“The whole Guru Grantha is the voice of a wedded women or a maiden pining in love of the Beautiful. Her nobleness in Guru Grantha is infinite, her freedom is of the highest. Both man and woman as sexes are forgotten in her voice. She becomes the supreme reality and a freed soul. In the freed soul alone is the subordination of one to the other effectively abolished and all disputes hushed.”
– Prof. Puran Singh
Doctrinally for the Sikhs, questions of woman’s capacity and capabilities are a moot issue. The divinity of Guru Nanak Sahib was recognized first by the none other than Bebe Nanaki and the bodyguard of Guru Gobind Singh Sahib was Mai Bhago. Women’s role was neither sanctioned nor codified. Every woman’s (for that matter every Sikh’s) personal relationship with the Guru and the Creator moved them in the spirit of utter volunteerism to do what they did. So, why are we a party to a culture of domination today? I submit the reason to be a Sikh is to fight every dimension of domination, from spiritual to political. In the past few decades, we see a desire to codify women’s equality as a global community; however, this ideal is too often couched as earnest intentions to change “one day”, leaving people in the present with only eyes for the future. Don’t we know it could be happening today?
Paragraph 13 of the United Nation’s 1995 Beijing Declaration issued at the fourth World Conference on Women stated: “Women’s empowerment and their full participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society, including participation in the decision-making process and access to power, are fundamental for the achievement of equality, development and peace.” I see our community still “declaring woman” to be equal. It is time to stop the symbolic declarations and begin to assert, through our actions, the equal treatment of women in private and public spaces. Guru Nanak Sahib’s declaration on women’s emancipation came 500 years ago amidst the confrontation of Semitic and Aryan traditions, whereas our modern world appears still to be deliberating on it.
For the large part, religions, ideologies and other cultural systems have created strong protections for cohesion of society and nurture of its norms. This end is often ensured by way of controls over behavior – hence, the preoccupation with gender and sexuality in all systems which guide human interaction. Characteristically, societies developed a necessary division of labor, based on biological ability. This solidified and eventually extended symbolically, with women responsible for the upbringing of the family and for related activities involving cultivating and cooking. Conversely, men related to the wider environment through their engagement in hunting, warfare and political relations. The subservience of women to men became widespread in all spheres, with rare exceptions. Combined with profound fears about the dangers surrounding sexuality (elaborated in complex ritual customs to deal with ‘purity and danger’), these disparities led to the literal separation of women from men, especially in worship. For me, the height of folly is that Sikhs have fallen victim to the larger hegemony’s dictation of how we should think and behave. The results are that we are now debating whether we should allow women to do certain things, be it in our local Gurduara or the Darbar Sahib complex. How absurd! We have no basis in our doctrine for this prejudice, yet our debate on negative energies continues.
The Sikh culture, as envisioned in the Guru Granth Sahib and created by the Ten Nanaks, insists on complete equality. There is no stratification spectrum of inferior or superior status in any form, be it gender or other social divisions. The foundational doctrine of the Sikh faith propagates integration, not division, to uplift human dignity. Consequently, the Sikh scriptural canon, Guru Granth Sahib, reveals Vahiguru as One Universal Integrative Force. The succeeding divine attributes are messages of integration; there is no allusion to division based on gender. In the Sikh vision, woman is the single thread which drives humanity. Her participation in all dimensions of life must be recognized as the essential elements in human affairs. With the exception of the Divine Order of Vahguru, Guru Nanak Sahib in Asa-ki-Var proclaims that everything depends on woman; the only exception being Vahguru, the non-human factor.
We see then, that it is not an accident that the attitude adopted for self-realization in bani (Sikh scriptures) is that of the woman. The feminine vocabulary, symbolism and behavior are the medium for self-realization, which is the expression of total freedom or Divine realization. Harinder Singh Mehboob articulates the Women-consciousness in the Guru Granth Sahib as follows: “In the Guru Granth Sahib, several dimensions of the woman-consciousness are experienced in the spiritual longing of humans. Guru Nanak–Truth did not incorporate it as a mere illustration or thought, rather it is a significant part of the whole experience. Woman is that form of its genius whose intense movement transforms the complete radiant richness of the Creation’s fertile aspects into human morality. In the feelings of coming together and pangs of separation, several representative forms of life converge like a great carnival. Hence, firstly, the Khalsa must have the complete experience of the woman in accordance with the standards of Divine values; secondly, the Khalsa must be aware of the completeness of the woman in all colors of coming together and pangs of separation: the complete and grave experience intoxicated with pure essence and aesthetical splendor! This experience must have movement, longing, and serene bliss at the same time.” I must ask, are we experiencing this wonder, or vismad?
In the Sikhi lifestyle, Vahguru is enshrined in each and every heart. The same divine light is present in all human beings. Every man and woman is an image of Vahguru. Guru Sahibs were far ahead of their time; they brought clarity by highlighting the prevalent jarring social inequalities. Regarding barring women from participating in society based on their association with impurity, Guru Sahib proclaimed rather, that all doubt in your mind is the impurity.
In terms of rights and responsibilities of the Sikhs, here is what the revolution of the Sikhs Gurus encompassed: Admitting women into the sangat (congregation) without any restrictions or reservations, encouraging the education of all Sikhs, men and women, condemning the cruel custom of sati (coerced immolation), advocating widow remarriage, abolishing purdah (veils), and remarking “woman is the conscience of man.” Further, the Khalsa initiation ceremony from day one was open to men and women alike. Also at this time, a law was made to not associate with those who practiced female infanticide. Today though, we are still complicit in female feticide! Open your eyes and hearts to the conspiracy of silence surrounding gendercide in our own families. While busy pushing our preferences as laws, we completely disregard the Guru’s direct command!
Further, we see historically, that the Guru forbade Sikhs to exercise any proprietary rights over women captured in battle, they could not be kept as slaves or wives but were to be treated with the utmost respect. “In all contemporary records, mostly in Persian, written generally by Muslims as well as by Maratha agents posted at a number of places in Northern India, there is not a single instance either in Delhi or elsewhere in which the Sikhs raised a finger against women,” records Hari Ram Gupta. The culture can be judged from the position and respect it gives to women. Today, we are faced with the question, are we part of the Sikh culture or are we more Panjabi, Hindustani, or Firangi? If the answer is we want to be more Sikh-like, the first allegiance needs to be to the Guru Granth-Panth.
I saw an excellent, but disturbing, extrapolation of perversion toward South Asian women in the film “Maatrubhoomi.” I look at alarming statistics on woman-to-man ratios in Panjab. I read testimonies of domestic abuse in Vancouver and London. Yes, I know versions of this injustice are prevalent in the whole world; why then, should I make noise about it? Because even if one woman is treated unfairly, especially by those who claim to be Sikh, it is a crime. Our tradition, in the words of Bhai Gurdas, upholds a very different attitude and we should strive to see it made real: “In world events, literary affairs, virtuous behavior, and exemplifying wisdom, Woman – the half of the population, brings forth the freedom.” Roles specified for men or women are antithetical to the Sikh beliefs and practices.
The Sikh culture incorporates those ideas and practices that do not divide the human race for the purpose of defining their rights and responsibilities. Thus, the classification of roles for women and men becomes an absurdity. Yes, there are prescribed tasks that are specific to a Sikh. Everything is prescribed for a Sikh from the wisdom of the Guru, from the shakhsi (personal) to the panthak (collective) living. There are enough historical narrations to substantiate this aspect. Prof. Puran Singh observes: “Never was eastern or western women so free when she rose like Sundari, the nurse-sister of the Khalsa in times when the Sikhs were pitched against the Mughal empire; Sundari chose her own vocation, dedicated her whole freed life as the sister-nurse alike of the Khalsa and his foes.” That was in the eighteenth century. How are we facilitating the identity formation of Sikh women today? Let us shift our focus away from men’s empowerment to the empowerment of all!
Guru Sahibs dealt with subordination, prohibitions on remarriage, dowry, menstruation-related taboos, superstitions, and other unhealthy customs that had become cemented into society and were propagated by the immature or under-developed minds. Once more, the Guru Sahib’s dictum, “burn away those customs that make me forget the Beloved” must be applied to everything that is designed to keep women subservient, docile and dependent today. Anything that glorifies male gender preference, encourages female neglect and perpetuates the view of a woman, a wife, a mother, a daughter, as a liability is not aligned with the Sikh vision.
It has been shown that every Sikh has the same rights and responsibilities; there are no separate roles for men or women. Over 500 years ago, Guru Nanak launched a struggle for equal rights. Every single Guru articulated and practiced the equality of men and women while working to liberate women who were captives within their own social hierarchies. Sikhi rejects gender inequalities; it stresses the family hood of the human race. Doctrinally, Sikh women hold an equal status in all affairs, from spiritual to political. It is a shortcoming of the human faculties and a result of the dominance of other cultures that crept into the practitioners of the Sikh faith and began to justify the inferiority of the female. These shortcomings are the product of ignorance on the part of the practitioners as well as the nefarious designs of the forces operating actively to undermine the vision of the Guru Sahibs. We must instead unite in our true understanding of the Sikh revolution and actively create a world that sides with inclusivity and love.
I want to challenge the Sikhs, especially those who claim to build panthak institutions, to raise awareness in their communities about women’s situation, the discrimination they regularly face, and the work being done to ensure rights and access to opportunities on three fronts. Firstly, we must invest in women’s capacity building and skills development to deal with people and institutions; second, we ought to ensure women’s participation in every domain of life, offer them greater control, and allow them to assert decision-making power at home, community and society; third and finally, we shall pledge to work diligently toward transformative action to bring about gender equality between men and women.
As we commemorate International Women’s Day, let us focus now on equality as an objective, not on women as a target group. Men and women need to become partners in its pursuit, rather than throw up our hands and decry that prejudice is too deeply entrenched in our world to be changed, or placate historical wrongs with erratic token advancement. The daunting task is to move beyond mere recognition of gender differences, and increase vital attention to reducing gender disparities!
Harinder Singh is the co-founder and Chief Programming Officer of the Sikh Research Institute. He assisted in developing and reviewing the Sojhi curriculum published by SikhRI. He is an interdisciplinary researcher and a global orator. His passion is to learn and share the Sikh culture.