At 27, Minreet Kaur married a man she met through a Sikh temple in west London. It turned out to be a disaster, and within a year she was back home with her parents. For 10 years now she has been hoping to find another husband, but has reached a bitter conclusion: most Sikh men don’t want to marry a divorcee.
“If you divorce me, you will never marry again,” my husband shouted at me before I left him. He said it to hurt me, but he knew it could turn out to be true. And so did I.
Divorce is shameful in the Sikh community, especially for women.
To begin with I was ashamed myself. I felt dirty and used. How could I look at another man when I knew he would regard me as used goods?
Other people reinforced this feeling.
My grandma in London told me I should have worked at my marriage, even though she knew what I had been through. My dad’s family in India said they were disappointed that I was home; I was a disgrace to them. My parents supported me 100% but I felt I had let them down.
For five years I hardly went out, but in 2013 I started to look again for a partner.
When I asked people to look out for a suitable man for me they would often be happy to help. They would start asking questions – how old I was, where I lived, where I worked – but as soon as told them I was divorced, their facial expression changed. It was a look that said, “we can’t help you”.
“I’ll let you know,” they told me.
My marriage had been semi-arranged. People kept telling me I was getting old and putting pressure on me to marry, so I asked the temple in Southall to introduce me to someone.
After my divorce, when I started looking for a new husband, I went to the Hounslow temple to register in its matrimonial book. I knew the temple would only introduce me to members of my own caste, even though caste isn’t important to me. But what I didn’t know was that, since I was a divorcee, they would only introduce me to divorced men.
Once the volunteer saw my details on the form I had filled in he said: “Here are two men who are divorced – they are the only ones suitable for you.”
Men and women are equal in the Sikh faith
But in at least two temples I have seen divorced men being introduced to women who have never previously married. So why can’t divorced women be introduced to men who have not been married before? It’s as though men can never be responsible for a divorce, only women.
I asked the man in charge of the Hounslow temple’s matrimonial service, Mr Grewal, to explain this to me and he told me it wasn’t his choice – it was the men looking for a bride, and their parents, who said they didn’t want a divorcee.
“They are not going to accept divorce, as it shouldn’t happen in the Sikh community, if we follow the faith,” he said.
But actually Sikhs do get divorced sometimes, just like everyone else. The 2018 British Sikh Report says that 4% have been divorced and another 1% have separated. Some of those who admit to having been divorced may have remarried, but I’m quite sure that a larger number tick the “single” box even though they are divorced – it’s such a taboo.
As divorce becomes more common, attitudes will most likely change. Younger people have told me it’s not such a big issue for them. But in my generation, even people who have divorced sisters or daughters in their own family will still judge another divorced woman outside their family.
These are the kinds of things people say to me: “You are too old to have kids, you are going to find it hard to meet someone now – you’ve left it too late. You should just find anyone and marry them.”
(Actually, at 38 I’m not too old to have children. It’s just another prejudice.)
A wedding in Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh temple, Southall, in 2017
Sometimes I’m told: “Min, it’s going to be very difficult to meet someone in the UK, you’re better off meeting someone in India.”
When my mum asked one of her friend’s sons if he knew anyone for me, he told us I was like a “scratched car”.
I know I have made things difficult for myself by looking not just for a Sikh but for a turbanned Sikh. There are more than 22,000 Sikhs in Hounslow, so probably 11,000 are men. Only a small proportion of them are in the right age group, and unmarried. And of those who are, many don’t wear a turban.
The turban is important to me, though. Faith is important to me – the Sikh faith that says that men and women are equal and that we should not judge one another.
Sikh men in London, in 1935 – it is now more common to meet Sikh men who do not wear a turban
I don’t want to meet men who are just out for a laugh and don’t want to settle down. But nor do I want to meet men who want a housekeeper rather than a wife, and ask questions like, “can you cook?” the first time we meet. I am an independent person who wants a partner for companionship.
Last month I was introduced to someone through a friend. It was a familiar story. He said he wasn’t interested in a divorcee. He was in his 40s, but he expected women to come with no history.
After meeting about 40 different men over the last 10 years, it’s only in the last few months that I have begun to think about considering non-turbanned Sikhs, and even non-Sikhs. Some of my friends have already taken this step.
By telling my story I am hoping I will help to remove the stigma of being a divorced woman. Maybe it will encourage more women to speak up. And if women are trapped in an abusive marriage because of the taboo of divorce, I would urge them to leave. We are human beings, and we deserve to be treated equally.
Minreet Kaur is a henna artist and a freelance journalist who works for the BBC
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