SAFAR’s second academic conference created and embraced genuine dialogue, starting with basic questions like “Gender ki Hai? What is Gender?” to make the academy accessible and interesting to non-academics and potential academics alike. Our Journeys Conference 2012, held on October 27, 2012, in the scenic University of British Columbia, was the inaugural conference on the West Coast and met its goal of promoting and sustaining feminist research, praxis and activism.
At a visceral level, the conference helped understand “What does a Sikh feminist look like?” Rather than arched eyebrows and snickers, the oft-misunderstood concept of “feminism” was discussed with vigor. All panelists were encouraged to help contribute to an understanding of “Sikh feminism,” which SAFAR has preliminarily defined, recognizing the emancipatory nature of Sikhi, as that which uncovers and understands what causes and sustains oppression in all its forms and strives to create social equity through individual and collective efforts.
(Read Summary of all Panels Below)
With attendees as diverse as the Sikh and larger community in British Columbia, the audience ranged from students, to homemakers, to professors, to lawyers, to artists, to activists. Understanding that Sikh feminist questions are not “women’s issues,” even while recognizing the expertise and centrality of women’s experiences to these inquiries, the attendees included several men of all ages. As Dr. Anne Murphy, moderator of the Keynote panel, reminded us, “To understand gender, one has to understand what it means to be a man?”
The women and men who attended Our Journeys 2012 employed scholar-activist Dr. Cynthia Enloe’s “feminist curiosity” with vigor. The Conference recognized that asking the difficult questions, being a feminist, is often exhausting. But this exhausting task, of aspiring to social justice, is precisely Guru Nanak’s revolutionary mission. Questions raised included:
Where are the women in our community, never-ending meetings, institutions?
For the women in these spaces, what is their experience?
Who speaks and how much? And for how long?
Who gives respect to uninterrupted voice of those who have long been silenced?
Why the disproportionate share of parenthood often requires women to stay behind, from gurudwaras divans, committees, and academic conferences alike?
What acts of everyday resistance and corrections might we commit ourselves to?
Why do we praise a man, with much enthusiasm, when he cooks a meal and manages a workday, while often neglecting the woman who does these tasks everyday?
Why is our identity as Sikhs mostly carried by the males, what is our complicity in that? What are the consequences?
What are the pressures on Sikh men, to live up to images of saviors and protectors?
Why is it a term of endearment to call our brave women Sher Puttars? What about naming and recognizing our Betis?
The discussions were interspersed by a break for Langar, after a loving reminder of Mata Khivi’s central role in institutionalizing the pivotal Sikh practice. The Conference provided literal, emotional, and intellectual nourishment. The close of the Conference was followed by an art exhibit and reception, which saw discussions continue late into the evening.
SAFAR thanks its tireless 2012 Conference Board for ensuring the success of the Conference, which captured Inspirations, Explorations, Voice, and Practice.
Summary of Panels:
The first panel was masterfully moderated by Dr. Anne Murphy, Assistant Professor and Chair of Punjabi Language, Literature, and Sikh Studies at University of British Columbia. While panelists Randy Clary shared Singh Sabhiya Bhai Vir Singh’s tract on Ishribrat Dharm, revolutionary for his time, but in complete consonance with the Guru’s teachings; Preet Virdi explored how Izzat, a good ethic, is genders and problematic in various ways; and Gurpreet Sehra employed video art to explore the new found freedom and newly defined masculinity of Punjabi males, asking “When will I be represented in this picture?” Prof. Murphy responded to the papers, identifying the interventions the panelists attempted on first and second wave feminist thought, providing future questions for developing the papers, and prompting further feminist inquiry: “To understand gender, one has to understand what it means to be a man?”
The second panel “Ensaaf: Social Justice,” panelist Jakeet Singh, first recognizing that we were on the land of the First Nations, encouraged a deeper exploration into various axes of subordination, “We have to deal with patriarchy and eurocentricism at the same time.” While Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra noted that various “anonymous kaurs” have in fact rendered inspiration in our movement, receiving their own inspiration first from history and gurbaani. Moderator Harinder Singh reminded us that we are often silent on many injustices precisely because we are collaborators.
In the panel on “Dharam di Sharan,” Bindy Kaur shared lessons learnt as a young Sikh feminist Masters Student, while the co-editors of the new Sikh Love Stories Collection shared the need for women’s voices in articulating their experiences straddling many different roles and worlds, but often going unnoticed. Prof. Sangeeta Luthra noted ways in which our Gurudwaras are spaces for reinforcing inequalities as much as they present an opportunity to reinforce equality. Moderator, children’s author Navjot Kaur, guided the panel through a discussion of how we want to protect our community and nurture it, but also to change it in the vision of our Gurus.
The final panel on Research Methods, explored how interdisciplinary methods concern themselves with ethics, voice, representation and power in scholarly production. Pawan Deep Kaur Rehill traced the literary-historical strands and the distinctive Sikh twist in the saakhi of Bhai Mardana and the “kingdom of women.” Herpreet Kaur Grewal shared her journey into history, tracing “She-roes” like Jind Kaur, the indomitable Maharani of Punjab, and reminded us of the dangers of romanticizing our She-roes rather than understanding them as complex, historical figures. Moderator and SAFAR Board Member Mallika Kaur noted that research into these histories, stories, and documents was research to include those often left out and to problematize the knowledge most-often deemed as legitimate—such is the aim and concern of feminist inquiry.