The unspoken alcohol problem among UK Punjabis

Illustration showing silhouette of man in doorway while a woman and a small girl lie on the floor

For many British Punjabis, alcohol abuse is an open secret. Alcohol consumption is glamorised across different aspects of Punjabi culture and shame stops many seeking the help that they need.

Harjinder read her daughter Jaspreet one last bedtime story, then kissed her goodnight. She was exhausted after a long day, and drifted off next to her daughter. Her toddler son was already asleep in the next room.

The next thing she remembers is her husband yelling. He was drunk and furious that when he returned from the pub she wasn’t in their marital bed. In a rage, he flipped the child’s bed throwing his wife and daughter to the floor. Harjinder hit the radiator hard with Jaspreet landing on top of her.

Incidents like this were a regular feature of Jaspreet and her brother Hardeep’s childhood. “It was heartbreaking,” Jaspreet says.

So when Harjinder found Hardeep, now aged 16, drinking whisky in his room after an argument with his alcoholic dad, she was terrified that he was following in his father’s footsteps.

There are around 430,000 Sikhs in the UK, making up a significant proportion of the British Punjabi population. Harjinder herself is Sikh and amongst her community her experience isn’t unique.

A new survey, commissioned by the BBC to investigate attitudes to alcohol among British Sikhs, found that – although drinking alcohol is forbidden in Sikhism – 27% of British Sikhs report having someone in their family with an alcohol problem. It’s a problem which is rarely talked about openly in the community

 

Harjinder moved in with her husband’s family after their arranged marriage – both common practices within Punjabi and wider South Asian communities. She was shocked to find out how much her newly acquired family’s social life centred around the men’s excessive drinking.

The family, along with young children, would go to a friend’s house and would stay there until two or three o’clock in the morning waiting for the men, and she started to feel increasingly isolated.

Rav Sekhon, a British Punjabi psychotherapist who works with ethnic minority communities, says: “There is really strong pride and honour for the family name. They don’t want anyone to perceive them as having something wrong with them or any form of weakness.”