Faith In Feminism

The Sikh religion and feminism

Vicky Beeching August 18, 2013 5 Comments on The Sikh religion and feminism

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.

5 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.

  4. Arjun May 10, 2016 at 9:38 pm

    laughable.Since when were ‘only’ upper caste people allowed to read scriptures ? he claims hes not an expert of sikhism but suddenly becomes an expert on Hinduism .And talking about Sikhism who practice caste more than anyone else how comes they dont have female Gurus if they see women equal ?

  5. Ramandeep September 18, 2016 at 11:13 pm

    Sikhism is not equal.
    No female Gurus, no female saints or scholars, no females are allowed to be among the 5 beloveds (Panj Pyare), no females are made Granthi, or given duty to distribute parshad or even head the Langar kitchen. In charge of Langar is also a man in every Gurdwara. There are no female Jathedar (jathedar is leader of Sikh community kind of equivalent to Pope). There are no female preachers (kathavachaks), females rarely perform kirtan and females are still not allowed to perform kirtan at any of the holiest shrines of Sikhs (such as inner sanctum of Golden Temple or the 5 Takhts). Sikhism compares God to male (groom) and the soul to female (bride) and validates sexist, stereotypical notions associated with females and supremacy of the male. Dasam Granth has sections like Charitropakhyan which has highly misogynist text against women.
    No female martyrs or historically relevant females are ever discussed by Sikhs or commemorated as much as Sikh males are. There are few examples of historically important women like Mai Bhago, Bibi Daler Kaur but no one talks about them except few Sikh females for face saving and in desperate attempt to prove equality.
    Sikhs have consistently had the worst sex ratio and are known for extreme son preference and committing female foeticide (killing baby girls in the womb itself). Sex selective abortions are rampant among Sikhs wherever they live. Punjab (which is a Sikh majority state) has even started a scheme wherein people can abandon ‘unwanted baby girls’ and hundreds of baby girls are left at those centers by parents who hate girls and do not want any daughter.
    Honour killing, domestic violence, dowry, dowry related violence are rampant among Sikhs.
    Sikhs’ Gurdwara management committee the apex body that controls Gurdwaras called SGPC never had a female head except one Bibi Jagir Kaur who committed honour killing of her own daughter.

    Sikhs have rampant casteism and caste based riots are frequent. There are even separate gurdwaras for separate castes. Famous Sikh scholar Gyani Ditt Singh was turned away from Golden Temple just because he was a Dalit (low caste and hence untouchable). Low caste Sikhs in Punjab even revolted and finally started own Ravidassia sect. Low caste Sikhs are known as Mazhabi Sikhs and they are thrashed brutally by upper caste Jatt Sikhs if they enter their Gurdwaras or their areas even by mistake. Mazhabi Sikhs are never allowed to lead or head any Sikh institution or congregation and those positions are exclusively reserved for upper caste Sikhs.
    Even baptised Sikhs ask each other their caste despite claiming that baptism removes all casteism.
    Molestation of women has often happened at Gurdwaras but those matters are hushed up for sake of ‘honour’. Sikh men are also known to abuse, threaten those women, their families who marry out of faith and threaten Gurdwaras that allow such weddings or couples. Control over women’s bodies and sexuality is central in Sikhism as the Sikh leaders and jathedars have made statements against family planning, contraceptives and asked women to produce more kids.

    This religion originated in Punjab and has all Punjabi elements in it. Sikh men killed own women during Partition of 1947 because they could not take them along, thought of them as burden and felt they might be abducted or violated on the way. There are laws against female foeticide and sex selective abortions yet Sikhs even find illegal ways to circumvent those laws and kill baby girls. There is extreme sadness and disappointment expressed when a girl is born. Women have no voice, no place in Sikhism and even contributions of women are neglected in Sikh narratives.
    Guru Nanak only praised women for being able to give birth to sons (kings) or giving company to men. No Gurus praised women as individuals. Sikhs used to have practice of polygamy and Sati also till the British banned it. Sikh emperor Maharaja Ranjit Singh and other Sikh nobles of that time committed polygamy and their wives committed Sati (burnt themselves on husband’s funeral pyre) after their deaths.
    Due to adverse sex ratio in Sikh majority state Punjab, many men have started buying girls trafficked from Bihar and exploit them sexually to bear them a son. Punjabi Sikh men are also known to commit fraud marriages and keep one wife back home in Punjab, take money from her as dowry and use it to go abroad and get married to a foreign woman abroad and use her links to get settled there, hence enjoying two wives. Often gullible women are kept in dark about such marriages and get cheated or deserted despite pregnancy and left alone with their child from such a man.
    Sikh religion and feminism have no connection, and will never have either given how backward, feudal, partriarchal, misogynist this religion and its adherents are.

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