Guest blogged by Nina Chanpreet Kaur
In September, I attended a Sikh awareness training at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. Sitting in the audience, I watched and listened as the presenter referred to Sikh women in passing and brought the Sikh male experience and turban to the center of the stage. During the Q&A, a woman behind me stood up. It was evident that she had heard Kaur for the first time during the presentation. She pronounced it “hora” then “whore” until she was finally corrected to “Kaur” as in core. It reminded me of how obsolete Kaur has become. I was also reminded of a dear friend of mine who recently told me about a reunion visit she had with some of our long time, mutual friends. As the usual gossip and updates ensued, someone mentioned my change of last name to Kaur and whispers and glances shot around the room. One woman surmised that I had gotten married. I had at that point received many Facebook messages congratulating me on my marriage. When my friend assured them, despite their insistence, that I had not gotten married another woman speculated that I had just become suddenly religious and so of course I changed my last name.
Across the globe today, our last names generally link us to patriarchy through kinship reference and in many cases ethnic, national, religious and class ties as well. In India and the South Asian diaspora, someone’s last name alone indicates what village or city she is from, her religious affiliation, familial ties, and even her family’s occupation and class status. In 1699 Guru Gobind Singh Ji, the 10th Guru of Sikhism and my spiritual father, asked Sikh men to take on the last name Singh meaning lion and Sikh women to take on the last name Kaur meaning prince. This request was intended to bring equality to a society then entrenched in inequality through caste, classism and sexism. Our world today remains entrenched in inequality.
Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s call for Singh and Kaur was more than a request to fight classism and kinship preference, it was a demand to subvert the structure of patriarchy and class structure as we know it. It was a call for revolution, the type of revolution that happens every day when we make choices that force us to stand out and stand up for our values. The type of revolution that happens each time large numbers of people choose to do something different and effect change through subversion. You can imagine, then, my surprise and amusement at the irony of being congratulated on my marriage when I changed my last name from Singh to Kaur.
I have always been struck by the universality of Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s message as well as the present time urgency and relevance of his indoctrination. Each time I think about it, I fall in love again and again with the pure genius, foresight and progressiveness of my spiritual father. The revolutionary act of naming and renaming, of subverting existing structures by replacing them with new ones and calling out to masses of people to join together in unity is the highest calling of humanity. For each of us to have the same last name means that we share a sense of unity and mutual commitment to ourselves and the world. It is a legacy for men and women not based on our fathers and their wealth or primogeniture but a legacy based on our values and commitment to humanity – defending justice and equality among the most important but also killing ego, kinship and class ties, adopting belief in One God and the pervasiveness of divine presence. Both Singh and Kaur evoke images of regality and in the Sikh tradition this indicates our shared and ever present divinity. Until very recently, however, I have rejected Kaur as part of my name.
Often times when I hear Sikhs talk to non-Sikhs about Singh and Kaur, they describe symbolic or historical references with little or no mention of their relevance to our world today. For many, I fear that Singh and Kaur are choices that hold little meaning in everyday life. Some take on Singh and Kaur as their last name. Others frequently take on Singh or Kaur as a middle name while keeping their caste or familial last name as their legal last name. Sikh women, like women of many cultures and faiths, take on their husband or father’s last name. As a result, many Sikh women go by Singh and do not use Kaur as their last name or use it as a middle name. For far too many, Singh or Kaur are just an alias on email, social media sites or nametags at conferences.
In the 1980’s my parents, like many other well-intentioned parents of their generation, decided it was best for all of us to carry the same last name. After all, our turbans, beards, brown skin, colorful clothing and pungent food raised enough eyebrows in my small (white) hometown in rural Pennsylvania. My father had already made the decision to take on the last name Singh. So it goes in patriarchy, we all took on Singh after my father. Growing up Singh always made me feel special. For me, Singh had a special ring to it. Dr. Singh was my father’s name and public face. I watched with pride as his patients and hospital staff looked to him with tenderness, respect and gratitude. I took great pleasure in knowing my father helped other people and when I heard someone call out Dr. Singh I would smile and relish in that satisfaction. It is also the name of my forefathers and foremothers. I knew whenever I heard Singh that I came from somewhere, and that somewhere was a great place and I had a duty to live up to its name. Mrs. Singh, my mother, was grand by association to Dr. Singh and as I grew older, especially during my 4 years of teaching, people referred to me as Ms. Singh. When I heard my name, the same pride washed over me. It was pride in my family name and a fundamental pride in where I come from and how I came to be here. Singh commands attention and the memories I associate with the name are close to my heart.
For most of my life, I have gone by my given and legal name Nina Chanpreet Singh. In a 2008 interview,Shauna Singh Baldwin explained that she decided to keep the last name Singh instead of Kaur because she didn’t feel herself worthy of that title. My struggle with Kaur was for different reasons. My struggle stemmed from sheer lack of association, lack of pride. No women in my family have legally taken on the last name Kaur. For me, Kaur had no legacy, no ringing pride except to people and references from a time long gone. Kaur was an idea of the distant past.
It was only recently that I started to really question the congruity of my own decisions. Contemplating taking on Kaur and my (yet unborn) daughters doing the same, I thought I’d change my name when I got married. But then I realized this would defeat the intended purpose of Kaur. I thought then of the attachment I have to Singh. My family, my father, my community and history…images and memories crashed into my mind and grief encircled my heart. A few years ago, a mentor gave me a copy of Leaving My Father’s House by Marion Woodman. It is a book I have read over again many times with new emotions surfacing each time. I knew I needed to let go of Singh and do some serious work on my internalized sexism so that I could begin to relate to the world and myself outside the constructs of kinship, class and patriarchal ties. But this endeavor remained mostly theoretical and intellectual pursuit.
The turning point for me came this January when I attended Surat-Lalkaar, a Sikh conference co-organized by Jakara in New York. One of the organizers, a dear friend of mine who I adore deeply, commented in passing how assigning roommates became a complicated task because both men and women used Singh as their last names and with our unisex first names it was hard to determine who was male or female.* The irony struck and disturbed me. Over the course of the weekend, I watched with amusement as the hotel staff raised their eyebrows, perplexed and confused, as they perused long lists of people with the same last name. Among the conference topics covered were violence against women as well as our struggle as a community to come together on gender related issues. It was in fact the very first time I discussed this topic with a group of Punjabi Sikhs my age. Still, I found myself and others talking about these issues as if they were outside of us and not in the room with us. It was talk of stuff that happens to other people in our community and for once we were going to try to grapple with it but we didn’t talk about the elephant in the room and I was reluctant to bring it up. I was keenly aware that among us sat both survivors and perpetrators. As a quiet survivor sitting in the room myself, I realized that I had not yet brought my leadership into my own community to help other women overcome the same battles I have faced. It occurred to me that it is time I take both my leadership and my legacy as a Sikh woman and global citizen much more seriously.
Kaur is now my legal last name and it is a matter of social action for me. In order for Kaur to have meaning for future generations, I need to give it meaning. I take on Kaur as my last name with pride, as a pioneer, and I want other women to join me so that when my daughters stand up and are called Kaur a sense of joy, passion, commitment, pride and regality awaken their very being. I want my daughters to feel an army of forefathers and foremothers standing behind them each time they hear Kaur. I want Kaur to reverberate and reflect back to them their legacy and purpose every day – the struggles, resilience, sacrifices, values, duties, joy and pain. The legacy begins with me and you. When someone asks me why I changed my last name, I reply: I changed my last name because I believe in my liberation and yours. I believe that we are all equal and I believe in the future of my daughters and sons and their children, too.
* Note to reader: Traditional Sikh names are unisex. That is, Chanpreet is a male or female name – there is no gender attached to the name itself and this goes for all Sikh names.
Originally published on The Langar Hall website on November 13, 2012