Sunday, September 01, 2013

Do genderless names break the gender barrier?

My Story, Sep '13
By Sukhdeep Singh

We all have multiple identities – a national identity, regional identity, religious identity, sexual identity and gender identity. All of these are identities that we learn to identify ourselves with. Some identities accrue to us purely because of social conditioning, like national or religious. But some have the potential to break free of the conditioning to become self-assertions, like gender and sexual identities. However, we probably develop the strongest sense of identity with our names.

Incidentally, our names are also reflective of all of our socially conditioned identities in most cases. A name can instantly reveal many facets of our socially constructed identities, like religion, gender and nationality. But the most segregated of these clearly remains the gender of names. Across various religions, nations, regions – names of the male and female genders are clearly demarcated and can rarely transgress. Thus, our gender identity starts getting constructed from early childhood, when a baby is named.

But could a name be genderless? If it is, does that somehow affect the gender identity of the person? While most people might dismiss the very notion of genderless names, it is interesting to note that names that transgress the otherwise sacrosanct gender divide are, in fact, part of the Sikh tradition. Growing up as a Sikh boy in West Bengal has enriched me with many experiences, but the one that I remember from early childhood is the utter confusion that people around me would have with Sikh names. The one question that would be asked again and again, with startled expressions, was: “Do both boys and girls have the same names among Sikhs? How can you then make out who is a boy and who a girl when you hear a name?”

My mother would never tire telling people that if the title was ‘Singh’ it meant the person was male, and if it was ‘Kaur’ the person was female. Yet, people found (and still do) it amusing that Sukhdeep could be the name for either a girl or a boy, with only the surname (Singh or Kaur) designating the gender of the person bearing that name. Getting the name right in the voter identity card (and for that matter even the passport) was another big task, where the authorities would again be confused as to why the wife did not carry her husband’s title. Why would the wife of Dildar Singh be Balbir Kaur, rather than Balbir Singh? Well, simply because the wife would then have to be a man as well – but then, that was difficult for non-Sikhs to understand.

Both, genderless names and a separate (and uniform) title for men and women hold great significance. Sikhism was founded on the ideas of equality, where things like caste and gender discrimination did not matter. So a singular and uniform title (Singh for men and Kaur for women) did away with the caste titles that were prevalent during the founding days of the religion in the medieval period, which was characterised by caste-based discrimination.

Similarly, genderless names hold significance as they essentially do away with the notion that men / women are not equal. If both the genders are equal, they can have the same first names too! While scholars and activists debate the extent to which gender discrimination has lessened, if at all, in our country, there isn’t much difference of opinion around its prevalence in medieval India. So it is noteworthy that one common surname for all women simultaneously eradicates the need for women to change their surnames post-marriage – no adoption of the husband’s surname; Balbir Kaur remains Balbir Kaur throughout her life, irrespective of her marital status.

If gender segregation is important from early childhood to ensure that the child doesn’t have a gender identity crisis as s/he grows up, do genderless names lead to one? The answer very certainly is no. Millions of Sikh boys and girls have the same first name, yet they do not have any gender identity crisis or confusion. There are various other conditioning factors that form one’s gender identity, of course. But sharing the same first name does not influence a Sikh child’s sense of gender.

Gender stereotypes have also propagated long hair for women and shorter hair for men. Here again, Kesh (hair) forms one of the five K’s Sikhs are supposed to keep – Kirpan (a short sword), Kangha (wooden comb that holds the hair), Karha (iron bangle) and Kachera (an undergarment) being the other four. This has meant that Sikh men have long flowing hair. Growing up, I would often be teased by other kids whenever I shampooed my hair. They would ask me, “Are you a girl? Then why do you keep long hair?” This is an experience shared by many other Sikh boys; yet, there is no confusion regarding the gender.

Clearly, in a world full of gender stereotypes and rigid gender-based role divisions, there are a few lessons that Sikhism could teach. The founding Gurus probably wanted to challenge gender stereotypes and social constructions of gender, just as they wanted to do away with caste-based divisions and discrimination. Sadly though, the predominantly patriarchal gender bias amongst Punjabis is evident by the screwed sex ratio in the state (and neither has the caste system disappeared). Our gender identities, after all, are more than just our names and the physical features we may sport.

Sukhdeep Singh is a Facebook addict who works as a software engineer by day and transforms into a writer at night. He is the founder and editor of Gaylaxy magazine.


  1. I had learnt from a TV program that a special prayer is held in a gurudwara when a Sikh boy is born, but there is no such prayer when a Sikh girl is born. Is this true ?

  2. I have heard that Tibetan men and women also share the same names and professions. Names and professions are not classified according to gender.

  3. Hi Rajib,

    There is nothing specific in Sikh religion regarding holding special prayers for boys and not for girls.. Usually, a child is named after performing a prayer in a Gurudwara, and that is done for both a girl and a boy. Parents on their own can of course ask Gurudwara's to perform special prayers. Given the huge gender bias and discrimination that exists among Punjabis, it is possible that such "special prayers" are organised by parnets for a boy and not a girl. May be the TV program you saw was referring to that.

    As for the Tibetan men and women sharing same names, I have no information or idea about that. Someone with knowledge about Tibetan culture will be better able to answer that.

  4. Hey, You are good at what you are doing Congratulations!! I liked some points

  5. Hey this is amazing that someone actually writes about this! I really like gender neutral names - infact I love it - so when I had chance I named my niece Hounsh (which means enthusiastic anticipation or desire in Gujarati). And both I and she loves it when people ask "Hounsh he or she?" and yes she has no confusion on her gender identity, in fact she has a strong identity and I want to think that her name has an ounce of contribution in it because she always found people interested in her!

  6. i do pause to think, however, if choosing the surname of the child based on the genitals is a good option. what if the child were to be a transgender? wouldn't the problems be similar?