Sada Safar

Guest blogged by Adi Shakti Kaur

For as long as I can remember, I can envision the imprints of patriarchy within the Guruduaras (Sikh spaces of worship). The Guru, was more than sacred scriptures; more than a living embodiment of the ‘word’; more than a Guru, who took us from darkness to light; but a portal for us to connect to our own Divinity, a genderless form that was beyond the simple, human constructions of defining, labeling and understanding. But in the Guru’s Darbar (court of the Guru), it was brimming with gendered representations. The examples of patriarchy in Guruduaras are monolithic – every role in the Guru Darbar is dominated by men, from the giving of prashad to the katha vichar. Sikhi emerged out of a cultural, political, economic and social period that privileged the masculine gender, and of course patriarchy (as well as other hierarchical constructions).

The revolutionary stance that Sikhi took on the existing beliefs challenged all aspects of the zeitgeist during the Guru period.  I articulate this now as a grown woman who has had the honour of a lifelong relationship with Sikhi, with Sikh institutions and with Sikhs, and who also has had the privilege of critically engaging in the world around her, particularly through her academic pursuits. In most Guruduaras, I have had the sacred opportunity to enter, I have been greeted by scenes staged with men occupying the privileged positions in the Guru Darbar, in the langar hall and in seva roles.  When the stage is constantly set with masculine representations of Sikhs, from the physical men before me to the Gurus who established and nurtured Sikhi into its current status as a world religion, I never really considered that there was an institutional space for me, for my sister, for my mother, and any Sikh woman to occupy. And for many Sikh women that male privilege extends into their homes and extended families (thankfully there are anomalies like my parents).

As I delved further into Sikhi, I saw an opening for my feminine identity. The Gurus, starting with Guru Nanak Dev Ji, not only placed value in my sex and gendered identity, but honoured us with our everpresent Kaur title. The cultural, economic, political, and social backdrop is still patriarchy, no matter how you present the egalitarian and feminist interpretations inherent in Sikh philosophy, men were privileged, men were hyper visible and that tradition continues today in the majority of Sikh institutions (including the Guruduaras) and communities. Now that I am far removed from my childhood naïve absorption of the Sikh spaces around me, absorbing the patriarchy of my spiritual space, how do I carve out the egalitarian and feminist standpoints as a grown woman, as a mother to my daughter, so Kaurs can begin to chip away at the institutionalized patriarchal vantage position given to the masculine?

Looking through herstories, there are countless examples of women centered movements that could fall under the Western philosophy of feminism and all of its incarnations. As I tread through the feminist movement, I am reminded of how the suffragettes stood united so we would have the right to a vote and a political voice. I am reminded of how women rallied together around kitchen tables into full fledged consciousness raising groups. I am reminded of the feminist call to action: the personal is the political. I am reminded of Sojourner Truth’s ‘ain’t I a woman’ speech where Truth, a former slave who gave voice to Black women’s experiences and challenged the Christian based reasons to keep women from having equal rights. As a feminist theologian, as a woman of colour, Sojourner Truth demanded equality, demanded to be valued, not only by men, the patriarchal institutions  she lived within, but also by fellow women – particularly privileged, white women.

In the same tradition, other feminist theologians have stood on new ground, a ground they have had to cultivate, a ground they have had to steady in order to challenge patriarchy in all of its manifestations in their spiritual and religious practices. As a feminist who has had the privilege of reading the rich scholarship of feminist theologians, has watched documentaries about their experiences within their religious institutions, I bear witness that it is possible to carve out a Sikh feminist space for ourselves. We have scriptural text that includes the feminine, we have the egalitarian position of the Gurus during the Guru period, we have small victories like the inclusion of our vote in 1925 with the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak committee ((SGPC) which acts as the governing body of elected officers who control all historical Guruduaras), and we have changes rippling through families and communities.

So, when grassroots organizations begin emerging to unite Sikh women, to locate us in the Sikh landscape, to give us visibility and voice, I am reminded that those feminist kitchen tables, where that invaluable consciousness raising work happened, have morphed into virtual kitchen tables and grass roots organizations have longer arms, louder SafarLogo_institute.pngvoices, and a more prominent presence in cyberspace. Within the constellation of Sikh women-centered organizations, a new star has recently joined the community of feminists, of feminist theologians, of Sikh scholars and of Sikh women centered organizations. SAFAR, the Sikh Feminist Research Institute has carved out a space for themselves to serve as a platform for Sikh feminist scholarship and research.

Safar in Punjabi means journey, but not just any journey, safar usually signifies an arduous journey. While I can retrieve other imagery from Sikh herstory, the image of Sikh women crossing from current day Pakistan into current day Punjab when the British colonizers granted independence to India is prominent when I think of safar. Knitted together from tales I have heard from Sikh elders, I see caravans of women, children and men making their way with the little they could carry. I see the exhaustion hanging in their limbs. I see the fear of what lies ahead present in their eyes. I see the bodies of girls and women being especially guarded with the threat of rape as well as murder. I see the tears and strength of mothers as they journey their families through this violent terrain. This imagery plays out again and again as I think of the word safar. And I think it is fitting that the Sikh Feminist Institute, with their Our Journeys academic conference and with their peer reviewed academic journal: Sikh Feminist Review have used this play on words SaFaR (Sikh Feminist Review) to highlight the arduous journey of our foremothers and the journey ahead for Sikh women, particularly Sikh feminists, to challenge patriarchy in Sikh spaces and to give ourselves and our daughters a more egalitarian position within Sikhi.

Imagine …

Walking into your local Guruduara and you see both women and men serving in the Guru’s Darbar. You look around to see that children are integrated into every aspect of seva within the Guruduara. You see sisters and brothers doing kirtan together. You see daughters playing the tabla and sons playing the sitar. You hear a female voice doing the katha vichar. In the langar hall, you see both men and women cooking the precious langar; both cleaning side by side; and both serving langar side by side. You see pictures of important Sikh women side by side important Sikh men. You see a merger of the feminine and masculine principles.

The call for abstracts for the conference: Our Journeys and the call for peer reviewed papers for the Sikh Feminist Review will follow.  Please consider attending and contributing to Our Journeys conference and contributing to and reading the Sikh Feminist Review.


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24 Responses to “Sada Safar”

  1. brooklynwala says:

    thanks for this thoughtful post. i'm excited and inspired to hear about SAFAR and that sikh women are coming together to really try to challenge the legacy of patriarchy in our communities and institutions. it's an uphill battle for sure. it would be great to see some discussion at the conference or in the journal about the role and responsibility of sikh men in challenging sexist attitudes and behaviors as well as institutional patriarchy in sikh spheres. some (non-sikh) friends of mine have been facilitating a promising project in NYC called challenging male supremacy which you can read about here:… . i wonder what it would take to initiate something like this with sikh men. i guess that's a question i should ask myself!

  2. Jodha says:

    repeating the words of brooklynwala, thanks for the thoughtful post. i am completely with you in spirit.

    However, since you opened the door of academic pursuits, I have to add a quick note. Examples of patriarchy in Gurdwaras are not monolithic. As there is no single Gurdwara experience nor familial experience. Your parents may not quite the anomalies you assume.

    Sikhi indeed may have emerged out of a space and period that privileged males, but we have little understanding of the actual Guru period and what was social life. Rarely are things 'hierarchical constructions,' but they definitely are 'historical constructions.' It is for us to unpack it creatively. If history can be constructed, it can also be deconstructed. Such is the beauty, as you are suggesting.

    So that quibble aside, may you remain in Chardikala! Gur Fateh!

  3. Jodha says:

    @sister – Shouldn't we at least know, before assuming?

    Can't one still fight problems of the present, without making assumptions of certain periods in the past?

    I don't know many people with complete autonomy in their lives – full stop. This is not to deny patriarchy, but to call for a greater balance.

    Again, I am in complete support of the spirit to to break down the barriers of patriarchy that do exist. I am just also for historical integrity against assumptions and against the creation of straw men stemming from rhetorical flourish.

  4. Jodha's sister says:

    Just a minute, i have to breathe, okay, i am in love with historical integrity, i yearn and seek it day and night.
    Can you please tell me, from what we do know: is not the near-complete absence of women within the historical Sikh institutions indicative of patriarchy??

  5. Jodha says:

    @sister – haha, fun opening line – semi-colons are fun too!

    Which historical Sikh institution are you discussing? SGPC? Shiromani Akali Dal? Be specific, and perhaps I may be able to give a specific answer.

  6. Jodha's sister says:

    Institutions of the Guru period.

  7. Jodha's sister says:

    there were four women who were appointed the Manjis, who were they? what were their names?
    what is the actual textual source for this? Even in our few remaining historical texts there is no mention of the women Sikh scholars, educators or preachers.

    anyway my main question is how and why did ideas soooo antithetical to Sikhi such as "izzat" and with it all the varying forms of subjugation of women associated with it become so entrenched within our communities??

  8. Jodha's sister says:

    it is late over here, my point is, it is because patriarchy did persist in the Guru period despite the efforts to challenge it, that it persists today. If there had been some sort of restructuring of society during the Guru period would not some of the new, more equitable structures have remained?
    to my horror the teaching academies started during the Guru period appear to be the most patriarchal together with the practises in our most sacred places.

  9. Jodha's sister says:

    Ahh the Janamsakhis which apparently have no historical integrity……..

    younger brother, i shall bid you good night.

    i will attempt to look at the Janamsakhi literature, perhaps you could let me know more soon.

  10. Jodha's sister says:

    DDT who claim to have an unbroken lineage back to the Guru period.

    I agree about the ruptures in history, i would like to learn about them.
    The highly gendered practises within the Sikh communities are more due to the culture of purdah, the segregation of the genders, rather than any theological origins. There is a considerable body of work correlating highly prescribed social norms, especially with respect to women's sexuality, and (nation) states being under constant territorial threat.

  11. kantay says:

    awesome post.

    I think in my own life and in the Sikh and punjabi culture I know there are examples of strong women and men who value and respect, and want to be with, strong women, and raise strong daughters.

    There may be some resistence on the journey (thank you for the imagery regarding safar) but there will also be allies taking the opportunity to be allies because it is what the women in their lives, their culture, and their religion inspire them to do.


  12. Blighty Singh says:

    I'd like to say I enjoyed reading the opening post but…..have to say didn't understand a word of it. Well….not so much didn't understand but really couldn't be bothered to read it.Seems to be written in that dissertation / thesis academic style we were forced to write in at University for formal examinations. Really don't see the point in writing that way in the real world. And if I have to read something like that I'd expect to get paid for it for doing it professionaly….either as a proof-reader or an exam marker. Reading, outside of the academic world is supposed to be fun. ain't nothing fun about reading an article where 6 long words are used for no reason when 2 short ones would do. But…..the others say there was some good stuff in that post and I have no reason to doubt them. So….reluctantly….well done for a great post.

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