Is there political utility in Sikh The[a]logy?

Guest blogged by Tarnjit Kaur

This essay was written as an introduction to ‘Sikhism and Gender Equality: Where do you See Yourself?,’ an event to be held in Ontario Saturday, April 2nd at 6 pm. All are welcome to attend.

Motivated by the empowering message of Sikh theology, Sikhi, Sikh history is replete with struggles against all forms of oppression, to protect religious freedoms, human rights and in the pursuit of self-determination. Although an expression often confined to an interpretation of Christianity, I have always thought of Sikh theology as a form of liberation theology: a theology that liberates in the here and now from social, political and economic injustices. It is from this perspective that I ask whether if a Sikh thealogy [1], that is a Sikh feminist theology, has political and social utility in advancing the cause for gender equality within the Sikh communities [2].

I argue that women’s oppression due to patriarchy is compounded by colonial factors and that the disconnect between the practise and theory of Sikhi is entrenched in socio-economic and political inequities. It is therefore seriously questionable whether there is any political utility in the efforts to reclaim the ”feminine voice” or the feminist nature of Sikh scripture as subscribed by Sikh thealogy [3]. I further ask how can gender equality be achieved? Does Sikhi empower women because of its emphasis on traditional gender roles and femininity? Or does Sikhi advocate that men should no longer exploit their own privilege arising from their status as men? Or are there clear messages of gender egalitarianism promoting gender equality? These are areas of Sikh thealogy that are pregnant for research, scriptural analysis and historical investigation and are part of a larger on-going work both within the academic sphere and by grass-roots Sikh organizations.

Historically gender equality had been institutionalised within Sikhi during the Guru Period (I refer here to the time period from Guru Nanak Dev Ji until Guru Gobind Singh Ji, with the understanding that in Sikhi the Guru is ever-present in the Guru Panth and the Guru Granth Sahib Ji). The poetical compositions of the Sikh Gurus often speak in the feminine voice in the exaltation of the Divine and explicitly condemn the oppression of women. This celebration of the feminine was not restricted to sermons or the writings of scriptural composition, but was also accompanied by concrete social and political change. During the Guru Period many of the prevalent forms of the subjugation of women had been banned (dowry, female infanticide, veiling of women, sati were all strictly prohibited) and widows were permitted to marry following the Sikh marriage ceremony. In addition, women were encouraged to be educated and were appointed to positions of power and prestige.

Although no one would make any claims of a utopian non-patriarchal period in the Guru Period, the ideology of patriarchy was certainly being dismantled in that time. Indeed early British observers noted that there was the appearance of greater gender and caste equality in the Punjab in 1800s relative to the rest of India [4]. However, today it would be deeply disingenuous to suggest that there is an absence of gender discrimination in the lives of all Sikh women. In fact, indicators of gender inequality, such as the skewed gender ratio, strongly suggest that patriarchy is still very much prevalent. Statistical and demographic analysis of census data support the argument that son preference is more apparent in Sikh communities in contrast to populations of other religions in India [5]. There is also some evidence of a skewed gender ratio in areas that have large Sikh populations in North America [6].

It is in the practise of son preference [7], and the pervasive behaviour it entails and encompasses, that the disconnect between the theory and practice of Sikhi is most evident (the other area is perhaps the practise of caste discrimination). Authentic voices in discussions of son preference speak of: (a) the constant fear and anxiety surrounding the raising of daughters due to the need to protect their ”honour”, (b) that women are considered to be only consumers not producers, (c) natal family wealth is lost due to dowries, and (c) in any case daughters are given away in marriage and are therefore always alienated from the natal family [8].

In seeking to explore whether there is political utility in asserting a Sikh thealogy there is efficacy in investigating the possible causes of the disconnect between the theory of Sikhi and its practise. At what point in history did this divergence occur, or did it always exist? I propose three contributive factors to the current state of gender inequality within the Sikh community: (1) male domination of Sikh scriptural education, (2) work, land and property rights under successive colonial rules which privileged men, and (3) prolonged periods of strife during which women were targeted victims of political violence.

  1. Male domination of Sikh scriptural education
    During the intense period of persecution from 1716 onwards, the Sikhs fled their homes, lands, their towns and villages and encamped in the forests (from where they conducted a guerrilla war against the state). In the process they left behind the places of worship and education, original handwritten manuscripts of religious texts, historical records and artefacts. In the absence of the Sikhs, two sects, the Udasis and Nirmalas, took possession of the Sikh places of worship and education. These were celibate sects of men trained and educated in the Vedic traditions. This period of history has led to the introduction of Vedic interpretations of Gurbani by the Udasis and Nirmalae [9] which persist to the present day. It is unlikely that in any culture a group of celibate men are likely to celebrate the feminine. Therefore unsurprisingly androcentric interpretations of Gurbani have dominated where women are marginalized, and to date, the empowering message of gender equality within Sikh scripture appears to have been ‘lost in translation’.Despite the efforts of reformist movements such as the Singh Sabha towards gender equality, the influence of the Udasis and Nirmalae continue to prevail in Sikh institutions. Today, the unelected ”gate-keepers” of the Panth, such as the majority of the Jathedars of the Five Takhats and the Sant Samaj, have been educated within traditions that have historically been heavily influenced by the Udasis and Nirmalae.
  2. Work, land and property rights
    Historically Sikh identity has been conflated with Punjabi cultural identity. The Punjab, the wheat basket of India, is the richest state per capita within the union of the state of India, where the economic wealth has been derived from intensive agriculture [10]. From the period of the British Raj [11] and following Indian independence, Indian state-controlled economy permitted only agricultural use of land in the Punjab. A consequence of the subsequent absence of industrialization, is that work is predominantly tied to the land. The ownership of arable land is highly valued since it is indicative of wealth and potential earning-power, however women were denied access to land through inheritance until as recently as 2005 [12]. In the twentieth century as a consequence of changes in farming methods there was a general withdrawal of women from direct participation in agricultural work, men and women’s work lives became very separated, this further consolidated the existing rigid segregation along gender lines (purdah [13]) [14]. With the relegation of women’s work to within the home and their reduced contribution to family-income, this meant that women’s work was not valued and women themselves were less esteemed [15].The absence of other sources of employment and work has arisen out of successive state policies. During the British Raj the Punjab economy was limited to a dominantly agrarian role and the Indian state has continued to restrict Punjab to only agricultural production. This imposition of a prolonged agrarian economy is instrumental in creating and sustaining economic and social inequities. Education is not universally valued within the agrarian communities due to the absence of employment for the educated. Women as well as non-landowners in rural areas continue to be marginalized, since they are denied economic and political independence.
  3. Control over women’s bodies
    The role of a woman in any community is fraught, women as biological reproducers of national and ethnic communities are positioned as signifiers of national or ethnic difference; women’s mobility and sexuality is strictly monitored in times of crises, war and environmental disaster [16]. To ensure that boundaries of the nation are maintained, chastity and reproductivity is monitored and regulated. Throughout history, a strategy of war has included the raping and impregnating women of the other community; sending the message that men cannot protect their families, a form of symbolic emasculation [17].I have read absolutely no historical accounts of this happening during the British Raj, however I have listened to eyewitness accounts of how the women of whole villages would be raped on mass by British soldiers stationed nearby [18]. During and in the aftermath of the traumas of 1947 and 1984 this strategy of war was also adopted. For over ten years after the invasion of Darbar Sahib, women (the daughters, sisters and wives) of ”militants” (or those suggested to be militants) were routinely raped and paraded naked through their villages. In this context Cynthia Enloe’s statement that a woman is either ”an icon to be defended or a spoil of war to be denigrated” [19] is so apt.The aftershocks of these past traumas continue to haunt the community, and have contributed to how daughters are raised within extended families. Daughters as young children, teenagers and adults are highly policed by family members, where all their movements are regulated and monitored, this over-protectiveness in the worst case leads to violence against women. The internalized intergenerational messages, usually conveyed by women to daughters, of fear and anxiety surrounding the protection of ”honour”, result in a reluctance in women themselves to make any contributions in the public spheres of life. Although in the Diaspora Sikh women are very present in the public sphere of professional life they continue to be less visible in the public sphere of religious life.

The interplay of male domination in the public sphere of religious life with androcentric interpretations of scripture, together with structural, materialist inequities arising from successive state policies to restrict Punjab to an agrarian economy and the internalized messages and fears surrounding ”honour” have contributed to gender hierarchies within the Sikh communities.

In her groundbreaking works Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh has revisited the original texts of the Sikh canon and re-translated the texts with a greater consideration to gender [20]. No restructuring or reconstructing of Sikh theology is required to read a clear message extolling women within scripture. And although it may be questionable just how liberating the celebration of women in traditional gender roles is, being aware that, Sikh scripture does not sanction patriarchy [20], is a source of empowerment itself. In some areas of the Sikh Diaspora this reclaiming of Sikh feminism has already been occurring. In their ethnographic study of Sikh women, ”The Guru’s gift: an ethnography exploring gender equality with North American Sikh women”, Cynthia Mahmood and Stacy Brady [21], recount the lives of numerous Sikh women who have adopted Sikh doctrine through a process of self-knowledge and awareness. Mahmood and Brady suggest that these women are empowered by both the ”symbolic capital” of Sikhism (they are committed to Sikhi and the outward manifestations of this commitment) and the ”cultural capital” of the wider North American society. An example of this is Sikh women wearing the turban because of a progressive interpretation of Sikhi.

Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh advocates that Sikh tradition can be ”re-feminized” if women would: (i) change worship, (ii) read their own text, (iii) create new translations (iv) change rights of passage and (v) recognize re-feminization [3]. Each, individual woman is directed to implement these five interlinked behaviours, and through their presence in the public sphere of religious life Sikh women’s status would be elevated in other areas of their lives.

In 2003 when I read about how two Amritdhari GurSikh women had dared to try to contribute to the Sukhasan Sahib seva at Darbar Sahib [22] my initial reaction was that this was a futile gesture. There was so much gender discrimination in all aspects of life within the Sikh communities and to seek to change merely these outward aspects of Sikh practise was deflecting attention from the more sinister problems within the communities. However recently I have been able to observe just how much children are influenced by the imagery of the practise of Sikhi, how they readily try to imitateKirtania Jathas, using a toy piano and empty tins, try to do Chaur Di Seva using a toy wand and open any book written in the Gurmukhi script with ”WaheGuru, WaheGuru, WaheGuru Sahib Jio”. Children’s personalities are shaped so much by learnt behaviour and what they observe rather than what they are told to do. We, the Sikh community, are in so many respects children who are learning, perhaps we also need to be surrounded by role models of both genders. Perhaps we need to change our public practise of GurSikhi so that women would readily stand up to be counted and to contribute to seva and not be inhibited by fears of not being accepted?

mail.jpgI end this blog by stating that many of the ideas presented here, are merely that, just ideas, and that I seek the company of the Sangat to help me grow and learn.

The author lives in Toronto with her Sikh husband and son, both of whom she loves dearly. For over ten years she has worked in the highly discriminatory (in terms of gender, ethnicity, social background, economic status) environments of international physics research. She is one of the founding members of SAFAR, Institute for Sikh Feminist Research.

On Saturday 2nd April, 6-9pm, at Ontario Khalsa Darbar, 7080 Dixie Road, Mississaugua, Ontario, Canada there is going to be a panel discussion on the issue of Sikhi and gender (in)equality, all are welcome.


  1. In past three decades feminist theology, thealogy, has emerged mainly within the Christian, Jewish and Buddhist faiths. See for example, Gross, Rita M. Feminism and Religion: an Introduction., Boston: Beacon, 1996. Print.
  2. In this text I shall refer to the Sikh communities since there is immense diversity and richness in practise derived from difference in doctrine, historical or geographic origin. Much of the discussion is based around Punjabi history and the present state of affairs in Punjab, this is because the Sikh faith originated from the Punjab and the largest Sikh population is based in Punjab. However the Sikh faith is a universal religion and one of the most celebrated Sikh communities is native to North America.
  3. Singh, Nikky-Guninder Kaur.”Why Did I Not Light the Fire? The Refeminization of Ritual in Sikhism.”Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring, 2000), pp. 63-85. Print.
  4. Oldenburg, Veena Talwar. Dowry murder : the imperial origins of a cultural crime. Oxford. Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.
  5. Guilmoto, Christophe Z.. “Economic, Social and Spatial Dimensions of India’s Excess Child Masculinity.” Population, English Version 63.1 (2008): 91-116. Print.
  6. ”The numbers in the South Asian community in the Toronto area become much more skewed: 917 girls to 1,000 boys in the Toronto Central Metropolitan Area. Broken down further, it shows 904 girls to 1,000 boys in Mississauga, and 864 girls to 1,000 boys in Brampton.”
  7. Son preference, the desire for male off-spring manifests itself in many forms: preferential treatment of boys in terms of food, education and general attention, murder of female off-spring, and aborting a female fetus specifically because of its gender. Female feoticide is a serious problem, the Punjab has one of the lowest female to male ratio, with around 846 girls to have 1000 boys in the ages 0-6, this compares to 914, for the rest of India and 1060 girls in Europe and North America
  8. Singh, Nikky-Guninder Kaur.”Re-Imagining the Divine in Sikhism.” Feminist Theology May 2008 vol. 16 no. 3 332-349. Print.
  9. Mann, Gurinder Singh. “The Sikh Educational Heritage” in Studying the Sikhs: Issues for North America edited by Hawley, John Stratton and Mann, Gurinder Singh. SUNY Series in Religious Studies, State University of New York Press, 1993. Print.
  10. Deol, Harnik. Religion and Nationalism in India: the Case of the Punjab. London: Routledge, 2000. Print. Shiva, Vandana. The Violence of the Green Revolution: Ecological degradation and political conflict in Punjab. Zed Press, New Delhi, 1992. Print.
  11. ”[Punjab’s] economy became increasingly agrarian in an age of industry, producing food and raw materials for exports in Europe” from Oldenburg, Veena Talwar. Dowry murder : the imperial origins of a cultural crime. Oxford. Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.
  12. Land inheritance in India remained patrilineal until the 2005 Hindu Succession Act, previously women could inherit acquired land but not ancestral land. It is highly questionable whether women will actually exercise this right to inheritance.
  13. Literally translates as ”curtain”, purdah is sill pervasive throughout all aspects of life in the Punjab, all the social norms of dress, conduct, work etc are governed by a strict segregation along gender, in public a woman would not even acknowledge a male member of her own (extended) family in case it may be seen as a transgression of purdah; however purdah has experienced a gradual erosion, especially in the cities where anonymity is possible (See Pettigrew, Sharma).
  14. Agarwal B “”Bargaining” And Gender Relations: Within And Beyond The Household”, Feminist Economics, Volume 3, Number 1, 1 March 1997 , pp. 1-51(51); Sharma, U. Women, work and property in North-West India. London: Tavistock Publications. 1980; Pettigrew, Joyce J. M. Robber noblemen: A study of the political system of the Sikh Jats, Routledge & Kegan Paul (London and Boston) 1975
  15. Mies, Maria. ”Indian women in subsistence and agricultural labour.” Women, Work and Development, 12 1986
  16. Nagel, Joane. ”Masculinity and nationalism: gender and sexuality in the making of nations.” Ethnic and Racial Studies Volume 21, Issue 2, 1998, Pages 242-269. Print.
  17. There are the well-known cases of this stratagem of war being used in the Congo, the former Yugoslavia but only in 2008 have Germans started to openly talk about the violence against women towards the end of the Second World War ”Historians estimate that close to 2 million German women and girls were raped [by Soviet troops] in the closing months of the war, many repeatedly.”,1518,585779,00.html
  18. I mention this because often the British Raj is remembered, by some parts of the Sikh communities, with nostalgia, they recall it as a period with good law and order. Whereas the Muslim man, where every Muslim man personified those who had perpetrated the violence of 1947, was often despised for decades in families that had suffered during the Partition of 1947, no such hatred was directed towards the British.
  19. Enloe, C. Bananas, beaches and bases . Univ. of California Press. 1990. Print
  20. Singh, Nikky-Guninder Kaur. The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent. Cambridge [England: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.
  21. Mahmood, Cynthia Keppley., and Stacy Brady. The Guru’s Gift: an Ethnography Exploring Gender Equality with North American Sikh Women. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Pub., 2000. Print.

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14 Responses to “Is there political utility in Sikh The[a]logy?”

  1. deepa says:

    So kyon manda akiye…appears to be in texts only….no woman was ever made the leaders in the sikh samaaj. with the exception of one bibi Jagir Kaur…they were never able to be one of the gurus…. Udasis and nirmalaes played a role when they were in power…what happened to sikhs when Maharajas Ranjit singh, like Patiala ,nabha and kapurthala were in power…they were busy in their own kind of exploitations…nobody bothered actually about sikhi…as such…singhs first of all used to get clean shaven when they found British or Canadian visas in their hands…article is totall subjective ….lack of objective curisity leads to lakir ke faakir attitude….thousands of hindus were killed in punjab in 80s..twenty in my own small village…aiti maar payee kurllaane tain ki dard na aaya?

  2. kantay says:

    you are taking a text with it's own context and placing it in the context of post-modern critique. Look at the language used. How do you suppose to speak to the text of the Granth from the point of view of post-modern inflected english and somehow remain within the original context? Maybe you can but it's hard to see.

    The points you raise are not in contention by the above, and the implicit goal of liberation from discrimination and injustice seem quite sound.

  3. Rajinder Singh says:

    In all patriachial societies the role of females are that of subservients.Only now in the last 100/150 yrs have the women in the west started asserting themselves and gained some equality.The reference to gurbani or any other religious text are only diversions,the real reasons are economic as the write has alluded.It is very important that women of all/any religious group gain economic freedom from their male controllers,only then they can start working on other facets of gender equality.It is sad to say that sikh women are lagging far behind other ethnic groups in this endevour.

  4. jagjitsinghdhatt says:

    Short answer : no

    Long Answer: of course not

  5. Naseeb Kaur says:

    Fantastic piece Tarnjit, I really enjoyed reading it. two things:

    The comment above about taking a text from its own context, and placing it within a postmodern critique, is not entirely sound. In fact, if postmodernism is a movement that is to go beyond meta-narrative, unraveling the meta-narratives within Sikh imagination about Sikh women is a worthy goal.

    The other issue that is absent from Sikh dialogues in west about Sikh women is that we often characterize women as a monolithic category, therefor not looking at inherant complexities and differentiate Sikh women, such as class, education, age, birthing/non birthing, place of birth. All of these factors also means that Sikh women themselves are a highly differentiated category, though I believe understanding their lived experience all these groups and how it relates to the Gurus message is a worthy goal.

    More power to you sister.


  6. kantay says:

    "In fact, if postmodernism is a movement that is to go beyond meta-narrative, unraveling the meta-narratives within Sikh imagination about Sikh women is a worthy goal. "

    What does this mean?

    There might be relevance for the post-modern critique, but that critique is from a philosophical system with its own history of development and assumptions. There may be some similiarities to gurbani, but also differenes. If you find deconstruction and post-modern critique of religion usueful, more power to you. But it's not Gurbani-based. Are you writing for people interested in a post-modern critique of the sikh religion and punjabi culture while maintaining a broad sympathy to those who identify and act within those terms? Or are you speaking from within the sikh religion and culture and using the terms of reference and the basic philosphic underpinnings of those systems?

    Neither would be wrong or better, but it seems to me clear the article above is primarily a deconstruction of the prevailing hegemonies within the sikh religion praxis and within punjabi culture.

    Right on.

  7. kantay says:

    all this is simply my opinion btw

  8. kantay says:

    The idea of translation is interesting here too because one assumes that the original language is not useful, but must be translated correctly. There is already an acknowledging that the option of simply reading the Gurbani in the original is not even to be attempted. What is to be done is a translation that rights earlier wrongs, or in some way re-represents the original text.

    Is it that there is an underlying conviction that removed of all the influences cited above, and others, we would have a sikhi that is more feminine, and that this is more in line with what is correct/just/the truth? Is that in the service of ameliorating social injustice or in creating a more profound understanding of what gurbani is trying to tell us? Or both?

  9. kantay says:

    Its just kind of jarring to think that post-modernism – a philosophy in which objective truth is very much cast into doubt as being in anyway possible, is being used to posit that "unwrapping the meta narrative" will lead to a greater understanding of an objective truth within Sikhi. I think most of the posts here come from a perspective of far greater faculty with post-modern critique/the critical inquiry than they have with sikhi as a philosophic system. Meaning the ability of posters to write from a perspective informed by a thorough understanding of gurbani from which they then convey their ideas is much more limited than their ability to write from a critical theory/post modern perspective.

  10. kantay says:

    e.g. how much reference is made to the actual text of gurbani (in the gurmuhki and with whatever translation the author would deem appropriate?) in the post? In my reading, not much. Is the Granth cited as a reference? Are we being asked specifically to refer to the text? For a religion in which the text is considered Guru, paying attention to the actual text would seem to be quite important.

    Critical theory can be quite effective and this article basically provides what any broad-minded and sympathetic examination of the sikh religion would provide in an academic paper. We've all read this kind of thing and thought it was right on, because we all have been educated in a similar tradition. You can read this entire paper and not really have much sense at all as to what gurbani/the text we are supposedly working within , really has to say in this area.

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