Half The Panth

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…

But given where we are as a community…even this is progress.

About RP Singh

Writer. Poet. Organizer. View all posts by RP Singh

11 responses to “Half The Panth

  • Izhaarbir

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  • Izhaarbir

    Veerji, you raise an extremely important issue in our community. I have contemplated a lot on this and have begun to believe the issue has a lot more to do with understanding Sikh Identity.As a community we are still struggling to establish a Sikh Identity that we feel is both aligned with Gurmat and that allows for a life of normality within the greater world community and culture. Since our 10th Guru's Hukam creates a purposeful duality here, it ends up being left to the individual Kaurs to figure out how they want to live Sikhi. There are five primary ways that most Kaurs take their journey. One of the extremely saddening cases that I feel is rising, and will probably continue to rise in this century, are Kaurs who think it is fully justified to go through laser hair removal surgery before partaking in Khande-ki-Pohul. More prominent right now are the cases of Kaurs who adorn dastars while plucking hair, some of them having partaken in Khande-ki-Pohul. Next up are the Kaurs who keep long hair but cut everything else. The most prominent of the five are those Kaurs choosing to cut whatever wherever. Last, but not least, are those courageous Kaurs (whether wearing Dastars or not) that choose to not cut their hair no matter where it is on their body.The main issue in all of these cases is the question, "how important is keeping one's hair to one's Sikhi?" and the social pressures that coerce Kaurs into formulating a firm belief. As you have stated, there are no real support systems for Kaurs. The reason there are no legitimate support systems is because we have not formulated a legitimate response to the question "how important is keeping one's hair to one's Sikhi?". For the most part, Camps, Retreats, Conferences, Gurduaras, Deras, Sampardas, etc. all preach certain paradigms on Sikhi, most of which tend to conflict with one another. One paradigm might be "Sikhi is completely up to personal interpretation and is a personal journey." Another might be "All Sikhs, including Kaurs, must wear Dastars and every centimeter of their hair they find on the ground they must do antam sanskar to." Still another might be "Being good is what its all about, do good things and God will love you." We can go on for days with the number of paradigms that are available to us depending on which group we choose to join or follow. Until the community at large cannot unify in its understanding of basic principles of Sikhi and Sikh Identity, these issues will continue to exist and expand. The reason a Kaur can choose to follow any of the above five primary paths mentioned is because a Kaur is legitimately allowed to depending on which readily available paradigm she chooses to follow. The community will have to start publicly condemning certain paradigms over others, and in doing so create certain standards. Without such measures, Panthic life is on the verge of extinction. Like you said, Kaurs carry half of the Panth. This leaves us with a final question. Do the number of Kaurs carrying half of the Panth matter or is it about the quality of the Kaurs?Alas, did Guru Gobind Singh Ji care for quantity or for quality when he partook in Khande-ki-Pohul through Guru Panth?

  • Rubin Paul Singh

    Guru Fateh, Brother…thanks for your thoughtful commentary and engaging in a dialogue with me.My guess is Guru Sahib cared for quality over quantity…but there is something else about Guru Sahib we cannot overlook…he engaged. He engaged with all kinds of people, with all kinds of beliefs, across a multitude of paradigms….some of whom were even hostile towards him…but that did not stop him from trying to create a connection. Not everyone joined his path…surely not enough to make Sikhs a majority – but many did, even those who were non-believers. Although quantity may not be the end goal, I am still not willing to brush off anybody – no matter their paradigm – in the name of quality…at least not yet. I often times wonder if our wish for quality over quantity hints of elitism and prevents us from really asking the difficult questions of why we don’t have quantity in the first place. A lack of support structures for young Sikh women is a perfect example. If more programs, camps, retreats, literature, and opportunities focused solely on this issue…whose to say there can’t be quality and quantity?As for your idea of consolidating paradigms and creating a mechanism to enforce it – I believe that is what the Singh Sabhias had in mind too…perhaps we’re due for another Singh Sabha movement, but I wonder about the public denouncing of other paradigms. How would that work? Some groups do that now and often find themselves isolated. I don’t know the answer, but I do believe in the power of influence. I believe the most powerful way to spread and grow Sikhi is to lead by example (one Sikh at a time) and create a fragrance around you laced with love, humility, compassion, and forgiveness – it is contagious. And by doing so, who knows – maybe we’ll find out that the movement has already begun.

  • Izhaarbir

    I loved your response veerji. I also fear the hints of elitism, and feel they already exist within the groups that advocate certain paradigms over others. I agree completely that we should continue to engage while also developing ourselves as individuals. I do not advocate, though, one group denouncing certain paradigms in the community or a method of influencing all others into one's own paradigms. Like you veerji, I also don't wish to brush people off for the paradigms they follow. There is a difference between brushing off people and brushing off ideologies. Many times we make the mistake of alienating ourselves from people because we passionately disagree with their views.The rest of this message is simply idealistic talk now. (You are welcome to ignore the childish idealism of it all) Ultimately I believe the answer lies with your statement of the flourishing of individual Sikhs, but I guess in my idealism I wish to see serious communal dialogue resulting in the development of some basic standards that answer current issues. We may say that such elements are already present within the current Rehat Maryada, but even with the Rehat Maryada the community is in shambles.Considering the current technological developments, is it not possible for the Panth to have a pseudo Sarbat Khalsa via television + internet + various communication technologies (phones, computers, etc.)? Why not have leaders/representatives of all the divided factions (American, British, Canadian, Indian, Malaysian, Taksali, AKJ, Nihang, w/e) of the Panth live on television deliberating all of the issues that affect us today for 2 hours every day? It can be structured such that for the first week they deliberate certain questions and be forced to come to a consensus. In the second week, they will be open to questions from the Panth at large. This would continue until the Panth has considered every major possible question. Yes, I very much realize that such deliberation could take months, if not years, and also the difficulty in organizing and maintaining such an event as well as the many variables that make it such a difficult task. But so be it. If Congress can be in session for a year over issues of national importance, the Panth can be in session indefinitely until it makes up its mind on issues of immense importance to its survival.Just some random ideas veerji…but in the end I don't see such a thing happening because the last thing the rulers of all "important" Sikh organizations would want is their authority and Divine Wisdom being questioned publicly. I believe we have the help of technological means today for a very successful Panth that speaks in Gurmat worldwide, but I wonder if we're as open minded as our Gurus to actually strive for it.

  • Anonymous

    You know, I feel like so many of these blogs are useless (not that your thoughts are) because anyone who has opposing views doesnt read them, and we similarly leave our passions at the computer. Do we have any gurdwara committees that are even half women?

  • Jasleen Kaur

    I do want to mention that our Gurdwara committee (SGNC, Durham, NC) has more women than men. I have also seen other congregations where women are quite active (usually doesn't happen in very large communities though).Thanks for your thoughts, Virji. I'm reproducing below a message authored by Dr. Birendra Kaur, which I find quite inspiring. The last sentence rings especially true…——————————–Forwarded message from Dr Birendra Kaur ji, Mohali (Member-IOSS).'Kaurageous'Most women are under immense pressure/complex from society and media to look(so-believed) beautiful by spending huge sums of money and long hours in beauty parlors/clinics, altering their forms and colors, thereby pollutingnot only bodies but also minds.The status of women in Sikhism goes a long way to rectify this unfortunate scenario. The sikhi concept of beauty is that it is the virtues that make one beautiful, and the faces are radiant of those, who ever remember waheguru, the Almighty. Sikhs fear not age; nor death.While women are being exploited and encouraged to dress scantily in the name of modernity/smartness/style, the dress code for the Sikh woman is a costume that neither pains the body nor arouses negative thoughts. She is to be grace-full.While many women are expected to perform rituals/acts, such as, karvachauth, sindoor, purdah, and banned from some others, if widowed, such as, vatnna, gode-bharayee, change surname post marriage, look married/widowed, etc., which discriminate against them, the Sikh woman is directed not to do any of those. She is equally equal; neither more, nor less.The Sikh woman, Kaur (a prince), so named by the Prophet, is neither to succumb to suppression/exploitation, nor come under any complex whatsoever for looks. She is to be a sant-sipahi (saint-soldier).In other words, 'Kaurageous' is the Sikh woman. Sikhi liberated women over five centuries ago, in a manner yet beyond the comprehension of women themselves.***– Birendra Kaur

  • Anonymous

    Rubin ji,Very well written post, and as some have hinted there is a lot of work to be done. The young camp counselors we appoint as role models for the little ones needs to be an area of concern. The speakers/teachers at a camp or khalsa school should be an area of concern. And finally if anyone cares future of Sikh panth is an area of concern.Regards,Singh

  • Anonymous

    As always it is a pleasure to read your articles. This article is a very unique and a deep one, there is no doubt a continuous effort is required by the panth to strengthen the sikhi saroop of our young women. It is true our women do hold up half the panth. These young daughters are the future of our panth tomorrow; every small step in the right direction on the path of bani and bana will avoid much destruction for tomorrow. Sometimes I wonder if it is the mothers of our panth that are week, when we see our young ones drown in drugs and alcohol.We need more workshops to guide our youth one six day camp out of a year is not enough to explore into these thoughts.

  • Nirvair

    In the mainstream media there are plenty of images of men and boys in all kinds of roles with long hair, facial hair, body hair. Although images of hairless male models are also available, men with hair are not portrayed as unusual. They can be serious, funny, scary, good guys and bad guys. However there are no such images of women with hair. Our eyes have grown accustomed to images of women with shaved heads, pierced body parts and tattoos. We're used to seeing women in all manner of dress from completely covered to not covered at all. However we NEVER see women portrayed with hair anywhere other than their heads. The ONLY time female body hair is shown is to make the woman a joke, or to make the viewer feel disgusted. Even this is rarely seen. Women who keep their hair rarely uncover it. It is a little ironic that the boys and men are bringing this up in the camps and this discussion. If men and boys want to be helpful, perhaps the place to start is taking care about their own definition of beauty and how they respond to women. The messages are subtle. Girls are not blind or oblivious when they see their male brothers and friends respond to beautiful women, and how that is defined for individual males is not hard to ascertain.

  • Anonymous

    nirvair – very true. thank you for the call to introspection.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this blog post. You articulated *exactly* how I feel as a Kaur who has been taught to keep all of my Kesh. It's really frustrating to have my decisions challenged my extended family members, kids at camp, etc. I don't want to judge anyone else–it's your choice how you want to live your life, but I expect the same courtesy. I just always found it ironic that I was the oddball at Sikh camps.At one camp, I remember that we had small groups of 4 Kaur campers and 2 counselors and we would have a designated hour to talk about Kaur issues. One day we started talking about kesh, particularly about the slight mustaches that some of us get. I remember voicing my challenges in everyday life during our session (I've definitely gotten teased in school for my mustache and unibrow–but don't worry, I'm proud of them :)). No one else could relate to it, as no one else in our group kept all of their Kesh. Instead, the conversation turned towards how each of the girls (one with a dastaar) removes non-head-hair kesh. I felt completely silenced and like no one could relate to me…even at a Sikh camp where I was supposed to find sangat. It was heartbreaking. I never told anyone about that conversation at camp, or my feelings as being someone with all of my kesh. I'm not sure why I'm even venting them here now. I guess I just wanted to say that your post really hits home for me, and thank you for bringing up an issue that I could never really articulate.

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