Women in Sikhism
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The role of women in Sikhism is outlined in the Sikh scriptures, which state that women are equal to men.
The principles of Sikhism state that women have the same souls as men and thus possess an equal right to cultivate their spirituality. They lead religious congregations, take part in the Akhand Path (the continuous recitation of the Holy Scriptures), perform Kirtan (congregational singing of hymns), work as a Granthi, and participate in all religious, cultural, social, and secular activities. As a result, Sikhism was among the first major world religions to imply that women were equals to men. Guru Nanak, after a mystic experience in which he communicated with God, reached the understanding of gender-based equality. "Guru Nanak proclaimed the equality of men and women, and both he and the gurus that succeeded him encouraged men and women to take a full part in all the activities of Sikh worship and practice."
Sikh history has recorded the role of women, portraying them as equals to men in service, devotion, sacrifice, and bravery. Examples of women's moral dignity, service, and self-sacrifice can be found throughout the Sikh tradition.
According to Sikhism, men and women are two sides of the same human coin. There is a system of interrelationship and interdependence whereby man is born of women, and women are born of man's seed. By these doctrines a man cannot feel secure and complete in his life without a woman, and man's success is proportional to the love and support of the woman who shares her life with him (and vice versa). The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, reportedly said in 1499 that "[it] is a woman who keeps the race going" and that we should not "consider woman cursed and condemned, [when] from woman are born leaders and kings."
Sikhs are obligated to treat women as equals, and gender discrimination in Sikh society has no religious basis. However, gender equality has been difficult to achieve in practice due to heavy social, cultural, and caste-related pressure. It's worth noting that the caste system itself goes against the core principles of Sikhism.
History, Purdah and Sati
"Hindu women had inequal status with men in many ways in the Vedic period, (from about 1500 BCE) when Upanayana, the rite of initiation was open to them." Women who were used to having the same privileges as men in Vedic India were reduced to a position of subordination during the time of the Lawgivers.
Sutak and celibacy
In the Asa ki Var, Guru Nanak Dev rejects the prevalent superstition of sutak, the belief that a woman giving birth to a child is unclean for a given number of days depending upon the caste to which she belongs:
"The impurity of the mind is greed, and the impurity of the tongue is falsehood. The impurity of the eyes is to gaze upon the beauty of another man's wife, and his wealth. The impurity of the ears is to listen to the slander of others. O Nanak, the mortal's soul goes, bound and gagged, to the city of Death. All impurity comes from doubt and attachment to duality. Birth and death are subject to the command of the Lord's Will; through His will we come and go." (SGGS, 472)
Instead of celibacy and renunciation, Guru Nanak recommends grhastha—the life of a householder. Husband and wife were equal partners and fidelity was enjoined upon both. In sacred verse, domestic happiness was presented as a cherished ideal and marriage provided a running metaphor for the expression of love for the Divine. Bhai Gurdas, poet of early Sikhism and authoritative interpreter of Sikh doctrine, paid high tribute to women saying:
"A woman, is the favourite in her parental home, loved dearly by her father and mother. In the home of her in-laws, she is the pillar of the family, the guarantee of its good fortune... Sharing in spiritual wisdom and enlightenment and with noble qualities endowed, a woman, the other half of man, escorts him to the door of liberation." (Varan, V.16)
Equal status for women
To ensure equal status for women, the Gurus made no distinction between the sexes in matters of initiation, instruction or participation in sangat (holy fellowship) and pangat (eating together). According to Sarup Das Bhalla, Mahima Prakash, Guru Amar Das disfavoured the use of the veil by women. He assigned women to supervise some communities of disciples and preached against the custom of sati. Sikh history records the names of several women, such as Mata Gujri, Mai Bhago, Mata Sundari, Rani Sahib Kaur, Rani Sada Kaur and Maharani Jind Kaur, who played important roles in the events of their time.
Women's displays of steadfastness during the eighteenth century when Sikhs were fiercely persecuted have had a strong impact on modern-day Sikhs, who recount these stories in their ardas:
"Our mothers and sisters they repeat every time in their prayer, who plied handmills in the jails of Mannu [the Mughal governor of Lahore (1748-53)], grinding daily a maund-and-a-quarter of corn each, who saw their children being hacked to pieces in front of their eyes, but who uttered not a moan from their lips and remained steadfast in their Sikh faith—recall their spirit of fortitude and sacrifice, and say, Vahiguru, Glory be to God!"
Monogamy, the banning of infanticide and widow burning
In a culture where monogamy is generally the rule, Sikh polygamy is exceptionally rare. Additionally, female infanticide is prohibited, and the Rahitnamas (codes of conduct) prohibit Sikhs from having any contact or relationship with those who indulge in this practice. Widow burning, or sati, is expressly forbidden by scripture.
In a shabad (hymn) in measure Suhi, Guru Amar Das says, "Satis are not those that burn themselves on the husband's funeral pyre; satis are they, O Nanak, who die of the pangs of separation (from the supreme God) (SGGS, 787)"
"They, too must be reckoned satis who live virtuously and contentedly in the service of the Lord, ever cherishing Him in their hearts... Some burn themselves along with their dead husbands: but they need not, for if they really loved them they would endure the pain alive."
As a practical step towards discouraging the practice of sati, Sikhism permitted remarriage of widows.
In the present-day democratic politics of India, a fair amount of organizations study and work in order to rid women of many of their disadvantages. They have access to political franchise and new opportunities for advancement have opened up for them. Sikh women have shown enterprise in several fields and are among the most progressive in education and in the professions such as teaching and medicine. Within the Sikh system, they are the equals of men. They can lead congregational services and participate in akhand paths, uninterrupted readings of scripture to be accomplished within seventy-two hours. They vote with men to elect Sikhs' central religious body, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, which administers their places of worship (Gurdwara).
Though equality for women has always been a major attribute of Sikhism and a great number of women have made significant contributions, it is important to note that it is still a work in progress. In the 1990s a group of Sikh women requested to wash the floors or the Darbar Sahib and were denied. Also, women make up less than 20% of the SGPC members.
Notable women in Sikhism
- "Sikhism: What is the role and status of women in Sikh society?". www.realsikhism.com. Retrieved 2015-11-07.
- Talib, Gurbachan Singh. "Women in Sikhism". Encyclopaedia of Sikhism. Punjabi University Patiala. Retrieved 18 March 2013.
- Holm, Jean; Bowker, John (1994). Women in Religion. Continuum International Publishing. ISBN 9780826453044. Retrieved 18 March 2013.
- Aad Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar: Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. 1983.
- Robert O. Ballou, The Portable World Bible, Penguin Books, 1976, p. 237-241.
- Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, translator, The Meaning of Glorious Koran, Mentor Book, New American Library, New York and Scarborough, Ontario, 1924, p. 53, Surah II, 223-228.
- Kanwaljit Kaur, Sikh Women, Fundamental Issues in Sikh Studies, Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, 1992, p. 96.
- Guru Granth Sahib, p 73.
- Guru Granth Sahib, p. 788.
- Kanwaljit Kaur, op. cit., p. 99.
- Sabdarath Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1975
- Jean Holm, John Bowker, Women in Religion, 1994
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