Women and Sikhism in Theology and Praxis
Nirmal Singh & Param Partap Singh
We hear so much about the status of women, crimes against women and women’s issues in the media. Surely women have come a long way and we can cite the cases of so many successful and powerful women in our midst. Yet there is enough evidence that a lot of prejudice still survives and in practice the lives of women have not become either easier or more assuring of their intrinsic potential finding its full, unrestricted expression even in the relatively more aware and accepting Sikh society.
At the same time women have continued to fulfill their traditional roles of mother, friend and partner to man, loving sister and always the doting daughter. Where they were given the opportunity for education or for stepping out of their tradition bound, restricted lives, many of them seized the opportunity and have shown that their growth potential is in no way any less than that of men and that they may in fact rise up bringing better results than their male compatriots.
Unfortunately because of the high number of female foeticide, infanticide and trafficking in women prevalent in India, the Indian society has gained the dubious distinction of being placed as the fourth most dangerous place for women in the world in a survey conducted by Thomson Reuters’ Trustlaw Women, a hub of legal information and legal support for women’s rights [Jun 2011]. This is no wonder when we read the news of their rape and molestation, domestic violence and bride burning in the newspapers every day and their spark of life is threatened to be extinguished even at the stage of a foetus. Those who do grow up, on an average spend a much harder, more discriminated and less rewarding and fulfilling life even though they may have labored much harder through the years serving the family and others around them.
According to the United Nations, in rural areas of selected developing countries, women perform an average of 20 percent more work than men, or an additional 102 minutes per day. In the OECD countries surveyed, on average women performed 5 percent more work than men, or 20 minutes per day. At the UN’s Pan Pacific Southeast Asia Women’s Association Twenty First International Conference in 2001 it was stated that “in the world as a whole, women comprise 51 percent of the population, do 66 percent of the work, receive 10 percent of the income and own less than one percent of the property.”
The problem actually is more universal. Sikh situation is somewhat better but still there is a lot in Sikh living and lived Sikhi that is inhibiting fuller participation of Sikh women. In what follows we would try and explore some of the issues that have got raised, other ones that may be in the making from the tell tale signs of global developments, some incidents and happenings in our narrow little world and try and draw attention to these so that we at both our individual and collective levels start doing some thing.
Global Change: The Rise of Feminist Movement
The discrimination and subjugation of women over centuries in the Western societies led to the rise of what have come to be known as Feminist movements. These struggles took many different forms, espoused a variety of causes and have spawned an array of changes in cultural values, religious practices, political programs, authority structures, legislation of laws and legal remedies, healthcare, child care, education, jobs, abortion, reproductive rights, glass ceiling and so on. Similar demands have been given voice to in developing societies though mostly the approaches are at best a confused jumble of clichés borrowed from the west varnished with local metaphors.
Feminism is grounded in the belief that women are unjustly oppressed or disadvantaged compared to men and are victims of a belief system that requires them to find identity and meaning in their lives through their husbands and children. Thus their identity is lost in that of the family.
Some Forms of Feminism
Liberal feminists believe that all women are capable of asserting their ability to achieve equality; therefore it is possible for change to come about without altering the structure of society. Radical feminists on the other hand feel that as long as male-based authority structures and capitalistic values are in place, oppression and inequality will continue and their struggle is for radical changes in society. Individualist feminism encourages women to take full responsibility over their own lives and attempts to change legal systems to ensure that individuals have equal rights.
Ecofeminists see patriarchal systems, where men own and control the land, as responsible for both the oppression of women and destruction of the natural environment. Men tend to exploit land and women for their own profit, success and pleasure. Ecofeminists feel that women must work towards creating a healthy environment and ending destruction of the lands that most women rely on to provide for their families - a mystical connection between women and nature is often implied here.
Gender-neutral language is advocated both by those who aim inclusion of both sexes and genders in their choice of words [gender-inclusive language]; and by those who avoid use of gender in their language [gender-neutral language].
Feminism has affected women’s choices to bear a child, both in and out of wedlock, by making the choice less dependent on the financial and social support of a male partner.
Black feminists argue that early feminist movements ignored oppression based on racism and classism and that freedom for all would only be possible if racism, sexism, and class oppression is ended.
Medha Patkar, Madhu Kishwar, and Brinda Karat are some of the feminist social workers and politicians in India who advocate women’s political rights, social freedom, economic independence, individual autonomy, reproductive rights and maternity leave and for bringing end to domestic violence, gender stereotypes, discrimination, objectification, sexism, and prostitution.
Feminism & Religion
Feminist theology is a movement that reconsiders the traditions, practices, scriptures, and theologies of their religion from a feminist perspective. Some of their goals are increasing role of women among the clergy and religious authorities, reinterpreting male-dominated imagery and language about God, women’s place in relation to career and motherhood and studying images of women in the religion’s sacred texts.
Major issues in Christian feminism are ordination of women, male dominance in marital relation, claims of moral deficiency and inferiority of the abilities of women compared to men. Early Jewish feminists were concerned over women’s exclusion from the all-male prayer group, exemption from positive time-bound mitzvot [coming of age ceremony] and inability to function as witnesses and to initiate divorce. Islamic feminists advocate the teachings of equality in the Qur’an and encourage a questioning of the patriarchal interpretation of Islamic teachings in the Qur’an, hadith and sharia towards creation of a more equal and just society.
Till very recently feminism has not been a vocal movement in India and Diaspora Indians have been protective of traditional Indian family values. Things now are changing both in India and with the younger generation in the Diaspora. No wonder therefore that a Sikh feminist movement also seems to be in the making. SAFAR, The Sikh Feminist Research Institute, was established in Toronto, Canada, in 2010 with the aim of ‘cultivating Sikh feminism and to develop the theoretical analysis required to address the social, economic and political issues that have given rise to and continue to contribute to the present state of gender inequality among Sikhs and practice of’ Sikhi. Nikky Guninder Kaur, a professor at Colby College, is credited to be the first to use the phrase Sikh Feminism in her writing.
Sikhi and Women - Brief Overview
Considering the state of Indian society in the later half of fifteenth century, the writings of Guru Nanak show that he had a deep understanding of the life experiences of women, their emotions, their aspirations, their strengths and vulnerabilities and he was emphatic towards creating an environment where they were given their rightful place in the family and society. He raised his voice against many of the deep rooted prejudices that over the centuries had reduced women to an institutionalized life of relatively lower status and even contemptuous relegation to the background.
Guru Nanak proclaimed - so kiyon mandaa aakhieye jit jammai rajaan – how can we call them low who gave birth to the wise and the best among us, giving them a coequal place in mundane relations. He condemned the practice of sootak – polluted – that had been the cause to deny women entry into certain spaces considered clean or sacred during their menstrual cycle. He also emphasized that quest for liberation has to take place in family environment and in sangat or assembly of believers - where women had unrestricted access - thus recognizing that involvement of women in Sikh religious life was given.
The latter Gurus continued along the path. Mata Khivi, the wife of Guru Angad was fully involved with the congregational activities and has been mentioned in the SGGS as a noble woman, who provided soothing shade to all and the tasteful quality of her kheer comes up for praise. Guru Amardas asked women devotees not to observe purdah in the congregation, condemned the practice of sati and encouraged widow remarriage. Guru Gobind Singh asked Sikhs to shun those who practised female infanticide.
Significantly Gurus consistently used the metaphor of a women’s loving adoration of her lover to express their own deep devotion to the Divine. Guru also explains that there is one husband Lord while all other beings in this world are his brides. He enjoys love of all - remains detached, unseen and cannot be described. The perfect Guru reveals him. We come to understand him through shabad and ego of those who serve their husband Lord is extinguished by Shabad and they become like him. While this may seem to portray a male Supreme Lord, the tenor of Guru’s teachings envisions all human beings, men and women alike, seeking spiritual union with the divine and Gurbani is clear that, that the wise and beauteous divine entity is not a male, female or any other being like a bird. It is without a form – nirankar.
Gurbani Texts Reflecting on Women
Sikh scriptures are replete with verses that speak of women, that address women and that use feminine metaphors. These verses reflect on women variously and we would look at a sampling to get a broad idea of the range of thoughts expressed. The selection would give the reader also an insight into the empathy for women and their capacity for sharing love, the language used in scriptures, some comments that may be construed as chauvinistic.
Pandered, Loved, Enslaved, Violated, Collateral Victims
Guru Nanak in two compositions in Asa has reflected on how women were pandered and how their lives were affected by the invasion of Babur. Even though extracts presented are very brief, the empathy and understanding of women’s feelings is evident. Witness:
Those pretty heads adorned with braided hair, with their parts painted with vermilion were shaved with scissors, and their throats were choked with dust. They lived in palatial mansions, but now, they cannot even sit near the palaces — When they were married, their husbands looked so handsome beside them. They came in palanquins, decorated with ivory; water was sprinkled over their heads, and glittering fans were waved above them. They were given hundreds of thousands of coins when they sat, and hundreds of thousands of coins when they stood. They ate coconuts and dates, and rested comfortably upon their beds.
Ropes were put around their necks, and their strings of pearls were broken. Their wealth and youthful beauty, which gave them so much pleasure, became their enemies. Orders were given to soldiers, who dishonored them, and carried them away.
Some have returned to their homes, and meeting their relatives, they ask about their safety. For some, it is pre-ordained that they shall sit and cry out in pain. Whatever pleases him comes to pass. O Nanak, what is the fate of mankind.
Men whose letters were torn in the Lord’s Court were destined to die, O brother. The women - Hindus, Muslims, Bhattis and Rajputs - some had their robes torn away, from head to foot, while others came to dwell in the cremation ground. Their husbands did not return home - how did they pass their night.
Roop and Its Facets
The looks and beauty are invariably spoken of in the huge multitude of verses in Gurbani that relate to women in various ways. It is alluring. If the beauty is complemented by an agreeable disposition, it is highly praiseworthy. Good looks embellish good qualities, without being a substitute for the latter. Beauty and good looks get mentioned as an asset even for a spiritually highly evolved woman.
Myriads of Sitas are there, cool and calm in their majestic glory. Their beauty cannot be described. We should note here not only that beauty is mentioned but also that there are myriads of such evolved women who have achieved closeness to the divine. Beautiful, wise, and clever soul-bride is the beloved of her husband Lord.
Incomparable is the beauty and perfect is character of woman with inner devotion and agreeable disposition. The house where she dwells is praiseworthy. Rare are those who meet such pious woman. Meeting the Guru, I am blessed with bride who has purity in her actions, is comely in prayer, as marriage partner and for sojourn beyond. Long as she was in her father’s home, her husband wandered around in sadness. I received his consent by serving the satpurkh and when Guru brought her home to me I attained total happiness. She is blessed with all sublime attributes, and her offspring is unblemished. Her husband swami fulfills all her heart’s desires. All in the family [daer jethaanee] too are totally content. She is the most noble of the family and counsels the young and old [devar jeth]. Blessed is the house in which such a bride chooses to come, for being married to her, O servant Nanak, brings perfect happiness and peace.
Humility and yearning go together as one prays to secure the love of the beloved master: I am uncared, helpless; keep me as you will. I know not any smart or clever ways; what appearance can I put on to please you? I am not well versed, skillful or wise. I have no worth nor any virtue, beauty, pleasing smell, attractive eyes. Keep me as it pleases you.
The beauty thus is seen as to have an important association with women but as an added asset, not a determinant of likeability or approval in divine estimation. No wonder then that their vanity is decried: Pandits die reading and reciting the Vedas; women die, gazing at their own beauty. The good-looking must not be vain for beautiful looks along with royal power, wealth, social status and youth are the five thieves that have plundered the world; no one’s honour has been spared.
Illusive, transient or of limited worth as beauty and looks may be, the eyes which gaze at the beauty of another’s wife are worse – they are false. So while male weakness is not commended, woman’s beauty and beguiling ways can be seducing in the same manner as maya seduces - like a beautiful enticing woman. Hearing the tinkling ankle bells of the beautiful Maya, the disturbing noise of corruption wells up and with beguiling gestures of love, she seduces everyone except the Lord.
There are verses in SGGS that may read as reflecting negatively upon status of women in those times. Some of the verses can be construed to imply that women were thought of as chattel or possessions that could be given away: He may give gifts of all sorts – horses, elephants, gold and women. Someone may give away horses and elephants, or land, or women on their beds as gifts over and over again.
Some verses seem male chauvinistic: Men who act according to the orders of women are impure, filthy and foolish. They are engrossed in sexual desire; they consult their women and walk accordingly. Women have become advisors, and men have become hunters. Humility, self-control and purity have run away; people eat the uneatable, forbidden food. Modesty has left and honor has departed alongwith her. Views such as this point to existence of entrenched prejudices against women’s leadership roles.
Women of others are also cited among reasons for the depravity of vagrant male minds: Intoxicated with the wine of youth, beauty and riches of Maya, I wander perplexed in excessive egotistical pride. The wealth and women of others, arguments and slander are sweet and dear to my soul.
There are some verses that offer advisories: woman desires beauty and pleasure. But betel leaves, flowers and sweet tooth lead only to disease. The more she plays and enjoys, the more she suffers in sorrow. But when she enters into the Sanctuary of God, whatever she wishes comes to pass. She wears beautiful clothes with all sorts of decorations. But the flowers turn to dust, and her beauty leads her into evil. Hope and desire have blocked the doorway. Without Naam, one’s hearth and home are deserted. O princess my daughter, run away from this place! Chant Naam, and embellish your days. Serve your beloved lord God, and lean on the support of his love. Through Guru’s shabad, rid your hankering for corrupting poison. Children, friends, siblings and relatives are not so difficult to obtain. The pleasures of woman are not so difficult to obtain [but naam is difficult to obtain].
Bhai Gurdas sounds complimentary when he says: woman is half man’s body in temporal and spiritual matters and assists to the door of deliverance. She sure brings happiness to the virtuous.
The Sakhee Saheli [friend, companion] metaphor has been used extensively in Gurbani. Unlike the O, brother metaphor used for men, the sakhee saheli relation is one of sharing intimate confidences and joining together in celebratory singing and enjoyment. Witness: Come join me, my sister friends, and sing songs of joy and delight; my lover friend has come to me at my home. Listen to me, my sister friend I have been enticed by the Enticer, drenching my body and mind with nectar of love. Listen sister friends, my beloved, he loves me in so many various ways. My companions and sister friends, let’s together sing songs of joy. That bride, who is attuned to Truth, sleeps with the Lord, along with her companions and sister friends.
The Mother Metaphor, expectedly is reflective of mother’s unbounded love and forgiving fondness for the child and the child’s leaning on the mother in all states of doubt, tension and joy. Some examples are: Beholding the Guru, Nanak is filled with wondrous joy, like a child, gazing upon his mother. O mother, if only someone would instruct my wayward mind. Mom, I hear of death, and think of it, and I am filled with fear. Numerous may be the mistakes that the son commits, yet the mother does not hold them against him in her mind. The mother is ever rejuvenated seeing her son and prays that teachings of the mother to keep naam on his lips become his abiding guide.
There are a number of compositions that reflect on relationships, their inherent tensions and transient nature. The composition that follows captures the sense of loss at separation due to death of husband lover and how naam helps fill the void: You created the universe and are the giver of pain and pleasure. You created woman and man and their attachment and love of the poison of maya — When the call comes, you know it is the command of the true Creator. The husband [soul] becomes separated from the bride [body] - He is the re-uniter of the separated ones. Not caring for your beauty, my pretty love, the messenger of death does not distinguish between young or old; he tears apart love and affection for he is bound only by command that he is given. So cry, you who have come to mourn; this world is false and fraudulent. Chasing worldly entanglements I too have been defrauded and my husband Lord has forsaken me for. In each and every home, are the brides of the husband Lord; they gaze upon their handsome Lord with love and affection. I sing praises of my true husband Lord, and through naam, I blossom forth. Meeting with the Guru, the soul-bride’s dress is transformed and she is adorned with truth. Come, O brides of the divine, let us together meditate on the creator. Through naam one joins with the beloved and is adorned with truth. O Nanak, reflect upon God, lament not on separation.
Sikh Tradition and Women
We have sampled some texts from the Sikh scriptural literature. The writings are mostly understanding of the role of women, give them an equal place with men in spiritual and temporal pursuits and free them of the most of restrictive practices even though the roles of sexes are set in the traditional mould.
Dasam Granth, also scriptural literature, presents a somewhat different perspective on women. Several of its compositions are retelling of the Hindu mythological stories in a manner that tends to discount the dogmatic beliefs. Women are active players in these stories and their portrayals vary from role models of compassion, love and virtue to being ambitious, revengeful and ruthless to evil incarnate. Men pray to them, love them, adore them, protect them, hate them and cheat on them in a sordid mix of the pious and profane. The objective of these writings seems to be to soften the rigidities in received tradition preparatory to acceptance of persuasion by the Sikh Gurus.
The Janam Sakhi literature and other Sikh sources talk of several women who were close to the Gurus and influenced them in some ways. Guru Nanak was idolized and adored by his elder sister, Bebe Nanaki. She recognized the divine light in him before any body else and is credited as being his first disciple. The Guru loved and respected her and after each of his long travels invariably visited her before reparing to his wife and family. Guru Nanak had first hand experience of a protective mother, doting sister and a faithful yet in a way skeptical wife. Mata Khivi, wife of Guru Angad was active in sangat and has been mentioned in the SGGS. Guru Amardas appointed some women among the leaders of the 22 manjis [similar to Dioceses] that he created. His daughter, Bibi Bhani, was married to Jetha who succeeded Guru Amardas as the fourth Guru, Ramdas.
Mata Gujri, the wife of Guru Tegh Bahadur and mother of Guru Gobind Singh, was with her son and the Khalsa all through the battles of Anandpur Sahib and was with the two younger sons of the Guru when they were taken away to be walled in alive at the orders of the Subedar Wazir Khan of Sirhind. Mata Sundri and Mata Sahib Devan, Guru Gobind Singh’s consorts, both had important role Sikh affairs especially after the passing of the Guru. There is mention of other women – Mai Bhago who shamed and led the group of forty Sikhs who earlier had abandoned Guru Gobind Singh at Anandpur Sahib, back to seek forgiveness and die in a battle fighting his enemies. Punjab Kaur, the wife of Ram Rai, sought assistance from Guru Gobind Singh to punish miscreant Masands who had cremated Ram Rai when he was in deep Samadhi, state of meditation.
During the tumultuous 18th century struggle by Sikhs, women played a heroic role taking care of the families while men hid in jungles and on hills to continue their fight. During the gallughara [holocaust] phase, women chose to be martyrs rather than yield and there are memorial Gurdwaras and recitations in Sikh ritual ardas [prayer] to commemorate their courage and suffering. Later chronicles mention Sada Kaur, the mother-in-law of Ranjit Singh who in a way was the architect of the Sikh empire.
Notwithstanding the radical initiatives by Sikh Gurus to alleviate the status of women, if looked at from the contemporary feminist perspective, the language of the scriptures can be termed as masculization of the divine, instances portraying women negatively can be cited, the tone and metaphor can be termed paternalistic and the presence of women can be characterized as submission in silence even as they made tremendous sacrifices and mothered all those heroes that we do not tire singing praises of.
Some Discordant Notes
Thus the praxis as it developed and got transmitted did have recognizable constraints on women – some out of necessity of the conflict ridden times and some rooted in the old undying prejudices. Presently the status of women among Sikhs presents a varied picture. Some old prejudices have survived though institutionalized restrictive practices are rare, even if found in rather conspicuous places or rituals.
Sikhs have spread out across the globe and they, men, women and children are exposed to a variety of cultural and religious practices. The audio visual media also has spread a lot of awareness. This has given rise to a wide array of expectations some of which are leading to initiatives to explore replication of developments in other religious groups to Sikh situation. The result is that the number of internal Sikh issues is increasing by the day. Thankfully women have acted with discretion though some of the controversies did get media coverage. We will review these briefly.
Women and Seva Denial
Even though the SRM allows for women to be among the punj pyaras in an amrit sanchar ceremony there continues to be hesitation in incorporating women in this role. Women activists have protested against the attitude of treating it as a kind of privilege given to the women, not their rightful, legitimitate expectation.
It is difficult to understand why despite the clear persuasion in Gurbani, some of us still insist that Punj Pyaras should be men. To come to think of it, would the khandey-da-phaul ceremony performed by women have anything amiss? Will the Khalsa be any less brave or dedicated because women administered the amrit?
Sikh women activists protested and even agitated at the Darbar Sahib for being denied the opportunity for palki seva, kirtan seva and entry into the sactum sanctronum including its cleaning after sukh aasan. The matter was deliberated upon by the Singh Sahiban but the influence of orthodoxy was too strong to allow for any change in tradition.
During the period, reading some of the views on the Internet, it sounded like Sikh women had to be reborn as Sikh men to be able to do some of the Sevas. Though the agitation has dissipated, it is indeed sad, that it did happen.
One may agree that performing seva should not be approached as a matter of rights. Seva, its motivation and actualization both are Guru’s gifts. The Sikh thought is categorical in rejecting any type of institutionalized discrimination and that ethos is running through all the Guru’s teachings. As such asking for not to be denied an opportunity for seva should not be stigmatized as low minded or labeled as feminist.
Hopefully the obscurantist elements will resile from their position that women should not be allowed certain kind of seva just because history has no examples to show otherwise. However with the apex religious leadership opposing the move, Sikh women should seek to be part of the process so that they can influence the Panth for the better - not to divide it further.
Family and Women
Some of us place the onus of bringing forth righteous offspring on women. They tend to think that it is the women’s responsibility to produce a Sikh generation that follows Sikhi and they blame women for the deterioration among the youth. Their premise is based on the construction placed on verses like: ‘That family, whose son has no spiritual wisdom or contemplation why didn’t his mother just become a widow? That man who has not practised devotional worship of the Lord why didn’t such a sinful man die at birth’ or ‘The Lord’s Name does not abide within their hearts – their mothers should have been sterile. Absent naam these bodies wander around, forlorn and abandoned, their lives waste away, and they die, crying out in pain.’
It is only among Sikhs that such comments can be heard and may even go unchallenged. Something serious is amiss here. Firstly bringing up children is the prime responsibility of the parents in all persuasions – if at all more so in Sikhism with its stress on not shunning responsibilities of grihast. Next if Sikh women only are to be held responsible for transmission of Sikhi and Sikh values, they would be the ones wielding authority within the family. This certainly is not the case. Gurbani relates to the role of mother, father and children in various inspiring metaphors. The message is of love and mutuality in families – not of passing the inconvenient buck to women by fathers.
One should be weary of concluding from ‘ghar ki naar bohat hit ja sion sada reht sang lagi, jab hee hans taji eh kaeya pret pret kar bhagi [Sorath M IX]’ that love of wife is only a charade played on an unsuspecting husband as long as he is alive. Likewise we should not read - bhand muaa bhand bhaaleeai bhand hovai bandhhaan [M I, p.473]- to imply that man’s love for the wife is equally vagrant and no sooner when his woman dies, he will seek another mate. The solemnity and sanctity of husband-wife relationship is at the core of Sikh thought of ‘grihast’ and placing a construction of this kind on select verses would be incorrect.
The importance of women’s role in a family should if at all motivate us to enhance their involvement in community affairs rather than trying to keep them subdued in the name of maryada or for other obscure reasons. Speaking about the attire frankly one is rather struck at the way Sikh women are carrying forward the sartorial tradition compared to the men.
Women and Hair Care
The recent case of Gurleen Kaur that ultimately got adjudicated in the High Court is one sordid example of what is going on presently and from the looks of it may continue to be an issue going forward. In the last couple of weeks there have been two media reports in the US on observance of care of all body hairs by Sikh women. A report dated September 30, 2011 talks about Sirjaut Kaur, possibly the first Sikh-American girls to play NCAA field hockey. Sirjaut studies at Colby-Sawyer College and plays defense for the College team. Despite the field hockey skirts and sleeveless jerseys, Sirjaut does not shave her legs or arms.
Sirjaut says that sharing her beliefs with her teammates helps them understand her and then support her on and off the field. One girl told her that it was cool that she does not shave and asked the reason behind it. Sirjaut said that it’s for equality between men and women. If men don’t, then why do we have to?
Another report dated October 10, 2011titled ‘A decision on the razor’s edge’ appeared in L A Times and covers a wide range of factors playing into choices about this observance by Sikh women. An edited summary of the report is given below.
At a Sikh retreat, when 19, Birpal Kaur was the only woman who removed any hair. The other women spoke about embracing their natural beauty. Later at the college she decided to begin phasing out hair removal. She stopped shaving her legs when she graduated. In graduate school she stopped doing her underarms. She however continued to have her eye brows groomed.
Birpal sensed that missing eye brow hairs affected her meditation. She also noticed that as the small hairs slowly grew back, she felt a renewed sense of divine in her life. This made her resolve that she will abandon any hair removal once she is married, but she was candid to say that she and other young Sikh women have a romanticized expectation of meeting with someone who will appreciate the body in its natural state. “I haven’t met him yet,” she said. Guruka Singh, who blogs on SikhNet.com, said married and single men often tell him: “I look good in my turban and my beard, but I want my wife to look a certain way.”
Sumita Batra, a Sikh who owns a chain of 16 hair removal studios across Southern CA and Las Vegas said “Let’s put religion aside and be real. Who is attracted to a hairy-legged, mustached woman?” The topic is discussed in intimate conversations among younger women or in online forums, said Manpreet Kalra, co-founder Kaurista.com, an online lifestyle magazine for Sikh women.
The reality is that there is no shortage of indicators on what Sikh men and women seem to be looking for in the opposite sex, more especially their spouses or partners. Empirical evidence suggests that:
– More Sikh women keep their head hair [kes] intact than Sikh men.
– Among those who keep their kes unshorn, the incidence of dressing up facial hair is possibly much higher among Sikh women than that of trimming of facial hair among similar Sikh men.
– Whether kes are intact or not, it is rare to see a Sikh woman whose arms, armpits or legs are exposed when dressed up for going out, showing any hair on exposed body parts. Men mostly do not remove other body hair.
– Breach of facial hair observance reduces as men age but may increase with women.
This brings a new insight on the issue in that while men are shedding their kes, women are removing their facial/body hair. Both are doing it for the same mix of reasons. Sikh women prefer certain look in men and Sikh men want women who look good in swim suits or business dresses, then both sexes are mutually supportive in this pursuit.
The question that we may have to ask ourselves about kes observance by women is - if the understanding of observance expected today is the same that we had earlier. After all when we look back at the photographs or paintings of women going back in time, we see long tresses but no evidence of facial hair. Are we imposing more restrictions?
The Unspoken Problem
While we have talked about what the Gurbani says about women and also taken note of some of the issues that came to the fore in recent times. These are indicative of the Sikh theological thought and some aspects of the ritual tradition that have been questioned, but there are some other factors that concern women among Sikhs. We will take a brief look at these too.
One of the frequent irritants mentioned by women is the discriminatory manner in which the sewadars at the Gurdwaras are more critical of women, pointing to them for keeping their heads covered, to maintain silence in the congregation and control the kids from crying or running around. One of the reasons for this happening is that men and women sit separately in worship hall and with families split, the babies and toddlers mostly tag on to the mothers. Teen agers and above may drift to their friends while men mostly are on their own. Women therefore have more to take care of, apart from being picked on by the fuctionaries.
Women tend to be more ritualistic and in the process can be critical of other women who in their judgement could be more reverant. Some older women complain about the advice by younger women to sit on the carpet rather than on a seat because of their health or physical condition. Generally the Sikh marriage ceremony, Anand karaj, is well liked by women though there has been muted objection by some of the tradition of bride following the groom during the ceremony and the related custom of palla laagi, symbolic of groom assuming responsibility for the bride as she breaks relationship with her past becoming a part of his family. That there could be expectation of dowry and the costs of wedding are mostly born by the bride’s parents, both discouraged by religious directives, continue to persist and have been resented by several Sikh women.
Sikh male child has been a pampered member of the family. Most of the attention goes to them and so does the inheritance, especially in the farming classes. In this patriarchical culture, the female child is viewed as a burden leading to not only neglect in their care and upbringing but also female foeticide and infanticide, bride burning and other crimes against women. Sikhs also have been known to be brutally harsh on daughters who may have married or wanted to marry against the wishes of parents in the name of family honor or izzat. Even though some of these are more a cultural hangover and against Sikh tenets, yet Sikhs are not insulated from these practices. Significantly even though victims in these cases are women, the perpetrators always include or are even led by women.
Education among Sikh women is improving and several of them have excelled in their chosen fields but diversity in their work pursuits has yet not commenced. Managing the families for career women continues to be a problem.
Societal Peace and Women
Women’s efforts in peace building have been relatively invisible. The lack of attention to this has hidden from view the potential of women in resolving conflicts and promoting post-conflict healing and reconciliation. The fact is that women have a greater stake in peace and societal harmony than men. Historically when men left to join battles, women remained to take care of the children, the elderly and even provide for their subsistence. They also are and have been more vulnerable victims bearing the brunt of oppression and acts of collateral violence and. In the more years women activists have been getting more actively engaged in political and social and there has been clamor for recognition of their contribution to peace building.
Significantly the Oslo Committee has awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to three women this year, two from Liberia and one from Yemen [9 Oct, 2011]. The recipients of the award are Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkul Karman. Sirleaf became the first elected woman president in Africa when she won the 2005 presidential runoff election. Gbowee worked to stop rape as a strategy used in her country’s civil war and was an executive director of the Women in Peace and Security Network - an activist, literacy, and electoral organization working in Liberia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. The 32-year old and mother of three Tawakkul Karman is considered a leader in the anti-government protests in Yemen.
There also are and have been in history, so many women who suffered personally but by their constructive role in the aftermath of inter-religious strife helped their families to keep any feelings of revenge or hate in control. We have as an example below looked at the experience and response of a widow of victims of the pogrom against Sikhs in 1984 in Delhi post the killing of Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh security guards. Her story is a saga of cool courage and perseverance in the face of severe adversity.
In 1984, piqued by the Indian army’s assault to clear militants holed up in the Golden Temple complex, two of Indira Gandhi’s Sikh security guards killed her. Three days of organized mayhem followed in the Indian Capital in which 3000 Sikh men were killed mercilessly, their families looking on, while Police idly stood by.
Garhi is a small basti just off of the East of Kailash development in the affluent South Delhi. This small basti, unbeknown to most people living in this neighborhood has a piece of history associated with it. It has been home to about thirty widows of the pogrom against Sikhs in 1984. These women were resettled in small tenements in early 1985 and it was in this neighborhood that they reconstructed their lives. Surjit Kaur lives in Garhi. She has lived there since 1985/6 when she and survivors from her extended family were allotted a tenement there and they moved into their new shelter from Gurdwara Nanaksar.
Her parents had escaped from Rawalpindi during the riots following partition of India in 1947 and ended up in Gorakhpur, where she grew up and was married in late 60’s when she moved to Nand Nagri to live with her husband Joginder Singh. Her husband had four brothers and they were all together in garment export business. Four of the brothers lived close to the shed where they had installed the machinery required for their business and the fifth brother lived in Ashok Vihar with his family. They employed about 15 persons in their factory and were pretty busy with their growing enterprise.
Surjit Kaur and Joginder Singh had two sons. The four brothers lived together with their families and their old mother in a traditional joint family setting. Between the brothers they had eleven kids, five boys and six girls. Two of the girls were married and lived away from Nand Nagri. The marauders killed all the four brothers and two boys, both in their mid teens. Four widowed mothers were left with four girl children and three male kids – age from 3 to 15 years.
Their experience, as they faced the hostile gangs is hair-raising. Surjit Kaur remembers calls ‘sardar nikalau’ being made as the hooligans approached. The rumors were already rife that they are coming after Sikhs. Her husband and one son had gone to the Gurdwara to find out what was happening and if they could collect there, if needed. The Gurdwara was set on fire at about nine in the morning and possibly her husband and son were killed then. She only saw the fire and smoke rising from the Gurdwara from atop her house.
As she heard the loud voices getting closer, she also saw flames arising from a Sikh house nearby. As she looked on she saw a little boy, two or three year old, son of one of their Sikh neighbor running in panic. She ran out and picked him up and ran back home. She saw her eldest brother in law and her other son and asked them to hide in a steel almirah and shut the doors. But she had to keep opening the doors to get them fresh air to breathe in the air tight container in which they were hidden. Soon the menacing group was at their doors. The calls for ‘sardar nikalau’ were loud and shrill now. She stood clutching the little boy to her bosom. As she stood transfixed, she heard muffled thumps from within the almirah and some smoke and flames rising from around her. She ran and opened the door of the almirah and shouted to her brother in law ‘veer ji, tussi apni jaan bachaao – elder brother, you now run and save your life.’ The gang grabbed hold of the elder, dragged him to the street as she followed him with the little boy. She saw her nephew also in the mix and ran and grabbed hold of him. Then one steel rod hit her brother in law on the head. He fell and more blows started following as if to break each of his limbs. As she looked on frozen in helplessness, she saw her younger brother in law receiving blows the same way. Then one of the gang poured kerosene oil on the shrieking man with broken limbs writhing in pain on the ground and another one sprinkled some white powder and set him ablaze. The last that their eyes met, her brother in law and she seemed to have intuitively realized the inevitability of their total helplessness – there was nothing to say, no signs to make, just endure what came to be done while the two little lives clung on to her - scared, bewildered, traumatized.
To Surjit Kaur and her three sisters in law as also the other women who went through similar ordeals of being witness to such cruelties to their husbands and sons these orgies of inhuman violence seemed tearing their insides but that did not matter anymore – nothing did. There was pain. There were deafening shrieks and loud noises of ‘marau, marau’ by the killer gang. As the flames started to leap, numbness overcame every other feeling. Drained of emotions, she only stood as if watching a scene play out to its grim end – relived millions of times since in its nightmarish fidelity of the ghastly images.
She felt a man with a cut on his face tugging at her sleeve and he took her with the two boys to his home. She does not remember much except cut on his face and his kindness – what she did there or how long she was there. She instinctively headed back to her home and spotted her younger son forlorn standing on the roof. She got hold of him and just held on to the three boys as the day wore on. Later when it had turned quiet a Brahmin living nearby came over and took her and the boys to his home.
They never got the dead bodies of their six scorched dear ones; nor did anyone else. Remains of those killed were dumped in trucks and taken away. No tending, no words spoken, no feel or touch of their remains or even placing a little rag to cover their half burnt bodies, no rituals or prayers or last rites – all feelings suppressed within, never really vented, no closure of any kind - only dimly dawning sense of struggles ahead and the ponderousness of vulnerabilities of the little lives that so tightly clutched to her.
Such is the burden of being a woman. It does not happen to all but it does to some and among Sikhs the experience has repeated itself several times in our short history. Guru Nanak in his compositions has poignantly dwelt on the anguish of widowed women and the brutalized innocent when the powerful clash. Sikhs are persuaded that when the mighty fall upon and kill the weak their master must be held to answer and Sikh historical experience is a chronicle of sacrifices made by their Gurus and Sikhs in defense of the weak and oppressed.
A woman’s emotional life is a roller coaster even in the best of circumstances but women like Surjit Kaur kept their gaze fixed on responsibility ahead. They went to work and sent the kids to school. At home they shared memories of their ghastly experience but told the kids that these were not Hindu-Sikh riots. The violence was led by politicians and Hindu masses didn’t participate in it. Criminals and the corrupt police did. They told their kids to be brave, courageous and strong but not to be consumed by hate or a feeling of revenge.
These women were poor. They had huge responsibilities. They did what they could to put their kids on the path of harmonious relations with society. Many left school. Some took to drugs. But none of them, not one, engaged in violent crime, act of hate or revenge in the last twenty five plus years. The cycle of violence did get stopped.
If only we had some effective advocates for the contribution of these couple of thousand Sikh women, their tenacity, faith and sacrifices would have received the recognition they deserved rather than only petty doles and continued denial of justice by not punishing a single perpetrator so far for those heinous crimes.
We are now asking the question that should best have been asked at the beginning of this article towards its conclusion. We can discuss, dissect, debate and agree or disagree about the status of women among Sikhs and in Sikhi but to what real purpose? Our effort will have any meaning only if we can identify the issues, not only in their abstract reality from the eyes of a modern mind, but also understand if these are contributive causes to the observed decline of Sikhi or acting as impediments to the growth potential of women or youth among Sikhs.
Some facts are rather obvious. Sikhs are drifting very rapidly from what had come to be accepted as mainstream Sikhi. This is true of both men and women. The youth could be expected to be adrift. There are conflicting signs here. One sees and meets young people who are very aware, observant and committed Sikhs and well poised in their temporal pursuits. There are others who are apathetic, yet not alienated from Sikhi. This number is swelling. They have some broad notions about being a Sikh but are really not informed about its tenets, praxis or history. Then there are those who are sceptical almost to the point of being agnostics, some out of disappointment with theology or praxis, but mostly out of alienation at neglect, inability to understand the language, disgust with attitudes on view and abiding conflicts for power in the Gurdwaras.
How much do women have to do with this situation and what can they do about these? It really is an open question. That this has not been brought onto us by women is clear. They have not had any decisive role in Sikh religious affairs in a long while. The next question could if the environment at homes has become less conducive? The answer to that perhaps is an unequivocal yes. In this, it would seem that men and women both are culpable but women can certainly do more than men to retrieve the lost ground. Before that can happen, however we have to reclaim the women and help them recapture their own affinity with Sikhi. Can they do that if the lead image that one sees on the TV screen after an inspiring kirtan or katha samagam is of a girl child asking for a chance to life at the promise of bringing honor and glory?
More importantly we have to make Sikh praxis inviting and encouraging as it used to be and was intended to be. Let us get the petty irritants out. Let the congregants feel equally at home in the house of their Guru. Let us not get carried away in interpreting some of the injunctions like observance of kes. With no written direction by the Gurus, transmitted tradition is the best guide, not what some obscurantist elements may say. Sikhi can not be tailored to suit individual comfort levels but it also is not intended to be a path of denials and self imposed austerities.
If we look at our institutional structures we might be dismayed at the absence of women’s groups except some scattered Kirtan groups or Sukhmani groups. There is a need for Sikh women to get organized and set up voluntary agencies for various social, environmental and common good causes. By making this suggestion it is not intended to imply that Sikh activism may bring anything new to the table. It indeed may not but it might help growth of such activism among Sikh women. Examples of Church groups acting as catalysts in broader faith community involvement can be a guide.
Academic researches into theological interpretations and lived Sikhi should add richness to our understanding of Sikh thought. We should welcome it and encourage our women and youth to study Sikhi as a subject, write about it and talk about it so that not only our own understanding improves but we also develop openness in how we relate to Sikhi and relate it to others.
Sikh women have carved their place in Sikh history. They have brought forth generations of committed Sikhs who lived the Guru’s persuasion of prayerfulness, honest living and sharing for common good. They have been willing and happy members of sangat always ahead in seva. Sikhi belongs as much to them as to men. Together they must continue to realize the union with the divine as is so beautifully said in the Sikh wedding liturgy.
Indeed there is a lot that can be done. Let us help our women come forward or at least not inhibit them and their efforts. They will find their own niches. We should remember that women always have displayed greater stake in future and continuity. They will likely find the right balance. They will not falter, if we let them be.
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2011, All