The un­heard voices of the Kaurs

On­line project shines light on Sikh women’s sto­ries.

Canada's History - - CURRENTS - — Mo­riah Camp­bell

It’s be­lieved that the first Sikhs to em­i­grate to Canada were a group of sol­diers trav­el­ling through the coun­try en route to Queen Vic­to­ria’s Di­a­mond Ju­bilee in Eng­land in 1897. Ad­mir­ing Bri­tish Columbia’s lush land­scape, they chose to stay.

Since then, the Sikh com­mu­nity in Canada has grown to more than 468,000, with more than one third of the pop­u­la­tion liv­ing in Bri­tish Columbia. A new project in that prov­ince is show­cas­ing the sto­ries of Sikh women, whose ac­com­plish­ments have tra­di­tion­ally been marginal­ized by his­to­ri­ans.

The Kaur Project, cre­ated by Jessie Kaur Le­hail and Saji Kaur Sa­hota, is an on­line re­source filled with sto­ries and photos of women in B.C. with the tra­di­tional Sikh name Kaur. Kaur — mean­ing princess — is typ­i­cally adopted by Sikh women as a mid­dle name or sur­name. It is meant to sym­bol­ize gen­der equal­ity in the Sikh re­li­gion (men typ­i­cally adopt the mid­dle name or sur­name Singh, which means lion). The nam­ing prac­tice be­gan in 1699. For Sikh women, it was an em­pow­er­ing way to end the tra­di­tion of adopt­ing their hus­bands’ sur­names. Gen­der equal­ity is a tenet of the Sikh re­li­gion.

Le­hail said the Kaur Project gives a voice to Sikh women, whose sto­ries have his­tor­i­cally been either un­told or di­min­ished. “It’s like so many re­li­gions — women are just the ex­tra peo­ple,” said Le­hail.

Although a few Kaurs have achieved promi­nence in tra­di­tional his­to­ries, Le­hail said their sto­ries have typ­i­cally been told only in re­la­tion to their male coun­ter­parts. “The Kaur Project is re­ally show­cas­ing that Sikh women ex­ist and th­ese are our sto­ries,” Le­hail said.

In March 2015, Le­hail and Sa­hota de­signed the the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work for the project and launched the web­site. So far eighty Kaurs have been fea­tured, but Le­hail said it was dif­fi­cult at first to find women from the Sikh com­mu­nity who would agree to speak with them. “They didn’t re­ally un­der­stand what we were do­ing,” said Le­hail. “But this re­ac­tion from the com­mu­nity aligns with … that his­tor­i­cal tra­di­tion of women not re­ally be­ing show­cased.”

In­ter­views are kept to a tight twenty-minute time limit, and the women in­ter­viewed de­cide what sto­ries they tell, as well as how they ap­pear in their pho­to­graphs. Le­hail hopes the Kaur Project will high­light the many dif­fer­ent ways Sikhs ap­proach their re­li­gion.

“It show­cases that there is di­ver­sity within the Sikh re­li­gion … and each per­son is ap­ply­ing Sikhism in their own way,” said Le­hail. To learn more about the Kaur Project, go to CanadasHis­tory.ca/Kaurs.

Clock­wise from top left: Chanan Kaur, Bobby Kaur, Lily Kaur and Beant Kaur are among the more than fifty Kaurs who, as part of the Kaur Project, have shared both oral his­to­ries of Kaur women and per­sonal sto­ries of what it is like be­ing a Kaur to­day.

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