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Institutt for sosialantropologi

To Cut or Not to Cut? Female Beauty among Sikh Jats in Punjab, India

By Nina Bergheim Dahl

Supervisor: Associate Professor Kathinka Frøystad


This thesis concerns female beauty ideal among Sikh Jats in Punjab, India. Based on a five-month long anthropological fieldwork among Sikhs who belong to the farmer caste, I sought to unravel how notions of beauty influence women’s lives. Because culture is not static, beauty ideals are not static. In a Sikh Panjabi context I argue that changes of India’s recent political, economic and cultural developments are highly visible through how contemporary young Sikh Jat women beautify their bodies.

First of all, I examine how a young woman looks when regarded as beautiful in a North-Indian, Sikh social context. In brief, her complexion is very light, her eyes big and dark, her nose thin and lips neither too broad nor too small. Her skin is free of spots, freckles and wrinkles, her overall body shape is symmetrical, and tall. Her black head hair is long and shiny, but visible body parts are hair free. Attitudes towards how she is beautified – if dark eyes are emphasized with make-up or arms are waxed – depend on who one asks.

I suggest that there are two extreme ends of beauty ideals among Sikh Jats in Punjab, in particularly due to recent societal changes. India has undergone major shifts since the turn of the millennium. The Indian economy was liberalized during the 1990s, and was gradually opened up to the global market. A major middle class has emerged since then, which is characteristic of similar consumer lifestyles, access to education, and surplus money to spend on consumer goods by national and international companies. Scholars of India have noted how urban upper- and middle-class women have gained a larger sense of agency in their lives through this period of time.

Punjab is one of India’s richest states. Among other industries, the field of beauty’s entry is largely visible in the Panjabi urban landscape where commercialized beauty centers have settled in high numbers during the recent decade. In brief, I will argue that the commercialized beauty parlor as an institution is the most prominent site where notions of how to become a “modern” Panjabi woman are most thoroughly expressed through an “evolutionistic metaphor”. For the exclusive, high-class beauty salons with a vast range of beauty treatments to offer, the body is divided into parts and scrutinized for beautification potential. This discourse contradicts Sikh ideology’s view on the human body. That Sikh bodies are created by God is most articulated through notions of hair. By restraining from cutting or removing any hair on their body, Sikhs affirm that it is sacrosanct in its completeness. I therefore argue that a young generation of Sikh Jat women of this specific socio-historical context has to respond to contradictory notions regarding how to treat their own bodies.