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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Where are the women? : the representation of gender in the Bhai Bala janamsakhi tradition and the women's oral janamsakhi tradition Johal, Ranbir Kaur


The janamsakhis are a Sikh literary tradition, which consist of hagiographies concerning Guru Nanak's life and teachings. Although the janamsakhis are not reliable historical sources concerning the life of Guru Nanak, they are beneficial in imparting knowledge upon the time period in which they developed. The representation of women within these sakhis can give us an indication of the general views o f women of the time. A lack of representation of women within the janamsakhi supports the argument that women have traditionally been assigned a subordinate role within patriarchal society. Due to this subordinate position, they have not had access to written forms of expression; thus, their voices have not been heard, affirming the status of women as a muted group in society. Men, as the dominant group with access to the written word, have been able to make their experiences and opinions heard through written means. The result has been a literature which is 'political', in that it promulgates specific views about women, and 'male', in that it concentrates upon the masculine, masculine characters, masculine plots and masculine perspectives. A reading of the Bhai Bala Tradition, the most popular of the janamsakhi traditions, results in the determination that this literature is firmly rooted as a 'male' and 'political' literature. This conclusion is all the more apparent when comparing the written Bhai Bala Tradition to the oral women's janamsakhi tradition in the District of Jalandhar, in the Punjab. A firm division between the public and private spheres is very evident when comparing the two traditions. Males have exercised control over the written tradition, so that the stories contained within this tradition emphasize the public sphere, where men dominate and the focus is upon adventure oriented plots which take place away from the domestic world, which is familiar to women. In contrast, in the women's oral tradition, because they are exercising control, the emphasis is upon the private sphere, where women dominate and the focus is upon stories concerning the domestic world and the women's realm. The women's oral janamsakhi tradition is evidence that, though they may be denied a voice through the written world, women can succeed in finding a voice through alternate means of expression. Through these oral stories, women are able to voice their opinions and frustrations.

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