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Making Sikh Women Visible
A review of Relocating Gender in Sikh History: Transformation, Meaning and Identity by Doris R. Jakobsh (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003; pp. 296, Rs. 265).


Economic and Political Weekly, May 22, 2004

Doris Jakobsh's book Relocating Gender in Sikh History is indeed a welcome addition to research on gender dimensions of Sikhism. Jakobsh begins her work with the claim that not many studies have explored the gender aspect of Sikh history. Those that have, she characterises as practising one of the following four principles - silence, negation, accommodation and idealisation.

Chapter One illustrates these various approaches and argues that one has to go beyond these techniques of 'avoidance' to recover the inevitably gendered nature of the history of any community. She does so by examining the tensions over Sikh women's position and identity in two broad periods of Sikh history - first, the period of the Sikh Gurus, which laid the foundations of Sikhism and second, the crucial colonial period which attempted to transform Sikhs into a homogeneous community and a community entirely distinct from the Hindus. Most of the book is devoted to the second period and looks at how colonial views of gender and race and the political context of indigenous reforms affected the construction of their identity.

Chapters Five, Six and Seven analyse reforms introduced in education, popular traditions and ritual to examine the interplay between colonial forces, indigenous reform movements - the Singh Sabha and the Arya Samaj - and women's agency in determining outcomes for women.

The book, a revised version of the author's Ph.D. thesis, locates itself in contemporary analytical frameworks in historiography and gender analysis. Emphasising gender as a socio-historical construct, Jakobsh attempts to unravel the construction of Sikh women by analysing the transformation of ideas of masculinity and femininity present among the British and the Indians during the colonial period. British ideas of gender were embroiled with their ideas of race and community (exemplified in the famous 'martial races' theory) and these interacted with the ideas of reforming Sikhs who attempted to build upon the gender reforms of the early Guru period. A certain continuity can be traced in Sikh reforms during the colonial period with the early Guru period because both were attempts by the Sikh community to demarcate and define itself as a separate religious community.

At its point of inception Sikhism tried to move away from the so-called evils of the Hindu religion - the inequality inherent in caste and the ill-treatment of women embodied in the practices of sati and purdah. Guru Nanak's message tended to confront the 'homo hierarchicus' ideology of Hinduism. Women benefited somewhat from the more egalitarian foundations laid by Sikhism during that period and as Jakobsh argues in her conclusion, this theological equality gave women the space to push for greater equality and freedom. However, this assumed 'head start' of Sikhism over Hinduism in reforms vis--vis women has allowed scholars, especially Sikh scholars, to make women invisible and claim that their status within Sikhism is unproblematic. A few hagiographical works extolling the wives of the Sikh Gurus and other historically charismatic women are supposed to suffice as efforts towards understanding Sikh women.

As is well known from contemporary research on the colonial period of India's history, women were easy 'sites' on which the colonisers could rest their case for the inferiority of their subjects and the need for transformation, which only they could bring about. Hence, the easily identifiable practices of sati, dowry, purdah and female infanticide (all signifiers of the ill-treatment of Indian women) became the issues which the British took up to tar the Indian with. Indian reformist males, whether in Bengal or in Punjab responded to such insults with a two-pronged defence - on the one hand, to prove the theological equality and historical good treatment of women, while admitting that there had been a decline from earlier standards and on the other hand, to initiate their own programmes of education and reform.

As Jakobsh shows, for Sikh reformers too, the bodies and practices of women became the vehicles and sites for refashioning Sikh identity, vis--vis Hindus and other Sikhs who were outside the Tat Khalsa vision of reform. She argues that in putting forth the Victorian ideal of wife as helpmate whose prime role should be that of a good wife and mother, reformers may actually have narrowed the possibilities of what a woman could aspire to, eclipsing other more participative roles that women played in the economy. The example of Harnam Kaur, wife of a prominent reformer, who along with her husband started the Sikh Kanya Mahavidyala in 1892, reveals the struggle of women caught between the freedoms afforded by education, a life outside the home and the narrow reformist agendas that both the Arya Samaj and the Singh Sabha asked them to propagate.

What comes out clearly is that even in the refashioning of women's identities, it is men who held power. Social reform aimed at women sought, in fact, to divest them of any voice that they had - the campaign against wearing jewellery would relieve them of the only material assets they could call their own, robbing them of their economic agency. Attempts to purge popular female traditions of ribald or bawdy songs and insults to males, practices which allowed women to vent their frustration or anger, took away the few cultural 'safety valves' that tradition afforded them. As Jakobsh's analysis reveals, men fought against implementing radical reform suggestions which would have struck at the roots of gender inequality and women's inferior position - the age at marriage being one such reform.

Thus, Sirdar Sundar Majithia, although a proponent of the Anand Marriage Bill, rejected the progressive suggestions of Justice Nair of the Madras high court (pertaining to age limit, the prohibition of polygamy, divorce proceedings and marriage registration) arguing that the community was not yet ready for these (p. 186). Women were aware of the important consequences of such decisions and supported proposals that would give them greater equality even when they knew chances of implementation were bleak. Women associated with the reform agenda did manage to have some say in supporting changes in crucial Sikh identity markers such as the rites of initiation into the Khalsa panth. The British passed the Anand Marriage Bill hoping that it would serve a two-fold purpose: reduce marriage expenses and create a further rift between Arya Samaj Hindus and Khalsa Sikhs by establishing distinct life cycle rituals.

Interestingly, much of the negotiation of women's 'feminine' identity took place among urban and literate Hindus and Sikhs, who were influenced by British ideas and criticisms, although it is the vast body of the peasantry at whom reformist intentions would necessarily have to be aimed. This has certain interesting implications for the present construction of women and society in Punjab. For example, to what extent have the reformist designs of the Arya Samaj and the Singh Sabha succeeded in lifting women out of so-called superstitious beliefs and unbecoming behavioural practices and turning them into 'refined helpmates' of their husbands? To what extent have Punjabi, especially Sikh women, been freed of gender constructions which still make them victims of feticide, infanticide, dowry deaths and domestic violence?

The perceived hardiness and 'usefulness' of the rural Sikh woman, the progressive stance of the educated, professional urban (and now often rural) woman does not square with her continued construction as a sexual and economic burden, who is thought better off not being born. Singh Sabha reformers remained within the orbit of the self-serving and 'male' critique of Indian society espoused by the British. At no point did they go beneath the surface to transform gender relations in Sikh society by allowing women a voice in societal reform. In a significant section in the conclusion, Jakobsh brings evidence to show that sects such as the Udasis, Namdharis and Nirmalas, who allowed women greater ritual space and opportunities for leadership, were maligned and sidelined by the developing Tat Khalsa hegemonic discourse.

In conclusion, the author argues that while colonial ideas borrowed by male Sikh reformers tended to reinforce already existing male/female hierarchies within Sikh society, the stress on women's conceptual equality with men propounded by the Tat Khalsa, did allow women some leeway in pushing for space for themselves. Jakobsh's excellent effort should encourage other students of Sikh society to open up hitherto closed spaces for serious intellectual discussion.