This Needs Research - X: T. SHER SINGH
Why Is Her-story Absent From Our Own Telling Of Sikh History?
If one truly understands Sikhi, one will instantly recognize the sheer redundancy of the term ’Sikh feminist’. It’s like calling someone a ‘male man’ or a ’female mother’.
Feminism, in its fullest and truest meaning, is synonymous with being a Sikh. It is not limited to activist females, for example, but is a defining trait necessary in all females and males who profess belief in, and adherence to Sikh values.
Now, a reality check.
Much of Punjab -- the current ‘homeland’ of the subcontinent’s Sikhs - has let things slide in its feminist heritage and values by succumbing to the weight of the ignorance of the country’s majority population which envelopes it, and -- to be honest and fair -- under the burden of the ignorance of its own ‘leaders‘.
Moreover, societal patriarchy continues to plague the globe today, even in the more ‘enlightened’ countries of the West and in today’s ‘modern’ day and age. Those of us who get slack in living in the discipline of Sikhi seem to unwittingly squander the advantage that we have inherited through the modernity of a uniquely universal system of decency, inclusiveness and fairness. The mere presence of female foeticide, spousal abuse, forced marriages, honour killings, etc, even if they are limited to small and uneducated segments, attest to our failures as a community.
But here’s the rub.
While many Sikh men fail in living up to the ideals so clearly set out by Guru Nanak at the very inception of our Faith, it is the equally dismal response on the part of the majority of Sikh women today that breaks my heart.
There are no valid excuses today … not for men, not for women. And, the failings of our men do not get our women off the hook. In this age of full awareness of rights and freedoms and the easy availability of all the tools necessary to fight for them, our women can no longer play victim and shrug it all off as only the fault of ‘others’. If Sikh masses too start to behave like lemmings, it doesn’t help them much by merely pointing to the majority communities around them as shining models of bad behaviour.
Even worse, where is the leadership amongst Sikh women today?
I hasten to add that there are many glorious exceptions. Three come to mind instantly:
Nikky Guninder Kaur Singh has made daring inroads into the exploration of feminist issues in Sikh scripture and history. No other record in present day academia shines brighter.
Mallika Kaur relentlessly pursues human rights abuses against women on different continents, and gives voice to many who are otherwise not heard.
Rupi Kaur, through her poetry, has touched the hearts of women all over the world, pressing on issues which are otherwise seldom raised because of age-old taboos and tired mores.
There are more names that both you and I can come up with: Valarie Kaur, Amrit and Rabindra Kaur Singh, Lilly Singh, and so on …
But, as exceptions, they merely prove the rule. Where are the masses who should be out there to tear down the brahminical fences that have been put up in the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar to exclude full participation by women? Are we waiting for men to make the first move? With 15 million Sikh women in the world, are there none who are troubled enough by the travesty to say, “No more!” and act on it?
What good is Sarbat Khalsa if it isn’t ’sarbat’ (entire) and excludes women almost entirely? There are none on the stage where tired and clueless men pontificate endlessly in front of a legion of tired and clueless men. No wonder, these ’sarbat khalsa’s do nothing, achieve nothing.
Why do the Punj Pyaras today -- in the Vaisakhi parades, for example, or (Good Lord!) in the Amrit ceremonies too -- have no women? I am not suggesting an addition of a token woman; if we can have an all-male Five, why not from time to time an all-female team?
Most of our gurdwaras, and many of our institutions, are run by all-male committees. I could see the merit if any of them were being run well. Instead, they’re all at best dysfunctional, to put it kindly.
Did our women have any role in the monumental sacrifices that Sikhs made to achieve independence for the subcontinent from the British occupiers? Or did the fathers, husbands, brothers and sons do it all on their own, with no help from their women folk? Again, it's no excuse that the Indians too ignore the role of women in their history. We are Sikhs of Guru Nanak, for heaven's sake. What is our excuse for acting like ingnoramuses?
So, tell me, please, are our women waiting for the men folk to wake up one morning, having suddenly seen the light, and give women their fair and equal due?
It’s like the hundreds of millions in the subcontinent waiting for the British to see the error of their ways one fine morning, and in their new-found magnanimity announce they were packing up and heading home? That long wait, four hundred years of it, did actually happen. Hence, the 400 years! But remember, the Brits didn’t see the light until, inter alia, Sikhs -- men and women! -- raised their collective fists and drove them out.
Ergo, those who are victimized have to stand up and begin the fight. Only then will others join them.
But it isn’t happening yet, vis-a- vis Sikh women, if you look around you.
Much of present-day activism seems to be limited to donning a dastaar and declaiming homilies at public protests or on interminable blogs, none of which do an iota of good, except make their friends and family mighty proud of themselves. Watching the males of our species, surely you’ll see that those who boast mere identity and do little else to go with it, will get nowhere!
Yesterday, a friend called me to complain that she had put in a search in one of the largest and most prestigious libraries on the continent for books on ’Sikh Women’. The result was NIL.
It’s not the library’s fault. It is ours. It is the fault of the patriarchy which until now has neglected any serious study of the role of women in Sikh History. And, now, increasingly by the day, it is being subsumed by the fault of Sikh women themselves that they still have no place in the telling of our stories.
I know what you’re thinking. There are websites galore, including some self-proclaimed feminist ones, which from time to time post an article cobbling together a list of Sikh women luminaries from history and giving us a few lines on each. Mostly generalities and banalities, occasionally a saakhi or two, always badly composed and, more often than not, missing the point of the story.
The list is usually about ten or twelve in number. And as you make your way down to the end, the biographical descriptions peter down to two or three sentences. No list is original or has anything new to say. Because they copy from each other and add an image or two for some of the names, for the others they can’t or won’t track down any visuals. It’s too much work.
That’s it. That’s about the bottom line of the contribution of our women to the writing of their history to date. Not one book has been written well enough, with sufficient depth or professionalism, to make it to any decent library as a reference or resource work on Sikh Women.
No woman -- scholar, academic, activist, feminist, etc -- has cared to research the life of Mai Bhago, to take but one glaring example out of an entire firmament, and write a full-length insight into the life of a woman nonpareil. Sure, you can find a few paragraphs on her, here and there and everywhere, but try looking for a book which tells us about how and where she grew up, her education, her progress in Sikhi, her transforming into a leader, her life in detail, her marriage and children if any, her death … good luck!
Same goes with Nanaki, Tripta, Khivi, Sulakhni, Sahib Kaur, Sada Kaur, Chand Kaur, Jind Kaur …
The last one I’ve cited -- Rani Jindan or Jind Kaur -- has had the most written about her. Is there a single book written about her which passes muster and has found its way into our libraries here in the West?
I don’t accept the argument that it is oh, so-o difficult to sell a book on or about Sikhi, or by a Sikh author. Balderdash! Rupi Kaur sold a million copies of hers in a mere 12 months. And, it is a book of poems! How many poetry books do you know of which have sold a million copies? Before you grasp at straws, let me tell you that I find that her poetry oozes with Sikhi and Sikh values like little else I have read for a long time.
The lack in depth of everything that many of our so-called feminists do today reflects on the quality of what we end up with in each field of activity. Activism with little or no meaningful results, no recorded history, mere reliance on saakhis for education. And continuing inequality.
Don’t, please don’t waste your time branding me an anti-feminist. Because I’m not. Go out and do something real, please, something meaningful with your lives.
Just as we teach our children that you can but blame your parents for life’s slings and arrows only for a while, only as long as you’re still in your youth. Once past it, the future is of your own making; no longer can you blame your future on your past.
Same goes with the female half of our community. Yes, you’ve been wronged grievously by present and past generations.
But now, what are you doing about it?
February 2, 2017
Conversation about this article
1: Jurat Kaur (New York, USA), February 02, 2017, 5:30 PM.
How in hell did we turn ourselves from the most progressive force on earth on women's equality to where we are today, way behind in practicing the extraordinary values we have inherited from Guru Nanak? Shame on us. Especially, shame on us women who haven't stood up for our own rights!
2: Preeti Kaur (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada), February 02, 2017, 5:50 PM.
Achieving full equality in Sikh affairs will not be easy ... it'll require sacrifices. So? What are we going to do? Just sit back and let our daughters slide into the same trap? It's not that difficult either! If you ask me, equality today is there for the taking. All it needs is a determined community which will not take BS anymore. I suggest that all of my fellow-sisters watch a movie titled "Suffragette" (2015, with Meryl Streep, et al), and you'll see that if women a century ago could wrest equality from an empire, then we can do it from a scattered bunch of tired and clueless men.
3: Harjit Kaur (Amritsar, Punjab), February 04, 2017, 4:08 AM.
You have given me much food for thought. Thank you.
4: Gurmeet Kaur (Atlanta, Georgia, USA), February 04, 2017, 5:40 PM.
I am not sure if Sikh women deserve this scolding. Just look at all the Khalsa/Gurmat schools across North America and you will find women running them. Looking for children's authors? Any men out there? History is written not only by shining in public but by quiet work of substance as well. Raising children with roots and wings, keeping jobs and homes, making sure Sikhi education is imparted, our women are busy, very busy. They deserve to be applauded.
5: Gurbani Kaur (New Delhi, India), February 05, 2017, 4:36 AM.
Gurmeet ji (#4), I don't think you'll be able to find a site or an institution which has recognized and lauded the life-work of Sikh women more sincerely and meaningfully than sikhchic.com. Also, I've followed T. Sher Singh's writings for the last half a dozen years and I must tell you, I find he has done greater honour to the role of Sikh women as mothers and nurturers than any one else I know or know of. Is there anyone or any other site which has showcased our women's contributions more loudly and proudly than these two? I agree with Sher ji's scolding in this article, even though I too am guilty of some of the concerns he has raised - that those of us who have chosen to be activists seem to have set very limited goals for ourselves. As a result, the community, but particularly Sikh women, have steadily fallen behind as leaders and change-agents that they are meant to be. I suggest once we get past smarting over Sher ji's tough love, we think about it for a while and then see if and how we can make a difference. That's what Sikhi is all about, isn't it?
6: Kulvinder Jit Kaur (Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada), February 05, 2017, 11:29 AM.
I read 'Maharani Jind Kaur' by Dr. Bakhshish Singh Nijjar from the Brock University Library. I guess one book about Rani Jind Kaur found its way in a Western library. Not to say that it is enough. Many more should be in many more libraries. More books on Sikhi and Sikh history should be out there in libraries, schools and universities around the world.
7: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), February 06, 2017, 1:31 PM.
Appreciating the inspiration provided by sikhchic.com through Sher Singh ji to Sikh women to assert their rights for participation in gurmat affairs. I think it is basically a question of Miri-Piri, both important aspects of Sikhi. While Sikh men concentrate mostly on Miri (temporal) aspect, Sikh women devote their attention more to Piri (spiritual) part of Sikhi. It is a little difficult for women to reconcile worldly affairs with spirituality. Women are anxious for the preservation of True Dharam (Sikhism) and they act accordingly in secular affairs.
8: Arjan Singh (USA), February 10, 2017, 2:00 AM.
#4 Gurbani ji: Thank you for pointing out that Sher ji has done immense service to the Sikh women through sikhchic.com by highlighting, appreciating and celebrating the work of Sikh women around the world. However, #3 Gurmeet ji is also right, that we have not given enough appreciation and applause to Sikh women for suffering through many struggles silently while the Sikh men have hogged the limelight. I have a different perspective based on my real life experience in India and from my travels around the world and life in US/Canada. In the past 25-30 years there has been a steady decline in the number of young Sikh men wearing their 5 Ks or even wearing a turban and a beard. Sikh women partially do share the blame as they too have blindly absorbed the ‘ideal man’ image sold by the media (including Bollywood, Hollywood, etc.). Sikh women have steadily rejected men with turbans/beards for marriages and actually encouraged the young men of the last generation to look ‘cool’ without a turban. I have personally seen this with my friends who had girlfriends/fiancées who put down a condition that marriage was only possible if the guy shed his turban and beard. Earlier this practice was common in the uneducated and peasant sections of the community, but I must say now it is becoming common in other segments as well. Alas, we are at a point where the Sikh women themselves are rejecting the Sikh identify and expect their husbands and children to do so. Gurmeet ji, I have read your writings and it must be commended, but I must say with a heavy heart that you are an exception and sadly not the norm. As a parent of young children I am morally obligated to speak my mind and the truth as I see it, else change will not come and we will continue to slip on this path of de-Sikhification.