Women in Different Religions
A Comparative Study based on Religious and Historical Literature
A great Hindi poet Jaishankar Parsad has written a very impressive poem on women titled “Abla teri yahi kahani anchal main hai dudh ankhon me pani” (Oh! woman this is your story throughout the ages that you have nurtured the human beings and blessed them with the love of motherhood, but your eyes remain full of tears). It is true that a poet can think beyond the limits. The above lines of the poet do not come from his imagination; it is the reflection of what prevails in our society. Women in many countries and particularly in India are not considered equal to men. Even today, they are often subjected to unimaginable injustices. This comparative study is based on the religious textures of different religions, what the Holy Scriptures and other literature say about the status of women and what actually the societies practise.
Status of woman in Islam
Despite the exaltation of motherhood – Prophet Mohammed once told a follower that paradise is found at the feet of the mother - children are considered the property of the father, the mother being merely the caretaker. Radical Muslim societies ruled by Shariat law provide men with a clear advantage. According to Radical Islam, women are considered subservient, second-class citizens expected to conform to specific moral codes. In pre-Islamic Arabia violence against women began at birth in the form of female infanticide. “… and when to one of them is conveyed the tidings of the birth of a female, his face darkens, while he suppresses his inward grief. He hides himself from the people because of the bad news he has had: ‘shall he keep it in spite of disgrace or bury in it the dust? Verily, evil is that which they judge.”
Another common form of violence against women is that committed by husbands on their wives. Islam requires that husbands treat their wives with respect and it prohibits any form of physical or emotional abuse. The Holy Quran requires that spouses treat each other with love and mercy. “And one of His Signs is this, that He has created wives for you from among yourselves that you may find peace of mind in them, and He has put love and tenderness between you. In that surely are Signs for a people who reflect.” Moreover, the Quran repeatedly warns against the use of injurious statements by a husband against his wife. (Quran 58:2-4).
On the other hand some teachings of the Quran are very harmful and disrespectful towards women that a man can marry up to four wives. He can divorce his wife or wives by saying "I divorce you" three times. For a wife to obtain a divorce is usually very difficult.
How is it possible for a Muslim man to respect his mother when immutable religious law proclaims women's inferiority and inadequacy?
"…And to every one we have appointed heirs to what the parents and the relations leave, and also those with whom your oaths have ratified a contract. So, give them their portion. Surely, Allah watches over all things. Men are guardians over women because Allah has made some of them excel others, and because they (men) spend of their wealth. So virtuous women are those who are obedient and guard the secrets of their husbands with Allah’s protection. And as for those on whose part you fear disobedience, admonish them and leave them alone in their beds, and chastise them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Surely, Allah is High, Great.”
Challenging the traditional framers of Islamic law who accorded a lesser status to women, the Quran and the Hadith are two primary sources of Islamic law, actually place Muslim women on the same level as Muslim men. These texts elaborate women's rights in a variety of areas, including treatment by God; marriage, divorce, financial provisions, and custody of children; coming out of seclusion (purdah), and taking part in social, economic, legal, and political activities. But women are subjected to forced marriages, arbitrary divorce, female mutilation and other abuses are sadly common, as are restrictions on women’s education and on their role in the labour force.
Status of women in Hinduism
Women are accorded both the greatest respect and disrespect in Hindu Vedas also. Especially Atharva Veda is full of hymns which show great respect to women. It contains, “Parents should gift their daughter intellectuality and power of knowledge when she leaves for husband’s home. They should give her a dowry of knowledge.” "Girls should train themselves to become complete scholars and youthful through Brahmcharya and then enter married life." “O bride! May the knowledge of the Vedas be in front of you and behind you, in your centre and in your ends. May you conduct your life after attaining the knowledge of the Vedas. May you be benevolent, the harbinger of good fortune and health and live in great dignity and indeed be illumined in your husband’s home.” Even Rig Veda proves the right of a woman on the property of the father. “The right is equal in the fathers property for both son and daughter,” and also emphasis on the women’s education “Parents should gift their daughter intellectuality and power of knowledge when she leaves for husband’s home. They should give her a dowry of knowledge.” But on the other hand 'Rig Veda' itself says that women should beget sons. The newly married wife is blessed so that she could have 10 sons. So much so, a special ritual called 'Punsawan Sanskar' (a ceremony performed during third month of pregnancy) prescribed in Artharva Ved that for begetting a son. During this ceremony it is prayed: “Almighty God, you have created this womb. Women may be born somewhere else but sons should be born from this womb.” At one place in Rig Ved Indra himself mark a question mark on the intellectuality of the women. It described, “Indra himself hath said, the mind of woman brooks not discipline, her intellect hath little weight.”
Here is mixture of opposites, what Vedas say about women. This would be a matter of debate for the researchers that it is strange that respectability to women in Vedas vanishes subsequently. In the Puranas, Manusmritis and later Vedic literature has projected women as subject of slavery. While the position of women in early Vedic India had been good, these laws illustrate the efforts of the Brahmin elite to restrict women’s legal independence after Vedic period. “In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, and when her lord is dead, to her sons; a woman must never be independent.” Shiv Puran stated that, “A married woman must not show anger or speak angrily to her husband even when hit by him….. She must only eat the leftovers of her husband meals…. Washing her husband’s feet and drinking that water is equivalent of visiting a holy place…. A married woman must not socialize with low caste woman such as a dhobin, shurdra etc… A woman must only speak to her husband when spoken to.” Goswami Tulsidas has written in Ramcharitramanas (Lankakand, couplet 1,2) that it is very true that eight demerits are always available in women’s character, i.e., lie, playfulness, trick, foolishness, timid. He left behind all the Vedic literature to malign the self-respect of women, and had only one solution to tackle the woman, “Dhol, gawar, sudra, pashu, nari sakal tadana ke adhikari”. (The shudra, the drum, the rustic and the women, all of them deserve the stick.) This tradition shows disrespect to the women which has continued till now.
Status of women in Sikhism
A drastic distinction between the roles of the male and female exists in all modern human societies. Guru Nanak Dev Ji, founder of Sikh religion, said men and women are equal and, therefore, women cannot be considered socially or spiritually inferior. The Sikh Gurus advocated equal participation of both sexes in all spheres of life without being discriminated on the basis of her sex. The land of Punjab blessed by the Gurus where ‘so kyo manda akhiye jit jameh rajan’ was ordained by the Guru for women. In the Sikh prayer, Ardas, Sikhs recount the courageous role played by Sikh women and their contribution to the community. The history of women in Sikhism started with Mata Tripta and Bebe Nanaki (Guru Nanak’s Mother and sister respectively) Bebe Nanki (out of respect, in traditional Punjab, the elder sister was called Bebe) was the first disciple of Guru Nanak and so she is considered as one of the prominent women in the Sikh history. She recognized Guru Nanak as a prophet and missionary early in his life and played a very important role in encouraging young Nanak to start a life long mission. Mata Khivi wife of Guru Angad Dev was the first Sikh lady who took the responsibility of Guru’s free communal kitchen opened for the needy and all devotees. She is revered in the Guru Granth Sahib for her selfless devotion and service. The minstrels Sata & Balvand wrote: Balvandd kheevee nek jan jis bahutee chhaao patraalee. (Balwand declares that Khivi is a noble woman who provides to all the soothing shade of her leaves.) Guru Nanak gives equal status to women and said on page 879 of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Purakh meh nari, nari meh purkha (There is element of the female in the male and of the male in the female.) Without each other, both are incomplete. Guru Amardas had started Manji Pratha and many women were appointed head of the different Manjis to preach the religion. There are lots of examples in the Guru Granth Sahib where Guru Sahiban not only preached, but practised equality of genders.
Sikh women had played equal role in the struggle to keep alive the Khalsa ideals and beliefs. The remarkable ‘salient contribution’ of Mata Gujri towards Khalsa community is another milestone. A grandmother, who taught her grandchildren not to let down the tradition of their forefathers and warned them not to surrender before cruelty. The elderly woman knew that her young grandchildren once in the court of Mughal, will not come alive, if they did not accept Islam. Besides this, she taught them to uphold the tenets of faith. Mai Bhago, a brave Sikh warrior woman, is another great name in the history of Sikhs, imprecated the forty men who signed a Bedava and left Guru Gobind Singh alone in the battle-field. Mai Bhago was upset to hear that forty Sikhs had deserted, Guru Gobind Singh Ji under adverse conditions. Hearing her snubs, these Sikhs were ashamed of their deed. She rallied the deserters persuading them to meet the Guru and apologize for their misdeed. She fought along with other Sikhs in the battle-field and sacrificed her life for the Guru. The patience of Sikh women who were arrested with Baba Banda Singh Bahadur, especially his wife, who sacrificed their four years old son Ajai Singh along with other 780 Singhs, had equal contribution towards the emancipation of religion. Before the execution of Baba Banda Singh Bahadur the cruel rulers had crossed all limits of atrocities. The four years old only son of Baba Banda Singh Bahadur was killed in front of him and his wife and his quivering liver taken out and put in his mouth. This is perhaps the only incident of its kind in the history of civilized society. Let us close our eyes and imagine the scene which would have happened at that time. Think about those women who wore garlands of the pieces of their babies and did not submit, who faced it just for the sake of Chardhi Kala of Dharam. These are the contributions of the Sikh women towards faith.
There is a unique example regarding the status of women in the eyes of Khalsa, when Abdali hostaged many women and carried them to Afghanistan. The Khalsa even at the risk of their lives, attacked Abdali’s forces and got the women freed and respectfully sent them back to their homes. This was all due to the status of women enforced by teachings of Guru Sahiban. There are many women in the Sikh history who played marvelous role for the emancipation of the Khalsa tradition. The role played in the Sikh history by Maharani Sada Kaur, Mother-in-law of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Maharani Jindan is equally memorable.
In the freedom struggle of India, Sikh women played remarkable role. Some outstanding women freedom fighters of Punjab were Gulab Kaur, Kishan Kaur, Amar Kaur, Harnam Kaur, Dilip Kaur and Kartar Kaur. They were frequently arrested during the Civil Disobedience (satyagraha) of 1930.
Bibi Harnam Kaur ji of District Firozepore was a pioneer in the field of women’s education. The Kanya Pathshala was opened in Firozpur on November 5, l902, and she joined it both to learn and to teach as an employee of the Singh Sabha. Her betrothal to Takht Singh took place on 11 October 1893 and they were married on 8th May, 1894. She received the new name of Harnam Kaur (Her original name was Jiuni Bhagvan Das) when she was administered pahul on 15th July, 1901.
Bibi Dhan Kaur took an active part in Praja Mandal Movement at Nabha in 1946 and remained in Nabha Jail. Dr Fauja Singh’s book ‘Who is Who, Punjab Freedom Fighters’, published by Publication Bureau, Punjabi University, Patiala explores number of Sikh women who took active part in Indian National Army led by Neta Ji Subhash Chender Bose and served in Rani Jhansi Regiment and others who had not joined the army contributed hundreds of dollars fund towards National Indian Army. We can find many references of Sikh women in the history of Indian freedom struggle like Dharam Kaur, Harpal Kaur, Giani Dai of Lahore who played a leading role in National Congress Movement in 1942 and Satyagrah movement and underwent imprisonment; remained under-trial, prisoners for one month; confined in Jails; their property was confiscated in lieu of fine.
Today in Sikhism, women are enjoying equal rights with men. Sikh women have no bar to perform religious practice. But it is an irony that the land blessed by Gurus (Punjab, Haryana etc) a malicious practice is going on with regard to women. It is now a common knowledge that the birth rate of girls as compared to that of boys is decreasing every decade. This is due to the practice of female infanticide in all sections of population. There are many reasons responsible for female foeticide. These are discussed as under:
In July 2003, a monthly journal of SGPC – Gurmat Parkash published an unbelievable report that over the decade from 1991 to 2001 for every 1000 male births, female births had declined from 878 to 775 in district Amritsar - the land known as the most sacred place of the Sikhs. In Punjab the child sex ratio at birth was 946 in 1981 and it fell to 854 in 1991.
A report “Identifying and Controlling Female Foeticide and Infanticide in Punjab” published in January 2002 by the Institute for Development and Communication, Chandigarh has explored a Modernising female infanticide that the “Incidents of female infanticide involving neglect, especially on birth where women elders of the family suggested to the dai that the child be declared stillborn were relatively common. In such situations no one paid any attention to the girl baby – no feeding, clothing and in a few hours baby died. But science seems to have invaded the realm of post-birth negation to life also. In one case, a man who had the sixth child, also a female, approached an RMP to inject some lethal drug and kill the unwanted girl child. The man was a Jat Sikh from the middle peasantry and presented the logic that the RMP charged Rs. 200/- as his commission for referring pregnant women for sex determination tests, he could charge double the amount, Rs. 400/- to kill the girl child. The RMP refused, but the girl child could not survive more than three days.”
The main reason of the female foeticide among the parent is insecurity. The people are being materialistic day by day. The rich people, to establish their fake reputation in the society, are spending lacs of money on the so-called social functions like marriages (especially of girls) and parties etc. This showy ritual becomes the necessity for the poor or middle class families also. Giving dowry to the girl, hosting of costly receptions has become customary. This trend also compels the middle class to follow suit. The parents have a notion that the girls right from the birth upto marriage are a heavy drainage on purse. Parents give education to a girl, pay a heavy amount on her marriage, it becomes a social obligation that on every occasion the in-law of girls are to be given gifts. On the other hand, after the marriage, girls have no responsibility towards their parents. If a girl is in service, all the emoluments earned by her will go to the In-laws. It depends on the desire of in-laws that the girl would go to meet her parents or not, even in some cases the girl cannot even talk to her parents on phone, cannot take any decision in respect to their parents, they cannot keep parents with them in their old age. These are the major reason of female foeticide in the society. If the girls are given equal responsibility and right to take care of the parents in their old age, the female foeticide can be controlled. There must be laws to protect life and liberty of women in the in-laws domain by creating right to property there also. The mindset of the people can be changed if the parents can live with their daughters in their old age. The other factor in favour of male child is the security of parents as he has to live with the parents in old age. The young generation has to understand these problems to keep up the status of the women in the society.
The so-called modern Sikh or Punjabi Sabhyachar has also been playing a leading role in maligning the image of women. The so-called singer project the woman as subject of lust and sexuality. Guru Sahiban stated nachan kuddaan maan ka chao, Nanak jin maan Bho tina maan Bhao (SGGS, p 465). But today due to lot of exposure through vulgar songs by so-called modern Punjabi singers on TV and influence of western society, there is lot of negative impact on minds of younger generation. Some features of the television have played a damaging role to demolish the image of women. Not only Sikh girls but non Sikh girls too are falling prey to such lustful environments. The amorous nature of men displayed by the entertainment media has proved contagion for the lusty trend.
Now it behoves the scholars and religious leaders to rise to the occasion by bringing back the pristine values of Sikhism in practice and to be the torch bearers for the misguided youth.
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2012, All