Sikh Women in Diasporic Context
– A Contemporary Account of the Role of Women in their Religious Institutions in India and the UK –
Sikhism is unique in recognizing unequivocal equality for all human beings and specifically for both men and women. The spiritual beliefs of Sikhism (revealed to Guru Nanak in 1469) propose social reform of women’s roles in society. Sikhism advocates active and equal participation in congregation, academics, health-care, military service among other aspects of society. Female subordination, the practice of taking father’s or husband’s last name, practicing rituals that imply dependence or subordination is all alien to the Sikh principles.
The origins of Sikhism can be traced back to the fifteenth century when Nanak, the first Guru and founder of Sikhism, was born. Sikhism now boasts a worldwide population of around twenty three million followers. The central message of Sikhism is contained within the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, a voluminous body of work containing the collected works of the Sikh Gurus and sacred writings of other Indian (Muslim and Hindu) saints. It is the embodiment of the Sikh Gurus and is regarded as the eternal Guru, a title conferred to it by the tenth and final living guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh. In 1708, Guru Gobind Singh declared that there would be no more human gurus. The name sikh means disciple or learner of the truth. It is perhaps unique amongst major world religions in that its authorship can be directly attributed to its founders and its authority is beyond question for Sikhs who view it as the repository of God’s word transmitted through His messengers, the Gurus. Sikhs do not accept the authority of holy books from any other religion. It is with this scripture therefore that we begin our study of attitudes towards women in Sikhism.
The Guru Granth Sahib focuses on humanity’s search for answers about God. It is an attempt by its contributors to explain the mystery, beauty, and omnipotence of the one universal creator and how to break the shackles of humai (self-centredness, ego) to achieve enlightenment and oneness with God. It also warns of the dangers of not living a God-centred life and traipsing the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. It is not written as a moral code or as a document recording history, and hence cannot be judged as such. The paucity of references within the Guru Granth Sahib describing contemporary historical events or moral dilemmas is an indication that the Gurus wished it to transcend these issues and focus on, what for them was infinitely more important, a relationship with the timeless and eternal creator (Jhutti-Johal, 2005). What is clear from the Guru Granth Sahib is that both men and women are enjoined to search and submerge themselves in the essence of God and that enlightenment was open to all irrespective of gender, creed, or caste. And hence, there is little argument that the Gurus preached equality on a spiritual level. For example, women have an equal right to participate in the congregation:
Come, my dear sisters and spiritual companions; hug me close in your embrace
Let’s join together, and tell stories of our All-powerful Husband Lord.
All Virtues are in our True Lord and Master; we are utterly without virtue.
– Guru Granth Sahib, p 17
On an empirical and practical level, there are references in the Guru Granth Sahib which aim to elevate the status of women:
From woman, man is born; within woman, man is conceived; to 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 her, kings are born.
From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all.
That mouth which praises the Lord continually is blessed and beautiful.
O Nanak, those faces shall be radiant in the Court of the True Lord.
– Guru Granth Sahib, p 473
Sikh Panth has always accorded, at least in theory, to Sikh woman a higher position as compared to her Rajput and Brahmin sisters. Their right to participate in rituals is generally recognized, even to the extent of permitting women to sit in attendance on the Guru Granth Sahib and recite from the sacred scripture in public. Sikhism does not debar women from attaining salvation. A woman can act as a priest, conduct the service and lead the prayer in the gurudwara. She does not have to veil herself while sitting in congregation and can receive as well as impart baptism (Gill, 2009). The corollary of Guru Nanak’s command was respect for women, often they were despised. Menstruation and childbirth were polluting, celibacy was preferable to marriage, a widow brought ill-luck upon those with whom she came in contact. Often death on the funeral pyre could be more attractive than the ordeal of loneliness and isolation that lay before her. Guru Nanak denounced all such prevalent Hindu attitude.
Women served as missionaries during the fifteenth century and when Guru Gobind Singh introduced the new initiation rite in 1699, it was significant that his wife placed the sugar crystals in the water. According to Hindu ideology, however, she could have defiled and nullified the ceremony (Gill 2009). Rejecting the notion of biological impurity of women, making them handicapped in participation in religious and even social activities, Gurbani says:
“Jeon joru sirnaavani aavae vaaro vaar, joothe jootha mukh vasae nit nit karae khuar…”
– Guru Granth Sahib, p 472
Application of Teachings in Contemporary Society
Sikhs have taken great advantage of opportunities to migrate to western nations and a sizeable Sikh community now resides in the west. The immigration amongst Sikhs worldwide has had implications for the development of the faith, particularly with reference to gender equality.
While much has been written on the status of women and their role in Sikh societies (Jhutti-Johal, 2010) there has been little attempt at a contemporary ethnographic account of women’s perceptions of life, sewa (service) and their role in the Gurdwara. Her study aims to do this through an ethnographic and comparative study of the views of women in India and the UK.
A semi-structured interview-based questionnaire consisting of fifteen questions served as a tool to gain an understanding of the attitudes, values as well as the interpretations of Sikh teachings on gender equality of the two groups. The research was not trying to seek definitive answers, but come to a general understanding of Sikh women’s perceptions.
A sample of twenty women in India consisted of eight women who were between the ages of fifty and eighty, and twelve women who were between the ages of eighteen and fifty. The women over the age of fifty had received no formal or very little education when they were young, and had not worked outside of the home. Out of the women between the ages of eighteen and fifty, eight were educated up to university level and four were educated up to secondary school level. All were married, with the exception of a thirty-year-old doctor and a twenty-five-year-old university graduate.
The sample of women in the UK consisted of thirty women: eleven women were between the ages of fifty and eighty; nineteen were between the ages of eighteen to fifty. All the elderly women had received little or no formal education when they were growing up. The women between the ages of eighteen and fifty had received some form of education. Most of the younger women had gone to university or had plans to attend, with the exception of two women who had married young.
The women were asked about their experiences and roles in the Gurdwara, with reference to sewa, administration, religious duties, and interaction with male members of the Sikh congregation. Since the respondents were women taken from different age groups, and, from a wide cross-section of the society in which they lived, it became clear from the responses that the aspirations of women within gurdwaras differed considerably with respect to their varied ages and social classes. For example, elderly Sikh women, who on the whole spend time in the gurdwaras cleaning or preparing food, were generally of the opinion what they did within the gurdwaras was fine for them and that they had no problems with their roles. However, it was the younger women in the UK who were of the opinion that women needed to be on the front lines and that there needed to be more prominent Sikh women in key positions such as on gurdwara committees, whether young or old, who could argue their case and fight for facilities and services such as nurseries, health care, and adult education facilities.
The women in the UK and in the Punjab all viewed the religion differently and all had varying degrees of belief, and it was very evident that this influenced their responses. (Different levels of religious commitment caused respondents of the same religion to offer different answers.) However, it was also evident that while the responses of women from different towns and villages varied, varied answers were also received from respondents living in the same village. One can only speculate as to why this was the case; education and outside influences, such as the media, may have played a role in the different responses.
Discussion and Conclusion
Sikh women in the UK, particularly the young, are wedged between two cultures, western and eastern (Punjabi), but have carved out amalgamated Anglo-Sikh culture for themselves in the UK. The level of influence of each culture on the individual will depend on family background, education, and social status, but in general, Sikh women in the UK have enjoyed a greater level of ‘freedom’ in the UK than their counterparts in the Punjab, in terms of education and job opportunities. This has inevitably led to a greater sense of confidence amongst them. We therefore have Sikh teachings now being viewed, interpreted, and adapted for ‘westernized’ Sikh females who would argue this is the natural evolution of a progressive faith to meet the needs of its followers while remaining true to its fundamental beliefs.
Still the pressure on females, (and males) to conform to traditional Punjabi practices when it ‘comes to marriage, family, and the community affairs’. Hence, there is still much resistance to a change in traditional power structures; gurudwara committees and religious bodies have an uneven number of males representing the community. This is also partly due to the fact that many younger women simply feel that they don’t have the time to serve on gurdwara committees and that their priorities focus on raising their children and/or developing their careers. However, most of the younger respondents in the UK do think that the current system is unfair and that the male/female balance on gurdwara committees needs to be addressed.
The older women in the UK generally believe that women’s needs on matters such as childcare are being ignored because of lack of representation of women on gurudwara committees. Generally however, these women were happy to do the sewa they had always done, for example, cooking and washing utensils in the gurudwaras.
The Punjab focus of the study was comprised of Sikh women from a very wide range of social and economic classes as well as educational status. This diversity was certainly reflected by the views of the respondents. Amongst the elderly (generally of low educational status) and women of lower social status there was an acceptance of the status quo of gender roles. Most were certainly aware, and in a few cases slightly resentful of discrimination and male dominance in gurudwaras, but did not believe they had any power to change things. The majority were happy to perform any form of sewa open to them as women and were not concerned with encroaching on sewa traditionally performed by men. The responses of educated women interviewed in Punjab were more similar to those from the UK. Increasing ‘westernization’, economic liberation, and educational opportunities have inevitably led women to question their ‘traditional’ roles in society. However, even amongst this group, there was a sense of apathy on issues of gender inequality in gurudwaras; other issues, including marriage, career, and education were far more important to them. It is interesting to note that the issue of women not being permitted to perform certain types of sewa at the Harmandir Sahib was raised by Sikh women from the west.
None of the respondents, from the UK or Punjab, were critical of fundamental Sikh teachings and most believed that the Gurus of Sikhism advocated gender equality, others didn’t raise this issue at all. This conception of equality in religious institutions is fashioned by Sikh women in diverse ways, depending on their ethnic and social origins, socialization, education and work experience as well as their pressing needs and requirements. The Sikh religion, through its power structures, will have to adapt to meet the future needs of its female members. However, at this present time, this study did not find any sense of urgency amongst respondents to drastically change things, for three reasons. First, some women were generally happy with the current situation. Second, some women were generally apathetic to the whole issue of gender roles within the gurdwara. Third, this issue was simply not seen as a priority for other women. Nevertheless, there is evidence that Sikh women will increasingly demand a greater say in gurudwara affairs, but that this demand will be stronger in the UK (or the West) than in the Punjab in the short term.
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