Reflecting on Women Writing Punjabi History

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Gurdwara Sri Rori Sahib, Eminabad, Gujranwala (c) 2004 Pippa Virdee

A reflective essay on the lack of women in history writing and Punjab history. This was originally published in The Friday Times5 July 2019.

My first visit to Pakistan was in 2002. It was primarily to do research as a PhD student. At that time, I came with the religious baggage of belonging to a Sikh family and venturing into the known unknown. When I finally got my visa, I was very excited about travelling to the ‘near other’; unknown yet somehow familiar. After all, I rationalised, the cultural region of Punjab is, well, Punjab across both sides of the Radcliffe Line. And so, the journey into Pakistan’s history begun, a space in which the personal and the academic intermingled and boundaries became a metaphor for more than just the relationship between India and Pakistan.

The Sikhs in Pakistan are a small community; one of the smallest minorities in Pakistan. Exact numbers are difficult to estimate but they vary from around 6,000 to perhaps 20,000. They are largely concentrated around places like Peshawar, Nankana Sahib and Lahore. The interesting thing is that apart from the ethnic Punjabi Sikhs, many of the Sikhs that remained in Pakistan after 1947 were Pathan Sikhs. The latter were scattered in small numbers across Balochistan, Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Most have been forced to relocate since, often seeking sanctuary in numbers. Though small, the Sikh community over the past few years has come to enjoy some state patronage. In an otherwise ‘Islamic’ milieu, Sikh men are easily identifiable by their turbans. Added to this are the old persistent colonial stereotypes of the Sikhs being a ‘martial’ race (even in Pakistan). And of course, the ‘Khalistani’ Sikhs have the sympathetic ears of the Pakistan establishment since the early 1980s. Thus, in Pakistan today, the medieval shadow of the Sikh-Muslim rivalry of Mughal India, as well as the pall of 1947 have receded to create a strange co-existence and a convenient acceptance of current realpolitik rather than a bitter dwelling in the past. However, this convenient relationship does not necessarily translate easily or well in the Sikh diaspora, especially here in the United Kingdom, where I am based.

While my main purpose for visiting Pakistan in 2002 was for my doctoral research, there was inevitably an interest to visit Sikh Gurdwaras and shrines; those remnants of pre-1947 which still existed. I have subsequently visited Pakistan more times than I can remember and have seen the changes in many of these shrines and their localities. Over the last 15 years, there has been a transformation of many of these shrines; from being small and poorly maintained to now being considered as one of the growing areas for pilgrim tourism in Pakistan. Every year, especially at the time of Vaisakhi and Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary, pilgrims come in their thousands from the UK, USA, Canada, which are home to significant Sikh diaspora communities. Depending on political temperatures, Indian Sikhs also make this pilgrim trip. For instance, this year, the Government of Pakistan issued 2,200 visas to Sikhs pilgrims in India for Vaisakhi. There is much trepidation amongst these of falling under the radar of intelligence agencies on both sides. Beyond the politics of two paranoid and securitised states though, growth in this tourism has benefitted local communities, as infrastructure around the ‘important’ shrines has improved to facilitate foreign tourists. These bring in the much-needed foreign exchange. They travel, stay, eat, drink, shop and thus spend their foreign currencies in Pakistan and, ultimately, some of this does make its way into the local economy. But this development is localised and centred around a handful of shrines, with the majority still largely neglected.

Social media and its ability to connect across borders, has spurred on a handful of people to seek adventure in Pakistan and document the ‘lost’ history of the Sikhs. Conversely, there has been more interest in these forgotten histories within Pakistan too. Combined with increased pilgrim tourism, there is almost a fascination and a sense of lost kinship that many Sikh Punjabis have with Pakistan and Pakistani Punjabis. These complex historicised feelings are under-girded by a common language, culture, biradari connections, and bhaichara. There is an old romantic connection that many have with reaching Lahore (formally Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s capital) captured in the phrase, Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya O Jamyai Nai/ Jine Lahore Nai Vekhya O Jamya Nai, meaning ‘One who has not seen Lahore has not been born’! This has been recited countless times and it helps to maintain the old pluralistic image of colonial Lahore. In this quest then, for the lost history of Sikhs in Pakistan, there has been a profusion of activity which has generated research in universities, fictional/non-fiction literature and pictorial books on Sikhs. These latter easily detract and divert from the difficult issues of politics, while sticking to the sites of nostalgia and neglect. Even the research at Pakistani universities (not exclusively though) is largely focused on the Ranjit Singh period (1801-39). When the bearded young man boasts of Ranjit Singh, of the contribution of the Punjabi (but usually Sikh) soldiers, of the great martial tradition, they rarely give women a thought.

These histories perpetuate and create a myth of the splendour associated with this lost history of the Sikhs. Even hard leftists have a soft spot for an otherwise unelected, unrepresentative, hereditary maharaja. While this greater interest and curiosity amongst scholars and students is welcome, it also serves to reinforce old stereotypes by avoiding the more difficult question of the broader issue of non-Islamic histories of Pakistan. Moreover, the study of history and its periodisation retains much of the colonial interpretations, hardly allowing us to interrogate these boundaries intellectually and dispassionately.

In the quest for academic “impact” and to connect with the general public, many academics in the west have been compelled to promote themselves. Social media again has been the route for this seemingly altruistic self-promotion. Articles, blogs and personal posts on social media, of travelling around Pakistan and bonding with the locals, for people’s immediate consumption and gratification. Moreover, the Punjabis express this in their usual flamboyant style of visiting their ‘lost’ Punjab, bonding with the local Punjabis and then sharing these ‘amazing’ bonding experiences. On closer inspection though, these all have something else in common. They are all invariably shared by men and are about their fraternal experiences. Statistically, we know that on average women are 26 percent less likely to own a mobile than men and 70 percent less likely to use mobile internet. Naturally, this means less women are visible and even when they are, they use it differently. Women largely use social networking to make connections and keep in touch with family or friends, in contrast men use social media to gather information they need to build influence. In South Asia, this discrepancy stems from the fact that men usually have better educational opportunities, have mobile phones, have greater levels of digital literacy, and this advantage over women fuels their privileged status.

Much of this social conditioning starts from the home, through to schools and universities. The social system perpetuates and emboldens men, making them entitled from a young age. As young women, we often have to fight our way to pursue our aspirations and dreams. Wanting to study politics and history at university for me was not easy because this was not considered an appropriate subject for a girl, even though it eventually reaped rewards. Universities themselves are supposed to be some of the most intellectually progressive spaces but actually they are not. They are just a reflection of society itself. They have the same prejudices and reflect the same class, caste, gender biases that society has. This is reflected in the largely male student body in South Asia, and although the number of girls is increasing and often, they perform better, many still see this as way of improving their choice of marriage partners. This is not a criticism of their desire to improve their lives, but rather a reflection of the limited value of education. The staff fraternity also tends to be male-dominated, especially the senior staff. Although this is no better than in the UK where the Royal Historical Society recently published a study on Race, Ethnicity and Equality (2018) and found that there was an over-whelming dominance of white male professors compared to females and the numbers are even smaller for those from Black and Ethnic minorities.

These centres of learning, therefore, do not reflect the voices of everyone because even here, the skewed societal power structures remain intact. Men control the institutions and therefore they control the narrative. They are the gatekeepers of knowledge and learning and without challenging these structures the narrative cannot be changed.

My experiences of being a (Sikh) woman living and working in Pakistan (largely Lahore and the Punjab) has been quite ordinary in many ways and extraordinary in other ways. I have never been given a free taxi ride; unlike the numerous accounts one reads of visiting Sikhs (i.e. Sikh men) who have struck a long-lost kinship with the taxi driver, who then from the kindness of his heart refuses to charge the client. In fact, I have struggled to speak with taxi drivers and men in public spaces in Punjabi because they consider this to be impolite. Unlike men, I am usually compelled to speak in the Urdu, which imposes a certain level of distance and formality to the conversation. While I cannot have my ‘bromances’ with most of those around me, I can, however, quietly enter the zenana spaces. And these, like the history pages that neglect them, are often hidden away.

I have learnt over the years that women, whether in South Asia or in the West, do not boast of their achievements. They work like ants, running around, keeping busy and building structures out of crumbs. The obstacles they encounter en route can be difficult and they are not always successful. More often than not they will encounter men who are in positions of authority and wield substantial power over the lives (and bodies) both in the home and the outside world. And the outside world is designed by men and for the needs of men. They would rarely acknowledge the privileged position they have in the home and the outside world and the freedom this gives them.

While I have spent many years working in Pakistan, on Punjab’s history, I have rarely felt the need to write about my “non-academic” experiences. The motivation has largely come from the fact that despite all these years, there is still not enough progress and even today there are few female historians coming forward. Even today we are judged on how we look, what we wear rather than what we think and write. Intellectually there is a stale and over-bearing concern for constantly writing about conflict, nationalism, religion, battles, and hero-worshipping; a reflection perhaps of an insecure male society that seeks glory from former victories to validate its present. The only way we can get diversity in the way we view and write about our history is to have that diversity in the people who write it. As a society we need to challenge these hyper-masculinised and hyper-nationalised histories that distort our past and shape our future. If we want to be part of the narrative, we have to take responsibility for writing it. As women we need to make ourselves visible in both the past and the present.

2 comments

  1. A wonderful essay with some memorable writing (eg the ant analogy) and addressing an important topic. Thank you.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Liked by 1 person

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