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The Better Half of Sikh History
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. 625).


The Sikh Times, Sep. 1, 2005

Photo: Relocating Gender in Sikh History: Transformation, Meaning and Identity


As I write, the Sikh religious leadership in Amritsar is debating whether or not to allow amrit-dhari (initiated) Sikh women to perform kirtan (hymn-singing) and other traditionally restricted forms of seva (service) at Darbar Sahib. This debate is not new. The S.G.P.C.'s Religious Advisory Committee passed a motion on March 9, 1940 to lift the restriction (The Tribune, August 19, 2005). However, as current events indicate, the resolution had little impact on the ground and the matter remains unresolved.

Jagir Kaur, the first woman to serve as president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (S.G.P.C.), earned brownie points for her role in advocating women's right to perform on Sikhism's holiest stage. Yet, her own reign is tainted by allegations of criminal involvement in the murder of her daughter (The Indian Express, August 28, 2005).

The volume under review, based on Jakobsh's doctoral dissertation supervised by Harjot Oberoi at the University of British Columbia, takes a peek inside several such nooks and crannies of Sikh history, identifying gaps between the professed ideal of gender egalitarianism and actual practice. The analysis begins with Guru Nanak, discusses the early and later Guru periods, and stresses the role of the Singh Sabha period in molding Sikh identity couched in calls for a 'return to their glorious heritage' (p. 132).

In the words of Joan Wallach Scott, 'A historical focus on gender . . . fundamentally changes one's understanding of history' (p. 127). Given that Sikh 'historical writings contain virtually nothing about women,' we've long been deprived of exactly one half - some might insist, the better half - of Sikh history. This book, a statement of the 'feminist perspective' (p. 7), is a pioneering and welcome corrective.


The book's framework for analysis consists of four principles: silence, negation, accommodation, and idealization. Silence implies the absence of 'herstory' (p. 9). Negation refers to the construction of homogeneity via the denigration of that which is heterogeneous. Accommodation involves the reinterpretation of history to suit the current agenda. Finally, idealization is an extension of accommodation whereby handpicked examples are glorified and presented as both the norm and the ideal.

The Gurus

Jakobsh finds Guru Nanak's attitude toward women somewhat more enlightened than that of Kabir, but 'senses Guru Nanak's apprehension for women' and is critical of his failure to write against 'sati' and 'female infanticide' (pp. 25-26). The 'procreation of sons' (p. 24) was central to Guru Nanak's vision of an ideal woman. Despite his injunctions in favor of the householder lifestyle, Guru Nanak, Jakobsh points out, left the running of the household to his wife who, according the B40 Janam-sakhi, was 'unhappy with their marital situation' (p. 28).

While recognizing that the janam-sakhis 'cannot be understood as necessarily biographical but rather as responding to the needs of the later community,' Jakobsh attributes the 'inconsistencies' regarding women's names to 'indifference' toward women (p. 27).

' 'The Ultimate' in Sikh scripture was most often conceived in masculine terms, as Akal Purakh, Karta Purakh' (p. 11). Moreover, 'numerous passages in the scripture associate woman with 'maya,' that which is sensual as opposed to spiritual (p. 11; Guru Granth, pp. 41, 796) [and] women are exalted when obedient and subservient as wives to their divine husbands and men are ridiculed when they are not dominant' (p. 12; Guru Granth, p. 304).

Jakobsh is critical of Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh's accomodative approach. 'To move from a grammatically feminine form of speech [in the Adi Granth] to the theological underpinnings of the gurus' egalitarian ethos is conceivably more a reading into the term bani (voice) than a reflection of the actual intent of the gurus' (p. 11). In other words, it is far-fetched to derive an elevated status for women based on the Adi Granth's use of the feminine voice to address God, analogous to a bride addressing her groom.

Women were 'inadvertently depreciated' (p. 42) by the emergence of the 'hypermasculine' (p. 44) Khalsa. Chaupa Singh Rahit-nama, the earliest rahit, strongly prohibited the administration of khande di pahul to a woman' (p. 43) and opined 'she is never to read the Granth Sahib in a Sikh assembly' (p. 46).

Again, borrowing from Joan Wallach Scott, Jakobsh explains, 'that which is dominant needs the secondary for its very identity . . . The primary concentration on true Sikh identity openly only to males demanded that women subsidize that equation by being the negative or the opposite of that identity' (p. 47).

Mai Bhago

Of Mai Bhago's example of a rare female appearance on the pages of heroic Sikh history, Jakobsh writes, 'One must question whether Mai Bhago's inclusion points to the equality between sexes or to distorted notions of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality. For only upon appropriation of male attire, only in the suppression of her femaleness, is she recognized as one worthy of honour' (p. 49).

Referring to Louis Fenech's recent 'study of the taunt in Sikh tales of heroism and martyrdom,' Jakobsh points out 'no greater insult could be offered to a male of the Khalsa than to compare him or his actions to those associated with women' (p. 49).

Politics of Similarity and Difference

Singh Sabha, motivated by the colonial milieu and its 'politics of similarity and difference' (p. 2), proposed 'reforms' that actually encroached on women. Jakobsh explains the phenomenon in the words of Kay Boals, written in the context of the influence of French colonialism in Algeria: 'This process involves a reinterpretation of that tradition to read back into its past the genesis of ideas which in fact have been absorbed from the dominant culture' (p. 12).

The 'dominant culture' in this case was British, in particular Victorian assumptions. The Singh Sabha focused their attention on lower castes and women, who were at the bottom of the social ladder and were most susceptible to being targeted by Christian missionaries. 'The imperial masters had long pointed to Indians' depraved attitudes towards women as moral justification of their presence and rule in India' (p. 99).

The Singh Sabha Movement

According to Jakobsh, 'reformist gender ideology during colonial times did not originate with the Sikhs. The Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj provided the yardsticks by which Singh Sabha reformers measured their success' (p. 239). The Arya Samaj, though created four years after the Amritsar Singh Sabha, 'was the most far-reaching and influential of the reform initiatives in Punjab with regard to the question of women' (p. 119). 'Increasingly aware of the threat as well as the successful initiatives of the Arya Samaj, they [the Singh Sabha] incorporated many of the premises of Swami Dayanand's vision, all the while insisting that their initiatives were solely and securely founded in Sikh scripture and tradition' (p. 122).

Far from being a popular movement, 'proficiency in the language of the rulers became perhaps the most important aspect of the educated elite's rise to power' (p. 201). Broadly, the Singh Sabha was comprised of the Tat Khalsa faction (centered in Lahore) and the Sanatan faction (centered in Amritsar).

'For the British administration, particularly the military establishment, initiation into the Khalsa brotherhood was viewed as indispensable in the creation of the ideal Sikh fighting machine. . . . The hegemonic Tat Khalsa position, benefiting greatly from the institutional support of the British Raj, asserted that only those initiated into the Khalsa in accordance with the injunctions of Guru Gobind Singh were true Sikhs' (p. 210).

The backing of the aristocracy allowed the Sanatan group, led by Khem Singh Bedi, to take a leadership role in establishing schools for girls and women. Takhat Singh led the effort for the Tat Khalsa. Sadly, however, the primary motivation wasn't absolute but 'to protect their young women from the educational advances of the Arya Samajists, as well as from Christian missionaries' (p. 133).

The 'Un-Sikh' Bogie

Many of the best educated women were 'adherents of the various 'un-Sikh' sects maligned by the Singh Sabha' (p. 240) for their heterogeneity and 'the opening of ritual and leadership activity to women' (p. 116).

For example, the Kukas (or Namdharis) were responsible for originating many of the reforms later appropriated by the Singh Sabha. These included a rejection of veneration of dead saints, female infanticide, and the color differentiation that disallowed women from wearing the blue color of the Khalsa. The Kukas were responsible for the introduction of gender-neutral initiation rites, simplified marriage rites, and widow remarriage. As 'the first anti-imperialist group in Punjab' (p. 87), the Kukas bravely revolted against British rule in 1872 but were isolated by the Sikh elite who went on to inaugurate the first Singh Sabha at Amritsar the following year 'aimed at expressing the indisputable loyalty of Sikhs to the British' (p. 91).

Singh Safa: The Talibanization of Sikhism

The invention of new rituals by the Singh Sabha was aimed at reasserting 'social control' (p. 109). This imposition of artificial homogeneity by the Tat Khalsa was tantamount to what I have termed the 'Talibanization' of Sikhism.

Their agenda, aimed significantly at micro-managing female behavior, included, 'putting an end to ear piercing for boys and nose piercing for girls; women's ornamentation in general was to cease; drinking and nautch girls were to be eliminated from wedding celebrations; in the practice of singing 'immoral' songs the use of abusive language by women was to be unconditionally stopped' (p. 195).

Furthermore, 'music was to be restricted to the singing of sacred hymns' (p. 208) along with 'prohibitions against wearing make-up and on the thickness of the cloth used in women's clothing' (p. 197). One of the first motions passed by the S.G.P.C. upon its creation in 1920 stated that 'women updeshaks [preachers] were no longer to continue their duties' (p. 242).

Women were urged to perform their 'duty' in the form of 'gratuitous teaching' and 'unpaid labour' (p. 156). They were convinced to donate their only financial security (their jewelry) to fund women's schools and instead wear the 'jewels of learning' (p. 147). All of the emphasis on female education mostly added up to ensuring that women could perform their 'proper duties in the home [including] the education of children' (p. 136). Educated or not, women continued to be excluded from intellectual events such as the Sikh Educational Conference.

It is little wonder then that the 'peasantry' referred to the Singh Sabha as 'Singh safa, safa being a pointed reference to the rampant destruction caused by the plague epidemic of 1902' (p. 176).

Popular religious rituals were targeted for elimination with little regard for their role as 'legitimate instruments of agency for women in a society that was largely controlled and defined by men' wherein 'women could vent their accumulated frustrations' (p. 107). Jakobsh quotes Oberoi to explain the significance of popular religion: 'Whereas scriptural religion is concerned with explaining reality, popular religion seeks to manipulate reality to the advantage of its constituents' (p. 108). 'Popular traditions fulfilled specific needs within societies that could not be satisfied by the major religions' (p. 204) and 'allowed for a glorious mingling of heterogeneity, fluidity, and tolerance' (p. 206).

Anand Marriage Act of 1909

Having 'placed full blame for the [1907] upheaval [against the British] on the Arya Samaj' (p. 173), the Singh Sabha and the British 'paid scant attention to any suggestions that even resembled those of the Arya Samaj' (p. 188).

Consequently, the Anand Marriage Act of 1909 passed up golden opportunities to move past the rhetoric. The Act excluded legislation opposing infant marriage and supporting inter-caste marriage, monogamy, divorce, and widow remarriage.

'For the British government, the widening of the gulf between the Tat Khalsa and the Arya Samaj, the continued purification of the Sikh identity, and fears of political instability through the instigation of the Tat Khalsa, subsumed any concerns for the alleviation of detrimental customs affecting Sikh women' (p. 192). With the passage of the Act, Tat Khalsa had 'attained the position of the new powerbrokers of Sikh society' (p. 199) fulfilling the 'legacy of colonial rule to create classes conducive to its rule' (p. 200).

Pliant History

Vir Singh was 'the foremost proponent of Punjabi [and] the Tat Khalsa mindset' (pp. 160, 164). His 'most successful' (p. 161) work, Sundri, constructs an ideal for Sikh women based not within the relative confines of accommodation or idealization but on unrestrained fiction.

'The ability to pick and choose specific portions of 'authentic' Sikh sources remained a hallmark of the Singh Sabha movement' (p. 227). A case in point was the handling of the contention around whether women should undergo the same initiation rites as men. The Sanatan camp cited tradition in support for the use of a single-edge sword, as opposed to the double-edged sword used for men. The Tat Khalsa faction argued for uniformity in both initiation rites and nomenclature (Singh for males, Kaur for females) and wasn't deterred by the lack of historical sources.

Jakobsh explores Tat Khalsa inventions and their variance from historical sources. Perhaps emblematic is the assertion, forwarded in Kahan Singh Nabha's celebrated tract Hum Hindu Nahin, that Guru Gobind Singh's third wife, the 'virgin mother' (p. 225) of the Khalsa, was named 'Sahib Kaur' as opposed to 'Sahib Devan.'

Even Max Arthur Macauliffe 'rewrote this particular chapter of Sikh history' in response to 'objections' from the Singh Sabha (pp. 227-228; M.A. Macauliffe, Calcutta Review, 1881, p. 162, cited in H.A. Rose, A Glossary of the Tribes and Castes, p. 696).

Jakobsh holds most contemporary scholars, including Khushwant Singh, W.H. McLeod, and Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh guilty of acquiescing, wittingly or not, with such 'rewriting of history' (pp. 232-3).

In response, McLeod has revised the name of Guru Gobind Singh's third wife from Sahib Kaur to Sahib Devi in the second edition of his Historical Dictionary of Sikhism, which has just been published (private correspondence, September 3, 2005).


As another reviewer aptly noted (Ravinder Kaur, The Economic and Political Weekly, May 22, 2004), 'even in the refashioning of women's identities, it is men who held power.' Generally, women were 'not collaborators' in this grandiose reshaping of their destinies. 'Indeed, they were often portrayed as being opposed to their own liberation' (p. 104).

This groundbreaking study is required reading for those seeking to balance their perspective of Sikh history. It is also necessary background for comprehending contemporary mindsets, such as a jathedar's (high priest) defense of polygamy (The Tribune, March 3, 2005), the S.G.P.C.'s denunciation of women wearing jeans to gurdwaras (The Telegraph, January 10, 2005), and the condemnation by ordinary Sikhs of Dya Singh for performing kirtan outside the confines of a gurdwara (The Sikh Times, U.K., July 31, 2003).

Jakobsh generally succeeds in steering clear of the pitfalls associated with failing to distinguish between 'equal' and 'same' when analyzing gender equations in society. One would sincerely hope that women can be 'equal' to men without having to suffer the monotony of being the 'same' as men in every respect.

Jakobsh's thesis is meticulously researched and copiously supported by references. However, it appears that at least a couple of unsubstantiated claims did manage to slip through.

That 'Kabir lived 150 years before Guru Nanak' (p. 24) is difficult to accept given the generally accepted view that Kabir and Nanak were contemporaries. W.H. McLeod (Sikhism, pp. 3, 89) lists the following life spans: Nanak (1469-1539) and Kabir (1440-1518). McLeod regards a meeting between the two as 'chronologically possible' (Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, p. 86).

The claim that 'initiation rites into the Sikh panth had been in place since the time of the first guru' (p. 113) is also problematic given Guru Nanak's vociferous anti-ritual stance, extensively documented in the Guru Granth. The only support for Jakobsh's claim appears in the janam-sakhi stories and Gurdas Bhalla's var (1:23), neither of which can be accepted as factual.

Although Jakobsh occasionally ventures into the depths of social science jargon where the lay reader may not easily follow, on the whole this is a reasonably accessible book. Fans of critical history are in for a treat and should pick the book up without hesitation. And although many of the book's conclusions are sure to rattle traditionalists, I recommend this book to them too so that they may discover the contents for themselves rather than rely on distorted secondhand accounts.