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Women In Sikhism And The World

by nishaan@magazine

This subject has become the clarion call for Sikhism. Numerous scholars have written on it; dozens of articles are being written and published about this all over the world.

I am not re-visiting this subject for the sake of it but want to share some ‘Case Histories’ which are important as they become the mirror of daily life. They either confirm the application of what the scholars deduce or highlight the gap that exists between ‘Theory’ and ‘Practice.’

Dr Surinder Singh Kohli, in ‘The Position of Women in Sikhism’ from his book, ‘Sikhism and Guru Granth Sahib’, has surveyed Indian literature, historical and mythological, to define the role and status of women in ancient India. He determines that women were given an exalted place but it was under the influence of Islam that Indian women became subservient.

He also reviews this aspect from the social and  cultural spheres. His references to ancient and medieval Punjabi literature, for example ‘Mirza–Sahibaan’ and ‘Heer–Ranjha’ are interesting but one wonders why he has stayed away from other religions, particularly Hinduism (Sarvuttam Granth – Guru Granth Sahib by Swami Tirath Danda Sanyasi).

In this Sarvuttam Panth – Khalsa Panth (The Best of all Religions – Khalsa Panth), Swami Ji (who later became Khalsa) has given numerous examples from various Hindu scriptures showing that in Hinduism, the status of women (per their Holy Scriptures) is outright degrading and even obnoxious : all such scriptures cited were in fact written much before the advent of Islam.

He has numerous quotes from Gurbani, such as So kiyo manda aaakhiyae… (Asa Di War) and Satian eh na aakhiyae… (Var Suhi)’….

I have had the opportunity to participate in various ‘Interfaith Meetings’ in Texas and come into close contact with scholars from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Bahais, Hinduism and Buddhism. However, when it comes to the subject of ‘Status of Women’, most of them just cannot look straight into your eyes !

I leave it to scholars to give quotes from Scriptures of other religions, but give just one: “Theirs is the only religion (Sikhism) which pronounces in their scriptures that women are equal in every aspect to men. They had women soldiers, leading armies into battle against ‘you know who’ (the usual suspects). Sikh history is an inspiring one…”

I once met a lady at the Sikh Centre in Houston. She was wearing the keski; a number of American ladies wear keski attending Gurdwara, but this lady was black. I met her after langar. She told me that me that she had a Ph. D., was born Christian and had been part of a Study Circle, meeting once a week for Bible Studies. In one such meeting, she raised this specific question, on the ‘Status of

Women in Christianity’. Over some weeks, in their study circle, discussions were devoted to this topic.

Various quotes from the Bible were dissected, but she was not convinced, in fact was rather most disillusioned.

Then she started surfing the net and ‘discovered’ Sikhism. She could not believe that such a religion existed, one which bestowed such unconditional equality of gender. Then she found that in Houston there was a Sikh Centre where Sikh congregational meetings were held. She started visiting the Sikh Centre, introduced me to her 5-year old son and her husband (a white American and a senior IT executive). The husband soon became a Sikh as well.

Later, however, I noticed that they had stopped coming to the Sikh Centre and months later, I met them again in another Gurdwara (Houston now has 6 Gurdwaras, starting with the original Sikh Centre established in 1973). She told me frankly that she was disappointed, because, firstly, the whole service was conducted in Gurmukhi which she could neither participate in, nor understand. Secondly, the priests had no knowledge of English and she could not even communicate with them. Thirdly, women’s actual participation was only in the kitchen, to cook langar.

Thus in practice, women in the Sikh religion were treated not much differently than in any other religion. “There is an enormous gap between what the Sri Guru Granth Sahib ordains and what the Sikhs practice.” This is sad but true, our Gurdwaras in the USA are all run in the manner of gurdwaras in a village in

the Punjab. Our clergy and management are extremely deficient in English and simply cannot impress, let alone the westerners, even our own younger generation.

Now, I relate another experience: The Sikh Foundation’s Office at Palo Alto in California is located close to Stanford University, one of America’s most prestigious (and also the most expensive) University. In fact Stanford University has given the impetus to and nurtured America’s hi-tech industry, resulting in the famous Silicon Valley. The fifteen Sikh students at Stanford had taken an initiative to get a course introduced on Sikhism.  This was with approval of the Dean and at no cost to the University. Classes were held every Thursday evening with volunteer teachers from the Bay Area Sikh Community.

The Sikh Foundation Chairman, Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany, well-regarded as the ‘Father of Fibre Optics’ was scheduled to give a lecture in this series. Unfortunately, he fell unwell and was unable to attend and in his place, at the last minute, I was drafted in to fill that slot. I was surprised that though only fifteen

students had registered, the attendees were more than fifty. A number of young Sikhs and even non Sikh executives from Silicon Valley not far from Stanford University, joined in as ‘Audit Students’.

After the lecture, I was requested to help conduct the Question and Answer session continuing from a previous class and the subject most appropriately was : “Status of Women in Sikhism.” I began with the statement that any Scripture, or for that matter any worthy document (including the Constitution of USA) can have three positions on a subject. One positive; second negative and third, neutral, not stated position i.e. ‘silent’. The Constitution of the USA was silent on the issue of voting rights to women and it took almost 140 years of struggle by women in the USA to get their voting rights.

Now, if a Scripture is negative, how can you change that to become positive? Difficult or impossible? Even if the Prophet himself came back and wanted to make a change, his fanatical followers would not let him do so. So in my opinion, this is situation fait-accompli and a lost cause! When the scripture is very positive, such as Sri Guru Granth Sahib, wherein not just in passing but repeatedly the equality of women is asserted, there is no ambiguity, no doubt whatsoever.

However, the problem in Sikhism is the gap between the lofty teachings and their actual practice. I really believe that psyche of the Indian sub continental race has been corrupted by thousands of years of slavery, which is the worst form of caste system. Only with that kind of psyche could Tulsi Das in Ram Chrit Manas dare to categorise women along with ‘untouchables’, animals and beasts of burden – all

worthy of being beaten with a stick!

It was not under influence of Muslim invaders that the status of women was degraded in India: the indigenous Hindu ‘culture’ already carried this incurable cancer. The Sikhs, in minority, were surrounded by such insidious practice and inevitably were influenced into accepting and practicing it, even though this was in stark contravention of the clear teachings of Sri Guru Granth Sahib.

However, if women come forward, they can demand and claim their equal rights because they are so assured in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. An example from Texas : every December, a Sikh Youth Camp and Retreat is organised in Houston, a major item in the Agenda being ‘Amrit Prachar’.A young Sikh lady, who had taken amrit in the previous years, claimed that she had faithfully been keeping Rehat (Sikh Code of Conduct) rigorously, and wanted to be included in the ‘Panj Pyaras’. (The Five Beloved ones, who are chosen to prepare and then administer the Amrit). Sure, there were some objections, but she won her right.

It is often asked why no woman raagi does kirtan in the Darbar Sahib. My thought is that they first have to deserve, then desire. Women jathas should first fulfill all the other requirements of being good Kirtania.

Another related question is on ‘Sewa In The Darbar Sahib’ as was once attempted by American Singhnis. They were granted the right, but at the last minute, they were denied thus for ‘technical’ reasons. However, they should never give up this right and claim it again and again, until it becomes part of the tradition.

Once, the wife of a friend chided me, “Veer ji, you have exalted your wife so much to have spoilt her”. I smiled and said, “Dear Sister, I am following the edict of Guru Gobind Singh ji. Didn’t he bestow the name ‘Kaur’ (meaning Princess) to our daughters? Yes, then the mother of a Princess has to be a Maharani Queen)

and so she deserves to be respected and treated like a Queen”!

We used to have an hour’s radio broadcast ‘Gurbanee Veechar’ every Sunday morning in Houston. The fifteen-minute segment of ‘Questions and Answers’ was hosted by me. A young lady once asked me about the status of women in Sikhism, but she predicated her question that she had read and heard all the quotes from Sri Guru Granth Sahib; she wanted to know if there was any scientific basis behind all these quotes, since Sikhism is considered a very scientific religion.

This was a very strong, very modern question and a very challenging one. My answer was very straightforward. The entire world is built on molecular theory and, of course, the minute components of a molecule such as atoms, electrons, neutrons etc. are basic building blocks. Similarly in biology, there are cells and chromosomes. The sex determining chromosomes are Y and X. In fact Y chromosomes are basic feminine chromosomes.

In humans, YY chromosomes determine a female person, and XY chromosomes result in a male person. Thus even the males are half females. Does it not look obvious that the really fundamental one is the “Y” chromosome?

Guru ji says: Eis Jag Maen Purakh Ek Hae, Haur Sagli Naar GGS Pages 591-592.

(In this world, there is just One Male – Akalpurakh, The Almighty; every one else is female).

Let us consider another branch of Scientific thought: psychology. Guru ji has emphatically stated that ‘naam’ cannot be realised if there remains one’s ego. These two, Naam and Ego cannot reside concurrently. Since attainment of Naam is the goal, ego has to go. Guru ji stresses those very feminine characteristics such as ‘Hukam Mannna’, ‘Haleemi’, ‘Tehl Sewa’ continuously.

It is the female characteristics that subdue ego, and so one attains Naam. (I actually believe it is not just equality, but that females are superior to males in spirituality). In Sri Guru Granth Sahib, there are many examples of the ‘pangs of separation’ as suffered by a wife when separated from her husband. Those kinds of pangs are clearly symptomatic of very high, rather ultimate level of Love, of which

Guru ji says, Jin Prem Keo Tin Hi Prabh Paeo (Those who love can attain Akal purakh).

As an urdu poet wrote: Intiha Yae Hae Ke Bande Ku Khuda Karta Hae Ishaq. We have to accept ‘basic nature’ as being female only then does the light of Gurbani shine brilliantly. Unfortunately male chauvinism is our biggest hurdle and main block in the path of our progress on this “road less traveled – Sikhi.”

I believe that owing to neglect and giving little attention to the teachings of Gurbani, we Sikhs have over hundreds of years, lapsed into this pitfall, where our practices in regard to equality of gender are far from the teachings of Gurbani.

A radical movement of the manner of Singh Sabha Lehr is imperative, needed urgently, because inequality of the genders has attained world wide prominence and Sikhism is the only faith that can take humanity in the right direction.

Since the impetus has begun in the western world, where women are challenging wrongful doings, we will have to address this issue here, rather than in India or the Punjab. Sikhs in the Diaspora must take the lead in closing this gap between practice and teaching as they are the ones with comparatively lesser ‘cultural baggage’.

However, my assessment is that disengagement of this movement from the Punjab and spearheading it in the west will, in fact, be resisted by the ‘so called’ tradition–bound religious leadership in the Punjab. On many minor issues previously, they have demonstrated their very lack of vision in the global context.

Organisationally, I think the Khalsa Council is best suited to take lead. They are not Diaspora Sikhs, but American Sikhs. Sikhs in the Diaspora must join hands with them to spearhead this moment. Awareness is needed both at individual and panthic levels. A campaign has to be launched to bring about such universal awareness.

Based on the level of awareness, local cells should be created that promote activities at closing this gap. Active members will naturally be the younger Sikh generation, who were born and / or brought up in the western countries. These cells will network with other cells as well as Central Body of the Khalsa Council.

Actions must be double edged, on the one hand encouraging and preparing women to take on more definitive roles and on the other, persuade current management at local levels to ‘let go’ and give proper opportunities for Sikh women to be in positions of visibility and public performances.

Having recognised the need for this mass movement, its launch will start opening many doors, at least in the USA, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia and many other ‘progressive’ countries. It is not going to be an easy task, to rectify this neglect of centuries, but we owe it our Guru ji and to humanity at large. The time is Now.

Dr. Jasbir Singh Sethi

Houston, Texas, USA.

Nishaan I/2009

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