A writer in the forthcoming book Her Name Is Kaur: Sikh American Women Write About Love, Courage, and Faith (published by She Writes Press, reserve your copy here), Harbani Ahuja is a student at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City, where she is pursuing her passions for international human rights, public service, and law. She has been involved in multiple legal and advocacy NGO efforts both in the United States and abroad, with a focus on human rights, Sikh rights, and gender discrimination. Harbani is an avid blogger, graphic designer, and cake-decorator. As an aspiring attorney, writer, and educator, she hopes to advocate for Guru Nanak’s social vision of equality. Harbani holds a Bachelor of Business Administration in Economics from Macaulay Honors College at Baruch College.
Harbani took a few moments to discuss with us her activism and the role of her writing.
Please state what social justice issues you have been working on, for how long, and why it/they hold a special place in your heart. What is the connection between you and this work?
I’m currently in law school pursuing a J.D., and I would like to focus my work on human rights, women’s rights, and immigration issues. These issues hold a special place in my heart because they represent what Sikhi is all about – advocating for equality and justice; and that is precisely what I want to dedicate my life to.
What nourishes you and replenishes you as an activist?
A lot of the work I’ve been involved in and plan to be involved in can really eat away at me – seeing discrimination, hatred, and violence towards other human beings is really disheartening. It is at times like these that I have to remind myself of the bigger picture –changing lives and creating a better tomorrow. I also like to keep my creative juices flowing through projects like writing and other ways to engage with others.
How do you reconcile all the human suffering in the world and stay in a state of Chardi Kala?
Guru Nanak said:
dhukh dhaaroo sukh rog bhaeiaa jaa sukh thaam n hoee ||
Suffering is the medicine, and pleasure the disease, because where there is pleasure, there is no desire for God.
To me, suffering is a mode through which we remember and love Waheguru. When suffering is caused by injustice, I believe our Gurus want us to stand up for those who are victims of inequality and to do our part in ending the injustice. We can really only do this by always remaining in Chardi Kala, having absolute faith in Waheguru, and channeling and spreading love in all we do.
How does love play into your work as an essential tool for community organizing and activism? What will be the tipping point for Sikh Americans? What needs to happen for our community and across cultural and faith communities to achieve social justice in the United States or is it an ongoing process that we have to keep at as long as we live in this country? Please share your vision.
I truly believe that if Sikhs in the US and across the globe try to embody Waheguru’s essence – of nirbhau and nirvair, we can bring ourselves so much closer to the community that Guru Nanak wanted to establish. Guru Nanak destroyed all social and cultural norms and established equality across all people by creating a revolution of thought where we are all connected to Waheguru from within, as is everyone around us. Right now, we are farther from Guru Nanak’s vision than ever before because we are fragmented by the very barriers that Sikhi was established to abolish. We are broken and in dire need of cultural and social change. Until we start supporting each other and sharing resources, we won’t be able to turn our individual victories into wide-scale change.
Regarding our struggle for social justice in the US, there are plenty of incredible people and organizations fighting for our rights on a daily basis. I cannot say when that fight will end, and I really hope that one day we no longer need to fight, but we as a community need to make it our mission to not only advocate for Sikh rights in the legal sphere, but also support each other to create a presence in all aspects of culture – media, politics, and education.
How do YOU bring a distinct perspective to social justice activism as a Sikh American woman? Are there any personal life narratives you draw from to stand steady in the world today?
My friends and I joke that I’m a minority in every sense of the word. Not every sense, but as a Sikh, and a woman, living in post-9/11 America, it’s true that I definitely have felt marginalized. It’s difficult to have your voice heard when so many aspects of your identity are challenged regularly, and I often feel divided in which group I seem to represent. But at the end of the day, I feel my varying minority identities allow me to bring a fresh and distinct perspective to the table. I can relate to people on many levels because I can relate to the Sikh struggle, the struggle of women, the struggle of Sikh women, and the struggle of living as a minority in the United States. Drawing on my experiences helps me understand the complexities of discrimination and hopefully will allow me to become a better activist.
What do you hope readers will take away from your story in Her Name Is Kaur: Sikh American Women Write About Love, Courage, and Faith?
My story is really about my journey so far as a Sikh woman, and how my love for Sikhi and Waheguru, along with my experiences, have led me to finding my life’s calling. I hope readers will take away the message that though some people and experiences in your life will make you feel small, you must always remember that you are a daughter of ten royal fathers, and if you embody Waheguru’s spirit, you will be powerful beyond measure.
How is writing an extension of your activism?
Writing is a tool that allows me to go beyond my work, and help inspire social change through creative projects. I love when people tell me something I wrote made them think about the world in a different way, or sparked an idea in them. It is what makes writing so powerful – it gets minds thinking and starts conversation, and conversations are really the first step to activism.