Equality of women

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Mata Khivi established the present-day Langar system

This articles gives quotes about "Equality of women" in Sikhism.


By Valerie Kaur

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 characterized 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.1 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 holy 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 Prabandhak Committee (the Central Management Committee to manage the affairs of the Gurdwaras in the Punjab), or as the head of any of the five Takhats (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 practiced 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


Women Free at Last

Prabjyot Kaur 06-01-2005


To understand what the Gurus said of women in Gurbani one must understand the conditions prevalent in India at the time of the Gurus. In the very early Vedic period women had much of the same access to an education, participation in religious, political and social roles. They even composed some of the hymns in the Vedas. That all changed drastically with the arrival of the laws of Manu. The status of women was totally degraded at every level and women were effectively enslaved. Women in Hindu society were now bound by a series of rigid laws that defined social, occupational and religious conduct.


The women were not only relegated to their households, they were literally under the control of men from cradle to grave. They were compelled to observe Purdah. Sati was expected at the death of the spouse in some castes or permanent widowhood in others even in the case of very young widows. Widowhood meant destitution at best, social rejection and lifelong loneliness. The birth of a daughter was viewed with disdain and sorrow and female infanticide rampant. The birth of a boy was celebrated lavishly but that of a girl meant scorn and blame by the in-laws. Women and girls’ health was poor due to frequent childbirth coerced by husband and in-laws till the birth of a male heir occurred for the former and sheer neglect of health care and nutrition of the latter. The Laws of Manu still maintain a powerful hold over Indian Society today in overt and covert fashions. They manifest as such in present societal mores and attitudes.(article on Laws of Manu as applies to women). These affect as much the modern Punjabi as well as Hindu societies. (This article a blessing for boys and girls are killed)Many of the same conditions that plague women in Indian society described above still exist today in many villages and city centers.


Under Islamic rule women fared no better. Hindu women and children were enslaved and force-marched by their captors to be sold on the markets of Persia, Afghanistan and sent further to Arabia and Africa. Muslim women had some limited rights under Muslim law but functioned primarily in the home. They were often at the mercy of the man’s sexual desires. They did not have much freedom and few rights as well and again came under the dominion of their husbands. Since their movements were limited and women could not move unsupervised without a male chaperone, education and roles outside the home were not an option. If they did not obey their husband’s wishes they were beaten. This rule is enshrined in the holy Qu’ran. Women were also veiled and may be one of 4 wives sanctioned in Islamic law. The testament of 2 women is equal to that of one man.


It is against such a backdrop that the Gurus implemented reform via their missions and tackled prevalent issues in their teachings.


This passage offers a powerful rejection of the Vedic mistreatment of women:


"We are conceived in woman, We are born to woman. It is to woman we get engaged, and then get married. Woman is our lifelong companion, And pillar of our survival. It is through woman, that we establish social relationships. Why should we denounce her, When even kings and great men are born from her?" (P. 473 SGGS Guru Nanak)


Guru Amar Das abolished the tradition of Sati and Purdah and indeed refused to have an audience with ladies that kept Purdah. He established religious centers and women alongside men were recruited to lead and teach. Women worked alongside the men in maintaining the Guru’s kitchen, performing all duties and sitting side by side the men folk in Pangat.


Guru Angad strongly encouraged the education of women.


Women swelled the ranks in spreading the message of the Gurus as missionaries. By the time of Guru Gobind Singh, 40% of them were women.

With the birth of the Khalsa the last of the barriers of caste and gender oppression had been smashed. Women though continuing their roles of mothers and wives were forever changed. They were lifted up and given the same Amrit at the side of their brothers. The same rules that applied to them to follow the Khalsa way applied to them. They were granted the same 5 K’s. Guru Gobind Singh's encouragement of women to keep even shastars symbolized that he did not envision her role in society as being that of a "nice, meek housewife," but rather that of a fearless, active, independent warrior, involved in the world.


Kaur became her name. Kaur has an interesting history. Its origin can be found in the word Kanwar, literally meaning a Crown Prince. Women were given Kaur to give them an identity independent of that of their husband and to uplift their spirit. Indeed it has been recorded in oral tradition that Guru Gobind Singh referred to his brave daughters as ‘Sahibzadey’ or sons for the valor they exhibited in battle.


Indeed women did rule in their own right. The Victoria Museum in Calcutta shows many old paintings showing women with dastaars and in an old edition of Mahan Khosh there was a drawing of the Rani Raj Kaur with a dastar with the marks of royalty pinned adorning it. This certainly flew in the face of what women were expected to be. They were no longer subordinate to their husbands but to God like their male counterpart unlike Hindu or Islamic law.


At the time of Guru Gobind Singh, women who were literally and legally possessions of their husbands in Europe and in the American colonies, women who had no voice in administration in Europe, the Americas or India were now orators, teachers, warriors, and administrators and participated in the Guru’s kitchen. Guru Gobind Singh’s wife Mata Sundri led the Khalsa Panth for many years after passing of the tenth Guru. Jathedar Sada Kaur along with Maharaja Ranjit Singh made possible the formation of the Sikh Empire. She gave her contribution to the Amrit, sweet Patashey so that the disposition of the Sikhs would be also sweet. This is in a time when Hindu women were forbidden to read Vedic literature and or perform most religious rites.


Many other women were commanders of their own battalions and died on the battlefield. After Guru Gobind Singh the situation of not only women but also lower castes had deteriorated as people regained the old ways of caste and the oppression of women. The old habits and attitudes as you read in the laws of Manu continue in some form or another to ensnare the Sikh Nation as Brahmanic infiltration regained a foothold during the 19th century.


Given what we know of the history then and now here are some of the quotes regarding women:

In regards to dowry:

"O my Lord, give me thy name as my wedding gift and dowry." Guru Ram Das, Page 78, line 18 SGGSji

"Any other dowry offered is a valueless display of false pride and of no earthly use." Guru Ram Das, Page 79, line 2


In regards to marriage:

"They are not called husband and wife who merely sit together Rather they alone are called husband and wife who have one soul in two bodies." In regards to the odious practice of Sati:


"A Sati is not she, who burns herself on the pyre of her spouse. Nanak, a Sati is she, who dies with the sheer shock of separation (from God). Yea, the Sati is one who lives contended and embellishes herself with good conduct (rather than jewels and dress) And cherishing her Lord ever calls on Him each morning. The women burn themselves on the pyres of their lords, If they love their spouses well, they suffer the pangs of separation. (moh) She who loves not her spouse, why burns she herself in fire? For, be he alive or dead she owns him not (only God does)" Page 787,13, SGGSji Guru Amar Das)


Guru Hargobind called woman "the conscience of man "without whom moral living was impossible. Child marriage was discouraged and the practice of female infanticide, which had been strongly discouraged, was severely banned. Guru Gobind Singh enshrined in the Khalsa code of conduct for his Khalsa, male or female not to have social conduct, relations or marriage to those who kill their daughters. This Hukam is always told in any Amrit Sanchaar.


Regarding the practice of Purdah:

"Stay, stay, O daughter-in-law - do not cover your face with a veil. In the end, this shall not bring you even half a shell. The one before you used to veil her face; do not follow in her footsteps. The only merit in veiling your face is that for a few days, people will say, "What a noble bride has come". Your veil shall be true only if you skip, dance and sing the Glorious praises of the Lord (P. 484, SGGSji, Kabeer)


Women and indeed all souls were strongly encouraged to lead a spiritual life:

"Come, my dear sisters and spiritual companions; hug me close in your embrace. Let's join together, and tell stories of our All-powerful Husband Lord."-Guru Nanak, pg 17, Guru Granth Sahib.


Now given this background how is all this relevant in today’s society? Unlike the women’s liberation movement, which tends to addresses mainly secular concerns, Sikhi for women empowers them and requires equal responsibility in the spiritual and temporal spheres while maintaining the integrity of the family. The life of a householder is no less a central one for a Sikh woman as it is for a Sikh man. A stable family becomes a nucleus where an active spiritual life to mature the treasure of the Guru is then imparted to the children. Sikh women like Sikh men are discouraged from the excesses of indulging in the powers of the 5 thieves therefore excess in vices is automatically curtailed. Like the men, Sikh women are conscious of their social environment and are by nature of their bent for social justice and compassion can potentially champion the rights of the downtrodden and underprivileged. Given the natural disposition of the Sikh to serve others and by virtue of a vibrant spiritual life he or she stands ready to make the world better then he or she left it. The full implications of being a Sikh cannot be fully understood without adopting and fully imbibing the Sikh way of life by partaking of the Amrit and then living the path. Taking the Amrit means accepting equal responsibilities on a temporal and religious plane with their brothers. The commands given to follow the way of the Guru are identical for both sexes. It means equal submission to the will of God and humble service to humanity.


Unlike the ambient ladies of the time locked up by their socio-religious law, these ladies became stateswomen, leaders, generals, jathedras, and educators and moved freely with their brothers. They, alongside their husbands, instilled in all their children the values of Sikhi. Having taken the Amrit they gained an indomitable spirit, soaring spiritual life, and freedom from the shackles that had kept them imprisoned so long. The noble heritage of the Sikhs is there to enjoy for those who wish to explore it and hopefully and one day fully live it.

Kharad Kaur can be reached at [email protected]


Women in India

Awaken her socially, and see the difference by Madanjit Kaur in the tribune india published on June 19, 1998

GENDER discrimination has been a universal phenomenon in human history from time immemorial. On account of her biological constitution, social taboos and scriptural sanction, the social position of the woman has always been considered as inferior and subordinate to man in society. Guru Nanak not only rejected the lowly social status of woman but declared her to be the essence of social coherence and progress, and equal to man in every sphere of life. No doubt Sikhism brought great relief to the sufferings of the Indian women, but the social transformation could not cross religious boundaries. There were other reformatory movements to elevate the status of women, but the position of women remained the same in Indian society.

Even in Europe the right of franchise came to women much later. However, with the dawn of modern age, old values have changed. With new awareness on account of education, economic development, social awareness, social organisations, industrialisation, urbanisation, disintegration of joint families, economic and technical developments, pressures of consumer society, more opportunities for work, development of means of communication and transportation and social mobility, a great change has occurred in the attitude towards women. Subsequently, the position of women has certainly been enhanced.

[Read the full article and more here at Tribune News, India by Madanjit Kaur, who is an eminent scholar, and is an authority on Sikhism.

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References

  • 1. Robert O. Ballou : The Portable World Bible, Penguin Books, 1976, p. 237-241.
  • 2. Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, translator : The Meaning of Glorious Koran, Mentor Book, New American Library, New York and Scarborough, Ontario, 1924, p. 53, Surah II, 223-228.
  • 3. Kanwaljit Kaur : Sikh Women, Fundamental Issues in Sikh Studies, Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, 1992, p. 96.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Guru Granth Sahib : p 73.
  • 6. Ibid. : p. 1268.
  • 7. Prof. Prabhjot Kaur : Women's Liberation Movement and Gurmat, Abstracts of Sikh Studies, April-June 1997, Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, p.76.
  • 8. Guru Granth Sahib, p.788.
  • 9. Ibid., p. 787.
  • 10. Kanwaljit Kaur : op. cit., p. 99.
  • 11. Alice Basarke : Where Are the Women ?, Current Thoughts on Sikhism, Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, 1996, p, 265.
  • 12. Ibid.
  • 13. Ibid.
  • 14. Ibid.
  • 15. Sabdarath Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1975
  • 16. Baig, Tara Ali, India’s Women Power. Delhi, 1976
  • 17. Marenco, Ethne K., The Transformation of Sikh Society, Portland, Oregon, 1974
  • 18. Nikki-Guninder Kaur Singh, The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent. Cambridge, 1994

Above adapted from article By G. S. Talib