Reflections on Sikholars: Day 2

In a previous post, I reflected on attending the Sikholars Sikh Graduate Student Conference at CSU East Bay in Hayward, California a few weeks ago. I commented on the first day’s presentations and panel discussions and now offer the same for the second day. As before, I will refer to Jodha’s post that provided a recap of the conference and also to the papers that were presented this year made available on the Sikholars website for a limited time.

Day 2 of the conference was very thought-provoking, and both reinforced and challenged some of my perspectives.

Anand Karaj (the Sikh wedding ceremony) and the Sikh identity

The opening portion of Day 2 was entitled “Mapping Arenas of Politics Anand and Resistance“, in which the Sikh wedding ceremony and associated practices took center stage as Loveleen Kaur and Bindy Kaur presented their works on the subject.

Loveleen Kaur discussed India’s Hindu Marriage Act which, since India’s independence from Britain, legally defines Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains as Hindus for the purposes of recognizing marriage. Interestingly, Sikh marriages were recognized separately under British rule, but this recognition was selectively revoked and assimilated into the Hindu act by the Indian government upon independence. Loveleen Kaur provided a brief history on Sikh wedding ceremony practices since the time of the Gurus, discussing how the ceremony enacted the Guru’s teachings of equality and humility, and how this then played a role in emphasizing our distinctiveness as a faith group. The decades-long refusal of the Indian government until the present day to re-establish a distinct marriage act for Sikhs is seen as a means to subjugate the independent-minded Sikhs in India.

The implications of the Hindu Marriage Act in undermining the Sikh identity extends beyond India and is problematic even for Sikhs in the diaspora. For example, as I wrote about last year, the New York Times had categorized Sikhs as a sect (implicitly of Hinduism), based probably on the Hindu Marriage Act. It took some conversation with them and their own research to convince them to revise their label and recognize Sikhism as a faith on par with other major world religions.

Bindy Kaur presented an auto-analytical study on her experiences during her wedding and marriage ceremony in Canada, and the perceptions that were expressed by non-Sikh Canadians about the Sikh wedding. During her wedding process, she observed that her wedding became a site of stereotyping and racialization in a variety of ways, and reinforced to her the continuing marginalization of Sikhs as “the Other” in Canadian society. Her wedding practices were perceived as complicated and foreign, exotic and ancient, while Christian weddings were considered the natural and native course.

Other aspects of her marriage ceremony also brought forth stereotypes to the surface, where her husband’s adopting of the turban and beard for the ceremony were commented on as “training for terrorism”. She also received stereotypical comments about her husband being an East Indian male, and how this is commonly associated with domestic abuse regardless of her own experiences with the men in her life.

The intersection of these two presentations in the Sikholars space provided for an interesting discussion of Sikh wedding practices, racialization and identity. For example, the adoption of the white wedding dress – part of the western wedding practice for brides – was considered as a measure of assimilation, but we also discussed the adherence of Sikhs to Indian cultural norms that are not associated with – or contravene – Sikh theology (such as the many pre-wedding rituals, the red wedding suit etc.). Much of this conversation was focused on the experiences, expectations, and roles on women and brides in weddings and marriages, but I’ve personally felt strongly about the same aspects for men and grooms. I have always questioned the expectation that a groom grow a nominal beard, wear a turban and carry a sword only for the Sikh wedding ceremony when the individual normally does not. Most often, these items are then discarded before the day is over. It seems to me that this only ritualizes the Sikh identity, and is a blatant element of falsehood in our sacred spaces. However, I will save this discussion for a subsequent blog post.

On the one hand, we are asserting our ownership of the Sikh wedding from those who seek to assimilate us under one native category, but on the other, our adherence to the cultural and religious aspects of the Sikh wedding marginalizes us in diasporic communities. What does the Sikh wedding say about us, and what are we making of it?

The identities that Sikhs built

The second panel of the day, and the concluding one for the conference, generated the most discussion over the two-day event.

Ashveer Singh presented his work on the North American bhangra circuit. In all honesty, going into this presentation, I did not have high expectations because I did not respect bhangra as a site for academic discourse. But, I was happy to be wrong. I found this presentation enlightening, particularly around what we have created in terms of cultural identity in the west.

We were provided a history of bhangra and its evolution as the “dance of Punjab”, and further how it has evolved in the west to take a form based on our own imaginings of what constitutes “Punjabi”. As Ashveer Singh described, what was historically practiced as bhangra in Punjab pre-Partition is not what bhangra has become today – a performance art that has also become a commercial commodity and being largely defined around the world by memes of culture from the North American Punjabi community.

There was also a discussion about bhangra being viewed as the “men’s” dance, and how this has become an obstacle in the adoption of bhangra by women and the acceptance of women’s bhangra in North America. This is despite, as one questioner noted, bhangra being taught to women of previous generations in India.

The second presentation of the final panel was by artist Gurpreet Sehra, who shared her artwork that explored the Sikh male identity from her view as a woman. Her artwork challenged what we consider visually what is male and what is female, and also what we are expressing with our male identities. She explored the power associated with the Sikh male identity using her own face, and she commented on the impacts that these male constructions have on women. This was a novel presentation because the exploration and analysis was very visual, challenging our stereotypes in a very different way. I still find myself contemplating the artwork she shared, their meanings of that art and their implications.

The final presentation of the panel and conference overall was that of Kirpa Kaur, who presented her work on the issue of uncut hair – one of the articles of faith for Sikhs – and the experiences of women in dealing with competing expectations around preservation (based on religion) and elimination (based on cultural definitions of beauty) that intersect on the body of the Sikh woman. Many times, these expectations are applied in hypocritical ways. Kirpa Kaur’s presentation provided to us the struggle that women have faced in this regard through the voices and words of those women themselves, who are not often given the opportunity to be heard in our religious and cultural spaces.

It was a complicated topic, to be sure, and one that I, as a Sikh male with uncut hair, have not explored to a large extent other than to reiterate my own values about this topic. Sikh males have their own issues around attractiveness and self-image where it comes to uncut hair, however, the conversation as it pertains to Sikh females is in a different arena that involves patriarchy and conflicting messages of what is right, and what is beautiful, insisted by male-dominated Sikh and Western cultures.

There was a long discussion period after these presentations. My eyes and mind were somewhat opened by the experiences and opinions shared by many of the women who asked questions or made comments to bring forth a very personal context. These women should be commended for their bravery in expressing themselves in this academic context to ask difficult questions.

The conference concluded after this discussion.

I certainly can’t do justice to the presentations or discussions that took place during this two day event, but even weeks after the conference, I’m still contemplating everything I observed and experienced. So, suffice to say, I will make every attempt to attend this conference again. It was a fantastic weekend to explore practical aspects of Sikh theology, and what it means to be a Sikh (male or female). Sikhism, at the beginning and at the end of the day, is a practical religion focused on expressing its values during the everyday, and this conference is a step in ensuring that we position ourselves to accomplish that goal.

[Cross-posted from americanturban.com. Edited for The Langar Hall.]


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