Faith In Feminism

The Sikh religion and feminism

Vicky Beeching August 18, 2013 3 Comments

Sikh-wedding

How easily does the Sikh religion mesh with feminism? Sunny Hundal is a writer, commentator and the editor of LiberalConspiracy.org. He comes from a Sikh background and is the author of “India Dishonoured: Behind a nation’s war on women”.

[To the reader: A quick reiteration -  the aim of the Faith In Feminism project is simply to represent the many diverse expressions of feminism that exist. For every interview representing one perspective, a counter perspective will follow in a future interview. The views we publish are those of our contributors and in publishing them we are in no way affirming nor rejecting their viewpoint, simply showcasing them.]

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VB: As someone with a Sikh background, how would you describe the way the religion views women? Is it true that its teaching emphasises the principle of equality and rejects discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, or gender? 

SH: Well, I want to start off by clarifying that I’m not a practising Sikh nor a scholar on the religion. But I was born into a Sikh family and love reading about Sikh history and theology. Khushwant Singh is a very good writer on the subject for the curious. But I like to read about the religion and discuss it even if I don’t pray (I stopped at 13).

sunny

// Sunny Hundal

But your question is easy to answer : yes. Sikh philosophy is enshrined in the 11th Guru (the holy scripture), the Guru Granth Sahib. It is unequivocal, as were the ten Gurus themselves: equality is central to the religion. There is no difference between men and women, poor or rich. They must sit side by side and eat the same food at temples (Gurdwaras) for example.

VB: So the faith puts no constraints on what women can do?

SH: No one is restricted from knowledge (during those times only upper caste Hindus were allowed to read and interpret Hindu scriptures) and women don’t face any restrictions or limited to any roles. Women can be warriors, teachers or house-bound mothers – as with men.

VB: Were all of the the ten Gurus who laid the foundations of Sikh doctrine male? If so, could a woman have been one of the Gurus and why do you think there wasn’t one?

SH: Good question. I’ve frequently asked this too and I get different answers. Some say the circumstances of the time dictated male Gurus, or that they were chosen by God and there’s no knowing why they were all male. I suspect not many want to admit that even though the Gurus pushed egalitarianism, their followers would not have necessarily accepted a woman as their spiritual leader.

There’s another angle to this: all the Gurus also came from the same ‘caste’ even though the practice of putting people into castes was rejected and seen as abhorrent. None of the Gurus came from a low caste, perhaps for the same reason why there wasn’t a woman Guru.

VB: In the Sikh faith God is described as “nirguṇa”  – without attributes. This is rooted in the belief that the ultimate reality of God never constrains itself to any specific forms of image. Do you think this is more helpful for male and female feminist believers than the male God of the Abrahamic faiths?

SH: Not necessarily. For example, Hindus have lots of female Gods (who all originate from one formless being). Some of those gods are seen as good wives and paragons of beauty, others are dangerous and all-powerful (Durga, Shakti).

Both of these are widely worshipped in India, and yet I think it would be hard to argue that the existence of female gods helps male feminist believers. There is still a highly misogynistic culture in India. I think the teachings and prevailing culture has more impact that women gods.

VB: One of the Gurus – Guru Nanak Dev Ji  – really wanted to improve the social status of women. He said: “From woman, man is born; through woman, the future generations come. Why call her bad when she gives rise to nobility? Without woman, there would be no one at all”. In the 15th century his teachings were pretty radical. Do you think Sikhism is still cutting edge in it’s passion for the equality of women?

SH: I think Sikhism is the most egalitarian of all religions but I don’t think Sikhs are at the cutting edge of fighting for equality. Arguably this is because Punjabi culture (Punjab is the region where most Sikhs live) has always been and remained quite patriarchal. I have my own saying about Sikhs: – ‘great religion, shame about the followers’.

VB: So do you think the cultures in which the faith is practiced are partly the problem?

SH: Yes. Often there is still tension between the religion and the local culture. For example, in Punjabi culture Sikh women had been barred from cleaning the inner sanctum of the Golden Temple (the holiest shrine) for decades, because it was said they may be on their periods and therefore ‘unclean’. This ban was only lifted recently as the top Sikh authority accepted there was no theological reason for this.

VB: What other issues do you see holding back Sikhism from being as feminist as it could – and perhaps should – be?

SH: Sex-selection, dowry payments and violence against women in Punjab is rife  – and among the highest in the country. So I’d say most Sikhs have done a pretty bad job of upholding the ideals of what, at heart, is a deeply egalitarian religion.

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You can follow Sunny on Twitter here. Read LiberalConspiracy.org here. His new book “India Dishonoured” is available from this site.

 

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About The Author

Vicky Beeching is a theologian, writer and broadcaster who focuses on the areas of religion, feminism and technology. She is a regular on TV and radio discussing her areas of interest. Vicky is currently doing PhD research on the ethics of the Internet, exploring how online technology is shaping society. She lives in central London.

3 Comments

  1. JC Piech August 20, 2013 at 10:23 am

    Very enlightening interview!

  2. Laura February 21, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    It’s a very interesting interview, shame it’s so short… Would like to see more.

  3. Singh May 23, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    Awesome article! Just want to point out two facts;

    1. The Gurus did not all belong to the same caste, Guru Nanak was a Bedi, Guru Angad was a Trehan, Guru Amardas was a Bhalla and all subsequent Gurus were Sodhi. In fact, it would be wrong to say the Gurus belonged to or had any caste; they abandoned their so-called caste (think of Guru Nanak refusing to wear a caste-denoting Janeou thread) and, mixed with the lowest so-called castes, thus becoming out-castes in the popular belief of the time.

    Many Bhagats, which Sikhs believe to be revered and enlightened individuals were low castes and untouchables. Ravidas and Kabir come to mind. The poetry of these people are considered to be the living Guru itself.

    2. The idea of a female Guru was not abhorrent to Sikhs at the time. History tells us in fact, that following the mass confusion after Guru Gobind Singh’s death, many assumed that his widow, Mata Sundri, became Guru after him. There were many other supposed candidates of course, all of them men. Yet, the idea of a female Guru was far from unthinkable. It was only later that news spread that The Guru Granth Sahib scripture had been appointed Guru.

    The authority of the Guru was also anointed to the Khalsa order; where females are also present. A congregation of five Khalsas is supposed to represent the Guru, it does not matter which gender constitutes this congregation. In the Dasam Granth scripture, the all-Guru or true-Guru (God) is invoked very often with female names such as Bhaghauti, Chandika and Kali. In this form, the Guru is invoked as a loving but fierce mother figure; as in ancient Indian philosophy, female energy (Shakti) was associated with the warrior spirit.

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