The Kaur Project: A photography, storytelling website gives voice to Sikh women in the US
The Kaur Project is a storytelling and photography website that highlights the lives, struggles, and achievements of Sikh women in North America
The Kaur Project is a storytelling and photography website that highlights the lives, struggles, and achievements of Sikh women in North America. The brainchild of writer Jessie Kaur Lehail and photographer Saji Kaur Sahota, the website has been lauded as an online safe space for Sikh women to share their stories, each written in the first person and opening readers to the diversity within Sikhism. The stories are quilted together from pieces of personal philosophy, experiences of struggle and their corresponding moments of catharsis, and axioms by which to live. Excerpts from an interview:
When did you start The Kaur Project, and what was its genesis?
It was in the Spring of 2015. We met at a women’s conference in early 2015. I was on the board, Saji was doing photography. We decided to meet for coffee and from there Kaur Project was conceived. We bonded over feminism, identity politics, and their mutual realisation that many women in Sikhism stood in the shadows of their fathers or husbands.
Within a few weeks the project was underway, I constructed the theoretical framework and website. Saji intertwined the theoretical framework into the photography and discovered how she wanted to frame each Kaur session at her studio. We went back and forth on how the process would be built out.
We have seen a lot of feminist theory incorporated into mainstream media, but there’s been nothing specifically for and about Sikh women. So we created it. We wanted a safe place for women to share the untold stories of power and resilience from women who have the name Kaur.
We wanted to do something that was creative but had a theoretical framework behind it and really to showcase the diversity of Kaur and Sikhism in general. The name Kaur is an equaliser, enabling Sikh women to be identify themselves without their fathers or husbands.
Saji and I are feminists and believe it's important to support women... Kaurs make up 48 percent of the community and yet our voices are never heard. Its important to give a voice to the voiceless. There is very minimal conversation about how women have contributed to Sikh history. We're in the background for Sikh religious events and in the community. This needs to change and us Kaurs must lead this.
I read that you were inspired by the Humans of New York blog… what about the format of portraits+sharing of personal accounts appealed to you?
HONY was relatable. It literally humanises people. For us, we wanted to look at Sikhism through a theoretical framework and showcase it in a creative way that gave a voice to the typically voiceless.
Saji and I have community circles, so the first 10 Kaurs we connected with Kaurs from there or from referrals. Then women started to connect via our website, or come talk to us at events and ask to be interviewed. Now our email account is inundated with requests from local Kaurs, but also Kaurs from around the world.
At first women were not certain why they were being asked about their names. I believe it's because no Kaur has ever been asked, 'what's your story?' Then to have your picture taken and your story told, it's a little intimidating...
How many women have been featured on The Kaur Project so far? And among all their stories, are there any that really stood out for you or resonated with you?
We've featured 60 women and have been inspired by every one of these stories. There is something so beautiful about how these women open up when Saji photographs them and then again when they are interviewed over the phone. When I interview these women, the enormity of the task at hand also becomes apparent. Every story I hear reminds me that there are ten more waiting to be told. Stories regardless of age or generational gap, really showcase the complexity and diversity of Kaurs.
Could you tell us a little of your own stories — as women, as Kaurs, as a writer and photographer, as Indian-origin women in Canada? Why and how did questions of identity and community come to occupy an important place in your consciousness?
Both of us are first generation Canadians. Both were raised in small towns (Jessie: Kamloops, Saji: Kitimat) and then moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
I (Jessie) am a writer 'by default' with an academic background that focuses on intercultural communication, health communication, contemporary critical and cultural theory, ethnicity, gender, and feminism. When not behind the lens, Saji champions social causes.
Being a Kaur and the meaning behind it is fluid for both Saji and I. Part of why we created this project was to navigate our own Kaur journey and like all journeys we are learning things as we go along. Being a Kaur and the values from Sikhism and our parents are the undercurrent of our lives.
What do you think a platform like The Kaur Project makes possible? What kinds of conversations has it been able to trigger that perhaps weren’t taking place before?
It is a starting point for dialogue, something so important in the community and at large. It provides an entry point into education and understanding that Sikhism is heterogeneous.
We’ve had something like The Sikh Project… what are your thoughts on it? Does it compare in any way to what the Kaur Project has attempted to do?
Sikh Project is doing great work and we believe there is room for many projects. It is functioning well, but it's also important that Sikh women are provided a safe space to share their stories, that is exactly our goal.
The question that you ask of Kaur identity is such a deceptively simple one, and one that is so complex to articulate really — based on what your interview subjects have told you, and your own experiences, how would you define the Kaur identity? What does it signify?
Answered in previous attachment
What comes next for the Kaur Project?
We want to continue to share Kaur stories. A book and exhibition would be creative ways to get the word out about the depth of the project and we are open to these opportunities.
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