My family are Sikh and I was born as Sharan Kaur Dhaliwal. It's always been a part of me, but I have never really delved into its significance past 'most Sikh women have Kaur as a name' just as men are 'Singhs'. What surprises me now is that I was never taught about Sikhism when it came to my womanhood. Being a Kaur is about being unashamedly female, having the power and ability to perform as well as anyone else - giving women the same status as men. When I finally learnt about this, I was intrigued at the 'club' of women that this has created.
The Kaur Project has opened this door. I spoke to Jessie Kaur Lehail about the work they do.
You work alongside Saji Kaur Sahota who photographs Kaur women for the project – how did you guys meet?
Yes. Saji and I are co-founders of Kaur Project. Saji, has a background in photography and is community-focused. As the storyteller, my academic focus has been on contemporary critical & cultural theory, ethnicity, gender, and feminism.
We met at a women’s event in early 2015 and decided to have coffee. During that chat, Saji discussed a project she thought would be really cool, it was a variation of the current project. With our combined skills, backgrounds, and my academic obsession, the project morphed into something bigger than that first meeting.
How did you come up with this concept?
We were inspired by Humans of New York, a storytelling blog that has photos and interesting quotes from people. That was a starting point, but more to that, it was imperative our project had a theoretical framework, which we refer to and rigorously critique.
Saji and I felt it was important that as Kaurs we were doing something to create conversations. To our knowledge, there wasn’t any real focus on awareness and education of Kaur identity in creative ways like this. With Saji’s photography skills, my storytelling it was a perfect fit to realize theory in a practical, artistic way.
Saji photographs in both black and white and colour in the near same locations. The result is a striking collage of women. The words associated with each set of images gives each participant the ability to present themselves with their own title and stories so they can be seen as exactly who they are. Even our website was created in the format of self-discovery of the reader, as if they are peeling an onion and getting to the heart of things. We were intentionally minimalistic, so the focus remains on the Kaurs and their stories.
We wanted Kaur Project to create a space for Sikh women to be seen and heard. As a web project, it provides a starting point for unpacking densely layered dialogue. Kaur Project provides an opportunity to provoke questions and thinking. Men are encouraged to participate in the conversation, but Kaurs claiming their space and speaking freely is critical.
Why is it important to you?
As Kaurs ourselves, we have negotiated our Kaur identity within many other identity lenses. This curiosity about Sikhism, ourselves and other Kaurs has helped the project represent a wide spectrum of faces and stories from the Kaur community.
We wanted something that recognised and celebrated Kaur identity as inclusive, diverse and expansive, Kaur Project does exactly this. Essentially, there is room for everyone. From our point of view, this aligns with the roots of Sikhism.
Its important that safe spaces be accessible for Kaur voices to be heard and seen. As a web platform and intra-diaspora forum, Kaur Project celebrates and brings awareness to the diversity within the Kaur community. Overall there is an exploration of feminism within Sikhism. There is a two-fold aim. Firstly, to act as a tool for those unfamiliar with Sikhism to understand the expansive diversity of Sikh women, beyond stereotypes. Then within the Kaur community it provides a catalogue of Kaur definitions, which helps negotiate self-identification, otherness and inclusion. It also brings to light aspects of dogma, a variety of interpretations within religious, cultural, and even racial discussions.
How do you find Kaur women?
Kaurs either fill out the contact form on our website, or Kaurs are introduced to us from various community circles in Vancouver and surrounding areas. We are always looking for more Kaurs.
How would a Kaur, who is interested, get in contact with you?
Tell us more about being a Kaur and the importance behind it.
This is such a challenging question. Saji and I definitely don’t have all the answers and we are constantly learning and having a-ha moments from each Kaur we work with. What we do know is that there are a wide spectrum of faces and stories from the Kaur community.
There has been aspects of dogma and a variety of interpretations with religious, cultural, and even racial aspects that have been discovered (we are definitely still uncovering more on all this). As creators, we have accumulated a catalogue of rich information and are realising that there will be opportunities for additional unpacking.
Its also interesting that while our experiences may be different, its been amazing to identify that there are commonalities. Kaur Project confirms that our voices matter and we need opportunities to unpack dialogue. The Kaur stories touch on topics like colonialism, violence, religion, clash of parental expectations and lived experience of duality between identities allows for women to fight in solidarity for the right to love oneself in a world that teaches you to disappear and to individually choose whether to reconcile or not the individual and cultural/religious feminism with that of the mainstream.
You are currently Canada based – are you able to speak to Kaur’s internationally?
Saji and I are both based in Vancouver, Canada. Our initial expansion will be in the England and California. We are open to international opportunities, basically anywhere that Saji would be able to photograph Kaurs. To align with the theoretical framework, its important that the photography style be as consistent as possible. My role is not so geographically constrained, meaning that my conversations can take place via phone from anywhere.
What do you have happening in the future? What can we look out for?
For the last year, the stories have connected personal beliefs, struggles and successes, and we feel so fortunate the project has reached this point. Our biggest hope is that Kaur Project provides Kaurs the feeling or rather the assurance they can be any version of a Kaur without being ashamed. That despite their disparate experiences, they actually have so much in common.
As mentioned earlier, as creators, we have accumulated a catalogue of rich information and have been approached by different collaborators to explore our findings in a multitude of ways. Currently, we are focusing on the right fits and timing of what’s next. We are really excited about our next steps.