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Female's role in Sikh society


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Writer: Valerie Kaur, 12th Standard Student

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 <i>Sohagan</i> 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. a href="http://www.sikh-history.com/sikhhist/gurus/nanak3.html"

Guru Amar Das, the third Guru

wrote:

"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."

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