Women in Sikhism: Gender Inequality?

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Today in Gurdwara as I was listening to the Gurbani and hearing the Guru’s words it made me think about the state of Sikh women in the world of today. One of my favorite Shabads (Bhand Jamiyai Bhand Nimiyai) relating to women was played by Snatam Kaur. I thoroughly enjoyed singing as the voices of the sangat filled the Gurdwara. Little Charanjeet Kaur was in my lap listening and entranced in the Gurbani. Being a father of a girl and a husband I know the value of supporting the women in my family.

In this Shabad Guru Nanak so beautifully sums up the value of the woman:

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"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. O Nanak, only the True Lord is without a woman. 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 Nanak Dev Ji in Raag Aasaa on Pannaa 473

MAN – The Dominant
I always feel a little awkward when I hear Sikhs boasting things like, "In Sikhism there is Gender Equality. Women can do everything than men can". Of course this is the ideal and the teachings of our Guru’s, however in reality and practice we have much to overcome to truly establish this so called "Gender Equality". In India especially it is quite common for women to be treated badly and not given the value and leadership roles that are deserved. It makes me think of Bollywood movies where the husband is this overbearing man who is the "God" of the house. Whatever he says is law and MUST be obeyed, or else she is beaten or scolded in some way. In these situations it seems the sole purpose of the woman is to take care of the man and the kids and do as the husband says. In general I think of a women being loving and coming from the
heart, and men being egotistical and coming from the head. I can understand the relationship of a woman serving her husband and contributing to the household, but much of the time it doesn’t come across to me as an equal partnership.


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Female Infanticide
Another major indication of this is the HUGE problem of infanticide in Punjab, where girls are not valued. The babies are aborted just because they are girls. The ratio of men and women in Punjab is so out of balance that it makes me wonder where all these men will find a wife in the future?

Preferential Treatment for Boys/Men
A less extreme example would be how the child/boy of the family is treated extra good and can do many more things than the girls. I’m sure other women could share more examples like this relating to being in a family with other brothers and how they are treated in and unfair way because they are a girl.

Physical/Sexual Abuse
Then there are the issues of physical and sexual abuse by other dominant men. Much of this is kept secret if discovered by families. I have also heard from other Sikh women’s groups about how many families take the side of the man and don’t give the support that the woman needs to deal with these issues. Just imagine that you are being raped or beaten and get no support from your family?? Again the women becomes the victim without support, from her OWN family. I can only guess how widespread these issues are.

Seva in Harimandir Sahib
It baffles me how a religion that has a core belief of Gender equality can justify not allowing Sikh woman to play Gurbani Kirtan in Harimandir Sahib or certain sevas which are "reserved" for only men. Ok…if this were some small random Gurdwara somewhere one might just write it off as a small thing. However when this is the case at THE Harimandir Sahib which is one of the most visible and visited place of worship for Sikhs, you would think that people would do what is right.

Khalsa Women – Panj Piaray
Some people email me from time when I post a picture of the Panj Piare in our sangat which most of the time has a woman. The comments I get are like, "women can’t be in the Panj Piaray". I think that is ridiculous since Khalsa has no gender and the "Panj Piaray" is any 5 Sikhs of the Guru, not any 5 men of the Guru. This is such a clear indication of how deep the issue of gender inequality is in the Sikh communities and how we rationalize things to suit ourselves and our own understanding.

When I last went with my family to Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar, after Asa Di Var they were giving the "panj piaray" prashad, and I held my cupped hands up to receive it. The sevadar gave me parshad. My wife who was right next to me innocently had her hands raised and cupped ready to receive the Guru’s prashad, but the sevadhar would not give it to her because she was a woman. I then took half of my parshad and gave to her. The sevadhar and another person then tried to scold me that I couldn’t do that. I wrote a whole blog post on the topic of women and the panj piaray if you are interested in reading more.

The Kirpan – Protecting Those in Need
I think many of these things are negative cultural issues which will change over time, but I feel that as Sikhs of the Guru it is our duty to stand up in support for our sisters, daughters, aunties and friends. We should not just stand by and allow these things to continue. The kirpan is there to remind us to stand up against injustice, and to protect those in need. If we cannot do this for the women in our own family/community, how can we do it elsewhere?

Help Create Change
What can you do to help? To start I think to we can all make a difference by first looking at the actions of ourselves, family and circle of friends. There may be negative things that you or others do without even thinking about it. The first step to change is awareness of the problem. In your daily life be aware of these issues and stand up for women when something is being done that is not right. The things could be small, but they are just as important. Let us honor, respect and truly include our Khalsa sisters as Guru Gobind Singh would have, and stop these practices.

Please share your thoughts, experiences and solutions related to these issues so that we can work together to create change.

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