Over a period of two centuries, western women—travellers, army wives, administrators’ wives, missionaries, teachers, artists and novelists—have been portraying their Sikh counterparts. Commentary by over eighty European and north American ‘lay’ women on Sikh religion and society complements—and in most cases predates—publications on Sikhs by twentieth and twenty-first century academics, but this literature has not been discussed in the field of Sikh studies. This article looks at the women’s ‘wide spectrum of gazes’ encompassing Sikh women’s appearance, their status and, in a few cases, their character, and including their reactions to the ‘social evils’ of suttee and female infanticide. Key questions are, firstly, whether race outweighs gender in the western women’s account of their Sikh counterparts and, secondly, whether 1947 is a pivotal date in their changing attitudes. The women’s words illustrate their curious gaze as well as their varying judgements on the status of Sikh women and some women’s exercise of sympathetic imagination. They characterise Sikh women as, variously, helpless, deferential, courageous, resourceful and adaptive, as well as (in one case) ‘ambitious’ and ‘unprincipled’. Their commentary entails both implicit and explicit comparisons. In their range of social relationships with Sikh women, it appears that social class, Christian commitment, political stance and national origin tend to outweigh gender. At the same time, however, it is women’s gender that allows access to Sikh women and makes befriending—and ultimately friendship—possible.
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