Starting in 1910, Punjabi women began trickling into California, joining a community of men who started arriving from the northern Indian province of Punjab in the 1890s. But even as their numbers grew in Yuba City, Stockton, Sacramento and other Northern California areas after World War II, these women remained largely invisible.
The women’s story is now being told, thanks to Nicole Ranganath, historian and assistant adjunct professor of Middle East/South Asia Studies (ME/SA) in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science. Along with amassing an archive of interviews, photographs, letters and archival footage, she has created a documentary film “Walking into the Unknown: A History of Punjabi Women in California.”
“This is the first time these women have been asked about their lives and they were often reluctant to talk,” Ranganath said. “For the larger world this isn’t a story people know, and there’s much we discovered about women’s contributions that will be new to the Punjabi community as well. Without this research, the voices of these pioneering women would be lost forever.”
Making the stories accessible
“Walking Into the Unknown” makes these stories accessible to a broad audience.
“I wanted to make these stories relevant and timely in a way that would be engaging, especially for young people,” Ranganath said. “A film seemed the right way to do that. It’s absolutely critical as a faculty member at a land-grant institution to harness knowledge and make it accessible.”
It is one of the featured films at the UC Davis South Asian Film Festival May 3 - 4. The movie premiered in November at Sikhlens: Sikh Arts and Film Festival in Orange and has aired on KVIE public television and is available for viewing on the station’s website.
Ranganath interviewed 24 women ranging in age from 21 to 85, among them women who arrived in the U.S. in the 1960s, a recent college graduate, a doctor, a lawyer and a petty officer in the U.S. Navy. Time was of the essence, especially in getting the stories of the older women, and Ranganath did all the interviews across much of Northern California between Dec. 16 and Dec. 21 last year.
The older women were reluctant to talk about their lives because they didn’t think what they had to say would be important or interesting, Ranganath said.
The Sikh faith was one of the first to promote equality of men and women. However, Sikh American women contend with the contradictions between the ideal of gender equality in their faith and their secondary status in their daily lives in both the Punjabi community and in American society.
Some had been betrothed when they were children. A few had lived with their husbands in India, but others had not. Some remained in India for long periods while their husbands were in California – in one case for 62 years. In California, the women rarely went out and when they did, they wore western clothing to avoid drawing unwanted attention (as did the men). They were given few educational opportunities. Along with taking care of the home that often included extended families, women helped their families succeed in peach farming. They drove tractors, maintained irrigation systems, picked fruit and worked in canneries.
“These women faced almost insurmountable odds, but they developed strong female friendships – sisterhoods – that helped them,” Ranganath said.
Lives starting to expand
Starting in the 1970s, more Punjabi women began going to college and starting careers.
Two women featured in the film are Kushlia Hunji and her daughter Prem Hunji Turner. Kushlia Hunji came to the U.S. in 1952 not speaking English, raised three daughters, returned to school, became a real estate broker, and was instrumental in having a Hindu temple built in Yuba City. Turner put herself through college and was the first woman from her community to earn a law degree.
“My mother was a real trailblazer, something I didn’t appreciate at the time,” said Turner, whose grandfather first came to Yuba City in 1910. “It was a struggle raising three girls in a culture that highly values sons, but she never treated us differently.”
Turner’s parents supported her ambition to become a lawyer, but even so they were disappointed and felt ostracized by the community when she and her sisters refused arranged marriages.
One of the most prominent Punjabi-American women from California is Harmeet Kaur Dhillon, who as vice chair of the California Republican party gave the opening prayer – in Punjabi – at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Preet Didbal, who was born in Yuba City, became the city’s mayor in 2016 and the first Sikh woman mayor in the country.
Young Aggie women can relate
Ten UC Davis students worked on the archive and movie, mainly translating and transcribing interviews, but also giving Ranganath feedback about the film. Most, including eight undergraduates, had taken classes with Ranganath. They said they were inspired by the community’s history and the opportunity to share Punjabi women’s stories.
“We were asked for our input every step of the way into the editing process,” said Subreen Sandhu, a third-year political science and history double major with a minor in Middle East/South Asia studies.
Several of the students said they admired the women whose stories are told, but noted that they are not far removed from the difficult, isolated lives those women had.
“My mom works so hard and her life was very similar to the older women in the film,” said Jaspreet Bola (B.A., psychology, ’18), whose family runs a pizza parlor in the small town of Lockeford. “She was the translator for my father, worked in the shop and at home. She had to take on so many roles.”
According to the students, Punjabi-American girls are encouraged to get an education but are treated very differently from boys, pressured to marry, and expected to do all the child care and household chores.
“A lot of young people will see their mothers in this,” said Arshpreet Kahlon (B.A., political science, ’18). “When you grow up in that environment, it takes a minute to realize it’s wrong. So much needs to change more. I was amazed at how relevant it is.”
The research on Punjabi women will become part of Pioneering Punjabis, a digital archive housed in the UC Davis Library and a website created two years ago by ME/SA and Ranganath. The archive contains rare Super 8 films and photographs documenting Punjabi women’s lives and the community’s history from 1960s Punjabi village life, the Stockton Sikh temple (the first Sikh temple in the United States), a peach harvest, and the first Sikh parade (called Nagar Kirtan) in Yuba City in 1980. The materials will be available for viewing online in the coming months and will be integrated into California K-12 classrooms.