Women In Sikhism
The role of women in Sikhism is outlined in the Sikh scriptures, which state that women are equal to men.
The principles of Sikhism state that women have the same souls as men and thus possess an equal right to cultivate their spirituality with equal chances of achieving salvation. Woman can participate in all religious, cultural, social, and secular activities including lead religious congregations, take part in the Akhand Path (the continuous recitation of the Holy Scriptures), perform Kirtan (congregational singing of hymns), and work as a Granthis. As a result, Sikhism was among the first major world religions to suggest that women are equal to men.
“Guru Nanak proclaimed the equality of men and women, and both he and the gurus that succeeded him encouraged men and women to take a full part in all the activities of Sikh worship and practice.”
Sikh history has recorded the role of women, portraying them as equals to men in service, devotion, sacrifice, and bravery. Examples of women’s moral dignity, service, and self-sacrifice can be found throughout the Sikh tradition. Sikh history records the names of several of these women, such as Mata Gujri, Mai Bhago, Mata Sundari, Rani Sahib Kaur, Rani Sada Kaur and Maharani Jind Kaur.
Historical context of Purdah and Sati in India
“Hindu women had equal status with men in many ways in the Vedic period, (from about 1500 BCE) when Upanayana, the rite of initiation was open to them.” Women who were used to having the same privileges as men in Vedic India were reduced to a position of subordination during the time of the Lawgivers.
Forwarding Women’s Rights With Sikhism
Guru Amar Das
According to Sarup Das Bhalla, Mahima Prakash, Guru Amar Das disfavoured the use of the veil by women. He assigned women to supervise some communities of disciples and preached against the custom of sati. Guru Amar Das also raised his voice against female infanticide.
Guru Gobind Singh
Guru Gobind Singh instructed the Khalsa to not associate with kanyapapi, those who sin towards woman, and the Guru was also strongly against the objectification of woman. The Guru gave those women who were baptized into the Khalsa, the surname of Kaur, the status of princess.
Sikh Women in the 18th Century
Women’s displays of steadfastness during the eighteenth century when Sikhs were fiercely persecuted have had a strong impact on modern-day Sikhs, who recount these stories in their ardas:
“Our mothers and sisters they repeat every time in their prayer, who plied handmills in the jails of Mannu [the Mughal governor of Lahore (1748-53)], grinding daily a maund-and-a-quarter of corn each, who saw their children being hacked to pieces in front of their eyes, but who uttered not a moan from their lips and remained steadfast in their Sikh faith—recall their spirit of fortitude and sacrifice, and say, Vahiguru, Glory be to God!”
Ram Singh Namdhari
Baba Ram Singh also did much for woman’s rights including opposing infanticide, selling of young girls into servitude, the dowry system, the pardah system, and endeavored to achieve higher standards of literacy, and the remarriage of widows.
During the Sikh revival movement of Singh Sabha beginning in the 1870s, the Singh Sabha raised its voice against the purdah system, female infanticide, child marriage, sati, bad conditions of widows, practice of dowry and extravagant expenditure during marriage.
Sutak and celibacy
In the Asa ki Var, Guru Nanak Dev rejects the prevalent superstition of sutak, the belief that a woman giving birth to a child is unclean for a given number of days depending upon the caste to which she belongs:
“The impurity of the mind is greed, and the impurity of the tongue is falsehood. The impurity of the eyes is to gaze upon the beauty of another man’s wife and his wealth. The impurity of the ears is to listen to the slander of others. O Nanak, the mortal’s soul goes, bound and gagged, to the city of Death. All impurity comes from doubt and attachment to duality. Birth and death are subject to the command of the Lord’s Will; through His will we come and go.” (SGGS, 472)
Instead of celibacy and renunciation, Guru Nanak recommends grhastha—the life of a householder. Husband and wife were equal partners and fidelity was enjoined upon both. In sacred verse, domestic happiness was presented as a cherished ideal and marriage provided a running metaphor for the expression of love for the Divine. Bhai Gurdas, poet of early Sikhism and authoritative interpreter of Sikh doctrine, paid high tribute to women saying:
“A woman, is the favourite in her parental home, loved dearly by her father and mother. In the home of her in-laws, she is the pillar of the family, the guarantee of its good fortune… Sharing in spiritual wisdom and enlightenment and with noble qualities endowed, a woman, the other half of man, escorts him to the door of liberation.” (Varan, V.16)
Monogamy, the banning of infanticide and widow burning
In a culture where monogamy is generally the rule, Sikh polygamy is exceptionally rare. Additionally, female infanticide is prohibited, and the Rahitnamas (codes of conduct) prohibit Sikhs from having any contact or relationship with those who indulge in this practice. Widow burning, or sati, is expressly forbidden by scripture.
In a shabad (hymn) in Raag measure Suhi, Guru Amar Das says, “Satis are not those that burn themselves on the husband’s funeral pyre; satis are they, O Nanak, who die of the pangs of separation (from the supreme God) (SGGS, 787)”
“They, too must be reckoned satis who live virtuously and contentedly in the service of the Lord, ever cherishing Him in their hearts… Some burn themselves along with their dead husbands: but they need not, for if they really loved them they would endure the pain alive.”
As a practical step towards discouraging the practice of sati Sikhism permits remarriage of widows.
According to Sikhism, men and women are two sides of the same human coin. There is a system of interrelationship and interdependence whereby man is born of women, and women are born of man’s seed. By these doctrines a man cannot feel secure and complete in his life without a woman, and man’s success is proportional to the love and support of the woman who shares her life with him (and vice versa). The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, reportedly said in 1499 that “[it] is a woman who keeps the race going” and that we should not “consider woman cursed and condemned, [when] from woman are born leaders and kings.”
Dignity of Women in Sikhism
The Sikh Faith from its inception has upheld the equality for and dignity of women. Siri Guru Nanak Sahib, the founding Guru of the Sikh Faith, emphasized the dignity of women in a way that was ahead of his time. Siri Guru Nanak Sahib stated:
“From woman, man is born; within woman, man is conceived; to a woman he is engaged and married. Woman becomes his friend; through woman, the future generations come. When his woman dies, he seeks another woman; to woman he is bound. So why call her bad from whom kings are born. From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all. O Nanak, only the Creator is without a woman. That mouth which praises the Creator continually is blessed and beautiful. O Nanak, those faces shall be radiant in the Court of the Creator.” – Translated into English from Gurmukhi, Siri Guru Nanak Sahib in Raag Aasaa, Siri Guru Granth Sahib pp 473
In Siri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scripture which Sikhs consider to be the word of God, the Sikh Gurus often use a feminine voice in many of the Sabads (verses) included in it.
Siri Guru Amar Das Sahib, the third Sikh Guru, lifted the status of women and gave them equality with men. He strictly prohibited practices such as Sati (the burning of the wife on her husband’s funeral pyre), Parda (veil to cover the face), and encouraged widow-remarriage, which was against the established norms of those times.
There are many examples of women who are considered models of service and sacrifice throughout Sikh history. Sikh tradition records the names of several of these women, such as Mata Gujri, Mai Bhago, Mata Sundari, Rani Sahib Kaur, Rani Sada Kaur and Maharani Jind Kaur.
Many modern Sikh women uphold this dignity bestowed upon them by the Sikh Gurus and have contributed in the areas of art, poetry, air force, scholarship, law, politics, and military. Sikh community prayers can be led by Sikh women or men.
In the present-day democratic politics of India, a fair amount of organizations study and work in order to rid women of many of their disadvantages. They have access to political franchise and new opportunities for advancement have opened up for them. Sikh women have shown enterprise in several fields and are among the most progressive in education and in the professions such as teaching and medicine. Within the Sikh system, they are the equals of men. They can lead congregational services and participate in akhand paths, uninterrupted readings of scripture to be accomplished within seventy-two hours. They vote with men to elect Sikhs’ central religious body, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, which administers their places of worship (Gurdwara).
Sikhs are obligated to treat women as equals, and gender discrimination in Sikh society has no religious basis. However, gender equality has been difficult to achieve in practice due to heavy social, cultural, and caste-related pressure. It’s worth noting that the caste system itself goes against the core principles of Sikhism.
Though equality for women has always been a major attribute of Sikhism and a great number of women have made significant contributions, it is important to note that it is still a work in progress. In the 1990s a group of Sikh women requested to wash the floors or the Darbar Sahib and were denied. Unlike men, women are still not allowed to assist in carrying the paliquin carrying the primary scriptures in its path to and from the Golden Temple. Also, women make up less than 20% of the SGPC members.
Notable women in Sikhism
- Sada Kaur, chief of the Khalsa Kanhaiya Misl from 1789 to 1821
- Rani Jindan, wife of Ranjit Singh
- Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, prominent suffragette of womans civil rights movemenent in the United Kingdom
- Mata Khivi, notable for her contributions to the establishment of Langar
- Mata Tripta, mother of Guru Nanak
- Bebe Nanaki, elder sister of Guru Nanak
- Mai Bhago, prominent Sikh warrior
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