Of Knives and Kirpans

Knives and knife crime are a hot topic right now in the press...

All things being equal, this would have been yet another idyllic early summer afternoon walk along the canal to the local Underground station.

Yet, I could see from the gait of the woman walking ahead that she was being taunted by the group of young kids who were loitering on the bench.  This group had been hanging around here or hereabouts after school since the weather had improved and their comments were getting progressively more obscene as the daylight hours got longer.

"Paki, you f***ing Paki, what you got that thing on your head for?" intoned the threatening chorus as I walked the gauntlet.

True, I did have something on my head: a white turban; not true that I am of descent from the Asian Subcontinent, my rolled-up sleeves revealed what can only be described as the lily white limbs of an English rose.

Till then, my response had been a feigned ignorance of these jibes, but this time, I couldn't just walk on: I'd seen the distress in the eyes of the woman ahead of me.  How come we, women, were scared by a sullen crew of pre-teens?

I stopped, and turned to them and quietly asked "Are you talking to me?"

Taken aback, their "Paki, Paki" refrain became less full-throttle, their bravery all of a sudden started to wane.  They looked far less macho and more childish by the minute when I crossed the footbridge towards them.  Standing in front of them, I realised just quite how young they were, wearing the local school uniform, their eyes a potent mix of confrontation, fear and childish curiosity.

"I'm wearing a turban".

"What'd you do that for, you're no Paki?" spat the accusatory leader.

"I'm Sikh".

There followed a long silence, neither side wanting to be the one to give in and break it.  Finally, the youngest of them, only knee-high to a grasshopper, lent in a mock menacing way towards me, a parody of a thug, "OK, then, show us your knife!"

The amazement on their little faces, a long way still from being cherubic, was a sight to behold when they saw that indeed I did carry a knife.  I dug deep inside my clothing and brought my kirpan in its strap out for them to see.

"I'd never have thought a girl like you'd have a knife", said one, to which the little one replied "'Course she does, look at her wrist, she's got one of them bracelets an'all". 

Their questions were thick, fast and insightful.  What's it like carrying a knife? What's it for if it's blunt? Can I hold it? Can I have one?

Knives and knife crime are a hot topic right now in the press in the United Kingdom. Stabbings are on the increase, especially amongst the young.  Parents are being urged by the police to ask their children if they are carrying knives.  That's the wrong question.  It's not the knife that's the problem.

Blaming knives is a cop-out.   It's the consciousness of those who carry them that's in question.  A knife in the hands of a surgeon will save lives; a knife in the hands of a street kid with no values might take them.

As a mother whose son was tragically stabbed recently outside the local bakery said, "It was anger that killed my son".  A wise woman indeed, she didn't blame the knife. 

A kirpan, or small knife, is one of the five articles of faith of a Sikh.  We have a natural reverence for it.  It is a symbol that our role is to defend others' rights to live their lives free from bullies.  It is not for attack. And, I doubt very much that a Sikh would use his sacred knife against anyone, even in defence.

It also represents anger which, unsheathed like a knife, can wound.  When I take my kirpan out of its scabbard, I touch the blade to my forehead in acknowledgement that it could be my head that is lost to its blade, or my anger.

After my conversation with those school children I realised that this was probably the first time that they had had a conversation about values, what it means to stand for something, for somebody, what it is to be responsible for your actions, not in fear of being punished after the event if you're unlucky, but understanding that that one moment lives in you till the end of your days, and what the real cost is of being angry.

The general consensus of the media today currently is that parents are where the problem is.  This prevalent attitude slightly misses the mark.  Respect and reverence are ways of being that are experienced in a collective, in a sense of community, in maintaining the highest common values possible. 

It's not about blaming the parents, or anyone, but about what values are formed from the environments we are exposed to.  These values do indeed begin in the home and, in practice, depend on how much respect the woman receives and also commands from her family.

Anti-social behaviour is eating away at our society at all levels.  Some commentators have us believe that it is only the problem of an "underclass".  Yes, there is a preponderance in the statistics that those from less well-off backgrounds and lower educational achievement have more ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders) against them. 

But I question that it is only in that stratum of society.  I know of all too many well-off families whose children run amok, drink ruinous amounts of alcohol to get themselves wasted, and behave disgracefully.  It's all around us.

I lived in rural Punjab for a year ten years ago, before so-called Westernisation's grasp had dragged it into the new millennium.  One day, I was teaching English to a class of 17-year-olds.

I told them they could ask me any question they liked, as long as it was in English.  Fifteen minutes went by as they thumbed through the textbook working it out.  Finally, their elected spokesman stood up.

And what do you think was the most pressing question that a group of pubescent 17-year-olds in the Punjab had?  Think about what you might have asked at that age.  This was the most pressing question that those children had:

"Is it true that in England people wear their shoes in church?"

That question says so much.  Of course, it addresses the differences in culture that we have between the West and India.  It also says a lot about their own reverence for their temples and their spiritual homes and their longing to understand, and therefore respect, other cultures' attitudes.

If we want to reduce anti-social behaviour, of which this recent spate of stabbings is merely the bloody tip of the iceberg, then we need to address that behaviour at all levels: international, national, local and domestic.

How can we, hand on heart, talk to children about not attacking others unconsciously when we see politicians on the TV attacking each other with acrimonious anger?  How can we ask our children to revere a knife when the news is full of wars, destruction and the pseudo-glorification of crises?  How can we ask a child to drop its anger when it sees the protagonists in popular movies are heroes for their violent tough-guy reaction to the slightest transgression? 

Women have a highly important role to play in this.

It is we, women, who embody the values of a household and a society.

It is we, women, who have the possibility of infinite tolerance and love to direct men and children's passion creatively and not destructively.

It is we, women, who, when we treat ourselves with respect and handle ourselves with grace, inspire those around us to live better, happier, and with a deep reverence for life.

For in the end, despite the best efforts of science so far, no human on this planet has yet been born other than from a woman.

A knife is also the symbol of a woman and her power to change situations.  When a society is able to respect both a knife and a woman then, indeed, we will live in a community.  The "empowering" of women - a phrase which became an almost clichéd 1990s concept - needs refining.  We are being urged now to raise our game: for women to be recognised as women and for us women to be worthy of respect in our own right.

Women are supposed to be more than adult girls, just as men are more than boys in long trousers.  As long as our women do not embody what it is to be womanly, to nurture, create and inspire, and our men fail to provide, protect and guide, then we are not living honestly as who we are and what we stand for.  If we want the men in our society to behave like men, true men, who recognise the highest values and spiritual dimension to their mundane world, then we, as women, have to inspire them to something more.

How that young kid holding a knife respects his own mother, both as a mother and a woman, will determine whether he uses it for harm or healing.

We'll know we're making progress as women when these crime statistics start to fall.



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