Reflections of Kaur Project – Live
By Tina Balachandran
NO I am not a fan of Women’s Day. And YES the misogyny of the media and token feminism anger me. Year after year I have the same reaction and the same questions – why do we need a day to celebrate and honour women; one day devoted to women- seriously? Why do we need a day to remind everyone that we are equal, or that we women are strong and powerful? Women are still seeking permission, fighting abuse and sexual harassment, denied equal pay, and status. Despite us struggling, surviving, succeeding every day our contributions and its impact is virtually invisible across milieu.
Technology and social media are proving to be a major catalyst for change today. With the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements’ women were able to support each other, stepping up and sharing their stories. Oh yes they are shrugging the stereotypes and turning into each other’s powerful allies; connecting and supporting. And in this process; knowingly unknowingly they inspire other women around them. While paving the way for the future generation, carrying the baton forward slowly but surely inching towards the seismic shift. Where do we fit in this seismic shift – the South Asian women, the ‘Kaurs’? Do we continue our confrontations with exclusion and inequality or do we own our identity – unapologetically and unabashedly.
The Kaur Project made me curious; a storytelling project where voices that are traditionally muted, erased and silenced are centre stage. The live event was hosted at the Museum of Surrey on March 10, 2019. Four courageous Kaurs took the stage and had an entire audience enthralled and hungrily holding on to every word, every experience, and every journey. What I witnessed was — cathartic, immersive and brutally honest.
It all started in 2015 with a Kaur duo – Saji Kaur Sahota and Jessie Kaur Lehail, a photographer – writer pair from British Columbia, Canada, asking Sikh women what being a Kaur means to them. Born from this quest was a series of real life stories narrated by the protagonist themselves in a non-threatening, non-judgmental, safe online platform The Kaur Project.
Their intent was sincere and simple “We started this project to empower Kaurs to use their voices and to share their stories. As a result, we have created a safe space for voices to be heard. As Kaurs, we must tell and edit our own stories”, said co-founder, Jessie Kaur Lehail. Tell and edit our own stories – this was enough for me to fall in love with the project. We have seen ample hemming and hawing about women’s role and their existence, ample lip service being given to issues that are screaming for attention and action. So when something like this comes along that draws the dialogue out of the limbo and onto a wide open setting – you notice and you cheer.
Their vision, its process is bold and original. For every woman featured in the “Kaur Project”, Sahota does a photo shoot and Lehail conducts a 20 minute phone interview. Every story begins with Lehail’s two simple questions : “How do you identify yourself as a Kaur?’ and ‘What has your journey been so far?”. The answers have unfolded stories and the stories therein have addressed topics like marriage, divorce, having children, losing children, struggles of depression or abuse, managing relationships, abandoning relationships, trials and tribulations of life. Thus giving a platform to countless untold stories of power and resilience from women who have accepted the name Kaur.
The Kaurs have a beautiful back-story to their naming tradition. The Kaur, Singh naming tradition began in the 17th century as a way to resist the caste class system, in which a person’s name indicated their status in the society. The name Kaur acts as equalizers enabling Sikh women to identify themselves without their fathers or husbands.
“Some of the themes of the interview are specific to Sikh or immigrant woman,” Lehail said, “but a lot of what’s discussed is applicable to any community and almost all women.”
Today, Kaur Project has become a globally recognized, online safe space where Sikh women, across generations, talk about everything. The project inspires Kaurs to see the brilliance in their own narratives, power of their own telling and invites readers to understand the diversity within Sikhism.
With all the adulation from the community and global attention the Project was ready to take a leap. “It was time that we create and host live spaces like our dinner/talk and storytelling nights. We want Kaurs to continue sharing stories, but now we can create opportunities for conversation.”
Kaur stories told in a live setting. The Live sessions feature Kaurs who will recount their life experiences of bravery, regrets, sorrow, and of course courageous happiness. During this experience, attendees have the opportunity to participate by asking questions, engaging in dialogue, and building empathy and deep connections within and between communities – all while listening to riveting Kaur stories, told live.
The quartet who moved us with their courageous telling at the March 2019edition were Nimi Kaur; a survivor and advocate, Gurpreet Kaur Bains; an educator, Taqdir Bhandal; a Phd candidate and Sukhvinder, a positive change maker. Four women, different names, different backgrounds, different journeys and yet they struck a deep connection in absolute harmony and chorus with each and every member of the audience; across age and gender! The sight of these remarkable women taking stage with Kaur Project’s brave and brilliant founder Jessie Kaur Lehail was powerful and full of promise.
Nimi Kaur is a survivor and an advocate. Nimi grew up in Canada with values that respected all religions equally. As an adult she believes in higher accountability of actions and their impact on others. Nimi shared her story and years of wisdom on abuse and violence. “As a survivor I was one of the lucky ones” says Nimi. Her parents believed her and supported her. When Nimi shared the horror she had been through, her parents heard her and sought counselling. The first step towards helping a victim is listening to them and acknowledging their story whereas typically a victim is told to get over it and move on. Nimi recalls that she never had a single moment when her parents didn’t believe her. As an adult she appreciates how difficult it must’ve been for them to watch their child in pain and helplessness of not being able to do anything about it. Our societal attitude to sweep it under the carpet and never bring it up only amplifies the survivors’ shame blame and guilt. “Your feelings never get validated. You want people to stop treating you like it’s your fault”.
Her memory of the incident came back when she was in grade 8 and she voraciously read everything that was available. She read everything she could lay her hands on. She realised that all stories are anonymous; with details always altered. She wondered why the victims were nameless and faceless. Even today when someone hears her story, the momentary flinch ratifies the self-blame, guilt and shame. Nimi brought up crucial issue of support for survivors. There are never enough tools to equip you to erase the scars. The more we share the stories the more validation we can offer the victims.
Educators in the room helped bring to the forefront the impact of sexual abuse and other traumas on our youth, how widespread and rampant it is, how the community is suffering in silence even as individuals journey through education hence highlighting the significance of social emotional learning in education.
Gurpreet Kaur Bains is head of languages department at a School in Surrey. Her strong connection and understanding of the youth, immigrants, Sikhs, South Asians and allies prompted her to highlight the role of in-group challenges with being accepted by the Sikh community in Surrey, the culture within the high schools in Surrey and the struggles of the South Asians in the Surrey school systems and hence her focus on social emotional learning. She says her biggest focus in a language classroom is to get students connected to their heritage, culture and roots. And this goes beyond “the Dress, Dance and Dine component”. Culture is a much deeper entity just like an Iceberg.
Gurpreet was the first Kaur to feature in the Kaur Project. For her the Kaur identity gives her values like courage, acceptance, humility, compassion and selfless service to others. “I came to this country as an immigrant with no language barrier and good academic qualifications. But still felt a discriminatory attitude from some of my own people who under-estimated my abilities and qualifications.” Her strength came from her progressive upbringing, supportive family and a strong sense of self. “My Sikh way of life, recitation of Gurbani, meditation and selfless service to others gives me the courage, strength and grounding to continue to serve all without expecting anything in return”.
There was an emphasis on talking and telling your stories, reaching out and seeking support through allies and building communities that nurture. The quartet raised awareness of seeking help, seeking mental help, seeking social support, seeking mind-body connections to support wellbeing.
Taqdir Kaur Bhandal is a writer, researcher and public educator based in Vancouver BC. Young Taqdir spoke gently and passionately about her project on menstrual health – IM with periods. She spoke in both Punjabi (music to my ears) & English and beautifully weaved land stories, intergenerational stories, and issues of environmental justice. Her humble aspiration in her own words ‘Our purvja (ancestors) have been living on the Stolo (Fraser) river delta since the late 1800s and yet a Kaur has never been elected to Vancouver City Council. On the basis of their skin colour and ethnographic-cultural background, the colonial British government refused the new arrivals entry on the land. Now more than 100 years later, I want to channel the resilience of my aunties and uncles. I believe that diversity powers our city, and we need politicians who are engaged in and reflect Vancouver’s multiple histories. I ran for city council as an independent candidate (not with any political party) to honour my elders, and to promote equitable policies and practices that will nurture the next generation”.
Even though Taqdir wasn’t elected in this election (not a single Punjabi was), the buds of hope are blooming as she continues to champion and mentor South Asian women for 2022 elections.
Taqdir is founder of IM with periods, an entrepreneurial initiative to teach people how to chart their menstrual cycle. As a menstrual health advocate Taqdir works with women of colour; to her surprise many appreciate the beauty of mahvari however there is still rampant stigma in talking about periods and even sex out loud. In a community where conversations about sex, menstruation, consent are still shushed it was refreshing to hear the Kaurs followed by motivated members of audience suggesting that we initiate dialogue with children on sex and sexuality – to normalize and open doors and ease communications.
Sukhvinder Kaur Vinning in her effortless natural wit shared an episode from what was an organic kitchen table conversation with her cousin’s mom in law. The elderly lady shared her wisdom with all the young girls in the family on the importance of a good sexual relationship between couples for a healthy marriage. Sukhvinder says the beauty of this otherwise not so commonly spoken topic of sexuality was the intergenerational hearty discussion. How many of us remember even the most fierce feminist torchbearer aunts and beeji’s ever talk about what is clearly an important and ignored education.
I loved the ease with which Sukhvinder weaved in elements of Gurbani. Her insightful interpretation of the mool mantar is an epic expression – Ek onkar – I am part of this creation that is cycle of birth life and death; Sat Naam – what is my truth what is my essence; Karta purkh – what am I here to create; Nir Bhau – how do I move thru the fear and how do I get on the other side; Nir Vair – how do I move thru my anger and hate and get to the other side; Akal Moorat– I am part of the infinite faces of creation what are all the parts that make me me; Ajooni – body is shell my essence is not bound by my body; Saibhang – how do I keep growing ; Guruprasaad – I am part of your grace. I realise your grace.
Sukhvinder Kaur graced the stage adorning the Kesaki “It is my crown, my right, I own it. I am proud of it and I have earned the right to wear it”. For her practising the learning of Sikhi is what makes it a fun adventure and opens us up. “Sikhi is not religion it is a spiritual path of empowerment. That is it. Full stop”. Sukhvinder believes that the teachings are codified concepts and tools built in our practice, simple tenets to live by. With reassuring nonchalance Sukhvinder Kaur gave us lessons on Gurbani and the Sikhi way of living, what it means to embody the Kaur identity through a secular lens, lessons she has learned over the years through self-reflection and growth and closing the circle back by always tying back to her understanding of the Sikhi principals of living. Sukhvinder brought up Brene Brown’s work on courage, shame and vulnerability and how her work is transforming and teaches us to be better Sikhs.
Interestingly although each story was different each journey had its own highs and lows the calming commonalities of them all cannot be ignored. It takes truckloads of courage to sit up, say your story and own it and I was reminded of Brene Brown’s words “Owning your story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do”. The Quartet and the many Kaurs before them who have paved the way to amplify the voices of Sikh women; through this original organic process have empowered countless women. In the melange of emotions that evening was a calm meditating undercurrent, there was a sigh in unison – I hear you! These bold, beautiful and wise conversations left not a single dry eye in the audience.
Kaur Project confirms that our voices matter. There is an overwhelming moral urgency to have these conversations. These stories give us courage to be unabashedly any version of a Kaur we wish to be. The faith and support the audience manifested that evening is a clear indicator that we are hungry for more stories.
Kaur project is a bold and honest attempt to bring to light the bare basic truth that every Kaur has a story and every Kaur matters. I am reminded of Nigerian novelist and writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, words “Your feminist premise should be: I matter, I matter equally. Not ‘if only.’ Not ‘as long as.’ I matter equally. Full stop.”
Author – Tina Balachandran is a Television Director, Film maker, Storyteller, Drama Coach, Blogger, ardent activist and a lifelong learner. She has worked on various television shows in India