Out of the male shadow

by Gurjinderpal Singh Sidhu

No job is beneath me

Mum came home late at night. She was very tired after working twelve hours in the electronic parts factory, where she had started working six months earlier. She would get up at 4am and get ready for her shift at 6am. On her way to the factory, she would listen to and recite Sikh scriptures. Her day started and finished with these scriptures. I doubt she would have had the strength to get through the day without them.

Scriptures had helped her through some tough times. Religious belief was and still is quite important to her. That particular night, however, there was no recitation of scripture. Instead, I heard her crying in her bedroom.

I went into her room and saw her holding her right shoulder, writhing in pain. Mum used to make circuit boards at the factory. The work was particularly taxing on her shoulder muscles. She did not help matters by working extra hard each day. She thought this would impress her supervisors and increase her chances of becoming a permanent employee.

She would talk constantly about the possibility of becoming a permanent worker at the factory. The job had become a holy grail for her. She had never wanted a job so desperately.

It had only been a couple of years since we had migrated to Australia from India. Both Mum and Dad had worked hard and we had recently bought a new house. Dad had managed to find a stable job but Mum was still working as a casual at the factory. Dad had never wanted Mum to work in a factory, but she insisted on working.

“I am not a weak woman who is just going to sit at home and be a glorified housewife. No work is beneath me; all I care about is my children’s future and for them to have a better shot at life.”

She would say these things to my Dad until he relented. He really had no choice – it wasn’t the first time she had insisted on her own independence for the sake of her children. She started going to the factory with Dad every day. She worked in many factories over the years, her tasks ranging from pick packing, to cutting salad, to cleaning factory floors. Yet no job offered the possibility of permanency like the job she had at the electronic parts factory.

Sadly, the job at the factory did not become permanent. Hence no scripture recitation: Mum cried all night. Not only did she not get the job, but she also injured several nerves in her shoulder through working so hard for it. Still, she did not admit defeat; she took her painkillers and went back to the factory the very next day. Not going to work meant not getting paid and not getting paid could have an impact on her children’s future. This, she was not going to let happen.

Your mum is loose cannon!

Unlike many other people, my earliest memory of my mother does not involve her giving me a cuddle and telling me how wonderful I was. I am sure that this happened but I simply do not remember it. Instead, my earliest memory of her is of seeing her being lectured by my uncle about reckless driving.

It was 1980s India and Mum had crashed her Vespa scooter on the way back from work. Apparently she was driving too fast. I do not recall exactly what my uncle said, but the gist of it went something like this:

“This is not the first time I have told you to drive carefully. You are the mother of a child now, and speedy thrill rides are for kids. Besides, you’ve already gotten what you wanted.”

What she wanted, here, was an opportunity to work. Yes: even then my mum was fighting for her right to have her own job. In fact, a job involving some kind of ‘fighting’ would have been ideal for her. She said so herself – or maybe it was my grandfather who said as much. After all, she had fought with him over her career choice as well.

“Your mother wanted to join the police, Robin!” he would say to me with an incredulous look on his face. “She is a real loose cannon!”

My grandfather was a policeman himself, but the idea of his daughter joining the police force gave him some sleepless nights. Admittedly, however, there was reason behind this.

Growing up during insurgency

Mum was born in the city of Gurdaspur in the province of Punjab in India. The term Punjab means the ‘land of five rivers’. Punjab is also the birthplace of one of the newest monotheistic faiths currently in the world: Sikhism.

Sikhism came into existence in the fifteenth century in Punjab, making Punjab the historical homeland of the Sikh people. The advent of Sikhism came in response to the prevailing norms promoted by the other two dominant faiths at that time, Hinduism and Islam. Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak spoke up against the practise of caste system. He also sought to greatly improve the status of women. Practices like the dowry had held (and still hold) women back for more than one thousand years of Indian history. Guru Nanak and Sikhism sought to change this in the long term.

Unfortunately, this long-term change has yet to occur. The historical development of Sikhism, however, did imbue certain qualities in Sikh women which have always been held dear by my mum.

At the advent of Sikhism, India was ruled by the Mughal empire. The Mughal emperors saw Sikhism as nothing more than a peaceful cult, but one which could nevertheless pose a challenge to Islamic rule in India. They met this challenge by persecuting the Sikhs. In response, the Sikhs recast their own identity in more martial terms. There were many aspects to this change so it is difficult to cover them all; however, one aspect stands out: every Sikh irrespective of their gender was supposed to carry a small dagger or a sword.

The purpose of the weapon was to fight against oppression. More importantly, however, in contrast to other belief systems, Sikhism became the first belief system which openly allowed its female adherents to carry weapons. This had a significant impact on the self-perception of Sikh women, and my mum was no exception.  

Perhaps this is what informed her desire to be a fighter. After all, she never felt uncomfortable holding a gun in her hand during her national cadet days. Yet my grandfather would not allow her to join the police; Punjab in the 1980s was a dangerous place.

The start of the decade had seen the emergence of a Sikh separatist movement, and the leaders of this movement had based themselves at the Golden Temple, the holiest of Sikh shrines. The Indian government, led by Indira Gandhi, had reacted to this by sending the Indian army into the Golden Temple in 1984. The result was carnage and the death of many innocent civilians. Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards a few months later.

Her death led to mass reprisals against the Sikh population in various parts of India. Men and boys were burned alive whilst the women were raped. The state of Punjab erupted in response, with many young men leaving their homes and becoming involved in insurgent movements.

Still, none of this deterred my mum. She was not afraid of the danger. In fact, she had greatly admired Indira Gandhi as a young woman, for Indira Gandhi was a fighter, which may have contributed to her willingness to join the armed forces. Such sentiments, however, were no longer shared by the Sikh community. Mum was isolated. Eventually, tradition would triumph over ambition. She was instructed to become a teacher and, like a good daughter, she did what she was told to do.

Of course, a good daughter was also supposed to get married at a young age and have a child. Mum was 23 when I was born. She became an IT teacher. No more shooting practice or the possibility to fight against injustice. The only real risk she could take now was occasionally driving a bit fast – and even that was something for which she was reprimanded by a male authority figure. Nevertheless, a bigger adventure awaited her in a foreign world – a world which apparently would set her free.

Coming to Australia

“This is going to be one big adventure! Imagine being a teacher in Australia!” Mum said as we packed our bags to go to Australia. All she had to do was improve her English.

As soon as we arrived in Sydney, she was off to English classes. She would go every day without fail. But no matter how hard she tried, she could never muster up the courage to sit the English exam for teachers with teaching qualifications from other countries.

Dad was supportive of her ambition to work again as a teacher, but he was also struggling to make ends meet. He needed her to work but he would never say so. They would discuss the importance of buying a property as soon as possible; not for themselves, but for us, the children. So my mother made another fateful decision. She gave up on her dream to become a teacher in Australia.

“I can always become a teacher later on, son. I don’t like it when you come home and say that other kids were making fun of the shoes you were wearing – we are going to get you nicer shoes.”

This was a new battle for her now: a battle for her children’s dignity. More importantly, however, her decision to work also meant she could support my father. I felt their marriage improved during these tough times. Yet once again, she had to put her own ambitions aside for this to happen. Australia did not mean more freedom after all.

She made this decision nineteen years ago. Things have worked out quite well for her children in the meantime. So, this should be a story with a happy ending, right? She has sacrificed her career for her kids and family and now you are reading about her. Yet as you have probably noticed, whilst you do know her story, you do not know her name.

Why? It’s not because mum is a particularly private person. There is another, deeper reason here. Perhaps her story in this sense is not especially unusual, being as it is a story shared by many other migrant women.

A short interaction at her current workplace, and her reaction to it, provides us with something of an explanation.

Mum’s current job involves a lot of cleaning. She once complained to her boss about cleaning the graffiti and human excrement. His response was blunt.

“Well, you should be happy – if it wasn’t for the shit, people like you probably wouldn’t have a job!”

Mum stayed calm, but I was angry when she told me this story.

“Mum, why didn’t you say something back? You should not just bear this.”

“Don’t worry, son,” she responded. “Those words don’t affect me: I am going to get the last word either way.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant by this. “How exactly will you do that, Mum?”

“Through you son! Through you! You are going to become a successful man, more successful than my boss. Your success will be my response to all the injustices I have suffered and the sacrifices I have made; that will be my moment of triumph.”

I realised something very important about Mum’s life the moment she said those words: her whole life has been a struggle to step out of men’s shadows. First it was my grandfather, and later on it was my father. She has constantly strived to chart her own course but circumstances have prevented the route from emerging.

When I told her that I was writing this article, she encouraged me but told me not to mention her name. She was worried that if someone from her work read this article, especially the part about her shoulder injury, she might get in trouble.

“I just cannot take that risk right now, son – but you must write! This is the first time someone has actually encouraged you to write, and who knows? You might become a famous writer! You can tell world about me at that time!

“But for now, I must stay in the background. You are still a casual at work and I have to keep on working for you.”

With those words, she stepped back voluntarily into the shadow of another man with the hope of one day coming out again. That man is me.

Gurjinderpal Singh Sidhu is a teacher in Western Sydney. This is his first published piece.