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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Relocating gender in Sikh history : transformation, meaning and identity Jakobsh, Doris R.


The term 'gender' has been defined as an evolutionary, fluid construct; gendered realities are thus open to the vicissitudes of circumstance and time, emerging and developing with the shifting needs of the community within which they unfold. An analysis of gender construction is thus a useful mechanism to interpret the historical process on the whole. This theoretical position forms the framework for a reinterpretation of the Sikh community in the colonial context. The Sikh tradition itself has been part of an evolutionary process. From a primary focus on interior religiosity upon its inception, Sikhism developed into an increasingly militaristic order with highly prescribed exterior symbols and rituals. Accompanying this shift was a 'theology of difference', giving religious, symbolic and ritual sanctioning to a specific gender hierarchy. With a primary focus on male Sikh identity, female religious identity was relegated to a secondary position. Under-girding the annexation of Punjab into the British Empire were Victorian notions of the 'manly Christian', Christianized imperialism and chivalry, alongside rigid female ideals such as the 'helpmate'. The Sikhs came to be highly favoured by their imperial masters for their monotheistic ideals and what was perceived as their 'manly' and militaristic character. This hyper-masculine, militaristic construct, already enshrined within Sikh history through the creation of the Khalsa in 1699 received renewed emphasis by the British administration. The Singh Sabha reform movement initiated in the late-nineteenth century ingeniously accommodated selected aspects of the Victorian worldview into their reform agenda, particularly with regard to gender constructs. Leaders of the Singh Sabha began to actively safeguard Sikh interests in a political milieu increasingly defined by communal rivalry. A Sikh renaissance was born, bringing about a successful focus on linguistic concerns of the Sikhs, education, literature and a highly selective interpretive process of Sikh history and religion. Gender politics were pivotal to virtually all aspects of this endeavour. Novel interpretations and in certain instances 'inventions' of distinct female ritual traditions and symbolism alongside female educational initiatives fostering the 'ideal' Sikh woman were central to the objectives of the Singh Sabha reform movement.

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