that is right. If there is that conflict within culture and theology how we address it. It is trying to understand and interpret those teachings so that we can live by those values within our theological teachings.

Shonagh – that is fascinating…So, why do you think it is important to speak about this issue in particular?

Jagbir – I think the work that say yourself or other women are doing around the issue of sex-based rights and women’s rights are so important, particularly in a world where I as a Sikh am feeling that those hard fought for rights for women, that were advocated by the Sikh Gurus and Sikh women such as Princess Sophia Alexandrovna Duleep Singh a prominent suffragette, are being side-lined. I do not believe we have to side-line the rights of one group at the expense of another. We can protect everyone’s rights, and as a Sikh, I firmly believe in this. I see this debate; the single-sex spaces debate being played out and I feel that the voice of women of colour and particularly women from the South Asian community is not present.  Why that is I am not sure, maybe they are too afraid to enter into this debate, or maybe they have not been asked for their opinion. I suppose that is the reason why I thought, you know these women are making such important points and I can resonate with everything that they are saying, but there is an important lens which I think is sometimes missing in the discourse and needs to be added.

Thinking about this lens I was actually thinking about the issue of single sex spaces, whether changing rooms, prisons, hospital wards. You know, as a young girl my respectability and my family’s respectability and honour were dependent on how I behaved but also whom I associated or was seen with. This meant I avoided being in male spaces, and like other Indian girls I learnt how to create safe spaces to mix with others, mainly girls so that we could build friendships.

Notions of honour and shame are so embedded in our culture and that lens has been missing in this debate.  Some people may say it has no relevance, but I think it does. As South Asian women, we come from a very hetero patriarchal society right, where our existence has always been under threat and scrutinised for centuries. If we just think about places like India or Pakistan, women do not have a safe space, especially public spaces. There is also the expectation that when women get married the responsibility of the parents is passed onto the husband’s family which results in a new set of norms that women have to live by, which is that you are a good wife, good daughter-in law, and mother. This means you cannot or should not do anything that may bring dishonour to your husband’s family. However, it is important to note that women are no longer taking abuse against them or their children for granted – they are speaking up so they can provide the future generations an environment in which they can flourish and thrive.

However, to leave a family home when there is abuse is a great risk and women will only ever do it if they feel they have a safe space to go to, where even though they will be questioned on their actions by their family or members of the community, their morality and motives will not be brought into question. Now if we think about this alongside the debate about single sex spaces, I have concerns.  If we are now saying that single sex spaces are not going to be available for women only, and especially women of colour, you are creating an environment where barriers are being placed that will prevent women from accessing these spaces due to fear of possible community gossip because they may be in a space where there are men. So, whilst there is that straight forward narrative that say for example, yourself, Professor Kathleen Stock and Helen Joyce are having, I think there is another layer – alongside that of trauma that exists for south Asian women, and we need to keep this in mind.

For example, think about the whole Wi Spa incident, if I was in that situation I would have been thinking ‘if my family find out that I was in a venue with men, especially when I and they had thought it was for women only, I would be worried about the consequences arising due to notions of honour and shame.’ 

Shonagh – Yes absolutely, so you have articulated that perfectly, because what you are saying is that there is an added layer for south Asian women in particular and women of faith. So, it is really important to recognise for some women it will mean that they cannot go to a space because they will be bringing shame on their family and their honour will be called into question and this could put them at real risk. That is dangerous in the context of so-called honour-based violence.

Jagbir – Yes, exactly..

Also, if we think how south Asian women have also always been viewed as not being fully integrated, or being willing to integrate ourselves into western society, such changes create challenges. If we are to be fully integrated into society and we go into what we see as being safe spaces but then you take those away from us by including others into it, of course we are going to retreat and that isn’t because we are prejudiced etc., but there are certain cultural expectations that if we cross will bring harm to us, and I think to avoid this many women will not attend.

Shonagh – and then again, you are accused of not being integrated.

Jagbir – yes, so it is a kind of catch 22 situation. And I am not saying anything against anyone who is a transwoman or a transman, what I am saying is that you can provide rights for everybody without foregoing the rights of women. You could have a separate venue for transwomen, or separate changing rooms for transwomen. We live in a multi-diverse society – multi-diverse because of religion, race and now of course because of gender identity, which means you must protect everyone.

One of the things for me is that Sikh theology talks about equality and raising a voice against all injustices. If we think back to a time where women were treated as second class citizens and the Sikh Gurus who were men, raising their voices to give them status and position, and if we remember Sikh women like Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who I mentioned before, best known as one of the suffragettes fighting for equal rights I have to ask myself – what are we doing now?. As a Sikh woman Princess Sophia was very engaged with supporting women’s rights and making sure that they were given those rights but also ensuring that the fight for the right for equality for others was also maintained. That is what I want to see, that we maintain those rights and protections for women and young girls because even though things might have changed, they have not changed that much. Women and girls are still discriminated against, and globally are still vulnerable to attack and sexual violence and harassment, and it is not right to expect that the rights that women have fought for should be discarded.  Actually, these rights are important, and we need to maintain them, and doing so does not make someone transphobic we are simply protecting the rights of another vulnerable group.  

I know I am jumping around but coming back to the issue of single sex spaces and their importance I remember being in a building where there was only gender-neutral toilets – and I remember not using them. There was an issue of privacy, dignity and embarrassment that affected my decision. 

I think a lot about my reaction, because I am over a particular age and a mother, and I wanted to understand why I felt that way. I wonder what young girls feel when they have to access gender-neutral toilets.  If we take the issue of menstruation, how do you think a teenage girl would feel if there was a young boy in the toilets who could hear her unwrapping a sanitary towel.  Can you imagine her fear or worry that he may tell others and subject her to gossip and abuse? We live in a world that already expects so much from our young girls in terms of looks and behaviour, which makes them vulnerable to abuse, anxiety etc., and by removing their safe spaces you’re creating another level of vulnerability for them to navigate.  In making a space safe for one person or group, but making it unsafe for someone else, you are creating serious harms to both parties.

Shonagh – It is excluding, isn’t it? The idea of inclusion actually excludes, our Scottish sister said the same. And when you exclude women and girls, you cannot count them; you cannot fight for them or argue for them because they just disappear. So how do you make policy or design services on data that is not there, it is an impossible task, they are just disappearing women from our society and that is terrifying.

Jagbir – Absolutely, if government and policy makers in the UK have worked so hard to ensure that, for example, they are providing services for women who have experienced domestic violence and also they have worked hard with women in South Asian communities to understand so called honour-based violence and ensure there are spaces and services for them. Then why do they not recognise how these new policies will create or put in place obstacles or barriers for women accessing these spaces and services? We will lose that information and understanding of what is happening in certain communities. After a long journey we have finally got to a place where we can provide policy makers with data because we have provided women safe spaces to go to, but if women are thinking that men will be in those spaces, they will not access them and we will lose that data and women and children will be harmed.

Covid showed us how domestic violence had risen within all communities and government put in money to support services, but my fear is that services that do so much good will close, because they will not be viewed inclusive enough because they want to maintain that strict policy on single sex (This was a theme in my research see chapter 6 – also see the defunding of services in Brighton and Scotland).

Women will also not use them because they may not feel safe.  For example, women of colour and south Asian women, especially new migrants, and I am not being derogatory here, may not have any knowledge or may have limited understanding of the whole trans issue and they will not understand the language of inclusivity or exclusivity. All they know is that they want to be safe. They will think, “I have taken the biggest step in my life to move away and leave my husband and family that are abusing me, but I still want to be part of my community.”  This is hindered if they can only access trans inclusive safe spaces because their fear would be what would happen if the community got to know that a biological man is there. This will have an impact on women accessing and using important services that can save their lives because they fear further ostracization by their community by accessing a safe space which goes against community cultural ethics and expectations. Women will try to find those safe spaces, which are run by women for women, in which they can rebuild and develop connections and friendships, without worrying about what someone from the outside looking in may say about her, which will tarnish her reputation further. Just imagine a woman’s reputation being further denigrated because the community found out that she is in a space with a biological male.

Again, for me this means we are creating further harm for biological women. We are creating more harm than good.

Shonagh – that is what it come down to is not it? Services are putting women from South Asian communities at more risk by even considering them accessing a space that is ‘trans inclusive’, because it is mixed sex provision and that will impact hugely on their risk within their communities and how they are perceived…

Jagbir – yes absolutely

Shonagh – Are women being asked what they think about this?

Jagbir – I do not think they are. I am sad to say this, but I honestly do not think that many women within the South Asian community have even comprehended the seriousness of this issue. So, for example, single sex swimming, gyms etc. For South Asian women, particularly of my mother’s age, to even get our women to use these spaces to improve their health etc. can be difficult. The health service is telling south Asian women you have to exercise, go swimming etc. They often do not do that because of the lack of provision of single sex spaces, and now the inclusion of transwomen will make that even more problematic – women who have started using the limited resources that are available will withdraw because they do not want to be viewed as being bigoted or disrespectful by raising concerns and this will lead to a negative impact on their wellbeing.

A further reinforcing of the above point is that we can blame the system or point fingers at a lack of culturally appropriate facilities for women of colour to access.  However, if these women have taken the step to venture out into areas, they feel safe in, then we cannot pull the rug from underneath them and make them feel excluded again and then blame them for not being integrated, or for being bigoted when they are not bigoted at all.

Shonagh – do you think these issues, which amount to direct discrimination, have been interrogated by policy makers at all?

Jagbir – No. I feel this is really missing in this current debate. They are themselves thinking, talking and listening to those from a very white privilege position, which completely ignores what women of colour, might experience or may be thinking. It may not be on their radar, but when it is flagged up, it is such a difficult conversation they do not know how to navigate it because they do not understand the religious and cultural complexities that might be in front of them, and how to address them. There is a lot of intersectionality that policy makers do not recognise or understand which is due to their privilege but also lack of faith and cultural literacy.

Shonagh – absolutely and I include myself in that privilege and on the lack of literacy on faith and cultural issues. It is so important for this conversation to happen…

Jagbir – yes, I mean I read Material Girls and TRANS, and I read your thesis, and I just kept thinking this debate is so important why is this discussion not taking place more with South Asian women. As south Asian women we have experienced so much harassment and male violence from within our own community that we really value the protections and rights that we have.

You know if we think about India, you think about the rapes and the sexual harassment, if we just go back to 2012 the horrendous case of Jyoti Singh, or the recent rape and killing of Asha a 10-year-old girl, but this is also true for Pakistan. I am reminded of the murder of 27-year-old Noor Mukadam.  There are many more and this is what as women we are always confronted by. I recognise this is not just an issue for south Asian women, it affects all women, and the murder of Sarah Everard highlighted how all women, despite their background or ethnicity, are subject to this harassment and violence and that all women therefore have their own in-built sense of fear. So of course, all women will be wary about going into spaces where we might not be safe. If I, as a woman in my late forties is thinking do I want to use gender neutral toilets or can I wait, then what are other women thinking, but also what are those young girls of 10 or 15 thinking, what are they feeling?

(Shonagh and Jagbir talked at length about how they navigate safety all the time – including for their daughters and nieces)

Jagbir – I am definitely not an expert on this, but it is interesting that in the Sikh community, whilst we do not have any data it is thought that those who identify as transgender are a very small part of the community and it is mainly men who are identifying as transwomen. Within the Indian community, we have a group that we call the Hijras, who are thought of as transgender, but many are actually intersex or have DSD, and they are accepted. They have rights, which they get under Indian law, but it is understood by them and by society that their rights are separate to those of others, particularly women. It is not perfect, but it has worked to a certain extent. I mean yes there is discrimination and abuse that does take place, and of course transwomen may experience abuse, and that is to do with hate and being discriminated for being different. However, as women, the abuse we face daily, the fear we must live with and the way we constantly navigate our own safety is to do with our biological sex.

You know one of the other things that really upset me and made me sit up was the whole debate around certain terminology, especially ‘birthing people’. In the 16th century our founding Gurus made sure that conception, the womb, the foetus is described in our scripture, by the Guru Granth Sahib:

He nourished us in the mother’s womb; why forget Him from the mind?

Why forget from the mind such a Great Giver, who gave us sustenance in the fire of the womb? (Guru Granth Sahib Ang 920)

Sikh teachings highlight that woman should not be treated as a second-class citizen, or inferior due to these natural processes which are essential for the continuation of humankind and with this in mind I ask myself but what are we doing now, 550 years later? We are downgrading those natural processes, in fact, in a sense, we seem to be eradicating them from public discourse, and that is not right!

Shonagh – no, and it also goes directly back to what you were saying before about access to health care. Women whose first language is not English will see the term ‘birthing people’ and it will not relate to them…

Jagbir – Absolutely, one of the biggest issues that south Asian women have is the misdiagnosis or lack of a diagnosis of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis, but also cervical cancer because women are reluctant to talk about these issues. So with the current debate where the phrase is…what is it?

Shonagh – ‘People with a cervix’?  

Jagbir – yes, I just thought to myself, what are you doing? They think they are being inclusive but actually, they are excluding the majority of the population here, you have to preserve that integrity of biological sex and the language around it.   When you start changing the language and words, women, especially migrant women of my mother’s generation will not understand, and this will cause unintended harm because they do not understand. There is research, which shows that South Asian Women did not recognise the terms ‘cervical screening’ or ‘smear test’[2].

If you are now creating a generation of people who do not understand the importance of maintaining that language, then we have deep problems. They will not understand the barriers that the south Asian community, especially the older generation and new migrants will face. In a sense, that language excludes women who need to be taking up this healthcare provision, they will miss it due to a lack of understanding.

Those are some of the reasons why I decided we really need to start having these conversations within the community but also with those outside of the community who are having these discussions so that they can be challenged to ensure that they take on board everyone’s needs. Because whilst they may be trying to raise all the issues, sometimes the social and the cultural issues of people of other faiths and cultures doesn’t get brought into the conversation. Sometimes this may be due to a lack of religious and cultural illiteracy, other times it may be due to complexity, but also because sometimes you might not have thought about it and that is perfectly understandable, because I cannot expect everybody to understand everything about the Sikh community, or the Muslim, or Hindu community. So, there is also an onus on us as women of colour to challenge, but also to bring into play this conversation, so that we do not lose those rights and those safe spaces that we have fought for.

But like my Mum said, this is to do with all women, and it is a subject that cuts across all different race, faiths, ethnicities etc and we all need to work together.

Shonagh – yes it does but you have so helpfully put in place that lens of intersectionality and these aspects of the debate must be explored in so much more detail.

Jagbir – yes, it is so important, and I think that one of the things is that you know women like Professor Kathleen Stock, Maya Forstater, or the amazing JK Rowling, are raising these kinds of issues, and as women of colour we also need to do the same.

All these women, they are having these conversations diplomatically and sensibly and clearly, then you have many privileged white men who think they can just attack and call them transphobic, without actually having a sensible conversation with them to truly understand our concerns. You know as women we have to deal with misogyny and harassment, for centuries, but what is impressive today is how women are handling this conversation calmly and sensibly, whilst still experiencing attacks.

The conversation has to be had. What world are we living in if we cannot have the conversation and where we are actually eradicating the sex that gives life?

Shonagh – that is always the part for me. Disagreement is fine, you know as feminists, sorry Jagbir but older feminists (both laugh), we have thick skins we are used to people disagreeing with us. But this whole notion of shutting us down entirely and calling us bigots for wanting a discussion about rights that are hard fought for is outrageous, it’s all just part of a concerted backlash…

Jagbir – Yes and what is important is that many women of colour have not really ventured into this debate, however, I think it is important to note the amazing work that Gita Sahgal is doing.  Why more of us are not in this debate, I am not sure? Maybe it is because we have not even thought of the consequences for ourselves, or as I mentioned earlier maybe, we have been too scared to voice an opinion. However, now that the debate has been opened up, we need to start being part of those conversations and voice our concerns and needs. I think we have a duty to do this and ensure our rights and those of future generation of girls are protected, and we will do this not through hate, but through reason and courage.

Shonagh – It has to be a collective effort, this conversation has really taught me so much and really made me think, so thank you.

Jagbir – you are welcome, it is my view that if we want a better society, we have to be inclusive of all, but there is one group that we have to protect and make sure thrives, and that is women and girls because if we don’t then we will see a breakdown in society.  It is so important not to deny women their rights and that potential to harness their strengths and abilities and their contribution to the wellbeing of society, you know that sounds simplistic, but unintentionally these policies will exclude, and women will be denied their rights to participate in public life, which means they won’t flourish in the way we want everyone to in life.

Shonagh – it goes back to that notion that we will never know how amazing those women could have been because they will be invisible, that is so upsetting to think about…

Jagbir – Yes absolutely. The policies that governments or organisations might be thinking of as progressive, may end up actually being regressive for biological women.

Women like Gita Sahgal and Southall Black Sisters have been brilliant and I am joining the conversation because I am very worried that governments and lobby groups are not considering the harms their polices and proposals are having on all women. You cannot be ‘seen’ to be doing the right thing, you have to actually do the right thing, and sometimes that is not always the popular thing.

Shonagh – How does it feel now that you have started speaking up?

Jagbir – it is scary, but I am reminded of my Sikh teachings and the code of conduct that I need to live by. I want to navigate and contribute to the debate so that everyone’s rights are protected, and no one is harmed.  It is also scary because of the fear of being attacked. I have had people telling me that I do not understand the issue, which is very patronising. I get very cross because actually I do understand the issue, what they don’t understand is the intersectionality and various other issues this raises for women of colour, especially south Asian women and this is where I go back to that whole notion of white privilege…I have had many people tell me, ‘you do know you are following someone on twitter who is transphobic!’ and my response back is ‘are they though…really?’ I am offended when I am being told that I need to think in a particular way, without the recognition that I might have already thought this through – actually, I do not wade into a conversation without having done my own research thoroughly.

On the other hand, when discussing this with my own community, they may feel that I am attacking them, but that is not what I am doing.  I am raising the issue so that they can start addressing it before it is too late.

I also want to stress that when I talk to about this issue, I am not coming from a bad place, as a Sikh the guiding force I have is the recognition of that divine light (jot) in everyone, so I am guided not to cause hurt or to harm anyone.  However, as a Sikh we are also instructed to raise our voices against injustices, so when I see an injustice, I am going to raise my voice.  I respect, and will protect everyone irrespective of sex, gender identity, race or ethnicity. As a Sikh woman, I will fight for the sex-based rights that women are afforded and need, and I will also fight for the rights of the trans community. This does not need to be an either-or argument; we can actually work together so that we can protect everyone’s rights.



My sincere thanks to Jagbir for her time and for her bravery in speaking up. I hope policy makers and organisations will read her words and think hard about what she, as an expert in her field, is saying. Jagbir highlights so many important points on how trans inclusive policy capture can uniquely affect and exclude South Asian women. It is essential, in my view that they engage with the issues she is raising.  

Dr Shonagh Dillon

[1] Translation – Page

[2] Marlow LAV, Waller J, Wardle JBarriers to cervical cancer screening among ethnic minority women: a qualitative study. Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care 2015;41:248-254.

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