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Sikh women, marriage and education


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I am grateful to Shaheediyan for his post last month providing various PDF copies of books on Sikhism, the following is taken from a book by John Clark Archer, Princeton Univeristy Press (1946): The Sikhs.

Chapter 11: Western culture in the flood includes the following:

“Sikhs were well placed…in relation to female education…there had been previously Hindu, Moslem and Sikh schools for females in…Punjab…but they were not recognised as part of the Indian educational system… The first school for females under Panjab Government tuition was opened at Rawalpindi in December 1856.

Sikhs took unusual advantage of this new opportunity…contribut(ing) more pupils in proportion to their total numbers than any other faith. Women had in Sikhism from the time of Gobind Singh, at least, a status comparable to that of men…

…the absence of the veil may have been itself…indication of the initially low level of culture of Sikhs (neither Hindu nor Moslem women of lower classes have worn the veil nor observed seclusion), but its absence afforded Sikhs a speedier avenue to education…their women were by the end of the nineteenth century as well educated as Christian women and both were better off than Hindu and Moslem women.

This freedom among women is exhibited in the very form of marriage, in which women’s rights were publicly acknowledged. Women were not betrothed as infants nor married till maturity – among the Singhs, especially.

In fact the Singhs observed since early days a form of marriage which other Indians, the Hindus and Moslems, in particular, thought irregular, but which expressed in its own way the genius of the new religion with its own communalism.

This Anand form (of marriage) included a previous “engagement†celebrated by the girl’s own parents who invited kinsfolk of the bridegroom-to-be-but not himself – to gather at their home and in the presence of the…Adi Granth…to share sweetmeats and plan the wedding.

The Government in no sense prescribed the rite – but recognition dignified the rite whose details the Sikhs themselves administered.â€

This account provides some interesting food for thought vis-a-vis:

1. The origins of the Anand Karaj are often attributed to the Nirankaris or Governmental Acts by various detractors of the Sikh people or within the Sikh community itself (usually by schismatic sects and orders, albeit claiming more authenticity over the mainstream body).

2. The role of women within the Sikh world is today widely debated, with some arguing for supposed ‘traditions’ to restrict their roles in certain aspects and others in their revisionist “feminism†end up over-emphasising to the point of exaggerating their positions in history.

3. Education is a key element amongst Indians in general, however within the context of Sikhs, there has been like in (2) above, two extreme camps – one critiquing the advent of British education in the Subcontinent to the extent that its recipients, including the formidable Bhai Vir Singh, are written-off as cronies of the British Raj and the other accusing traditional Sikh educationalists as demeaning to the position of women and their access to learning.

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