A drastic distinction between the roles of the male
and female exists in all of history's modern human societies.
Women have grown to accept, not without resentment though, the
male-dominated atmosphere of the world. Because people use
religious doctrine to define their life styles, religious
scriptures in both the East and the West seem to condone,
even encourage, the unequal treatment of women. In the 15th
century, Guru Nanak established Sikhism, the first religion
to advocate emphatically the equality of all people, especially
women. In a continent characterised by severe degradation of
women, this bold declaration, along with others, determined to
erase the impurities of the Indian society. However, prejudiees
and injustices based on gender linger even today.
In the dominant Western religion of Christianity, God
created man, and then woman out of man's rib. Eve, the first woman
persuades Adam to eat the forbidden apple, thus committing
the world's first sin, a landmark recognized as the fall
of mankind. The implied inferiority and corrupting influence
of women in the Bible appear to juslify their second rate
treatment in Western society.
In Eastern Society, the Muslim religion also demeans
women. The Koran contains explicit details concerning the
inferior treatment of women. This includes the right of a man
to divorce his wife, never vice versa, and the wearing of a
veil to cover a woman's face, called burkah, in public. The
Koran reminds men, "Your women are a tilth for you (to cultivate)
... And they (women) have rights similar to those (of men)
over them in kindness, and men are a degree above them."
At the time of Guru Nanak, Indian women were severely
degraded and oppressed by their society. Given no education or
freedom to make deeisions, their presence in religious, political,
social, cultural, and economic affairs was virtually non-existent.
Woman was referred to as "man's shoe, the root of all evil,
a snare, a temptress." Her function was only to perpetuate
the race, do household work, and serve the male members of
society. Female infanticide was common, and the practice of
sati, the immolation of the wife on her husband's funeral
pyre, was encouragcd, sometimes even forced.
Guru Nanak condemned this man-made notion of the
inferiority of women, and protested against their long subjugation.
The Ultimate truth was revealed to Guru Nanak through a mystic
experience, in direct communion with God. Guru Nanak conveys
this truth through the bani, Sikh Scripture. It first argues
against the sexist sentiments of the pompous man about
the necessity of women:
"In a woman man is conceived,
From a woman he is born.
With a woman he is betrothed and married,
With a woman he contracts friendship.
Why denounce her, the one from whom even kings are born>
From a woman a woman is born,
None may exist without a woman."
The fundamental analogy used in the Bani depicts the relationship
between God and man, and proves that the physical body does
not matter. The bani parallels all human beings (men and women)
to the woman/wife, and God to the man/hushand. This means
that every person is a Sohagan a woman who is the beloved of
the lord whether they have the body of a man or woman because
the human body is transitory, the difference between man and woman
is only transitory, and as such superficial. Thus, according to
Sikh ideology, all men and women possess equal status. All human beings,
regardless of gender, caste, race, or birth, are judged only by their deeds.
With this assertion, the Sikh Gurus invited women to join the
sangat (congregation), work with men in the langar (common kitchen),
and participate in all other religious, social, and cultural activities
of the gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship). The Gurus redefined celibacy
as marriage to one wife and taught that male and female alike
need to practice conjugal fidelity. They advocated marriage of
two equal partners.
Guru Amar Das, the third Guru
"Only they are truly wedded who have one spirit in two bodies."
Guru Amar Das also condemned purdah, the wearing of the veil, and
female infanticide. He spoke against the custom of sati, thus
permitting the remarriage of widows. Out of 146 chosen, the
Guru appointed 52 women missionaries to spread the message
of Sikhism, and out of 22 Manjis established by the Guru for the
preaching of Sikhism, four were women." The steps the Gurus
took to advocate the equality of women, revolutionized the
tradition of Indian society. As they began to partake in social,
religious, and political affairs, their contribution and worth
as equal partners of men became more obvious.
However, the Guru's teachings of equality have never been fully
realized. which is clearly evident in the treatment of women even in the Sikh
society today. Either because of the influence of the majority
community on the Sikh minority or the Sikh male's
to give up his dominant role, women continue to suffer prejudices.
A woman has never been elected as the president of Shiromani
Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (the Central Management Committee to
manage the atfairs of the Gurdwaras in the Punjab) (This article was written
in September 1998, Bibi Jagir Kaur ji the first woman president were elected
recently) , or as the head of any of the five Takhts (the thrones of authority).
Indian society discriminates against women in workplaces, and denies
them the right to fight on the battlefield. People measure a woman's
value as a bride by the size ot her dowry, not necessarily by her
character and integrity. Alice Basarke. a free-lancc writer, sadly
realizes, "After 500 years head start, Sikh women are no better off
than their counterparts in any other religion or nation."''
As a Sikh girl, born and raised in thc United States, I have felt
confusion and frustration upon recognizing the hypocrisy in the Sikh
community in the subjugation of their women. America, origin of
Elizabeth Cady Stanton's 1848 Women's liberation Movement,
crawls ahead of other nations in the race to achieve practised
equality for all. Because of its diverse and opportune atmosphere,
I have experienced little discrimination based on my gender. I must
struggle to empathize with the feelings of women in India whose
tragic experiences I have not actively shared.
Yet, I am told, that upon my birth, distant relatives sent my
parents blessings that sounded more like condolences than
congratulations, Apparently they pitied the supposed dowry
my family would have to prepare, the inheritance I could never receive,
and the family name that could never survive by me. One can
imagine their joy and relief upon my brother's birth two years later.
Such hypocritical actions bewilder me. Why didn't Sikh women rise
up long ago in protest against such treatment, reciting the words of
the Gurus ? Why did we not endeavour long ago to realize
fully the freedom and equatily the Gurus advocated for all
human beings, regardless of gender? Is the equality the
Gurus preached even understood by Sikhs ? At one time.
Sikhs risked their very lives to fight for equality by
opposing the caste system Yet, Today many Sikhs judge
each other by thc caste they are from and thc amount of
income they earn. As Ms Basarke poignantly puts it, "How can women
expect equality, when the Sikh community seems unable to distinguish
between religious tenets and the culture imposed by the majority
community's which engulfs them "'
Indeed, how can women realize equality when the root of the problem
lies much deeper than marchcs of protests or laws can reach?
The sikh community needs to look beyond the ingrained customs,
social taboos and know the true salubrious nature of justice and
equality; the Sikh eommunity needs to realise its tragic entanglement
in a system that embraces practices antithetical to the very basis
of the Sikh faith, against the very word of God; the Sikh community
needs to shake itself vigorously to awaken and
rise into a truly strong and potent religious people, living the way
God desires us to live: by freedom, justiee, love, and equality—for all.
Many Sikhs will acknowledge this truth, but instead of finding the
enthusiasm and hope to shape the future, they will sadly shake
their heads. After all, can we possibly unravel thousands of
years of deep-seated Indian mentality? Do the powers of revolution
truly lie within our grasps? We need only to remember the words of
Guru Gobind Singh for an answer
"With your own hands carve out your destiny."
By Sardarni Valerie Kaur, 12th Standard Student
#7202 E. Bullard Clovis, CA 93611 U.S.A.