The Empowerment of Women
Sn. Jessi Kaur
“From woman, man is born; within woman, man is conceived; to woman he is engaged and married.Woman becomes his friend; through woman, the future generations come.When his woman dies, he seeks another woman; to woman he is bound. So why call her bad? From her, kings are born. From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all.” SGGS P 473
In the 14th century Guru Nanak spoke of woman as the nucleus of life with pivotal roles in man’s existence, while women subsisted in the shadow of man’s prejudicial dominance. Guru Nanak made a radical call not just for gender equality but for empowerment and a rightful place in society. Five hundred years later, women have made strides towards owning their power, yet there is a huge divide between aspiration and reality. I attempt to highlight the positive shifts and the obstacles and in particular upon the challenges faced by Sikh women in the Diaspora.
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Empowerment of Women
By Jessi Kaur
Bhand jamiye bhand nimmiye, bhand mangan veaho.
Bhando hovey dosti, bhando challe raho.
Bhand mua bhand bhaliye, bhand hove bandhaan.
So kyon mandaaakhieay jit jamme raajan
Bhando hi bhand upje
Bhande baajh na koay
Nanak bhande bahra, eko sacha soay.
– SGGS P. 413
From woman, man is born;
Within woman, man is conceived; to woman he is engaged and married.
Woman becomes his friend; through woman, the future generations come.
When his woman dies, he seeks another woman; to woman he is bound.
Don’t condemn her, she births the royals you revere.
From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all. O Nanak, only the True Lord is without a woman.
When Guru Nanak pronounced the above words, he made a radical call not just for the equality of women, but for a social order in which women would be front and center; in which their role as wife, mother, companion, nurturer, leader was appreciated, and they were held in high esteem.
In the fifteenth century, women were relegated to an inferior position. Neither religion, nor the prevalent law accorded women equal rights to men. They played a subservient role at home, in society as well as in social and religious ceremonies. Child- marriage was customary, Sati, the practice of women burning themselves on their husband’s pyre was common and widow remarriage prohibited. Dowry was widely prevalent.
S.S. Kohli in Philosophy of Guru Nanak (1969) states: “The Hindus considered the woman a very inferior thing, a sort of possession and a device for sexual pleasure. She was kept in purdah and within the four walls of the house. The freedom given to women in Vedic times and her status in society of that age was utterly forgotten. Guru Nanak could not tolerate the sad plight of Indian women.”
In Guru Nanak’s vision of social justice sexist norms that undervalued the equality of women had to be uprooted. Child marriage, sati, purdah and dowry were terrible inequities perpetuated against women. Guru Nanak challenged the patriarchal culture that was responsible for many of the ills including considering women unclean during menstruation and after child birth. He condemned the killing of the female fetus, censured the practice of dowry and sati, opened the doors of higher education to women and encouraged their participation in religious and social ceremonies.
Guru Nanak’s proclamation that only God exists outside of a woman’s creative and nurturing power was revolutionary. In one fell sweep it ripped the prejudices against women, and put them on a pedestal. In The Sisters of the Spinning Wheel, Professor Puran Singh, commenting on the core of Guru Nanak’s mission to ensure a rightful place for women said: “A Divine sovereignty is conferred upon her (woman).”
Building on Guru Nanak’s initiative of upliftment of women and the development of a socially just society, the subsequent Gurus encouraged and solicited the participation of women in religious and educational institutions. During the period of Guru Angad women took active roles in sangat (religious congregations) and pangat (community kitchen). Under the patronage of the Gurus they became community organizers, educators, and even heads of religious centers.
Guru Ram Das gave the institution of marriage a new significance.
Dhan pir eh na akhiyan behn ikatthe hoe.
Ek jot doey murti, dhan pir kahiye soe.
SGGS P 788
“Call them not husband and wife who only dwell together. Those that shine as one light in two bodies are to be deemed as husband and wife.”
According to Guru Ram Das marriage was a spiritual partnership between two individuals who were aligned in purpose and supported each other’s endeavors.
The enduring activism of the Sikh Gurus was marked by women engaged in leadership roles in various fields. Women in the immediate families of the Gurus became role models. History records the devotion, dedication, and active engagement in Sikh affairs of Mata Khivi, Bibi Amro, Bibi Bhani, Mata Ganga, and Mata Gujri. The inspirational legend of Mai Bhago who rode along with other women into the battlefield to stand up against the tyranny of the Moghuls points to the skills and expertise of women in archery and horsemanship. Essentially the Sikh Gurus challenged male/female stereotypes and created space and legitimacy for women to take up positions in multiple fields.
Guru Nanak and the subsequent Gurus exalted women in yet another way. In Sri Guru Granth Sahib the outpouring of love for the Divine is captured in the metaphor of a wedded woman’s love for her husband, or the yearning of the soul-bride for her true love. Nikki Guninder Kaur Singh in Feminine Principal in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent (1993) and Prabhjot Kaur in Women Liberation –Through the prism of Sikh Faith (2015) have explored in depth the feminine perspective in Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
Prabhjot Kaur expounds upon three kinds of women mentioned in Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Kuchaji (one without merit), suchaji (one with merits) and Gunvanti (full of virtues). The Divine is enchanted only by the gunvanti who is held up as a role model for humanity. The kuchaji is condemned and suchaji has to evolve to gunvanti; a woman empowered by her goodness. She is a selfless mother, a nurturer; she is humble, contented, compassionate and forgiving. Gunvanti creates harmony in her household and is a spiritual guide for her family; powerful and dignified she is the princess and the queen whose beauty shines through her virtues, who is second to no male yet never compromises her humility. Men and women alike are urged to take on the qualities of gunvanti to woo the Divine.
On the temporal plane, right through post Maharaja Ranjit Singh period Sikh women flourished as shining examples incorporating the Sikh model of Sant Sipahi put forth by Guru Gobind Singh.
Tremendous progress was made in establishing gender equality and women took on important socio-religious positions. However, the dominant mainstream culture of India with its powerful caste system and strong patriarchal roots continued to exert its influence. Social change is not sustainable without constant vigilance. Five hundred years after Guru Nanak’s clarion call for equality, women still face violence, discrimination, and a strong resistance to equal participation in society. Many of the evil practices that the Gurus sought to demolish are back. Female infanticide has reached shocking numbers in Punjab. Ultra sound clinics that determine the sex of the fetus solely for the elimination of female fetus are flourishing. The sexist practice of dowry continues unabated. It puts a huge burden on the less affluent, and is the root cause of bride burning. The old patriarchal traditions continue the overt and covert subjugation of women. Violence against women in the form of rape, domestic violence, double standards at home and in communities is still wide spread. Shockingly discrimination against women is most glaringly practiced in Harmandir Sahib where women are disallowed to perform Kirtan. This is appalling and totally against the equal participation of women in religious services advocated by Guru Nanak.
Punjab is but a microcosm of the world and reflects a wider landscape ridden with violation of women’s rights across the world. In 1993, the UN General Assembly passed a declaration on the elimination of violence against women. And yet more than 20 years later the facts and figures of violence against women are appalling. When Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 girls from their school, the world was horrified, but the villainous perpetrators have not been apprehended. The religious police of Saudi Arabia dictate the socio-cultural milieu of the land, and women who disobey are administered horrific punishment. These two examples of injustice against women expose only the tip of the iceberg. The plight of millions of women around the world remains pitiful.Heifer International (www.heifer.org) an East African non-profit organization claims that 70% of the world’s poor and two thirds of the world’s illiterates are women. They own only 1% of the world’s property.
In the US, the most progressive nation in the world, women are paid less than men, an intangible but real glass ceiling keeps them from rising to the upper most rungs of corporate and public life; and even though the number of rapes has declined, domestic violence is still widespread.
No amount of legislation can rid the world of aggression against women. While it is important to put strict punitive consequences for violence against women, and not sweep the problem under the rug, a lasting change and systemic reform is not sustainable without continued effort to keep it fueled in the hearts and minds of people. Investing in women’s and girls’ education is one of the most effective tools to promote equality for women. Cultural mores that perpetuate sexist roles at home must be vigilantly avoided. Youth must be sensitized about the social, economic, psychological, and the potential of horrific consequences of dowry. Affluent members of the community must set an example by holding simple rather than ostentatious weddings.
Women must take the lead in their own empowerment. All mothers must teach their sons from an early age to respect women. They must also instill high self esteem in their daughters. Fathers need to teach respect for women by their own example. Every woman must think ahead and work towards creating financial independence. She must from an early age learn to make independent decisions.
It’s time to put Guru Nanak’s vision of gender equality, social justice, and respect and dignity for women in action. The journey has to begin in every home. Without equality and empowerment of women, the world will continue to short change itself.
Sisters of the Spinning Wheel 1921) Professor Puran Singh
Philosophy of Guru Nanak (1969) S.S. Kohli
Feminine Principal in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent (1993) Nikki Guninder Kaur Singh
Women Liberation –Through the prism of Sikh Faith (2015) Prabhjot Kaur
About the Author
Jessi Kaur – Author of highly acclaimed children’s books. Editor of Sikhpoint.com. A theater aficionado, she produced The Royal Falcon Musical, the first ever Sikh musical of its kind. She has traveled extensively to deliver workshops and seminars at international conferences and Sikh youth camps. She has been an invited speaker on Sikh tradition and culture in several interfaith and multicultural events including the Smithsonian and the Parliament of World’s Religions in Barcelona and Melbourne.