The unheard voices of the Kaurs
Online project shines light on Sikh women’s stories.
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.