The Sikh Woman
Ever since the fall of Adam, woman has been looked down upon as a retarding factor in the spiritual progress of man. She has been degraded, demoralised and discredited as arresting the imagination of man. In the Holy Bible, we find the birth of woman having taken place from one of the ribs of Adam. (Genesis II, 21-25). This made her subservient to man forever. In Christianity, man is thought to be the image and glory of God, while woman is the glory of man. It is argued that Man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man. The touch of a woman is supposed to defile and desecrate the otherwise pure soul of man. In his first letter to Corinthians, St. Paul writes:
Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me, it is good for a man not to touch a woman.
(Corinthians VII, 1)
I say therefore, to the unmarried and the widows that it is good for them if they abide as I.
(Corinthians VII, 9)
He is of the opinion that married men and women would not care? for God, so they had better not marry at all. He would not even allow the right of preaching to women because that would make a woman an authority over man. He argues that it was not Adam who sinned, but Eve who transgressed and brought about the fall of man. Women are not allowed to become priests or bishops in the Church. Although this problem is engaging the attention of the Christian intelligentsia these days, it still does not seem likely that the Christian woman will be able to overthrow the yolk of female inferiority so strongly foisted on her by religion.
Islam allowed considerable concessions to women. Prophet Muhammad meticulously laid down the rights of women to the property of their parents and husbands. It was he who emphatically declared that acquisition of knowledge is a duty incumbent on every Muslim male and female. It is rather strange that a woman cannot utter the call to prayer (Azan) or become an Imam (priest) in the mosque. She is not allowed to lead the holy congregation in prayer. Muslims were given the proprietary rights over the women captured as a result of war.
You may marry those women whom you capture in a battle against the Kafirs
(Holy Quran-Ulnissa 4-24)
Writing about women Shamas-ul-ulema maulvi Hafiz Nazir Ahmad writes,
Women are so created that they cannot compete with men in worldly or spiritual pursuits. Lack of physical strength precludes the possibility of their taking part in Jehad. Their duty is to bear children, suckle them, and to bring them up. At certain times they are disallowed from observing fasts or saying Namaz.
(Al Quran-UI-Azma page 101 Taj Co. Ltd Karachi)
Muslim women were disallowed to override the views of their husbands and dominate in any way.
If your wives are over-bearing, advise them against it. If they do not care, refuse them sexual intercourse. If they still persist, then give them a thrashing.
(Holy Quran. Ulnissa 4-34)
The Qur’anic verse regarding the testimony of two women being equal to that of 0ne man is as follows:
[And get two witnesses out of your own men and, if there are not two men, then a man and two women such as ye choose for witnesses, so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her. Iii. 282)]
On the same subject there is a Tradition by the Holy Prophet which says:
[‘ Abu Sa’id Khudri reported. The Prophet came out either on (the occasion of) ‘Id al-Fitr or ‘Id al-Adha towards the place where the ‘Id congregation was held. He passed by the side of a number of women. Thereupon he said: O group of women, spend your money in charity for I see that the majority of you will taste Hell-fire, They said: Why, O Prophet of God? He said: You utter curses and disobey your husbands. I see you defective in understanding and religion. Even a wise man loses his wisdom on account of you. They said: What is the defect of our understanding and religion? The Prophet said: Is it not a fact that the testimony of a woman is equal to half that of a man? They said: Yes. He said: This is the defect of your understanding. Is it not a fact that when you undergo monthly courses, you miss your prayers and fasts? They said: Yes. He said: This is the defect of your religion.]
In Hinduism also, we find references to women in the Vedas where so much is made of celibacy and it is thought that married men cannot aspire to communion with God or lead a saintly and pure life. Women were excluded from religious functions. Manu disallowed women from listening to the Vedas although there is ample evidence that most of the songs in the Vedas were composed by women. A woman was thought to accept man as her Lord and to have no personal religion or spiritual responsibility other than that of her husband. A son was welcome as one who would clear the way for his father’s salvation, whereas the birth of a girl was an anathema to the parents. She was contemptuously called a stone. Daughters were often strangled to death. This practice was most common among the Rajputs even up to the 19th Century. The practice was later declared illegal by Lord William Cavendish Bentinck (1828-1835) and severe punishments were imposed upon the perpetrators of this crime.
In the Punjab, this heinous crime was committed by putting some sugar into the mouth of the innocent daughter and then saying:
Eat sugar and spin cotton, Come not again, but send brothers.
Gur Khayeen te puni kateen Aap na ayeen viran nu ghateen.
Abhorrence of women was very common from the 8th to the 15th Century in India. The yogis, Sidhs and Naths, known as the respository of learning and religion were all misogynists. Gorakh, the most popular Nath writes:
Woman defiles the soul, woman destroys vitality, Woman eats away your body. This she-leopard has eaten the three worlds. I, Gorakh, have bound her hand and foot.
Baghan jindle. Baghan bindle, Baghall hamari kaya In baghan trai loi khai. Badhat Gorakh raya.
A Sidh divine, Charpat, writes in the same strain:
Lo, he spent the money and got a cat as a spouse, The mother is overjoyed that her son is married. The poor soul does not know that termite has entered the green wood And will eat it away root and branch.
Dam kadh baghan Ie aya, mao kahe mere put wiahia. Gili lakari ko ghun, laya, un dol mul chun khaya.
Chaurangee Nath (popularly known as Puran Bhagat) was taught to abhor and detest women, with the result that poor Sundran, who fell in love with him, had to put an end to her life. Tulsi Das, known as the Moon of Hindi literature, vehemently wrote against women; he called a woman
A woman is half nectar, half poison.
Ameya War gareogarl
|How should we behave towards Women, O Lord?
|Do not see them.
|But if we should see them, Lord?
|But if they should speak to us, Lord, what are we to do?
|Then keep wide-awake, Ananda.
On being hard pressed by Ananda to admit women into the monastic order, Lord Buddha agreed to admit them but said that his religion would not survive as long as it would have done otherwise. One can well imagine the irreparable harm done to society by this pernicious doctrine of female inferiority. Woman came to be regarded as a child-bearing machine, The shoe of man, A whip for man’s carnal desire and spiritual degradation, A paper doll, An idiot with the brain on the nape of its neck. This attitude still persists in some districts of India. In Ranchi for instance, a woman cannot touch a plough; if it happens, consternation prevails and the whole village has to atone for the woman’s remissness. Fowls, pigeons and pigs have to be sacrificed before she can be exonerated. Kharias make the women draw the plough, eat grass and then go round the village begging alms for the tribal feast. Todas do not allow their women to use or even touch milk. Women cannot even pass by a dairy, if they do, the milk is polluted. Medieval Punjabi literature is replete with the condemnation of women. Waras Shah, the veteran Punjabi poet, condemned women as being undependable. Peeloo calls woman a quagmire; Suthra calls them the well of troubles. A stream of condemnation led women towards feminine servility which in turn proved extremely detrimental to the best interests of the society and the country at the time of the invasions of India from the outside. The rigour with which 6 restrictions were imposed on women ranged from heavy fines to ostracism, total boycott, excommunication and sometimes extinction.
Guru Nanak (1469-1539) pitted himself against this injustice and he challenged the values of society at great peril to himself. It was an uphill task to ameliorate the condition of a society in which the Brahmanical overlordship had woven a rigid but reassuring cocoon of restrictions the observance of which had become a preoccupation with all.
Guru Nanak restored to women the full rights and privileges enjoyed by men. He tried to raise them from the depths of degradation to the heights of glory. He conferred on her the title of the daughter of God and he swept away the age-old threadbare and derogatory terminology used to malign women.
In Asa di Var, he says:
It is by woman the condemned one, that we are conceived, And from her that we are born; it is with her that we are betrothed and married. It is woman we befriend, it is she who keeps the race going; When one woman dies, we seek another; it is with her we become established in society. Why should we call her inferior, who gives birth to great men? A woman is born of a woman, none is born without a woman. O Nanak, only the one True Lord, is without a woman.
Guru Nanak, and the other Gurus, allowed women an equal share in religious worship. Woman came to be regarded as equal with man, and she was supposed to shoulder the responsibility for her own actions herself.
All (women as well as men) acknowledge the same God as their own; Show me anyone who does not. Each person is responsible for his (or her) own actions And shall have to settle his (or her) own account.
Women were allowed to lead religious congregations, to take part in the continuous recitation of the holy scriptures, to work as priests or preachers, and to participate freely in all religious, cultural, social, political and secular activities. Ever since the first roar of Sikhism in the Punjab, women have been attending all occasions of public worship, all social functions and political conferences. They even fought in wars by organising themselves into jathas (groups). Mai Bhago and Sharan Kaur played unforgettable part in Sikh politics.
Suttee, the custom of burning with the dead husband on the funeral pyre, was the cruellest of all customs. Guru Amar Das condemned it very strongly as follows:
They are not suttees who burn themselves with their dead husbands; Rather they are suttees, Nanak, who die with the mere shock of separation from their husbands. And they too, are to be considered suttees, who abide in modesty and contentment, Who wait upon their Lord and rising in the morning, ever remember Him.
again, in Suhi ki Var, he says:
Women burn themselves in fire with their husbands; If they appreciate their husbands, they undergo sufficient pain by their death. If they appreciate them not, Nanak, why should they burn at all?
Guru Amar Das even persuaded King Akbar to stop this revolting practice and succeeded in having a law passed. However Suttee still persisted and was in vogue up to the time of Lord Cavendish William Bentinck who finally banned it and dealt with the lawbreakers very sternly.
Marriage, in Sikhism, is regarded as a sacred bond of mutual help in attaining the heights of worldly and spiritual joy. It is something sacrosanct. Telling about the ideal marriage, the Guru says:
They are not husband and wife who only have physical contact: Rather they are wife and husband who have one spirit in two bodies.
This is an ideal which can be achieved. Sikhism, being a way of life and a code of conduct, such exemplary character is not difficult to find in its history. The devoted and brave daughter of the magistrate of Patti was an ideal Sikh. She was married to a leper but she loved him from the inmost recesses of her heart. She carried him about on her head in a basket for many years till he was cured at the sacred tank of Amritsar, by the grace of God. Bhai Gurdas, the interpreter of the holy scriptures, says:
From the temporal as well as the spiritual point of view, woman is man’s other half and she assists him in achieving salvation. She assuredly brings happiness to the virtuous.
Lok ved gur gian wich Ardh sariri mokh duari
When the ideas and the actual facts are put together, one is wonderstruck to know how Sikh womanhood proved the practicality of the Sikh doctrines.
Purdah or the veil (a lent-like contraption with which women hide themselves from male eyes) was another very bad custom strictly enforced among women. It was thought to be a shield for women, a protection against the lustful eyes of the invaders, but it made women cowards and they came to be known as Abala (powerless). It had been dinned into their ears from time immemorial that a woman is a nonentity. In troublous times, when the husbands left their wives, mothers and daughters at the mercy of invaders, this shield of the veil never defended them. They were frequently herded away to be sold in the streets of Ghazni (Afghanistan). A very popular extant Punjabi song is still sung by Punjabi women. It depicts a woman being forcibly abducted by the invaders under the very nose of her husband, father and brother.
In utter helplessness, she cries for help from an unknown warrior:
O passing knight, none but you can help me My father has fallen. my brother is in a dream, My husband has laughed me away, saying he can remarry; O passing knight, I beseech thee, rescue me from these gory clutches!
The Gurus raised their voices against purdah. Guru Amar Das was the first to condemn it. He did not even allow the Queen of Haripur to come into the sangat (religious assembly) wearing a veil. The Guru said:
Detested are those who come to me in veils. Think how many have degraded themselves like this why should you foolishly follow their bad practice?
Raho raho re bahuria ghungat jin kadhe Ghungat kadh gai tere age. Un ki gail tuhi mat lage
The immediate effect of the removal of the purdah was that women gained an equal status with men. Those who lived as grovelling slaves of society came to be fired with a new hope and courage to lift themselves to be equals of the best in humanity. The spirit of woman was raised with a belief that she was not a helpless creature but was a responsible being endowed with a will of her own with which she could do much to mould her own destiny. She acquired a force with which she transcended all her past and acquired a new character. Women came forward as the defenders of their honour and dignity. They came to realise their position in society and they always stood as a rock against the tyrant holding their own in the face of social turmoil and brutal force of the invaders, who used to abduct Indian beauties to sell them in the bazaars of Ghazni
Relieved from unnecessary and unreasonable customs, the Sikh women became the temporal and spiritual supporters of men. Mai Bhago, the brave woman, helped the Forty Saved Ones to keep on the right path when the latter fell down from their high position as the Guru’s faithful Sikhs and signed a disclaimer renouncing their allegiance to him. She admonished them for leaving the Guru at a very crucial time. She, herself, set out with a firm determination to wrench away the sword from the enemy and help the Guru. This pricked the consciences of the deserters who then willingly went back along with Mai Bhago and eventually laid down their lives for the Guru.
Another example of this type is found in Sikh history when Guru Tegh Bahadur came to Amritsar. The self-centred people of Amritsar closed the doors of the Golden Temple and would not allow him in. The Guru went back to Kotha Sahib about three miles from the city. The city women felt sorry at the treatment meted out to the Guru and they went to him in a body supplicating his forgiveness. The Guru accordingly forgave the people and said, The women of Amritsar know how to love the will of God. These women thus acted as the conscience of men in Sikhism. This is the ideal by which Sikh women lived and transformed themselves from the bane of society to the boon of humanity. At Shivratri fair in Batala. Guru Nanak was questioned by the Sidhas as to why he, a religious preacher, added yeast to milk by leading a married life. The Guru replied. Even you have not achieved what you preach, otherwise why would you denounce women and yet go begging to them for food.
The same question was asked by a learned questioner from Guru Hargobind, who not only led a family life but also donned two swords. The Guru’s reply was:
Money is my servant. Wife is my conscience and children keep the race going.
Daulat guzran hai, Aurat lman hai, Puttar nishan hai.
Sikh women not only acted as the check and restraint on the weaknesses of their husbands. but they also proved as their equals in service. devotion. sacrifice and bravery. Mata Sahib Devan, the mother of Khalsa, set a record by doing all sorts of selfless service in the langar (free kitchen). She was never seen without work. She would forget her meals for days in serving meals to the needy. She did twenty-four hours service on special occasions. Her motto was Hands at work and mind on the Lord. In devotion, Bibi Amro, the daughter of Guru Angad, reigned supreme. It was she who brought Guru Amar Das to the fold of Sikhism. One is wonderstruck at the sacrifice of hundreds and thousands of Sikh women who received their butchered sons in their laps. who were tortured to death, starved or flayed alive and cut in twain.
In Hayat-i-Afghani, there is a story of a Sikh woman who was attacked by a Pathan. She knocked him down, seized his sword and dismissed him contemptuously. The Pathan felt a great sense of shame at his defeat by a woman and he asked her to kill him. The woman, instead gave him his sword telling him never to molest a woman in future.
A remarkable incident of valour and statesmanship occurred at Nander Sahib. The Muslims constantly tried to desecrate the holy shrine built at the place where the Tenth Guru expired in 1708, The Sikhs always gave a tough fight, but being very small in numbers, they eventually began to desert the place. The news of this reached the Malwa in the Punjab, About two hundred Sikh women volunteered themselves, dressed in saffron robes, formed themselves into a battalion and rode to Nander on horseback. On reaching Nander, they engaged the enemy in a skirmish and not only defeated the usurpers, but also captured their drum and banner which can still be seen in the Toshakhana of the Sikh Temple at Nander.
The Sikhs are not allowed to exercise proprietary rights over women captured in battle. It is on record that in a battle the Begum of the Governor of Bassi Pathan had fell into the hands of the Sikhs. Ajit Singh, the Guru’s son himself escorted her back to the enemies’ camp and so long as she stayed with the Sikhs, she was treated as a sister.
There are numerous such examples of chivalry in Sikh history and this has earned a reputation for them even from their opponents, Qazi Nur Muhammad, who himself fought against the Sikhs, records such incidents in his Jangnama and concludes,
Really, these dogs have great respect for women.
On Baisakhi day in the year A.D. 1699, Guru Gobind Singh convened a big gathering of his followers. He took his five tried men, dressed them in warrior’s uniforms and began to make preparations for initiating them into the Khalsa. The Guru was preparing the Amrit (baptismal water) with his sword, when his wife, Sahib Devan, offered some sugar cakes as her contribution. The Guru took the sweets and said:
Your coming is most opportune; my Sikhs will not only be as tough as the steel of my sword, but also as sweet as your sugar cakes.
This is how a woman actually sweetened the nectar of life for a Sikh. She is still remembered as the mother of the virile Khalsa. In the Sikh way of life, women have equal rights with men. They have the right to vote to elect representatives to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (the central body for the management of Sikh shrines). Only recently when the managing committee of the famous Sikh Temple at Smethwick (England) failed to run the administration efficiently, the ladies took over the management and controlled the Sikh Temple for one complete year.
Sikh women have the right to join the Panj Pyaras (Five Beloved Ones) and they can also become priests. They can perform Kirtan, solemnize marriages and can work as teachers, doctors, lawyers and judges.
Thus, in Sikhism, all the invidious distinctions between man and woman have been totally abolished and Sikh women are in no way considered to be inferior to men. As members of the Khalsa. Sikh women have to defend themselves and strive for personal salvation as well as to fulfil the difficult duty of helping the needy. the weak and the downtrodden. Women are considered to be acceptable and worthy members of the Khalsa fraternity, which is a mighty union of service and sacrifice and a living witness to God. Thus, Sikhism engrafted the courage of true soldiers to the enthusiasm of the devoted Sikh women, and turned the very dregs of society into the most dauntless and sturdy soldier-saints.
Sikh women have played a glorious part in the history and examples of their moral dignity, service and self-sacrifice will remain a source of inspiration to posterity. Their endurance, greatness, administrative ability and heroic deeds are par excellence.
The eye is dazzled and the mind is dazed at the brilliance which encompasses Sikh women who never flinched from their duty. never allowed their faith and ardour to be dampened, and always upheld the honour and glory of the Khalsa.