kaur: A Meditation On Identity


My name has often sparked confusion due to its gender ambiguity, mostly in the workplace context. I recall arriving to more than one first day at work and being greeted by something along the lines of, 'I thought you typed your emails like a woman!' or conversely an apologetic, 'Sorry, the whole office thought you were a boy!'

I have never really taken much offence to these situations, mostly because in the Sikh tradition, or at least the culture of naming Sikh children, the name is often gender- ambiguous. I have the same name as my cousin brother, for example and our Sikh neighbours have a daughter with the same name as my own brother. The only way to tell if a name belongs to a man or to a woman is to check the middle name of the person in question.

If the middle name is 'Kaur' the person is a Female, and if it is 'Singh' then the name most likely belongs to a Male.

This tradition of taking the name of either Kaur / Singh has its inception in the creation of the 'Khalsa': a momentous event in the history of the Sikhs, where the 10th Guru declared that all those who chose to be initiated in to ‘Khalsa’ would have to strip off their previous identities, caste identifiers and class allegiances and instead become betrothed to the ideals of equality, solidarity and commitment to the delivery of Justice. One way of achieving this was taking up the commonality of the name ‘Kaur’ or ‘Singh’.

The word Kaur has a number of different translations, most commonly it has been translated in to 'Princess', whilst other scholars have argued that the root of the word is 'Prince'. This would explain why historically, Sikh men have carried the name Kaur Singh. If we can say that the real translation/ etymology of the word is 'Prince', we can also acknowledge the sovereignty and royalty that was bestowed upon women that day in Anandpur Sahib (the birthplace of Khalsa).

I was thus born with the name Kaur threaded carefully through my identity, and as I researched more deeply, I became more and more aware of the centrality it has played in my identity as a woman and in the solidarity it has enabled me to extend to other women.

I considered why this was, and I arrived at the conclusion that the name ‘Kaur’ instilled a great sense of stability in me. I have found that the conscious acceptance of other forms of identity is a more explicit part of our experience as women. Of course, men negotiate a number of different identities throughout their lives too, for example as fathers, as friends, as sons, as colleagues etc. but the choice of taking up a new identity, or negotiating an existing one, is typically more complex for women. For example, the decision to get married. From the point a woman gets engaged- shiny new ring on her finger, to when she actually gets married- shiny new surname/ double barrel surname, a new identity is more explicitly accepted. There are other examples too, announcing to your office that you’re pregnant and will soon be embarking on maternity leave is an explicit negotiation- your decision that motherhood as an identity construct will take precedence over your identity within your workplace. It is a sad reality that women are often left behind in the race to advance careers once they make decisions such as this. These very visual identifiers which take place in a more public spaces highlight the ongoing conscious acceptance we make of new identities as women. My sister in law leaves behind her young son every morning in the care of another, and as soon as she steps outside the house, her identity as a mother is balanced once again to allow for the identity of an employee. There are countless more examples we could explore.

Throughout this instability of ever-evolving notions of which identities I will decide to embrace in my life, I have found myself clinging ever more to this stubbornly unchanging name- Kaur. I draw strength from my history, and from a connection of sisterhood, which helps bring me closer to other Kaurs. But also trains me to see non-Kaurs as my sisters too.

My identification with other women carrying this name, or indeed my feeling of solidarity with both their successes and failures was made clear to me when I first saw Rupi Kaur's collection of poetry, Milk and Honey, on the shelf of my local Waterstones. My experience at this point is very difficult to describe, so I will instead write about that lump in my throat, my heart skippigng a beat. To see a part of my name looking back at me and occupying a space I had always felt was reserved for people who did not look like me was extremely powerful. Representation is so important, that rheteroic is something I have always believed in, but its something I truly felt that day. I attended a workshop where a colleague of mine spoke about this, she said, 'If you see something, you can become it'. The word ring truer to me now than they ever did before.

In this tumultuous ocean that is the world in 2018, this unyielding force that is name Kaur- and the solidarity it has helped me to build with my sisters- is what keeps me afloat.



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