Jasvir Singh - 06/04/2018
Thought for the Day
A BBC report has looked at the taboo subject of alcohol abuse amongst British Punjabis. According to a commissioned survey, 27% of Sikhs stated that someone in their family has an alcohol problem. In publishing the report, the BBC has helped expose the divide between religion and culture.
Within the Sikh faith, people initiated into the Khalsa tradition are prohibited from drinking alcohol. All gurdwaras have signs near their entrances stating that those under the influence can’t come in. The message is clear. Alcohol and faith doesn’t mix within the Sikh context.
On the other hand, the Punjabi community has a strong drinking culture which permeates it, including within Bhangra music.
Almost 95% of British Sikhs are of Punjabi heritage, and one occasion where the difference between religion and culture couldn’t be greater is at weddings. The religious Sikh ceremony is an austere spiritual communion between two people and the Almighty, whilst Punjabi wedding receptions tend to be hedonistic affairs with a free bar and songs about binge drinking.
Alcohol misuse is nothing new. William Hogarth’s Gin Lane shone a light on the impact it had on the fabric of British society over 250 years ago. As a family law barrister, I’ve seen many cases where children are taken into care because of alcohol abuse by one or both parents, and yet I’ve heard lawyers discuss how much they drink and what could happen if they ever had to take the same type of alcohol testing as their own clients.
I’ve also seen how it’s affected people I know, including a mother who was beaten by her alcoholic husband for years, but never spoke about it for fear of bringing shame to her family. After 38 years of marriage, she finally divorced him as she’d reached the end of her tether. It may be an extreme example, but it’s certainly not an isolated one.
For far too long, the impact of alcohol misuse in the Punjabi community has been an open secret amongst Sikhs. When the faith says one thing and the culture says another, it’s easy to see why, but as the BBC report has shown, it simply can’t be ignored. Talking about the issue openly is a good first step towards challenging cultural norms and tackling the problem head-on.
The term ‘Sikh’ means ‘student’. We are forever learning how best to deal with things in our own lives, and it’s an ongoing journey of self-improvement. To overcome any fear of shame, it’s important to look at alcohol misuse as a health condition and treat it with empathy and understanding rather than condemnation and judgement of the person or their family. Education is much more effective than pontification, and as Guru Nanak himself once said, “I’m not good and nobody is bad”.