Ann Arbor’s Iman Grewal: Fighting for the Rights of Young Indian Women

By Marcus Lawniczak / WLAA

For women born in Punjab, India, obtaining an education and becoming financially independent are often nothing more than dreams. The cultural norm is to be married by family arrangement between the ages of 18 and 20, and live out a life of child bearing and servitude to the husband.

Dr. Iman Grewal was born into this incredibly patriarchal world, but against all odds, now lives in Ann Arbor with her family, is a professor at Eastern Michigan University and is the founder of Sikhya, a nonprofit that works to help other Punjabi women achieve independence through education.

It’s important to remember that India is a vastly culturally diverse nation.

“The experience of being a woman really depends on which region of India you grow up in,” Grewal explains. “In southern India, there are some communities that are actually matriarchal. We have the highest number of female CEOs in the world. We have women that are dynamite, but then we have women that are deeply entrenched in patriarchy that don’t have basic rights to make really important decisions in their lives.”

This is the case in the state of Punjab, the home of the Sikys in northern India. Grewal was raised there, but she was raised differently than the rest. Her father was incredibly progressive for his time, wanting his daughters to not be servants of their husbands, but independent, educated women.

He once said “that the only dowry he will give his daughter is a good education.”

Grewal described her father as “a true feminist,” and “not a man of his time” within the Punjab region. These ideals of education and independence were ingrained in her, making her path much different than the average Punjabi woman.

Grewal decided to follow her own path and pursue an education in child development, not knowing at all where this would lead her too. At 22, she began to teach, but the pressures of marriage were always there.

Grewal’s father protected her from these cultural and familial pressures, allowing the decision to be hers and hers only. The patriarchal systems in Punjab have always angered Grewal. Even from a young age, the fact that mail sent to her mother had to be labelled as for her father lit a fire inside her.

Grewal made it clear to her father that if she was to be traditionally married, she would always be known as her husband’s wife, but fiercely wanted to be educated, pursuing her own dreams, and making her own life decisions.

Because of this, Grewal’s father, going against all of Punjab’s cultural norms, suggested she go to the US to study and teach. A major decision, especially because she would not be accompanied by a husband, a major no-no. Eastern Michigan University having one of the best teacher programs in the country, was the clear destination. After completing her masters in Ypsilanti, Grewal taught at the Rudolf Steiner School in Ann Arbor before returning to EMU as a part-time lecturer in the teacher ed department.

Her education journey was not done. Punjab’s most progressive father had often dreamed of all the women in his family getting a PhD. Grewal’s sister spent her entire 9 month pregnancy working on her dissertation, becoming a doctor.

Grewal however, continued to not get hers. She said her father had heard every excuse from needing to raise her two sons, having too much work, and it just not being worth it. After some years, Grewal finally decided to do her dissertation. Unfortunately, it was after her father’s passing, but his influence on her will always be present, an influence which helped her not only become a doctor, but laid the groundwork for Sikhya.

While doing a research internship in India for her PhD, Grewal worked with the National Center for Children’s Rights. It was here, working with poor girls, that she decided to do her dissertation in India.

While working in India, Grewal discovered a school in Punjab called Sikhya, a private institution that served children from the slums.

“The school was practicing serving the children with dignity, which is what children in poverty often don’t get, whether it’s in India or here,” she says.

This deeply moved Grewal, as the culture within Punjab is incredibly hierarchical and driven by status. Her dissertation would research how education impacts the lives of Punjabi girls living in poverty, how it redefines their roles in society, and in general, what level of access they had to education. Grewal spent hours everyday talking and interacting with 20 girls attending Sikhya, trying to soak in their experience and fight for independence through education.

Upon completing her research, Grewal was ready to go back to the US and finish her doctorate, but in a life changing moment, one of the girls asked her, “Why do you want to talk to me? I’m a nobody.”

This made Grewal feel immense guilt. She felt as though the girls were being used for her own research. Grewal was discussing all their problems, the fight that they are fighting, and then just leaving. She did not want to leave them to fight this battle alone and was determined to help these girls get their degrees and obtain financial independence – she could not simply just go back home.

Sikhya: Strengthening Girls Voices and Choices Through Education, is not a huge organization with a massive donor base and fancy fundraisers. Instead, since 2012 the nonprofit has kept things small, ensuring that the lives of around twelve Punjabi girls will be truly changed, beginning the slow process of breaking the area’s entrenched patriarchal systems. Sikhya, with the help of its mentors, work to help the girls make their own life decisions. That is what it is really about, not pushing them towards a specific field, but towards helping them attain their goals of independence through education.

Progress is slow, but it is important to remember that even small gains are a major victory.

A young muslim girl in Sikhya, living in the poorest part of a slum, was the oldest daughter of a very large family. The older girls in Punjab often do much of the house work, marry at a young age, and do not receive an education. This girl had a determined and defiant look in her eyes, but Grewal told her that Sikhya cannot perform miracles. The young girl graduated from high school, a really big deal, but Grewal made it clear from the start that the change will be furthered by how she raises her children.

College was the girl’s dream, but her parents did not allow it, and instead arranged a marriage for her shortly after. She is not happy and does not like the path she is going on in life. Within this story it is easy to think only in a negative manner and that the story has a bad ending, but even obtaining a high school education for a girl in this position is a massive victory and step forward in the slow, multi-generational process that is progress.

Sikhya is about empowering Punjabi women, stripping them of the servitude mindset, and truly giving them the tools to gain independence through education. This message is making waves, especially within the Indian community here in Ann Arbor.

Fundraising has been so good that the nonprofit is now actively looking for a storefront. This is Grewal’s story, a story that was a continual fight for education and independence against all odds.

Grewal did not do this on her own, without her father believing in female empowerment and pushing her to get a PhD, her story might be completely different. For the girls growing up in Punjab that do not have such a progressive father, Sikhya is this help, changing the patriarchal systems in Punjab one girl at a time.