It seems to happen at every camp…
Somewhere around the last day or two, the older boys have an evening discussion about girls keeping their Sikhi saroop (not trimming, shaving, plucking etc.) and talk about whether or not they would marry a girl who kept their saroop intact. There’s always a couple vocal boys who proudly stand behind their sisters and vow they would only marry a girl who kept all their kesh, while other boys are equally opposed, as it makes them uncomfortable. However, the majority seem to be indifferent – as there are many things they look for in finding a mate – self-confidence, physical attraction, that “spark”…and whether or not she chooses to remove her body hair or not really doesn’t matter. Everyone generally falls in to one of these categories – then the discussion ends, and everybody goes on their merry way. It’s funny…I’ve sat through this discussion decades ago as a camper…and it hasn’t really evolved much.
So I started thinking…what is it like to be a young girl who’s been raised to keep her kesh (all her kesh) and comes to camp only to find out that she’s in the minority? It must be pretty confusing considering she was taught that this is something that Sikh girls do.
I know for me, camp was an opportunity to be around people with similar upbringings, who looked like me and shared my challenges…it was my opportunity once a year to not feel “different.” How must it feel to be that girl who still has to explain herself to the other Sikhs? Perhaps she may find herself more comfortable with her school friends – after all, around them she knows she’s supposed to be different.
In my most simplistic way of looking at Sikhi, I believe that Guru Sahib would not have asked anything of his son that he would not have asked of his daughter. Keep in mind, this is the same Guru who fought alongside Mai Bhago in the Battle of Mukatsar. And if Sikh men are “expected” to keep their kesh and the rest of the Sikh uniform even prior to taking Amrit – why wouldn’t the same be expected of Sikh women?
How and when did this disparity occur? Is there question over whether Sikh women kept their saroop during the Guru’s times? Is there a debate to be had over whether Sikh women are supposed to keep all their kesh in the first place? Is this simply the result of Western, Punjabi, or other cultural influences on our identity?
Or is this just a matter of us everyday Sikhs needing to re-align our perception of beauty to that of the Guru’s?
I don’t claim to know the answers, but I do feel the discussion needs to emerge from the isolated camp dorm rooms and be brought out in the open.
In my conversations with women who keep their Sikhi saroop or wear Dastaars, I’m alarmed to find that many receive more support from non-Sikh friends and instead have been discouraged by their Sikh peers and elders.
Truth is…this isn’t really just about kesh
It is about the rigid gender discrimination within the Sikh community.
It is about our inability to create an effective support structure for young women in the same way we do with young boys.
This to me is not a trivial matter. As the Chinese proverb goes, women hold up the “half the sky“, and I believe that Sikh women – our daughters, sisters, mothers, grand-mothers, and great-grand-mothers – hold up half the panth.
And if we as a community are unable to support and encourage Sikh women who choose to make commitments toward the Guru – then we as a community have a lot of self-reflecting to do.
I believe through baani Guru Sahib has given us the ability to empower ourselves, so I implore these women, who adorn the Guru’s uniform not to feel discouraged, but instead see themselves as torchbearers, reviving Sikh tradition in the footsteps of Mata Sahib Kaur.
That said, I also believe that Guru Sahib has designed the saadh sangat with the sole purpose of uplifting one another along this path…and help carry us through difficult times. Where is the saadh sangat now?
At the end of this particular camp, during the final deevan…the staff recognized two boys who recently started keeping their kesh. As they walked up to the stage, showered with jakaaray – I couldn’t help but get a bit choked up. I’ve always admired these brave Sikhs who fall in love with the Guru, and want to embrace his image. And immediately after, a staff member announced that one of the girls, who chose to remain anonymous, also decided to become “Saabat Soorat“, a term I have never heard before referring to a girl. This is the first time I witnessed a young woman being recognized for keeping all her kesh, and I was particularly proud of how quickly the jakaaray filled the air yet again…led completely by the boys.
Perhaps that inspiring moment was only symbolic, who knows if it actually leads to change…