In a recent piece on BBC Radio 4, titled Beyond Belief – Women in Sikhism, host Ernie Rea starts off with this statement,
“The Sikh religion is the world’s fifth largest… the men are often easily recognized – they wear turbans and leave their hair uncut. The fundamental message appears to be simple – God is one and all people are equal. But are some more equal than others? If the Sikh scriptures are consistent with a feminist agenda, why do some Sikh women feel like they are second class citizens?”
The host is joined by a panel of three women to discuss the issue of equality within the Sikh faith – Navtej Purewal, Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at Manchester University; Eleanor Nesbitt, Professor Emeritus at the Institute of Education in the University of Warwick; and Nicky Guninder Kaur Singh, Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Colby College. The panelists did a great job of explaining what in fact Sikh scriptures say about equality and the role of women. In addition, they helped identify the gaps that still exist between what is written and how it is practiced. While these women speak predominately from an academic standpoint and not necessarily the community Sikh women’s voice, i think they brought forth a much important discussion for our community as a whole. It was also quite eye-opening to hear the non-Sikh perception of our faith, represented by the host.
While parts of the conversation – often guided by host Ernie Rea – landed on discussions around topics that are common to this blog, (i.e. if Sikhi believes in equality, why does Panjab have the highest rates of female foeticide and if Sikhi is an egalitarian faith, why do men and women sit separately within the Gurdwara), the overall discussion was helpful as it raised questions that need to be addressed if changes are going to be made. The host began by asking whether or not the Sikh scripture does include a feminist agenda.
Purewal noted that the the Guru Granth Sahib was very revolutionary and, as far as doctrine, it does have the potential to be feminist. However, due to social convention the message has not been actualized among Sikh communities, whether in India or within the diaspora. Nesbitt suggested that since the scripture is predominately written in poetry, it is thus open to interpretation and that this is potentially the cause for much of the tensions felt by contemporary women. Singh goes on to say that even the word “God” brings forth the notion of a male entity which is a starting point for many misconceptions and in fact, in the Guru Granth Sahib Ik Onkaar does speak to being gender-free.
The discussion then led to the concept of the Khalsa and how that included or did not include women. Nesbitt referred to the historical progression of the Khalsa and the extent by which women were absent from its creation – for example, the lack of women in the Panj Pyare.
Rea then asked the panel what the Gurus taught us about equality. While on one hand, they denounced activities such as sati, Nesbitt argued that some Sikh women are cautious about being close to the Guru Granth Sahib when they are menstruating and that some Sikh groups claim that women can’t participate in the Nishan Sahib seva for similar reasons. I found this argument to be particularly interesting as it’s not something i have heard much about in discussions with other Sikh women.
As Purewal noted, the problem is that there are two parallel, and sometimes conflicting, messages running alongside each other – the scriptural reference to gender equality/principle of egalitarianism and then tradition/culture. She went on to note that there are lots of stories of the Guru’s wife, or Guru’s sister or Guru’s mother – suggesting that we have several references to the presence and equality of Sikh women in our history. Host Ernie Rae pushed back on this point, noting that these women are often only known as being the wife of a Guru or sister of a Guru or the mother of a Guru and that this makes it seem that Sikh women have a subsidiary role in the faith. Singh did a good job sharing how the Guru’s also used women in important leadership positions.
The conversation then led to the use of Kaur and Singh and Rae noted that it appeared to be stereotypical – since Singh means lion and Kaur means princess and that this further distinguishes men from women. Navtej added that Kaur is actually translated as prince and that actually, Kaur was used for both men and women before it was ever routine for Sikh women to adopt it. I found this to be so fascinating and i’d love to learn more about this! Singh also noted that the use of Kaur for Sikh women was egalitarian in nature – the fact that Sikh women can use this last name both before and after marriage.
Another interesting discussion was around how seva and service – acts that were historically associated with women – became internalized within the faith, as noted by Nesbitt.
There was a discussion about the role of women within the Gurdwara – and how in many, women are not seen in the same prominent roles that men have. Purewal emphasized just how critical women are to the Gurdwara and how often times, women carve out their own space to practice their faith freely (such as setting up gurbani groups etc).
Finally, the discussion landed on female foeticide and the role that Sikh scriptures have played or have not played in denouncing this act. The panelists agreed that we have to shift the way our society acts and that maybe the egalitarian element of the faith may allow a lot of these issues to be disguised or hidden.
The conversation did end on a positive note – with the panelists identifying that change is occurring, particularly among the younger generation in the diaspora and the host ending by asking each panelist to leave the discussion with one gesture or change they would like to see/have seen for Sikh women. Eleanor Nesbitt noted that if women were seen more conspicuously in procession – such as being included in the panj pyare - that the visual impact of that statement would have sent a clear statement. Navtej Purewal stated that she wished both boys and girls were valued as equals on a much deeper level. Nicky Guninder Kaur Singh ended by hoping that all young Sikhs would engage with the Guru Granth Sahib directly to learn the message of love.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of these points discussed!