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”.
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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).
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.