Equality of Women in Sikh Ideology and Practice
A drastic distinction between the roles of the male and female exists in all of history’s modern human societies. Women have grown to accept, not without resentment though, the male-dominated atmosphere of the world. Because people use religious doctrine to define their life styles, religious scriptures in both the East and the West seem to condone, even encourage, the unequal treatment of women. In the 15th century, Guru Nanak established Sikhism, the first religion to advocate emphatically the equality of all people, especially women. In a continent characterised by severe degradation of women, this bold declaration, along with others, determined to erase the impurities of the Indian society. However, prejudices and injustices based on gender linger even today.
In the dominant Western religion of Christianity, God created man, and then woman out of man’s rib. Eve, the first woman persuades Adam to eat the forbidden apple, thus committing the world’s first sin, a landmark recognized as the fall of mankind. The implied inferiority and corrupting influence of women in the Bible appear to justify their second rate treatment in Western society.
In Eastern Society, the Muslim religion also demeans women. The Koran contains explicit details concerning the inferior treatment of women. This includes the right of a man to divorce his wife, never vice versa, and the wearing of a veil to cover a woman’s face, called burkah, in public. The Koran reminds men, "Your women are a tilth for you (to cultivate) . And they (women) have rights similar to those (of men) over them in kindness, and men are a degree above them."2
At the time of Guru Nanak, Indian women were severely degraded and oppressed by their society. Given no education or freedom to make decisions, their presence in religious, political, social, cultural, and economic affairs was virtually non-existent.3 Woman was referred to as "man’s shoe, the root of all evil, a snare, a temptress."4 Her function was only to perpetuate the race, do household work, and serve the male members of society. Female infanticide was common, and the practice of sati, the immolation of the wife on her husband’s funeral pyre, was encouraged, sometimes even forced.
Guru Nanak condemned this man-made notion of the inferiority of women, and protested against their long subjugation. The Ultimate Truth was revealed to Guru Nanak through a mystic experience, in direct communion with God. Guru Nanak conveys this Truth through the bani, Sikh Scripture. It first argues against the sexist sentiments of the pompous man about the necessity of women :
"In a woman man is conceived,
From a woman he is born,
With a woman he is betrothed and married,
With a woman he contracts friendship.
Why denounce her, the one from whom even kings are born ?
From a woman a woman is born,
None may exist without a woman."5
The fundamental analogy used in the bani depicts the relationship between God and man, and proves that the physical body does not matter. The bani parallels all human beings (men and women) to the woman/wife, and God to the man/husband. 6 This means that every person is a sohagan — a woman who is the beloved of the Lord — whether they have the body of a man or woman. Because the human body is transitory, the difference between man and woman is only transitory, and as such superficial. 7 Thus, according to Sikh ideology, all men and women possess equal status. All human beings, regardless of gender, caste, race, or birth, are judged only by their deeds.
With this assertion, the Sikh Gurus invited women to join the sangat (congregation), work with men in the langar (common kitchen), and participate in all other religious, social, and cultural activities of the gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship). The Gurus redefined celibacy as marriage to one wife and taught that male and female alike need to practice conjugal fidelity. They advocated marriage of two equal partners. Guru Amar Das, the third guru, wrote :
"Only they are truly wedded who have one spirit in two bodies." 8
Guru Amar Das also condemned purdah, the wearing of the veil, and female infanticide. He spoke against the custom of sati, thus permitting the remarriage of widows. 9 Out of 146 chosen, the Guru appointed 52 women missionaries to spread the message of Sikhism, and out of 22 Manjis established by the Guru for the preaching of Sikhism, four were women.10 The steps the Gurus took to advocate the equality of women, revolutionized the tradition of Indian society. As they began to partake in social, religious, and political affairs, their contribution and worth as equal partners of men became more obvious.
However, the Guru’s teachings of equality have never been fully realized, which is clearly evident in the treatment of women even in the Sikh society today. Either because of the influence of the majority community on the Sikh minority or the Sikh male’s unwillingness to give up his dominant role, women continue to suffer prejudices. A woman has never been elected as the president of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (the Central Management Committee to manage the affairs of the Gurdwaras in the Punjab), or as the head of any of the five Takhts (the thrones of authority).11 Indian society discriminates against women in workplaces, and denies them the right to fight on the battlefield. People measure a woman’s value as a bride by the size of her dowry, not necessarily by her character and integrity. Alice Basarke, a free-lance writer, sadly realizes, "After 500 years head start, Sikh women are no better off than their counterparts in any other religion or nation."12
As a Sikh girl, born and raised in the United States, I have felt confusion and frustration upon recognizing the hypocrisy in the Sikh community in the subjugation of their women. America, origin of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 1848 Women’s Liberation Movement, crawls ahead of other nations in the race to achieve practised equality for all. Because of its diverse and opportune atmosphere, I have experienced little discrimination based on my gender. I must struggle to empathize with the feelings of women in India whose tragic experiences I have not actively shared.
Yet, I am told, that upon my birth, distant relatives sent my parents blessings that sounded more like condolences than congratulations. Apparently, they pitied the supposed dowry my family would have to prepare, the inheritance I could never receive, and the family name that could never survive by me. One can imagine their joy and relief upon my brother’s birth two years later.
Such hypocritical actions bewilder me. Why didn’t Sikh women rise up long ago in protest against such treatment, reciting the words of the Gurus ? Why did we not endeavour long ago to realize fully the freedom and equality the Gurus advocated for all human beings, regardless of gender ? Is the equality the Gurus preached even understood by Sikhs ? At one time, Sikhs risked their very lives to fight for equality by opposing the caste system. Yet, today, many Sikhs judge each other by the caste they are from and the amount of income they earn. As Ms Basarke poignantly puts it, "How can women expect equality, when the Sikh community seems unable to distinguish between religious tenets and the culture imposed by the majority community which engulfs them ?"13
Indeed, how can women realize equality when the root of the problem lies much deeper than marches of protests or laws can reach ? The Sikh community needs to look beyond the ingrained customs, social taboos and know the true salubrious nature of justice and equality; the Sikh community needs to realise its tragic entanglement in a system that embraces practices antithetical to the very basis of the Sikh faith, against the very word of God; the Sikh community needs to shake itself vigorously to awaken and rise into a truly strong and potent religious people, living the way God desires us to live : by freedom, justice, love, and equality— for all.
Many Sikhs will acknowledge this truth, but instead of finding the enthusiasm and hope to shape the future, they will sadly shake their heads. After all, can we possibly unravel thousands of years of deep-seated Indian mentality ? Do the powers of revolution truly lie within our grasps ? We need only to remember the words of Guru Gobind Singh for an answer :
"With your own hands carve out your destiny."14