Many women who identify as Sikh share at least one thing in common: The name Kaur. It may be a middle or last name, and it isn’t always how they’re identified legally. But it’s a part of their heritage that dates back centuries and something many Sikh women share.
Saji Kaur Sahota and Jessie Kaur Lehail, a photographer-writer duo from British Columbia, Canada, are asking Sikh women what being a Kaur means to them. Their series, called the “Kaur Project,” aims to highlight this common heritage while celebrating the diversity of the women’s experiences.
“We have seen a lot of feminist theory incorporated into mainstream media, but there’s been nothing specifically for and about Sikh women,” Lehail, the writer behind the project, told The Huffington Post. “So we thought why not create something ourselves.”
Lehail and Sahota decided the only parameter for the project would be that the women must identify as Sikh and use the name Kaur. Thus far all the women featured in the project are in the B.C. area, though Lehail said they’re hoping to expand to other areas in the near future.
For every woman featured in the “Kaur Project,” Sahota does a photo shoot and Lehail conducts a 20-minute phone interview. The benefit of talking over the phone, the writer said, is that it allows the women to share things they might not otherwise share in person.
Lehail asks two simple questions: “How do you identify yourself as a Kaur” and “What has your journey been so far.” The women take their answers in many different directions, addressing topics like marriage, divorce, having children, losing children, struggling with depression or abuse, managing relationships with parents and in-laws and balancing all the many roles life places on them.
Some of the themes of the interviews are specific to Sikh or immigrant communities, Lehail said, “but a lot of what’s discussed is applicable to any community and almost all women.”
It also became clear to Lehail that being a Kaur can mean different things to different people. Like Kaur for women, Singh is given to many Sikh men as a middle or last name. The naming tradition began in the 17th century as a way to resist the caste system, in which a person’s name indicated their status in society. The names Kaur and Singh act as equalizers, reminding all Sikhs of the inherent equality of all human beings.
But framing the project around Sikh identity can be tricky, Lehail admitted, partly because Sikh identity isn’t homogenous. Some Sikhs are baptized, for instance, in what’s called an “Amrit ceremony.” After this, they take on new names and commit to upholding rules of dress, including keeping their hair uncut. Some Sikh men and women also wear turbans, an item once worn only by royalty in South Asia and which has become a symbol of equality in the faith.
But not all Sikhs practice these traditions. “We didn’t want to limit the project to just females who are Sikhs who wear turbans because Saji and I both have cut hair,” Lehail said. “We believe in the religion, but there are variations to how it’s practiced.”
Across the 60 women who Lehail and Sahota have featured so far, those variations are clear. “It’s a learning opportunity for the mainstream about Sikhism and Sikh women,” she said. “But also for Sikh women to learn about themselves.”
Check out some of the photos and stories from the “Kaur Project” below:
Saji Kaur Sahota
“For me Kaur literally means whatever God provides us. Coming from a place where everything is taken away, having no money, no direction, it is my belief, my faith in something bigger that helps me to overcome the heartaches and rejoice in the goodness. I was eight, nearly nine, when the partition happened. I remember being in our home, where Pakistan is now and hearing a bit of noise. The weeks and months beforehand there were problems, we heard rumblings, and would hide at the local Gurdwara. Never did we think we would have to evacuate our homes and lives. It happened all of a sudden, my older and younger brother and I were told to evacuate quickly. We could hear bullets and then a truck appeared from another village that was rounding up children. We barely got to say good bye to our parents."
"I was born and raised in Surrey. My entire life I have looked up to my mom, been in awe of her, proud of her abilities and her strength. She is a hard worker and has made several sacrifices to raise my siblings and I. She’s the role model every young woman needs. My mom, during times of difficulties, is the person who is able to see the positivity of a situation. Really though, she embodies the pillars of Sikhism and has shaped my outlook.
Both of my parents instilled Sikh values in our household. My father ensured we spoke Punjabi at home and I have fond memories of going to the Surrey Gurdwara in the evenings with him. I grew up as a bit of a tomboy. I hung out with my brothers doing things boys typically do."
“I think a lot of my internal conflicts stem from being the only daughter in my family and growing up as first generation Punjabi in Canada. While trying to maintain Punjabi culture, my parents were unsure of how much western culture we were allowed to observe within our household. My brother and I both had many challenges in understanding our identities within the Canadian culture as a result. Simply by being a girl however, I was placed in a weaker status in Punjabi culture. It was clearly apparent that I was thought of as the weaker gender and constantly told, 'girls don’t do this or that etc.' This thought never made sense to me and I struggled with trying to understand it, as there was never an explanation. I had no choice, but to accept it within my family and culture."
"Being a Kaur involves being a role model, a mother, and string of so many other roles that lies in fundamentally being a good person. The sad thing is that women’s rarely get that much recognition for everything they do. In my opinion, Sometime women can be women’s worst enemies. There is this internal strife with women, focused on comparison and pushing women down. This needs to stop. There is room for everyone, we must encourage one another. We need to be role models for one another, as there is so much to do and accomplish.
As someone who has worked in media, I have had people, especially women share their stories and ask for help like connecting with resources. At times I am anguished with the details I hear, it saddens me, but I am willing to listen and help if I possibly can. Just sharing their stories sometimes is what is needed."
"My experiences are similar to other Kaurs on the Western coast — many of us are daughters of immigrants. I grew up around immigrant struggles and they shaped who I was. As a teenager, I went to the Gurudwara, where I learned about justice and fighting for what is right, standing up for those who are marginalized and have no access to power. This is where the foundations of my spirituality merged with Sikhi values. As I moved on to university, my spirituality, academia, and social justices values coalesced, rising to form my community work.
My practice for Sikhi comes from a spiritual sense. The connection to social justice calls me, especially the idea of langar, of sameness by uniting in a space to eat together. I think I gravitate back and forth to Sikhi throughout my life. It has always been there, something I am deeply proud of since it is where my sense of justice originates."