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Issue 51

Sikhism & the Status of
Women

By Harjit Kaur Arora, Professor of Economics,
Le Moyne College, University of Syracuse, USA

We as human beings belong to a social group at birth and our development and growth is influenced largely by that groups' philosophy. Being a Sikh woman by birth and part of Panjabi society, I have seen women being glorified as goddesses as well as downgraded. Over the years this observation has developed into a search for an explanation, and recently I have turned to the Sikh Scriptures (Sri Guru Granth Sahib) for an answer.

The Sikh Religion was founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1539 AD) who was born in Panjab, Pakistan. A brief reference about the social inequalities of that period, especially with respect to women, helps to appreciate the progressive doctrine adopted by the Sikh Gurus. For centuries, the status of women in India was being systematically downgraded. The caste system, economic oppression, denial of right to property and inheritance, a false sense of impurity attached to menstruation and child birth, deliberate deprivation of education led to the deterioration of women's position in society. This was further justified by religious sanctions as was done by Manu, the Hindu law giver:

By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house.
In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord (husband) is dead to her sons;
a woman must never be independent. She must not seek to separate herself from her father, husband, or sons;
by leaving them she would make both her own and her husband's families contemptible.

Code of Manu 5:147-49

Woman was referred to as a 'seducer', 'unclean', and a 'temptress'. She was denied the right to preach or to participate in other religious rites. Manu went to the point of declaring that the service of the husband by the woman is considered to be equal to the service of God.

Though he be destitute of virtue, or seeking pleasure elsewhere,
or devoid of good qualities, yet a husband must be constantly worshipped as god by a faithful wife.
No sacrifice, no vow, no fast must be performed by women apart from their husbands; if a wife obeys her husband, she will for that reason alone be exalted in heaven.
Code of Manu 5:155

Per Manu's laws only a male could perform the last rites and death anniversaries (saradhas) for the dead. Inheritance of the family's property was also limited to males and dowry was prevalent. Men could be polygamous whereas women were supposed to burn themselves alive on the pyre of their dead husbands (Sati). A male child was preferred since he alone could carry his father's name whereas women's names (both first and last) were often changed at her marriage. Education of women was looked down upon. They were supposed to do household work only so that they became economically dependent on men. Women were considered to be the property of men. The value on this property was assigned based on the type of service women could render to men. Women were mainly considered seducers and distractions from man's spiritual path. Another system whereby some young women in their late teens (called Dev Dasi's - God's slave) are supposed to be married to stone idols and are to remain celibates, is adopted in temples in parts of India. Such women are occasionally sexually abused by the priests of these temples.

This article examines the philosophy of the Sikh Gurus in regards to the Status of women and the Sikh doctrine regarding women as enshrined in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. The article ends with a brief reference to Sikh women in history. The Sri Guru Granth Sahib is replete with feminine symbolism. When we explore the causes of women's degradation one by one we find the hollowness of the various theories advanced by Manu and his followers to enslave women. Also, it is only the Sikh Gurus who have advocated and promoted social equality between the sexes and different castes. Guru Ji not only suggests remedial measures for rectification of the situation but also orders their adoption in our day to day conduct. The first step in this direction is taken by writing in respect of women.

Advocation of Womens Rights in Sri Guru Granth Sahib

In Praise of Women

Guru Nanak writes.

"from the woman is our birth, in the woman's womb are we shaped;
To the woman we are engaged, to the woman we are wedded;
The woman is our friend and from woman is the family;
Through the woman are the bonds of the world;
Why call woman evil who gives birth to the leaders of the World?
From the woman is the woman, without woman there is none".
(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 473)

The Guru reprimands those who consider women as inferior to men. He sees them as active partners in advancing goodwill, general happiness and the collective moral values of society. This declaration definitively requires women to be placed in high esteem. Guru Nanak openly chides those who attribute pollution to women because of menstruation and asserts that pollution lies in the heart and mind of the person and not in the cosmic process of birth.

"If pollution attaches to birth, then pollution is everywhere (for birth is universal).
Cow-dung (used for purifying the kitchen floor by Hindus) and firewood breed maggots;
Not one grain of corn is without life;
Water itself is a living substance, imparting life to all vegetation.
How can we then believe in pollution, when pollution inheres within staples?
Says Nanak, pollution is not washed away by purificatory rituals;
Pollution is removed by true knowledge alone".
(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 472).

In many religions God has been addressed as father. However, it was Sikhism which introduced the concept of God as mother and father. The fifth Guru (Guru Arjan Dev) reinforces the high status given to women by the first Guru by placing the feminine name given to God (mother) before the name of father. God is our Mother as well as our Father.

"Thou O Lord, art my Mother and Thou my Father.
Thou art the Giver of peace to my soul and very life".
(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 1144).

Gender Equality

In Sikhism widespread and practical steps are advised to be taken for the socio-religious equality of woman. Guru Nanak introduced the Concept of Sangat (holy congregation) - where both men and women can sit together and equally participate in reciting the praises of the Divine and Pangat - sitting together, irrespective of caste or social status differences, to eat a common meal in the Institution of Langar (common kitchen). Women were never excluded from any specific task. Both men and women took equal part in essential tasks, i.e., drawing water from wells, reaping and grounding corn, cooking in the kitchen, and cleaning of the dishes. The Guru says:

"Come my sisters and dear comrades! Clasp me in your embrace.
Meeting together, let us tell the tales of our Omnipotent God.
In the True Lord are all merits, in us all demerits".
(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 17).

There are no priests or commentators, no rituals or philosophical doctrines that stand between a person and the Guru's Bani (teachings). There is a direct relationship with God for every man, woman and child. Only the veil of ignorance or one's ego stands in the way between the human and the Divine Being.

Chastity.

Sikhism stresses family values and faithfulness to one's spouse.

"The blind-man abandons his own, and has an affair with another's woman. He is like the parrot, who is pleased to see the simbal tree, but at last dies clinging to it".
(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 1165).

Sikh Gurus declared that marriage is an equal partnership of love and sharing between husband and wife. Married life is celebrated to restore to woman her due place and status as an equal partner in life.

"They are not said to be husband and wife, who merely sit together. Rather they alone are called husband and wife, who have one soul in two bodies".
(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 788).

Status of women in general elevated

Sikhism:

A) condemns the practice of women burning themselves on their husband's funeral pyre (sati).

"A 'Sati' is not she who burns herself on the pyre of her spouse.
A 'Sati' is one who lives contented and embellishes herself with Good conduct".

(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 787).

B) condemns prevalence of female Infanticide and the ritual of dowry in Indian society.

"O' my Father! give me the Name of Lord God as a gift and dowry.
Let the Lord be my wear, His Glory my Beauty, that my Task be accomplished.
Blessed is the Lord's worship; the True Guru has blessed me with it.
In all lands, nay, in all Universe Pervades the Glory of the Lord; the gift of the Lord's (Name) is matchless;
All other Dowry displayed by the self-willed is false egoism and a vain show."

(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 78/79).

C) condemns the wearing of veils by women. One of the simplest but most effective instruments for the subjugation of women in society has been the invention of the veil. It hampered free movement and restricted their activities. It made them stay within the four walls of the home. One of the reasons advanced for the veil was that women were 'temptresses' for the celibate priests and sages. If that be so, perhaps the priests and sages should have the veils and not the women. Guru Nanak abolished the system of veils by introducing the system of sangat (Sikh congregation) where no veil was allowed. Both men and women are required to cover their head in rememberance of Waheguru. Jews, Muslims and others cover their hair in places of worship, but for Sikhs the whole world is a place for Waheguru’s remembrance and holy living.

Women are also expected to participate in Keertan as equal partners and even to lead the prayers.

D) condemned the rape and brutalities committed against women by the Mughal invader Babar.

"Modesty and righteousness both have vanished and falsehood moves about as the leader, O Lalo. The function of the Qazis and the Brahmins is over and Satan now reads the marriage rites (rape). The Muslim women read the Quran in suffering and call upon God, O Lalo. The Hindu women of high caste and others of low caste, may also be put in the same account, O Lalo."
(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 722).

A novel method applied by the Sikh Gurus for the uplifting of women was the abundant use of feminine symbols in Sikh Scriptures and in day to day life. The Sikh Gurus have used poetry as the medium of communication. The poetic utterances of the Gurus were not called "Guru Vak" which is masculine but 'Guru Bani" which is feminine. Thus the fourth Guru (Guru Ram Das) says:

Bani guru guru hai bani, vich bani amrit sare
Bani is the Guru, the Guru Bani, Within Bani are contained all nectars.
(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 982).

Similarly, the Divine light was frequently referred to as Joti (a feminine symbol) and not chanana (which is masculine). Among the other steps taken in Sikhism to enhance the status of women were:

(1) Guru Amar Das (the third Guru) trained and appointed a large number of women as missionaries in charge of areas in which they had complete religious jurisdiction. All men and women gave them respect. Guru Ji established these “Perheas”.

(2) Women Religious Leaders and Warriors: Sikh women were also cast into the role of saints and soldiers just like Sikh men. They could organise men and lead them in the battles for the freedom of people and their human rights.

(3) Education and Economic empowerment to women. Sikhism places a great emphasis on the education of women. Since they are considered as equal partners and are permitted to lead prayers and perform all religious ceremonies, their education is considered an asset for them. In the areas of Panjab and New Delhi, we have a large number of schools for Sikh children which are funded by the donations to Sikh Gurdwaras (temples). Free education is provided not only to Sikh girls and boys but also to any other person without distinction of colour, creed, or religion.

(4) Widow remarriage is allowed in Sikhism. Earlier it was considered only as a right for men.

Sikh Women in History

This article would not be complete without a brief mention of the names of some of the great Sikh women who played an important part in Sikh history. Mention can be made of:

1. Bebe Nanaki - Guru Nanak's sister and Mata Tripta - Guru Nanak's Mother. They played very important roles in encouraging young Guru Nanak to pursue his life long mission. They were the first to recognise Guru Nanak's saintliness.

2. Mata Khivi, wife of Guru Angad Dev (the second Guru), was in charge of Langar (the common kitchen). She was an unlimited resource of bountiful food and helped to create a new social consciousness in Sikh women. In Gurbani she is mentioned as an example for how to serve.

3. Bibi Bhani has a unique position in Sikh history. She was the daughter of the third Guru (Guru Amar Das), wife of the fourth Guru (Guru Ram Das), and mother of the fifth Guru (Guru Arjan Dev). Bibi Bhani was an inspiration during the formative period of Sikh history and symbolises responsibility, dedication, humility and fortitude.

4. Mata Gujari was an illuminating force behind her husband Guru Tegh Bahadur (the ninth Guru) and her son Guru Gobind Singh (the tenth Guru). After the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur, Mata Gujari guided and inspired her son Guru Gobind Singh. She was responsible for the training of the Sahibzadas (the four sons of Guru Gobind Singh) who gave up their lives for Sikhism while they were still very young. Mata Gujri was an inspiring force during one of the most difficult times in Sikh history.

5. Mata Sundri helped provide leadership for the Sikhs in a very difficult and tumultuous time following the passing away of Gur Gobind Singh. She helped maintain the sanctity of the Guru Granth Sahib as the successor of Guru Gobind Singh and dealt strictly with pretenders and other aspirants of Guruship.

6. Mata Sahib Kaur - the spiritual mother of the Khalsa. During the first Amrit ceremony of the Khalsa on Baisakhi 1699, Mata Sahib Kaur added sugar cakes in the preparation of the amrit (Holy nectar) which was administered to the Khalsa on that day for initiation into the Guru Khalsa Panth.

7. Sikh Missionaries - Guru Amar Das trained missionaries to spread Sikhism throughout the country. According to one account, of the 146 missionaries Guru Amar Das trained and sent out, 52 were women. At one time the religious seats in the country of Afghanistan and Kashmir were under the jurisdiction of women. These women had complete jurisdiction in decision making as well as preaching to congregations.

8. Mai Bhago Kaur was the brave woman who led a battalion of 40 men in the battle of Muktsar. All of them achieved martyrdom and were blessed by Guru Gobind Singh. Mai Bhago kaur survived to remain a member of the Khalsa army.

Women continued to play important roles even in politics after the passing away of the tenth Guru. Notable among them were Sardarni Sada Kaur, mother-in-law of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Sardarni Sharnagat Kaur, and Mata Kishan Kaur.

What is the situation today? Not an ideal one. With the passage of time, social pressures, male chauvinistic attitudes, and the forgetting of the essence of the teachings of the Sikh Gurus, the position of Sikh women in today's society has suffered a set back. Some of the Sikh men have adopted chauvinistic attitudes of the existing Hindu and Islamic society of the Indian sub-continent. The recent materialistic attitude of some Sikhs living in India have added to the deterioration in the status of women. Many of the progressive teachings of the Sikh Gurus which were 500 years ahead of their time have been forgotten. Some Sikhs have become disciples of Manu concerning women's rights rather than of Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the Sikh Gurus. This is a deplorable situation. But aided by the spread of education, economic empowerment and an analytical look back at the teachings and lives of the Gurus, the study of Sikh Scriptures has reawakened Sikh women as well as Sikh men. They are now conscious of rights of women as equal partners in human progress, and citing the Holy Scriptures, they are fighting back for these rights and to uphold their responsibility to Waheguru, the Guru Khalsa Panth, their family, and themselves as daughters of the Guru and a pilar of Sikh Society.

Our Gurdwaras, Sikh organisations and Sikh societies should take an active interest in rectifying this evil situation so that Sikhs can again go with their heads held high in the western society. The Gurdwaras should also provide marital counselling as is done in Christian Churches and Synagogues. I am an optimist and believe the day is not far off when all women irrespective of their education and economic station in life will enjoy the same rights and privileges as were provided to them by the Sikh Gurus.

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