The Sikh Gurus advocated equal status for women with glen in all spheres of life. They honoured women as the symbol of domestic harmony and happiness, social cohesion and unity, a helping hand to man in the achievement of salvation. The Guru says:
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 (Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 73)
The position of women in Indian society before the times of the Sikh Gurus was very demeaning, derogatory and continually deteriorating. Their presence in religious, political, social, cultural and economic affairs was almost non-existent. No religion or sect in India had ever taken any steps towards emancipation of women, constituting nearly half of the adult population. A woman was never considered fit for independence at any stage of her life. As a daughter, she was kept under the strict supervision of her father, as a wife under the surveillance of the husband, and as a widow under care of her son. A woman was referred’ to as man’s shoe, the root of all evil, a snare, a temptress, and having her intelligence in her heels. It was said that one who heeds the advice of a woman would be reduced to beggary. In the male-dominated society, the only contribution required of women was to perpetuate the race, do the household work and serve male members of society.
The plight of women was made even more miserable by the invaders who took women away as slaves and sold them as cattle in foreign markets or raped and ravaged them and made them work as prostitutes in their home country. A very popular song, still sung by Punjabi women, 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 husband has laughed
me away, saying he can remany.
O passing knight, I beseech you,
Rescue me from these god clutches.
Indian women were also tightly tied down in the shackles of cruel, inhuman and callous social customs. The leaders of society had woven around woman a rigid cocoon of restrictions, which had become the obsession of all. A woman has encouraged and
sometimes forced to become Sati (to immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre), which showed the insignificance of a woman’s life and role. She was a nonentity, whose only purpose for living was to serve her husband. Widowhood was a curse and the remarriage of widows was taboo. Purdah or wearing of the veil was thought to be a shield for her, a protection against man’s lustful eyes. But it had disastrous psychological effects. It made her ‘abla’ (helpless creature) who was not able to defend herself. Again, the birth of a son was welcome as one would clear the way for the father’s salvation, whereas the birth of a girl was anathema to the parents. She was contemptuously called a misfortune and female infanticide was commonly practised, especially by the higher classes of society.
The religions of the day debarred woman from taking an active part in religious affairs. She was thought to be a hindrance to man aspiring for communion with God. She was to accept her husband as her Lord and was not to have any personal religion or spiritual responsibility. She was not to receive education and not allowed to listen to scriptures. Guru Nanak on demaned this man-made notion of the inferiority of woman and protested against her long subjection. He challenged the unjust custom and practice prevalent and his message was like a breath of fresh air for the suffering woman. He felt the need to rehabilitate woman to a place of honour, if Indian society as a whole was to be saved’. He asserted that men and women shared the grace of God equally and were responsible for their deeds before Him.
The Sikh Gurus admitted women into the Sangat (congregation) without any restriction or reservation and their message was meant as much for women as for men. Now, Sikh women not only attend services but they also lead and conduct services on equal terms with men. They work side by side with men in the Langar (common kitchen) and all other religious, social and cultural activities of the Gurdwaras. In a way, the Guru advocated and allowed much more equality for women in the 15th century than the freedom and equality which has existed for women in the twentieth century. The Guru wanted to build a nation of self-respecting men and women with equal dignity; he considered that without the active participation of woman in all walks of life, the social structure would not only be weak but incomplete also. Guru Nanak repudiated the prevalent notion that women were inherently evil and a temptation. By denouncing celibacy and renunciation of the world and by advocating family life, and by his own example the Guru put woman on a par with man. Woman was not a hindrance if man needed to serve God but a helping hand in the
achievement of salvation.. The Guru says:
Living within family life,
one obtains salvation. (Guru Granth Sahib, p.661)
The Sikh Gurus advocated marriage of two equal partners. The third Guru, Guru Amar Das, described the ideal marriage:
Only they are truly wedded who have one spirit in two bodies.
(Guru Granth Sahib, p. 788)
The Gurus redefined celibacy in the framework of chastity-he is celibate, who is married to one wife-and taught their disciples, male and female alike, the value of conjugal fidelity. Guru Amar Das condemned the cruel custom of Sati, Purdah and female infanticide and advocated the remarriage of widows. He persuaded his Sikhs to abstain completely from the practice of Sati and wrote:
They are not Sat is, who bum themselves with
their dead husbands.
Rather they are Satis, who die with mere
shock of separation from their husbands.
And they are Satis too, who abide in modesty
and contentment. (Guru Granth Sahib, p.787)
He persuaded Emperor Akbar to issue a directive to stop the
callous practice. Guru Amar Das also raised his voice against Purdah and did not allow the queen of Haripur to come into the congregation wearing a veil. He forbade his Sikhs to deal with anyone indulging in female infanticide. In Rehat Maryada (the code or way of Sikh life)
the Sikh is asked to take a vow, not to have any social dealings with any such person.
Whereas a woman had been contemptuously called a childbearing machine, the Guru respected her for her creativity and said:
Blessed is the woman who creates life. (Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 32)
Out of 22 Manjis established by the Guru for the preaching of Sikhism four were held by women. He also appointed 52 women missionaries to educate women in the three R’s and also to spread the message of Sikhism.
The sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind, respected woman by saying: “Woman is the conscience of man.” Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Guru, gave Arnrit (Sikh initiation) to men and women alike. There is no distinction made as to the injunctions about the maintenance of the five K’s - the symbols of Sikh faith. At the time of Amrit a man is given the name Singh, meaning Lion, the woman is given the name Kaur, meaning Princess, to enhance the position of woman. A Sikh woman is an individual in her own right; she does not have to take husband’s name and is Kaur till her death. On Baisakhi Day in the year 1699, when Guru Gobind Singh was preparing Amrit (the nectar used for initiation) with his double-edged sword, his wife added sugar crystals to sweeten the water. The Guru accepted her contribution gratefully and remarked that his Sikhs would not only be strong but sweet as well. Had there not been the teachings of the Gurus, according to the then prevalent rites, she would have been considered to have polluted and defiled the whole ceremony. He also forbade Sikhs to exercise any proprietary rights over women captured in battle. Infact, Sikh armies treated women better than do modern armies.
These views of the Gurus and the steps they took to accord equality to women revolutionized the tradition of society, which was steeped in prejudice against them. Woman was not only equal with man in social and religious affairs but an equal partner in the political matters of war and peace: she was at liberty to join the army to fight for national defence. As a result of the Gurus’ teachings, men began to realise the worth of women as equal partners and women began to receive the respect and honour they deserved. Relieved from unnecessary and unreasonable customs, taboos and practices, Sikh womanhood played a momentous role in various walks of life in consonance with the rise and nature of the Sikh movement. In the early period of the movement, the role of Sikh women was confined, by and large, to religious and social affairs of the Sikh community. But with the changing character of the community’s needs, Sikh women did not show themselves wanting in qualities of courage, bravery and sacrifice. In the eighteenth century when the Sikhs after an epic struggle and heroic sacrifices, succeeded in creating their independent principalities in various parts of the Punjab, numerous Sikh women distinguished themselves as warriors, administrators, advisers, regents and rulers. Many Sikh women led forces with courage and bravery against their enemies and won laurels. Whenever and wherever a Sikh ruler happened to be weak or wanting, his mother, sister or wife would come forward to manage his affairs efficiently.
During the period of the Gurus, we find that the women connected with their families played a very important role directly or indirectly in the progress of the community and in the preachings of the Gurus’ message. Bebe Nanki, the elder sister of Guru Nanak was
the first admirer of the Guru’s greatness and gave him much needed encouragement to tread on the great spiritual path he had chosen. Mata Khivi, the wife of the second Guru excelled in the domain of Seva (selfless service). She, imbued with the spirit of Seva, took upon herself the onerous responsibility of the management of the affairs of the Langar. Thus she helped the Guru in establishing the infant Sikh community on a stronger footing.
The name of Mata Gujri, the wife of Guru Tegh Bahadur and mother of Guru Gobind Singh, will inspire many women. She was a great educationist: she taught her family and everyone around her the teachings of the Gurus and infused in them the spirit of courage for their convictions, ready to lay down their life for principles. After the Martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur in 1675, the responsibility of looking after the education of the nine-year-old Guru Gobind Singh and the leadership of the Sikh community at that crucial and dangerous time, fell on the shoulders of Mata Gujri. She discharged her duties superbly and showed remarkable astuteness and farsightedness in dealing withexternal and internal dangers to the Sikh community. She showed great courage in dealing with dishonest Masands (who were supposed to collect the offerings from the congregation and send them to Guru).
It was Mata Gujri’s teachings of courage, of conviction and steadfastness that infused the spirit of sacrifice in the younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh. They accepted death and sacrificed themselves on the altar of their faith. Mata Gujri holds an unenviable position as wife of a martyr, mother of a martyr, grandmother of martyrs and herself a martyr.
Mata Sundri, the widow of Guru Gobind Singh continually provided leadership in the most dangerous time in the history of Sikhs, she dealt with the pretenders and aspirers of Gurudom very strictly and maintained the Guruship given to Guru Granth Sahib in 1708 by Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Guru. Sikh women exercised checks and restraints on the weakness of their men folk. Mai Bhago bravely helped forty Sikh deserters to keep on the right path, when the latter had signed a disclaimer renouncing their allegiance to Guru Gobind Singh. She admonished them for leaving the Guru and herself led them back to the Guru and fought bravely to defend themselves from the Moghul troops. During this period of history (1720-1760) when the male Sikhs were persecuted and there were rewards for the capture or killing of Sikhs, Sikh women not only showed undaunted courage in warfare, but also shouldered family responsibilities. They had to work to earn money to keep the family from starvation and to look to the religious and educational needs of the children. They had to teach the children the principles of Sikhism and inculcate courage in facing persecution.
During Mir Mannu’s governorship (1748-1753) of Punjab, hundreds of women were caught, put into prison and were forced to grind corn. They were made to wear wreaths round their necks made from the flesh of their slain children. These women were tortured, starved and speared alive. They bore all this but did not falter from their religious beliefs. George Thomas, who was the Raja of a small state in Punjab, writes in his memoirs that “Instances indeed have not infrequently occurred in which they (Sikh women) have actually taken up arms to defend their inhabitants from the desolatory attacks of the enemy and throughout the contest behaved themselves with the intrepidity of spirit highly praiseworthy.” When the Sikhs came out of the period of persecution and had a chance of establishing Sikh rule, Sikh women as and when the occasion arose, took charge of state administration and their contributions, as rulers were creditable. One such great woman was the Rani of Patiala State, Rani Sahib Kaur. She proved to be the saviour of Patiala state more than once. She often commanded armies in the battlefield and inflicted severe defeats Dn the invaders. She was an enlightened organiser, a brilliant administrator and a superb commander of her force.
Rani Sada Kaur, mother-in-law of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was the chief architect of his empire. She headed the army many times to assist the Maharaja. The Maharaja was only eleven years old when his father died and it was Rani Sada Kaur who set him on the road to power and glory. Rani Jind Kaur, the wife of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the mother of Maharaja Dalip Singh, exerted her influence to keep the state of Punjab independent from the British Imperialism. But her efforts were foiled by the British politicians and she had to suffer imprisonment. She made persistent efforts to free Punjab and restore the legitimate authority of her son, but all in vain. In the late nineteenth and twentieth century Sikh women played an active part in the Indian Independence movement and many women like Bibi Gulab Kaur, Mata Kishan Kaur Kanke, Bibi Amar Kaur, Bibi Harnam Kaur, Bibi Dalip Kaur and many more played an active and brave role. Today many Sikh women are serving the community in various spheres. They are performing important tasks as eminent administrators, doctors, educationists, business-women, religious leaders, politicians and artists. They have proved their mettle in whatever sphere they choose to serve. Even as a housewife, the authority of the Sikh women among rich and poor, is extensive. She usually controls the purse strings and decides what that family shall eat and how much her husband would spend. Social events, such as marriage or birthday celebrations, are usually settled by women and the man merely gives consent. The Sikh woman has enjoyed superior status as compared to her counterparts in other communities. She has earned this by showing the ability to stand by the side of her husband in difficult times.
Sikh women have come in the forefront and have shown their ability and stamina to work outside Punjab. In 1966 in Smethwick (Midlands) a serious dispute arose between the two parties of the Gurdwara Management Committee. The women took charge of the Gurudwara affairs and for a whole year, very successfully conducted the affairs till the men cooled down and got ready to work together. Bibi Balwant Kaur in Birmingham has contributed greatly to the social and religious welfare of Sikh women by establishing Bebe Nanaki Gurudwara in Birmingham, where mostly women manage all the affairs of the Gurdwara. In Kenya, she helped widows to become self-supporting by giving them tailoring techniques and providing sewing machines. For the recent famine in Ethiopia, she collected funds and personally visited the famine stricken areas.
Many women have and are currently occupying positions of residents, or secretaries of Gurdwaras and other similar Sikh or ganisations. In almost every Gurdwara, women are seen organising functions to collect money for charities. In spite of her active participation in all religious, political, social, and cultural affairs, the position of Sikh woman is far from satisfactory. Her status in life is still lower than that of man. The birth of a female is still less welcome than the birth of a male child. There still exists the dreaded dowry system that puts the woman a few pegs lower than the man. The Sikh man will quite happily cook, clean and serve food in the Langar in the Gurdwara but would still think those very jobs belonging to woman, as he believes that household chores are low and need less intelligence.
Despite the Gurus’ teachings of full equality, the Sikh woman still suffers from some prejudices. No woman has even been elected as the president of Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (the Central Management Committee to manage the affairs of the Gurdwaras in Punjab); no woman has been appointed Jathedar (head) of any of the five Takhats (the thrones of authority); and the number of women, who have been the members, secretaries or presidents of gurdwara management committees is very small. Clearly this somewhat subservient role of Sikh women can be attributed to the following factors:
Sikhs have been the minority community and have been ruled by either Hindu or Muslim traditions or by the British and have been ruled according to their respective religious or political views. Islam did not visualise equality of women with men to the same extent as the
Sikh Gurus. The Hindu Rajas and Maharajas indulged in all the ill practices like Sati, Purdah and female infanticide and influenced the Sikh gentry who tried to imitate them. Even during the British Raj, when Sikhs got the control of Sikh Gurdwaras (1924), for the election of the Managing Committee, only the Sikh men were given the right to vote. In spite of the Sikh leaders, explanations and pleading that the Sikh women enjoy equality with men and they share all the duties in the Gurdwaras equally with men, the British Government in India refused to give Sikh women the right to vote, (Incidentally, when India became independent Sikh women got the same rights as Sikh men, in running the affairs of the Gurdwaras). The other major contributory factor is the unwillingness of Sikh males to surrender their dominant role. They enjoy the privileges and will carry on, perhaps till the Sikh women stand up and refuse to let go the equality, given to them 500 years ago by the Gurus. The moment the Sikh men would turn to their Gurus’ teachings, they would understand the truth of equality.
Sikh history has been written by men only, who either chose to disregard women’s contributions or did not think their contributions worthy of note. Whatever the reason, women’s contributions have been kept off the record and as a result Sikh women could not transmit their achievement to the next generation so that the next generation could have positive images to look upon and emulate. I think to an extent the fault also lies with Sikh women themselves. They have collaborated with men in stereotyping the role of women. Sikh women should teach equality of the sexes within the family unit by welcoming the birth of a daughter and celebrating this on the same scale as those of sons and providing equal opportunities for their higher education and challenging careers.
The custom of dowry can soon be eradicated, in fact can be finished almost overnight, if women-as sons’ mothers-refuse to accept it. There should be women’s organisations to mobilise public opinion against this cancerous growth of the dowry system. Although it is good that Sikh women have never had to struggle for their basic rights of equality with men, yet it has generated a degree of complacency and lack of zeal to rise to greater heights. There is no reason why half the number of Sikh leaders, educationists, organisers and spiritual teachers could not be women. Sikh women through seva and dedication must try to achieve the status given to them by the Sikh Gurus. They have a glorious past and they must work for a brighter future.
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