Relocating Gender in Sikh History

I recently ran across Relocating Gender in Sikh History by Doris R. Jakobsh who is now an Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Waterloo. Im not a scholar of either Sikh history (and Jakobsh shouldnt be considered one until she can read and understand Gurbani), and the ideas presented below are just fodder for discussion not being put forth as any authoritative data.

relocating gender_1.jpgThe framework she uses notes the difference between the prescribed Sikh belief of equality amongst Sikh women and men, and what is actually practiced within the Sikh community, claiming that gender has generally been dealt with in 1 of 4 ways: silence, negation, accommodation, idealization.

One of the biggest problems that I noted when reading the book is her use of English translations of Gurbani for her basis of analysis. Weve discussed before the problems that we, as Sikh practitioners, experience in understanding Gurbani, due to language barriers. Yet, she bases her research on translations that are subject to the same barriers and misunderstandings. Because of this language barrier, her reading of Gurbani is way off. Despite this, I do believe her feminist analysis of historical writing warrants discussion.

1- Silence: Jakobsh claims that silence is the guiding principle regarding women in Sikh history. Traditional recording of history focuses on politics and economics, realms that women have not been well represented. Women have also not been the authors of their own history, and so the specific questions asked have been those of interest to male historians.

2- Negation: Jakobsh writes “…how heterogeneous elements in Sikh history, those labeled deviant, marginal, threatening or unimportant, are negated in order to ‘generate homogeneity and represent the Sikhs as a collectivity which shared the same values and movements.” (p. 10)

M. K. Gill, in The Role and Status of Women in Sikhism, says the reason that the wives of Gurus are not known either within or outside the tradition is out of respect. Jakobsh feels that Gill negates the obvious – that even the Guru’s wives are not consequential enough to merit recording. Mata Sundri, Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s first wife, led the Panth longer than any of the nine Gurus subsequent to Guru Nanak, and through one of its more difficult and divisive periods, but very little is known of her leadership. (p. 10-11)

Nikky Guninder-Singh, another prominent Sikh woman and feminist Sikh scholar, writes that Sikh literature and sacred verse celebrates feminine aspects of the Transcendent. She writes that “[n]o negative associations belittle [woman].” Jakobsh takes issue with this claim and begins quoting misleading translations of Gurbani without an understanding of their context.

Attachment to progeny, wife is poison. None of these at the end is of any avail. (SGGS, panaa 41);

Maya attachment is like a loose woman (SGGS, panaa 796)

However, better scholarship on the part of Dr. Jakobsh would quickly refute her assertions. The poison in the first verse does not refer to the wife (or children for that matter), it refers to attachment.

Also in the next line, the referrence to ‘loose woman’ does not refer to all women, but must be read in the context of the Shabad. It is an allusion to ‘courtier dancers’ in Hindu temples and Mughal palaces. The adjective used prior is ‘deceptive’ so it isn’t even all women, it is those courtiers that practice deception (a common practice by courtiers). For Jakobsh to use this line is to dismiss a line appearing on the very same page in the preceding shabad where Guru Nanak yells in exuberance to Vaheguru calling out “Meree Maai (My Mother!)” (Thanks for the translation, Mewa Singh!)

3- Accommodation: Jakobsh claims that the Singh Sabha movement tried to accommodate the valuable aspects of British colonial culture and ground them in Sikh tradition, reinterpreting these values into Sikh history.

These new elites, having imbibed a liberal Western education, decried the undesirable aspects of the Sikh tradition; however, they were unwilling to reject that tradition outright. They tended to walk the shaky line of accommodation within the two, often opposing, world views. Ultimately, their focus was also the reformation and reinterpretation of the Sikh tradition, made possible by their ascendancy into positions of power and prestige. Oberoi maintains that it was the development of print culture in Punjab, along with their Western education, that gave the Sabha reformers the necessary tools to reinterpret the Sikh tradition. Their world view, adopted from the European enlightenment, necessitated the etching out of a novel cultural map for Punjab that would define their aspirations and reflect the changed environment of the province. (p.13)

However, such an analysis begs the question, if the Singh Sabha was a new and radical ‘invention,’ why was it accepted as legitimate by the masses. How did the Singh Sabha’s voice come to have authority and authenticity? Jakobsh does not provide an answer.

4- Idealization: When women are mentioned in the annal of history, it is only because they deviate from the norm, and are exceptional. (But in the annals of history, isn’t this also the case for men? Most recorded history is about men with power/exceptional men, and their conflicts with other men with power.) The main examples of Sikh women in history are those who lived exceptional lives, mainly those who participated in battle.

Gill mentions a gurdwara named after Mata Sundri, Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s first wife, immortalizing Mata Sundri through its name. But Jakobsh points out that this idea of Mata Sundri is idealized, since little is known about even the most basic facts of Mata Sundri’s life.

Even if Jakobshs translations and interpretation of Gurbani are way off, I think her analysis might be valuable if it forces us to ask questions that make us uncomfortable. What do you think about her claims?


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68 Responses to “Relocating Gender in Sikh History”

  1. Baldev Singh says:

    It seems that the Colonial era may have ended, but the colonial mindset of sholars at the British, Canadian and Australian universities has not changed as far as research on non-European people and their culture is concerened. For example:

    Professor Harjot Oberoi got his Ph. D. from the Australian National University. Neither his thesis supervisor, Robin Jeffrey, nor J. T. F. Jordens, Chair of the dissertation committee, know the Punjabi language or have knowledge of Aad Guru Granth Sahib, the only authentic source of Naakian philosophy (Gurmat), or Sikh history or history of the Indian subcontinent. And Yet the British Columbia University (BCU, Canada) hired him for the Sikh Chair in spite of the overwhelming opposition to his appointment by Canadian Sikhs who raised funds for the chair.

    Reverened W. H. McLeod got Ph. D. from the School of African and Oriental studies, University of London. Neither his thesis supevisor, nor thesis committee members, knew Punjabi or had knowledge of Aad Guru Granth Sahib or Sikh history and what is more surprising is that the two committee members approved the thesis witout reading it completely (Understsnding W. H. McLeod and his work on Sikhism, http://www.SikhSpectrum.Com, August 2005 and realted articles on later issues). Similar is the story of Professor Jakobsh as pointed out in my review, SikhSpectrum.com, November 2006, but Renison college had no problem hiring her to teach Sikhism.

    Why is this happening? What about academic standards, norms and ethics? I urge the readres to ponder over the issues that I have raised.

    Baldev Singh

  2. Baldev Singh says:

    It seems that the Colonial era may have ended, but the colonial mindset of sholars at the British, Canadian and Australian universities has not changed as far as research on non-European people and their culture is concerened. For example:

    Professor Harjot Oberoi got his Ph. D. from the Australian National University. Neither his thesis supervisor, Robin Jeffrey, nor J. T. F. Jordens, Chair of the dissertation committee, know the Punjabi language or have knowledge of Aad Guru Granth Sahib, the only authentic source of Naakian philosophy (Gurmat), or Sikh history or history of the Indian subcontinent. And Yet the British Columbia University (BCU, Canada) hired him for the Sikh Chair in spite of the overwhelming opposition to his appointment by Canadian Sikhs who raised funds for the chair.
    Reverened W. H. McLeod got Ph. D. from the School of African and Oriental studies, University of London. Neither his thesis supevisor, nor thesis committee members, knew Punjabi or had knowledge of Aad Guru Granth Sahib or Sikh history and what is more surprising is that the two committee members approved the thesis witout reading it completely (Understsnding W. H. McLeod and his work on Sikhism, http://www.SikhSpectrum.Com, August 2005 and realted articles on later issues). Similar is the story of Professor Jakobsh as pointed out in my review, SikhSpectrum.com, November 2006, but Renison college had no problem hiring her to teach Sikhism.
    Why is this happening? What about academic standards, norms and ethics? I urge the readres to ponder over the issues that I have raised.

    Baldev Singh

  3. full support to Amardeep Singh.

    He has written what all I wanted to say and also touched the site.

    In addition to check about the statement 'she has ever read gurmukhi' just visit http://www.arts.uwaterloo.ca/~djakobsh/travel.htm… and everything will be clear. it's a page of Dr. Doris Jakobish's own site and you can also contact her for more details.

  4. full support to Amardeep Singh.

    He has written what all I wanted to say and also touched the site.

    In addition to check about the statement ‘she has ever read gurmukhi’ just visit http://www.arts.uwaterloo.ca/~djakobsh/travel.html and everything will be clear. it’s a page of Dr. Doris Jakobish’s own site and you can also contact her for more details.

  5. Pritam Singh says:

    Satinder Ji,

    It is just to inform you that Renison college where Dr Jakobsh teaches is not the same as Waterloo University. These two are very different institutions in academic standards and their recognition in the market place, though both institutions award degrees in different disciplines.

    Pritam Singh

  6. Pritam Singh says:

    Satinder Ji,

    It is just to inform you that Renison college where Dr Jakobsh teaches is not the same as Waterloo University. These two are very different institutions in academic standards and their recognition in the market place, though both institutions award degrees in different disciplines.

    Pritam Singh

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