Recasting Gender for Sikh Women

When I was an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to attend the World Sikh Council – North America Region‘s conference on Women in Sikhi. The conference hosted panelists and speakers to discuss three broad categories: the depiction of women in Scripture (SGGS Ji), the treatment of women in the Rehit Maryada, and future possibilities/actions for promoting gender equity. The WSC, like many Sikh institutions, was heavily male-dominated at the time, although the conference liaisons did an admirable job trying to recruit a diverse panel of women to organize, speak, and develop the program. Nonetheless, the majority of conference attendees (until the very last panel) identified as men, and there was no conversation around the agency of men as allies in the struggle for gender equity. It’s always easier to criticize than construct, and I do think the conference was an important initial step; the organizers’ hearts were in the right place, and they were certainly attempting to place women at the center of the conversation.

What I found most distressing, however, was the deep level at which the “proper role” of women in Sikhi was gendered. In emphasizing the valuation of women, most speakers and commenters focused on the following passage from SGGS Ji (p. 473):

Woman becomes his friend; through woman, the future generations come.

When his woman dies, he seeks another woman; to woman he is bound.

So why call her bad? From her, kings are born.

From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all.

Instead of focusing on the deeper meaning of this passage — that woman is a unique and necessary partner in the faith and in humanity –, most speakers placed the significance of women solely in the context of motherhood. As a result, the impact of women’s leadership is often reduced to a single meme: woman as cultural vessel — the bearer of children (Mata) and imparter of religious knowledge and instruction. This highly gendered role and image severely limits how we conceive of the role of women, both as public figures and speakers, but also in terms of their “value-added” to society.

Comparatively, other speakers argue for what I would call an androgynized or masculinized model for Sikh women. When women in the audience asked how to legitimize their “place at the table” in key discussions and decisions, many female panelists encouraged what they termed as androgyneity: “de-feminizing” or “de-gendering” oneself, donning a pagri, and appearing gender-neutral, and by extension, less threatening to men. The concept of neutrality had less to do with inverting heteronormative gender roles and more to do with placating the insecurities of male leadership (and reifying normative characteristics of women).

I’ve heard an appreciation for the de-gendered model from (some) Sikh men; in large part because taking on the physical challenges that Sikh men face in the U.S. is seen as an additional or exceptional perspective, but also because there is some underlying sense that a woman who obscures her gender is more serious about equity and her role in the [Sikh] world. This dichotomy is not unique to the Sikh faith community but is echoed throughout highly masculinized or patriarchal spaces; the disciplining of women’s bodies or presentation becomes a bounding factor in limiting or extending authority, privileges, and access. These options can be both empowering or hindering and are deeply personalized and inherently politicized.

I think the next phase of this conversation — how can women define their own participation and expectations while retaining freedom of choice — parallels many of the struggles and negotiations other strains of feminist thought (especially transnational feminism and so-called “third World feminism”) have pursued over the past 30 years. However, this conversation has been cyclical in Sikhi and is often responsive to socio-political needs at different moments in history.

So I ask, as the “next generation” of adult Sikh women, how can we work to expand the options, pathways, and possibilities for other Sikh women? What should we ask of our male allies in this process? With the rising disconnect between grassroots representation and leadership versus “visible” or “figure-head” leadership, how can we transition and encourage women’s development (and authority) as community leaders? Can we pursue options on our own terms; i.e., not in a “masculinized” model of leadership and/or presentation?


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28 Responses to “Recasting Gender for Sikh Women”

  1. Simran Kaur says:

    So I ask, as the “next generation” of adult Sikh women, how can we work to expand the options, pathways, and possibilities for other Sikh women?

    I am a nineteen year old Sikh American and the one way that we can expand the options, pathways and possibilities for other sikh women is to let them know that they have options, pathways and possibilities. Asking women for their voice, making them a part of the dialogues is by far the BIGGEST and BEST thing that men and women in the community can do. And for those women that are vocal, not to discourage them. The second thing we can do is encourage women to wear a smile, wearing a pagdi and other articles of gender identity are something that are not so essential to women leadership in my view. You will see what I mean in a minute.

    I will use my own personal example. In high school I was an outspoken young student, making speeches, being a part of the debate club, Model United Nations Secretary-General (and I could add a whole list of other leadership clubs) and making it to the prestigious American Legion Auxiliary Girls/Boys Nation program in 2006. A program that hosted 2 young women and men from each American state to represent their state as senators. I was invited to meet the Queen of England on her visit to Richmond, Va last year. Invited to the White house where I spent a total of 60 minutes with my senator counterparts from around the nation in a question and answer session with the President.

    My point is that leadership opportunities come your way if you are expressive, manipulative, vocally or in any other way, writing, drawing, technology, whatever your medium of expressing yourself is.

    I had my Grandfather say to me that girls your age in our community, his focus mainly being for young punjabi speaking females, don't even have teeth. I didn't understand what he meant until I thought of all the things I as a young women of punjabi heritage had to grow up hearing and essentially ignoring. My Grandfather has been an encouraging force behind my achievements, encouraging his grandchildren equally to express their opinions to be vocal and ask questions.There is an expression in punjabi that people use often….I never really got it, and don't think I will ever get a good grasp of it….but from what I do understand of it…..I want to get rid of it. I heard this expression from many family members, usually in a "we're just joking around" tone. This expression is as follows and it is directed to young women, the expression is "Dhandh Dhekhandi Phey Hai…Moo Bandh Kar" "Ene nahin dandh kadidhey". The first saying "Look at you (girl) showing off your teeth….close your mouth" the second in a disapproving tone "Showing off all those teeth (shame on you girl)". Whereas my male counterpart would never be told to stop talking, or not talk, or not show off his teeth.

    So I would usually get a little angry and walk away a bit, before someone called back "Hey Simran, we are just joking with you, come back and show us those teeth". I would walk back smile for the camera or to say goodnight if it was the end of a conversation, with that huge smile of mine, and then again walk away a bit angry….I didn't want to make them upset, after all they are family, and I do love them, let me go show off my teeth, pose for the camera, leave with a heavy question and feeling in my heart, and leave them happy. So thats how it has been for the past 18 some years of my life.

    NO MORE. They other day someone said the same thing and i did something different for a change I asked "Why not? Lets not stop talking just because I'm a female and have words to say, me with my smile and tell me if there is something wrong with this smile? Tell me if you do not like me smiling/talking? Can you tell me what my smile/words means to me? What does this smile/talking mean to you?"

    I could've just sealed my lips, I could've taken down another heavy feeling, I could've just not shown off my teeth(or spoken). I could have, but I didn't because without my teeth my smile means nothing to me. Without my teeth, my joy is not completely expressed. Without my teeth in that smile, my heart does not know what it is smiling for. Without opening my lips, raising my cheekbones and those two muscles that help every human being to smile, my smile would not be MY smile.

    A smile….a complete smile….where my heart, mind, inner joy, facial reaction is true…Needs my teeth to show. I don't know if it is the same for other girls, for other women, for other girls in this country and others, for girls of every age, for girls of every age everywhere….I don't know if showing off your teeth has something to do with being self-aware, with being happy? With not caring if someone gets to see the inside of your mouth….and thus then the inside of you…your feeling, your words, your senses.

    Are teeth that much more meaningful on a woman than a man? Is wearing a smile okay for men and not for women?

    Whatever the anwser is, here is my anwser:

    LOOK AT MY TEETH!!! Yes I have them when I smile, laugh, cry, eat and talk. YES!! I talk…and you can see my teeth. I am not that girl that never shows off her teeth, I am proud of my teeth, yes for all they do for my smile, my health, ME and my happiness on my face. SO to all those young girls out there, that don't show off their teeth….answer these questions: Why don't you show off your teeth? Have you ever been told not to? Are you shy or just too conscious and think that you won't look as good? Or that you are encouraged to smile without teeth? Or you just think….deep down inside…that people will be able to telll how you really feel when they see your teeth…really happy…or spoiled as they did apparently from where i am coming from.

    So take a look at the women around you….tell me how many smile and you can see their teeth. And tell me if you think it even matters…Am I just taking teeth and giving them more attention than they deserve or is it just all those toothpaste commericials and teeth whitening commercials getting to my head at 3:29 AM this Saturday?

    Smiling is important, talking is important, having your say is important especially if you intend for the sikh female to be vocal in their understanding of topics and subjects in their lives, faith, careers etc. It is unfortunate that young women like myself have to hear these sayings growing up, and the nature of the people accepting this as a social norm. Wearing a turban and that showing leadership is respectful in its own way, and for men and women who chose to wear it, thats totally neat. But the important thing is to listen and hear what women, what young adult women have to say. Let them show their teeth. I know that its just a smile and a matter of teeth-but something as small as watching what is said to young women can change how they feel about themselves, their opinions and becoming leaders everywhere in every role of life.

    I don't expect my bias experience to apply to the whole of sikh women, but im sure if they are of punjabi heritage, this might sound familiar.

    The second question posed is What should we ask of our male allies in this process?

    Well the first thing that the male allies need to understand, especially in the western/eurocentric world is that sikh women face just as big of a challenge with their long-unshorn hair as men do with their turban and unshorn beards. Growing up in the American public school system, I can tell you right now, being the only girl in class with the longest braid….not only do you get confused for being a native American, but the question "why don't you cut your hair?" gets kind of old and annoying after 19 years.

    Now after reading the above, I realize I don't have the answer…but I want to conclude by saying that- I do not think gender equality is the answer, but equal opportunity is. I want to be a women in all the ways my ancestors have been, but if the world I live in allows me to be more than that, and if I want to be more than that, no one should tell me to have to choose between the two. They should change with the changing opportunities available to women, and thats the problem- they are not. Change is happening faster than social norms and culture can adjust.

  2. Simran Kaur says:

    So I ask, as the next generation of adult Sikh women, how can we work to expand the options, pathways, and possibilities for other Sikh women?

    I am a nineteen year old Sikh American and the one way that we can expand the options, pathways and possibilities for other sikh women is to let them know that they have options, pathways and possibilities. Asking women for their voice, making them a part of the dialogues is by far the BIGGEST and BEST thing that men and women in the community can do. And for those women that are vocal, not to discourage them. The second thing we can do is encourage women to wear a smile, wearing a pagdi and other articles of gender identity are something that are not so essential to women leadership in my view. You will see what I mean in a minute.

    I will use my own personal example. In high school I was an outspoken young student, making speeches, being a part of the debate club, Model United Nations Secretary-General (and I could add a whole list of other leadership clubs) and making it to the prestigious American Legion Auxiliary Girls/Boys Nation program in 2006. A program that hosted 2 young women and men from each American state to represent their state as senators. I was invited to meet the Queen of England on her visit to Richmond, Va last year. Invited to the White house where I spent a total of 60 minutes with my senator counterparts from around the nation in a question and answer session with the President.
    My point is that leadership opportunities come your way if you are expressive, manipulative, vocally or in any other way, writing, drawing, technology, whatever your medium of expressing yourself is.

    I had my Grandfather say to me that girls your age in our community, his focus mainly being for young punjabi speaking females, don’t even have teeth. I didn’t understand what he meant until I thought of all the things I as a young women of punjabi heritage had to grow up hearing and essentially ignoring. My Grandfather has been an encouraging force behind my achievements, encouraging his grandchildren equally to express their opinions to be vocal and ask questions.There is an expression in punjabi that people use often….I never really got it, and don’t think I will ever get a good grasp of it….but from what I do understand of it…..I want to get rid of it. I heard this expression from many family members, usually in a “we’re just joking around” tone. This expression is as follows and it is directed to young women, the expression is “Dhandh Dhekhandi Phey Hai…Moo Bandh Kar” “Ene nahin dandh kadidhey”. The first saying “Look at you (girl) showing off your teeth….close your mouth” the second in a disapproving tone “Showing off all those teeth (shame on you girl)”. Whereas my male counterpart would never be told to stop talking, or not talk, or not show off his teeth.

    So I would usually get a little angry and walk away a bit, before someone called back “Hey Simran, we are just joking with you, come back and show us those teeth”. I would walk back smile for the camera or to say goodnight if it was the end of a conversation, with that huge smile of mine, and then again walk away a bit angry….I didn’t want to make them upset, after all they are family, and I do love them, let me go show off my teeth, pose for the camera, leave with a heavy question and feeling in my heart, and leave them happy. So thats how it has been for the past 18 some years of my life.
    NO MORE. They other day someone said the same thing and i did something different for a change I asked “Why not? Lets not stop talking just because I’m a female and have words to say, me with my smile and tell me if there is something wrong with this smile? Tell me if you do not like me smiling/talking? Can you tell me what my smile/words means to me? What does this smile/talking mean to you?”

    I could’ve just sealed my lips, I could’ve taken down another heavy feeling, I could’ve just not shown off my teeth(or spoken). I could have, but I didn’t because without my teeth my smile means nothing to me. Without my teeth, my joy is not completely expressed. Without my teeth in that smile, my heart does not know what it is smiling for. Without opening my lips, raising my cheekbones and those two muscles that help every human being to smile, my smile would not be MY smile.

    A smile….a complete smile….where my heart, mind, inner joy, facial reaction is true…Needs my teeth to show. I don’t know if it is the same for other girls, for other women, for other girls in this country and others, for girls of every age, for girls of every age everywhere….I don’t know if showing off your teeth has something to do with being self-aware, with being happy? With not caring if someone gets to see the inside of your mouth….and thus then the inside of you…your feeling, your words, your senses.

    Are teeth that much more meaningful on a woman than a man? Is wearing a smile okay for men and not for women?

    Whatever the anwser is, here is my anwser:

    LOOK AT MY TEETH!!! Yes I have them when I smile, laugh, cry, eat and talk. YES!! I talk…and you can see my teeth. I am not that girl that never shows off her teeth, I am proud of my teeth, yes for all they do for my smile, my health, ME and my happiness on my face. SO to all those young girls out there, that don’t show off their teeth….answer these questions: Why don’t you show off your teeth? Have you ever been told not to? Are you shy or just too conscious and think that you won’t look as good? Or that you are encouraged to smile without teeth? Or you just think….deep down inside…that people will be able to telll how you really feel when they see your teeth…really happy…or spoiled as they did apparently from where i am coming from.

    So take a look at the women around you….tell me how many smile and you can see their teeth. And tell me if you think it even matters…Am I just taking teeth and giving them more attention than they deserve or is it just all those toothpaste commericials and teeth whitening commercials getting to my head at 3:29 AM this Saturday?

    Smiling is important, talking is important, having your say is important especially if you intend for the sikh female to be vocal in their understanding of topics and subjects in their lives, faith, careers etc. It is unfortunate that young women like myself have to hear these sayings growing up, and the nature of the people accepting this as a social norm. Wearing a turban and that showing leadership is respectful in its own way, and for men and women who chose to wear it, thats totally neat. But the important thing is to listen and hear what women, what young adult women have to say. Let them show their teeth. I know that its just a smile and a matter of teeth-but something as small as watching what is said to young women can change how they feel about themselves, their opinions and becoming leaders everywhere in every role of life.

    I don’t expect my bias experience to apply to the whole of sikh women, but im sure if they are of punjabi heritage, this might sound familiar.

    The second question posed is What should we ask of our male allies in this process?

    Well the first thing that the male allies need to understand, especially in the western/eurocentric world is that sikh women face just as big of a challenge with their long-unshorn hair as men do with their turban and unshorn beards. Growing up in the American public school system, I can tell you right now, being the only girl in class with the longest braid….not only do you get confused for being a native American, but the question “why don’t you cut your hair?” gets kind of old and annoying after 19 years.

    Now after reading the above, I realize I don’t have the answer…but I want to conclude by saying that- I do not think gender equality is the answer, but equal opportunity is. I want to be a women in all the ways my ancestors have been, but if the world I live in allows me to be more than that, and if I want to be more than that, no one should tell me to have to choose between the two. They should change with the changing opportunities available to women, and thats the problem- they are not. Change is happening faster than social norms and culture can adjust.

  3. Reema says:

    Thanks for sharing that, Simran…

  4. Reema says:

    Thanks for sharing that, Simran…

  5. Anon says:

    I'm surprised at the assumptions in your post regarding why women wear dastaars or what it means for a woman to do so. It comes from a very western conception of masculinity, femininity and beauty.

    It's unfortunate that you consider women who wear dastaars as fitting into an "androgynized or masculinized model for Sikh women." I find it to be an affirmation of their femininity. Instead of feeling the need to fit into a westernized conception of beauty, they are affirming their love for the Guru. Not to say that you need to wear a dastaar for that–to each her own.

    Unlike what you said, when I first started wearing a dastar, many Sikh men felt challenged by it–they definitely did not think I was pandering to their insecurities. It was a very personal decision for me, and I was surprised at how other members of the community had such strong reactions. Many women acted as if my decision to wear a dastaar implied that I thought they should also wear one. I wanted to cover my head, and a dastaar was the easiest and most graceful way to do so.

    Sikh men who feel that wearing a dastaar is more challenging than Sikh women's experiences in keeping their hair are also wrong. Keeping your hair, not shaving or plucking it, is difficult for tween and teenaged girls in a society that values hairlessness as beautiful.

    Anyway, I think these are superficial to the reasons why Sikh women are not given equal "options, pathways, and possibilities." I don't have the answers to your questions, when I can decipher the questions amidst the theory and postcolonial language (just kidding, but it would be helpful to write more simply).

  6. Anon says:

    I’m surprised at the assumptions in your post regarding why women wear dastaars or what it means for a woman to do so. It comes from a very western conception of masculinity, femininity and beauty.

    It’s unfortunate that you consider women who wear dastaars as fitting into an “androgynized or masculinized model for Sikh women.” I find it to be an affirmation of their femininity. Instead of feeling the need to fit into a westernized conception of beauty, they are affirming their love for the Guru. Not to say that you need to wear a dastaar for that–to each her own.

    Unlike what you said, when I first started wearing a dastar, many Sikh men felt challenged by it–they definitely did not think I was pandering to their insecurities. It was a very personal decision for me, and I was surprised at how other members of the community had such strong reactions. Many women acted as if my decision to wear a dastaar implied that I thought they should also wear one. I wanted to cover my head, and a dastaar was the easiest and most graceful way to do so.

    Sikh men who feel that wearing a dastaar is more challenging than Sikh women’s experiences in keeping their hair are also wrong. Keeping your hair, not shaving or plucking it, is difficult for tween and teenaged girls in a society that values hairlessness as beautiful.

    Anyway, I think these are superficial to the reasons why Sikh women are not given equal “options, pathways, and possibilities.” I don’t have the answers to your questions, when I can decipher the questions amidst the theory and postcolonial language (just kidding, but it would be helpful to write more simply).

  7. Camille says:

    Anon, I worry that there's a misunderstanding re: the section on the dastaar. I don't believe that the decision to wear the dastaar is "masculinized/andogynized"; I was explaining how the issue was presented at the conference. When asked how women could be taken seriously, many of the women on the panel very clearly argued that other women should strip away outward representations of their (female) gender, which included wearing the dastaar. I don't think this explanation is acceptable; it's deeply confined by male- and Euro-centric interpretations of the female form, and it transfers the blame for sexism from society to women (or, "blaming the victim"). I absolutely agree that for some Sikh women the dastaar is a deeply empowering decision and experience, and like you, I agree that this is a personal decision that varies by the woman.

    The broader point was that conversations on gender equity for Sikh women often fall into two (false) dichotomies — the image of a highly feminized Mother, or the image of a masculinized woman. Neither accurately describes the experiences of Sikh women, nor their identities. One of my underlying questions is how do we "open" our conceptions to promote gender equity while allowing for the full diversity of female identities?

    Thank you, though, for pushing for clarity and for sharing your experience. Also thanks for the feedback on the jargon — scarily enough, this is a "simplified" version of the original post! 😉 I welcome the feedback, though, and will continue to try to break it down in the future.

  8. Camille says:

    Sorry, I should add that there is NOTHING wrong with a woman choosing to be a mother or to wear the dastaar, and that these choices do not make someone "more" or "less" feminine or "less of a woman." As a feminist, I believe in two broad principles: 1. That there SHOULD be equity among and across genders (including genders that transcend the male/female dichotomy); and 2. that equity includes the freedom for those who do not identify as men to make whatever life choices they wish without penalty on the basis of their gender-identity.

  9. Mewa Singh says:

    Although I do not aim to answer the questions posed to Sikh women, I did want to make a few interjections.

    First, I wanted to provide a translation/interpretation and explanation of the same Shabad referred to by Camille in the original post. The following was distributed and discussed at a conference held in Fresno, CA – Jakara 2006, titled "Kaur Voices: Exalt, Express, Empower."

    Kaur Voices: Exalt, Express, Empower

    Over five centuries ago, the Ten Nanaks challenged the Sikhs to look beyond hierarchies and inequalities to find the Light of Vahguru within all. To a crowd of men, Guru Nanak made the following command:

    Aasa Mahala Pehla

    In Raag Aasa as revealed to the first Nanak

    Bhand Jamiyai bhand nimeeai bhandi mangan veeah. Bhandu Hovai Dosthi Bhandu Chalai Raahu

    From the Endless Givers (Women) come birth, conception, engagement and marriage. She is the soulmate. She gives the path for future generations.

    Bhand muuah bhand bhaleeai bhand hovai bandhaan. So kio manda aakheeai jith jamai raajan

    Men (the takers) are bound to the Endless Givers (Women). So why do you (the taking man) dare to treat her with disrespect, when she gives rise to nobility.

    Bhandhu hee bhand upjai bhanday baaj na koi. Nanak bhanday baahra eko sacha soi

    From the Endless Givers (Women) come the Endless Givers. Without women, there is nothing. O Nanak, only Vahguru is also the Endless Giver.

    Jith mukh sada saalaaheeai bhaagaa rathee chaar. Nanak thay much ujlay thith sachai darbar

    That mouth that continuously praises Women is blessed. O Nanak, in the True Court it is those that remember the Endless Givers (Women) who are radiant.

    Interpretation

    From woman comes all life. She is the soul-mate. She shows the path for the future. How can men, who only take, criticize the noble woman? From woman comes all, without woman there is none. Those that exalt and empower women are blessed and are recognized by their radiance in the True Court of the Divine.

  10. Mewa Singh says:

    My second interjection has just been clarified by Camille.

    In fact, Cynthia Keppley-Mahmood co-authored a book on the subject of dastars and women with her student Stacy Brady. The book is titled The Guru's Gift: An Ethnography Exploring Gender Equality with North American Sikh Women.

  11. Camille says:

    Anon, I worry that there’s a misunderstanding re: the section on the dastaar. I don’t believe that the decision to wear the dastaar is “masculinized/andogynized”; I was explaining how the issue was presented at the conference. When asked how women could be taken seriously, many of the women on the panel very clearly argued that other women should strip away outward representations of their (female) gender, which included wearing the dastaar. I don’t think this explanation is acceptable; it’s deeply confined by male- and Euro-centric interpretations of the female form, and it transfers the blame for sexism from society to women (or, “blaming the victim”). I absolutely agree that for some Sikh women the dastaar is a deeply empowering decision and experience, and like you, I agree that this is a personal decision that varies by the woman.

    The broader point was that conversations on gender equity for Sikh women often fall into two (false) dichotomies — the image of a highly feminized Mother, or the image of a masculinized woman. Neither accurately describes the experiences of Sikh women, nor their identities. One of my underlying questions is how do we “open” our conceptions to promote gender equity while allowing for the full diversity of female identities?

    Thank you, though, for pushing for clarity and for sharing your experience. Also thanks for the feedback on the jargon — scarily enough, this is a “simplified” version of the original post! 😉 I welcome the feedback, though, and will continue to try to break it down in the future.

  12. Camille says:

    Sorry, I should add that there is NOTHING wrong with a woman choosing to be a mother or to wear the dastaar, and that these choices do not make someone “more” or “less” feminine or “less of a woman.” As a feminist, I believe in two broad principles: 1. That there SHOULD be equity among and across genders (including genders that transcend the male/female dichotomy); and 2. that equity includes the freedom for those who do not identify as men to make whatever life choices they wish without penalty on the basis of their gender-identity.

  13. Mewa Singh says:

    Although I do not aim to answer the questions posed to Sikh women, I did want to make a few interjections.

    First, I wanted to provide a translation/interpretation and explanation of the same Shabad referred to by Camille in the original post. The following was distributed and discussed at a conference held in Fresno, CA – Jakara 2006, titled “Kaur Voices: Exalt, Express, Empower.”

    Kaur Voices: Exalt, Express, Empower
    Over five centuries ago, the Ten Nanaks challenged the Sikhs to look beyond hierarchies and inequalities to find the Light of Vahguru within all. To a crowd of men, Guru Nanak made the following command:

    Aasa Mahala Pehla
    In Raag Aasa as revealed to the first Nanak

    Bhand Jamiyai bhand nimeeai bhandi mangan veeah. Bhandu Hovai Dosthi Bhandu Chalai Raahu
    From the Endless Givers (Women) come birth, conception, engagement and marriage. She is the soulmate. She gives the path for future generations.

    Bhand muuah bhand bhaleeai bhand hovai bandhaan. So kio manda aakheeai jith jamai raajan
    Men (the takers) are bound to the Endless Givers (Women). So why do you (the taking man) dare to treat her with disrespect, when she gives rise to nobility.

    Bhandhu hee bhand upjai bhanday baaj na koi. Nanak bhanday baahra eko sacha soi
    From the Endless Givers (Women) come the Endless Givers. Without women, there is nothing. O Nanak, only Vahguru is also the Endless Giver.

    Jith mukh sada saalaaheeai bhaagaa rathee chaar. Nanak thay much ujlay thith sachai darbar
    That mouth that continuously praises Women is blessed. O Nanak, in the True Court it is those that remember the Endless Givers (Women) who are radiant.

    Interpretation
    From woman comes all life. She is the soul-mate. She shows the path for the future. How can men, who only take, criticize the noble woman? From woman comes all, without woman there is none. Those that exalt and empower women are blessed and are recognized by their radiance in the True Court of the Divine.

  14. Mewa Singh says:

    My second interjection has just been clarified by Camille.

    In fact, Cynthia Keppley-Mahmood co-authored a book on the subject of dastars and women with her student Stacy Brady. The book is titled The Guru’s Gift: An Ethnography Exploring Gender Equality with North American Sikh Women.

  15. Anon says:

    Camille, Thanks for clarifying your post! And thanks for your thoughtful posts on this blog; I enjoy reading them. As a mother and part-time work at home mom, though, I rarely find time to comment! The questions you pose are really difficult, and I have no idea how we can address these issues. I get frustrated by the lack of female participation in Sikh activities.

    maybe one place to start would be to encourage women in the process of fully realizing themselves so that they can understand their diverse interests, rather than suppress these interests or fail to pursue them because of societal expectations. Female-only conferences/support groups would allow women to first have open and honest discussions amongst themselves, which they can later share with their male counterparts.

  16. Anon says:

    Camille, Thanks for clarifying your post! And thanks for your thoughtful posts on this blog; I enjoy reading them. As a mother and part-time work at home mom, though, I rarely find time to comment! The questions you pose are really difficult, and I have no idea how we can address these issues. I get frustrated by the lack of female participation in Sikh activities.

    maybe one place to start would be to encourage women in the process of fully realizing themselves so that they can understand their diverse interests, rather than suppress these interests or fail to pursue them because of societal expectations. Female-only conferences/support groups would allow women to first have open and honest discussions amongst themselves, which they can later share with their male counterparts.

  17. I can't appreciate the authors insinuation that a woman wearing a turban is somehow masculine. Don't make excuses for your weakness, the Khalsa identifies with the dastar and is proud of it. Some women understand and appreciate this and wear the true crown of a princess (Kaur). I'm sure they don't appreciate being labeled as masculine for honoring the Khalsa.

  18. Camille says:

    Prabhu Singh, I did not make the insinuation you attribute to me, and I have clarified this point in my comments above. If you'd like to discuss the subject of the post — the impact of simplified and sexist stereotypes on the leadership interpretation and roles of Sikh women, then I would love to hear more.

  19. I can’t appreciate the authors insinuation that a woman wearing a turban is somehow masculine. Don’t make excuses for your weakness, the Khalsa identifies with the dastar and is proud of it. Some women understand and appreciate this and wear the true crown of a princess (Kaur). I’m sure they don’t appreciate being labeled as masculine for honoring the Khalsa.

  20. "many female panelists encouraged what they termed as androgyneity: “de-feminizing” or “de-gendering” oneself, donning a pagri, and appearing gender-neutral, and by extension, less threatening to men."

    You seem to state explicitly that "donning a pagri" is "de-feminizing" and "appearing gender-neutral."

    I've seen and read the opinions of women who cut and pluck their hair taking subtle jabs and outright making fun of women who wear turbans. This looked somewhere between a subtle jab and an outright insult.

    Personally I don't think women who wear turbans look masculine.

    Sorry if I offended you with my comment, it was my initial reaction to what I thought was an insult.

  21. Camille says:

    No it's absolutely ok — it seems that I wasn't very clear in that section about how I felt versus what was being said. Thank you for being patient with me! I do NOT believe that women who wear the dastaar are less feminine or "masculinized." I think they are beautiful, and I respect their decision (even though it is not my own).

    However, some of the panelists, specifically at this conference, used the argument you attribute to me (and that I paraphrased) to explain how they envisioned gender equity — as a "lack" of gender. [Whether or not I agree with this argument — which I do not, on multiple levels — is briefly addressed in my comments in response to Anon, above] I had hoped to highlight how this kind of argument creates a false and limited scope of options for Sikh women. It also completely fails to address issues of equity and leadership by instead focusing on "managing" female representation, dress, and beauty. There are certainly another group of problems that I did not address in this post that underlie interpreting the dastaar as a "masculinized" aspect of one's image (which it is not). I guess I'll have to be more careful about being clear in the future =/

  22. J.T. Singh says:

    First off, thanks Camille for writing a great article. I was initially also a bit tripped out by the wording of that sentence that Prabhu Singh had mentioned, but your comments made it clear.

    There is one thing though. You mention "I absolutely agree that for some Sikh women the dastaar is a deeply empowering decision and experience, and like you, I agree that this is a personal decision that varies by the woman."

    See, this is something I've been wondering for a while. What is it that makes you feel that the dastaar is empowering for "some" women?, Or that it is a "personal decision"? As a feminist, how can one reconcile the fact that for women it is just a personal decision, but for men it is a must? As a feminist myself its something I have to contend with.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm not one to say that in order for woment to be equal they have to be the same — far from it. But sometimes I feel like much of the tension that stems from the "woman wearing dastaar" concept, if you will, is the fact that we really want it (the dastaar) to be accepted by everyone, yet we are afraid that if we declared it to be a necessity, it would turn some women away Sikhi, because they don't want to live up to the full responsiblity.

    One of the things they say when folks take amrit, is that you have to cover your hair. Why would that possibly be the case? Covering ones head as a sign of respect for God, is prevalent only in the East. In the West, most folks would be offended if someone didn't take off their hat in a church or during the National Anthem. I tend to wonder, whether the Guru's in all their supreme knowledge wanted something that was so ethnocentric, or whether the real call was for a turban.

    The idea of wearing a turban, a crown, is universal — no matter where you go. ALL royalty (male or female) wears a crown or crown-esque (if you will) regalia on his/her. Since we are all sovereigns unto ourselves, it seems to make sense we'd all need our crowns.

    Just a thought.

    -JTS

  23. Camille says:

    Prabhu Singh, I did not make the insinuation you attribute to me, and I have clarified this point in my comments above. If you’d like to discuss the subject of the post — the impact of simplified and sexist stereotypes on the leadership interpretation and roles of Sikh women, then I would love to hear more.

  24. “many female panelists encouraged what they termed as androgyneity: de-feminizing or de-gendering oneself, donning a pagri, and appearing gender-neutral, and by extension, less threatening to men.”

    You seem to state explicitly that “donning a pagri” is “de-feminizing” and “appearing gender-neutral.”
    I’ve seen and read the opinions of women who cut and pluck their hair taking subtle jabs and outright making fun of women who wear turbans. This looked somewhere between a subtle jab and an outright insult.
    Personally I don’t think women who wear turbans look masculine.
    Sorry if I offended you with my comment, it was my initial reaction to what I thought was an insult.

  25. Camille says:

    No it’s absolutely ok — it seems that I wasn’t very clear in that section about how I felt versus what was being said. Thank you for being patient with me! I do NOT believe that women who wear the dastaar are less feminine or “masculinized.” I think they are beautiful, and I respect their decision (even though it is not my own).

    However, some of the panelists, specifically at this conference, used the argument you attribute to me (and that I paraphrased) to explain how they envisioned gender equity — as a “lack” of gender. [Whether or not I agree with this argument — which I do not, on multiple levels — is briefly addressed in my comments in response to Anon, above] I had hoped to highlight how this kind of argument creates a false and limited scope of options for Sikh women. It also completely fails to address issues of equity and leadership by instead focusing on “managing” female representation, dress, and beauty. There are certainly another group of problems that I did not address in this post that underlie interpreting the dastaar as a “masculinized” aspect of one’s image (which it is not). I guess I’ll have to be more careful about being clear in the future =/

  26. J.T. Singh says:

    First off, thanks Camille for writing a great article. I was initially also a bit tripped out by the wording of that sentence that Prabhu Singh had mentioned, but your comments made it clear.

    There is one thing though. You mention “I absolutely agree that for some Sikh women the dastaar is a deeply empowering decision and experience, and like you, I agree that this is a personal decision that varies by the woman.”

    See, this is something I’ve been wondering for a while. What is it that makes you feel that the dastaar is empowering for “some” women?, Or that it is a “personal decision”? As a feminist, how can one reconcile the fact that for women it is just a personal decision, but for men it is a must? As a feminist myself its something I have to contend with.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one to say that in order for woment to be equal they have to be the same — far from it. But sometimes I feel like much of the tension that stems from the “woman wearing dastaar” concept, if you will, is the fact that we really want it (the dastaar) to be accepted by everyone, yet we are afraid that if we declared it to be a necessity, it would turn some women away Sikhi, because they don’t want to live up to the full responsiblity.

    One of the things they say when folks take amrit, is that you have to cover your hair. Why would that possibly be the case? Covering ones head as a sign of respect for God, is prevalent only in the East. In the West, most folks would be offended if someone didn’t take off their hat in a church or during the National Anthem. I tend to wonder, whether the Guru’s in all their supreme knowledge wanted something that was so ethnocentric, or whether the real call was for a turban.

    The idea of wearing a turban, a crown, is universal — no matter where you go. ALL royalty (male or female) wears a crown or crown-esque (if you will) regalia on his/her. Since we are all sovereigns unto ourselves, it seems to make sense we’d all need our crowns.

    Just a thought.

    -JTS

  27. […] a recent post, Camille asked important questions around growing Sikh female leadership/representation, rather than just managing it. At the […]

  28. Ex-Malaya says:

    The proper role of a female Sikh is to boss her husband, children and any mere mortals who come her way. That was my grandmother's role and attitude. She migrated to Malaya in the early 1900s – about 100 years ago. She believed that God and the Gurus had blessed women with excellent management skills and that it her was duty as a Sikh woman to dominate all.Everyone in our family went to a decent university. The girls had to do a postgraduate degree so they could support their family if they got lousy husbands. My daughter's first word spelled was "Boss". No wonder as that is the proper role of a female Sikh.