Sikh history has prominently recorded the role of women, portraying them as equal in service, devotion, sacrifice, and bravery, to men. Examples of various women's moral dignity, service, and self sacrifice are a source of inspiration to the Sikhs.
According to Sikhism, man and woman are two sides of the same coin of the human race, a system of interrelation and inter-dependence in which man takes birth from a woman, and woman is born of a man. Also, according to Sikhism a man can never feel secure and complete during his life without a woman, and a man's success depends upon the love and support of the woman who shares her life with him, and vice-versa . The founder of Sikhism, Sri Guru Nanak Dev ji, reportedly said in 1499 that "[it] is a woman who keeps the race going" and that we should not "consider woman (sic) cursed and condemned,/[when] from woman (sic) are born leaders and rulers."
Sikhs, therefore, have had an obligation to treat women as equals, and gender discrimination in Sikh society has not been allowed. However, gender equality has been difficult to achieve.
With the advent of Sikhism appeared a liberating force in Indian society. Affirmation of the dignity of the human being, male as well as female, was central to Guru Nanak's teaching. His mystical vision of the immanence of the Creator in all of His creation was concertized in a forceful enunciation of the gospel of equality. Guru Nanak said that all creatures were equal before God and that to make distinctions among them on the grounds of birth or sex was sinful. For women especially, he had many bold and sympathetic words to say. Quoted most often in this respect are verses from Asa ki Var, a long composition sung in sangat in the morning service. In it, Guru Nanak expresses extreme respect and admiration for women, "of whom great men are born".
"The impurity of the mind is greed, and the impurity of the tongue is falsehood. The impurity of the eyes is to gaze upon the beauty of another man's wife, and his wealth. The impurity of the ears is to listen to the slander of others. O Nanak, the mortal's soul goes, bound and gagged to the city of Death. ||2|| All impurity comes from doubt and attachment to duality. Birth and death are subject to the Command of the Lord's Will; through His Will we come and go."(GG, 472)
As against celibacy and renunciation, Guru Nanak recommended grhastha — the life of a householder, in which husband and wife were equal partners. Fidelity was enjoined upon both. In the sacred verse, domestic felicity was presented as a cherished ideal and conjugal life provided a running metaphor for the expression of love for the Divine. Bhai Gurdas ji, poet of early Sikhism and authoritative interpreter of Sikh doctrine, pays high tribute to womankind. He says, "A woman, is the favourite in her parental home, loved dearly by her father and mother. In the home of her in-laws, she is the pillar of the family, the guarantee of its good fortune... Sharing in spiritual wisdom and enlightenment and with noble qualities endowed, a woman, the other half of man, escorts him to the door of liberation." (Varan, V.16)
To ensure equal status for women, the Gurus made no distinction between the sexes in matters of initiation, instruction or participation in sangat, holy fellowship, and pangat, commensality. According to Sarup Das Bhalla, Mahima Prakash, Guru Amar Das disfavoured the use of veil by women. He assigned women to the responsibility of supervising the communities of disciples in certain sectors, and preached against the custom of sati. Sikh history records the names of several ladies such as Mai Bhago, Mata Sundari, Rani Sahib Kaur, Rani Sada Kaur and Maharani Jind Kaur who played a leading role in the events of their time and left their imprint on them. In the tumultuous decades of the eighteenth century when Sikhs went through fierce persecution, the women's display of steadfastness are to this day recounted morning and evening for their heroism and sacrifice by the Sikhs in their ardas:
"Our mothers and sisters they repeat every time in their prayer, who plied handmills in the jails of Mannu [the Mughal governor of Lahore (1748-53)], grinding daily a maund-and-a-quarter of corn each, who saw their children being hacked to pieces in front of their eyes, but who uttered not a moan from their lips and remained steadfast in their Sikh faith—recall their spirit of fortitude and sacrifice, and say, Vahiguru, Glory be to God!"
Even in those days of severe trial and suffering, Sikhs were guided in their treatment of the womenfolk of enemy captured in battle by the highest standards of chivalry. They showed towards them utmost respect. In 1763, for instance, one of Ahmad Shah Durrani’s generals, Jahan Khan, was defeated by the Sikhs at Sialkot and a number of his female relations and dependants fell into their hands. Ali ud-Din writes in his Ibratnamah, "as the Sikhs of old would not lay their hands on women, they had them escorted safely to Jammu."
Another Muslim chronicler, Ghulam Muhaiy ud-Din, vituperates against the Sikhs in his Fatuhat Namah-i-Samadi, but notices the esteem they had for women. He writes, "[The Sikhs] look upon all women in the light of mothers." This had been how a Sikh was defined by Bhai Gurdas a century earlier. He said, "A Sikh casting his eyes upon the beautiful womenfolk of families other than his own regards them as his mothers, sisters and daughters."
Such being the respect for womanhood among the Sikhs, monogamy has been the rule for them, and polygamy a rare exception. Female infanticide is prohibited. The Rahitnamas, codes of conduct, prohibit Sikhs from having any contact or relationship with those who indulge in this practice. As for sati widow-burning, Scripture itself rejects it.
In a shabad (hymn) in measure Suhi, Guru Amar Das says,
"Satis are not those that burn themselves on the husband's funeral pyre; satis are they, O Nanak, who die of the pangs of separation (GG, 787)"
Stanza follows: "They, too be reckoned satis who live virtuously and contentedly in the service of the Lord, ever cherishing Him in their hearts... Some burn themselves along with their dead husbands: [but they need not, for] if they really loved them they would endure the pain alive."
As a practical step towards discouraging the practice of sati, Sikhism permitted remarriage of widows. In the present-day democratic politics of India, women as a whole have been rid of many of their disabilities. They all enjoy political franchise and many new opportunities for advancement have opened up for them. Sikh women have shown enterprise in several fields and are among the most progressive in education and in the professions such as teaching and medicine. In the Sikh system, they are the equals of men in all respects. They can lead congregational services and participate in akhand paths, uninterrupted readings of scripture to be accomplished within forty-eight hours. They vote with men periodically to elect Sikhs' central religious body, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, which administers their places of worship.
Another famous woman is Bebe Nanaki Ji, the elder and the only sister of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, said to be a highly intelligent, spiritually awake, and pious lady who recognised the divine light in her brother and envisaged his mission of life before anyone else could perceive it; she did not treat him just as a brother but also respected him as she would a Guru, supporting him throughout her life. Her brother would become known as a revolutionary who had come to redeem people from misconception and superstition.
In the dominant Western religion of Christianity, God created man, and then woman out of man's rib. Eve, the first woman persuades Adam to eat the forbidden apple, thus committing the world's first sin, a landmark recognized as the fall of mankind.1 The implied inferiority and corrupting influence of women in the Bible appear to justify their second rate treatment in Western society.
Guru Nanak condemned this man-made notion of the inferiority of women, and protested against their long subjugation. The Ultimate Truth was revealed to Guru Nanak through a mystic experience, in direct communion with God. Guru Nanak conveys this Truth through the bani, Sikh Scripture. It first argues against the sexist sentiments of the pompous man about the necessity of women :
"In a woman man is conceived, From a woman he is born, With a woman he is betrothed and married, With a woman he contracts friendship. Why denounce her, the one from whom even kings are born ? From a woman a woman is born, None may exist without a woman." 5
The fundamental analogy used in the bani depicts the relationship between God and man, and proves that the physical body does not matter. The bani parallels all human beings (men and women) to the woman or wife, and God to the man or husband. 6 This means that every person is a sohagan - a woman who is the beloved of the Lord - whether they have the body of a man or woman. Because the human body is transitory, the difference between man and woman is only transitory, and as such superficial. 7 Thus, according to Sikh ideology, all men and women possess equal status. All human beings, regardless of gender, caste, race, or birth, are judged only by their deeds.
With this assertion, the Sikh Gurus invited women to join the sangat (congregation), work with men in the langar (common kitchen), and participate in all other religious, social, and cultural activities of the gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship). The Gurus redefined celibacy as marriage to one wife and taught that male and female alike need to practice conjugal fidelity. They advocated marriage of two equal partners. Guru Amar Das, the third guru, wrote :
"Only they are truly wedded who have one spirit in two bodies." 8
Guru Amar Das also condemned purdah, the wearing of the veil, and female infanticide. He spoke against the custom of sati, thus permitting the remarriage of widows. 9 Out of 146 chosen, the Guru appointed 52 women missionaries to spread the message of Sikhism, and out of 22 Manjis established by the Guru for the preaching of Sikhism, four were women.10 The steps the Gurus took to advocate the equality of women, revolutionized the tradition of Indian society. As they began to partake in social, religious, and political affairs, their contribution and worth as equal partners of men became more obvious.
However, the Guru's teachings of equality have never been fully realized, which is clearly evident in the treatment of women even in the Sikh society today. Either because of the influence of the majority community on the Sikh minority or the Sikh male's unwillingness to give up his dominant role, women continue to suffer prejudices. A woman has never been elected as the president of Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (the Central Management Committee to manage the affairs of the Gurdwaras in the Punjab)(this changed in 2005), or as the head of any of the five Takhats (the thrones of authority). 11 Indian society discriminates against women in workplaces, and denies them the right to fight on the battlefield. People measure a woman's value as a bride by the size of her dowry, not necessarily by her character and integrity. Alice Basarke, a free-lance writer, sadly realizes, "After 500 years head start, Sikh Women are no better off than their counterparts in any other religion or nation."12
The women were not only relegated to their households, they were literally under the control of men from cradle to grave. They were compelled to observe Purdah. Sati was expected at the death of the spouse in some castes or permanent widowhood in others even in the case of very young widows. Widowhood meant destitution at best, social rejection and lifelong loneliness. The birth of a daughter was viewed with disdain and sorrow and female infanticide rampant. The birth of a boy was celebrated lavishly but that of a girl meant scorn and blame by the in-laws. Women and girls’ health was poor due to frequent childbirth coerced by husband and in-laws till the birth of a male heir occurred for the former and sheer neglect of health care and nutrition of the latter. The Laws of Manu still maintain a powerful hold over Indian Society today in overt and covert fashions. Women are expected to dress modestly, and wear no make-up. Also they are expected to cover their head as a sign of respect. They manifest as such in present societal mores and attitudes.(article on Laws of Manu as applies to women). These affect as much the modern Punjabi as well as Hindu societies. (This article a blessing for boys and girls are killed)Many of the same conditions that plague women in Indian society described above still exist today in many villages and city centers.
Under Islamic rule women fared no better. Hindu women and children were enslaved and force-marched by their captors to be sold on the markets of Persia, Afghanistan and sent further to Arabia and Africa. Muslim women had some limited rights under Muslim law but functioned primarily in the home.
It is against such a backdrop that the Gurus implemented reform via their missions and tackled prevalent issues in their teachings.
This passage offers a powerful rejection of mistreatment of women:
"We are conceived in woman, We are born to woman. It is to woman we get engaged, and then get married. Woman is our lifelong companion, And pillar of our survival. It is through woman, that we establish social relationships. Why should we denounce her, When even kings and great men are born from her?" (P. 473 SGGS Guru Nanak)
Guru Amar Das abolished the tradition of Sati and Purdah and indeed refused to have an audience with ladies that kept Purdah. He established religious centers and women alongside men were recruited to lead and teach. Women worked alongside the men in maintaining the Guru’s kitchen, performing all duties and sitting side by side the men folk in Pangat.
Guru Angad strongly encouraged the education of women.
Women swelled the ranks in spreading the message of the Gurus as missionaries. By the time of Guru Gobind Singh, 40% of them were women.
With the birth of the Khalsa the last of the barriers of caste and gender oppression had been smashed. Women though continuing their roles of mothers and wives were forever changed. They were lifted up and given the same Amrit at the side of their brothers. The same rules that applied to them to follow the Khalsa way applied to them. They were granted the same 5 K’s. Guru Gobind Singh's encouragement of women to keep even shastars symbolized that he did not envision her role in society as being that of a "nice, meek housewife," but rather that of a fearless, active, independent warrior, involved in the world.
At the time of SHRI Guru Gobind Singh ji, women who were literally and legally possessions of their husbands in Europe and in the American colonies, women who had no voice in administration in Europe, the Americas or India were now orators, teachers, warriors, and administrators and participated in the Guru’s kitchen. Shri Guru Gobind Singh ji’s wife Mata Sundri ji led the Khalsa Panth for many years after passing of the tenth Guru. Jathedar Sada Kaur along with Maharaja Ranjit Singh made possible the formation of the Sikh Empire. She gave her contribution to the Amrit, sweet Patashey so that the disposition of the Sikhs would be also sweet.
After Shri Guru Gobind Singh ji the situation of not only women but also lower castes had deteriorated as people regained the old ways of caste and the oppression of women. The old habits and attitudes as you read in the laws of Manu continue in some form or another to ensnare the Sikh religion as castiest infiltration regained a foothold during the 19th century at times worse than it is in Hinduism especially casteism.
In regard to dowry:
"O my Lord, give me thy name as my wedding gift and dowry." Shri Guru Ram Das ji, Page 78, line 18 SGGSji
"Any other dowry offered is a valueless display of false pride and of no earthly use." Shri Guru Ram Das ji, Page 79, line 2
In regard to marriage:
"They are not called husband and wife who merely sit together Rather they alone are called husband and wife who have one soul in two bodies." In regard to the odious practice of Sati:
"A Sati is not she, who burns herself on the pyre of her spouse. Nanak, a Sati is she, who dies with the sheer shock of separation (from God). Yea, the Sati is one who lives contended and embellishes herself with good conduct (rather than jewels and dress) And cherishing her Lord ever calls on Him each morning. The women burn themselves on the pyres of their lords, If they love their spouses well, they suffer the pangs of separation. (moh) She who loves not her spouse, why burns she herself in fire? For, be he alive or dead she owns him not (only God does)" Page 787,13, SGGSji Guru Amar Das ji)
Shri Guru Hargobind singh ji called woman "the conscience of man" without whom moral living was impossible. Child marriage was discouraged and the practice of female infanticide, which had been strongly discouraged, was severely banned. Shri Guru Gobind Singh ji enshrined in the Khalsa code of conduct for his Khalsa, male or female not to have social conduct, relations or marriage to those who kill their daughters. This Hukam is always told in any Amrit Sanchaar.
Regarding the practice of Purdah:
"Stay, stay, O daughter-in-law - do not cover your face with a veil. In the end, this shall not bring you even half a shell. The one before you used to veil her face; do not follow in her footsteps. The only merit in veiling your face is that for a few days, people will say, "What a noble bride has come". Your veil shall be true only if you skip, dance and sing the Glorious praises of the Lord (P. 484, SGGSji, Kabeer)
Women and indeed all souls were strongly encouraged to lead a spiritual life:
"Come, my dear sisters and spiritual companions; hug me close in your embrace. Let's join together, and tell stories of our All-powerful Husband Lord."-Guru Nanak, pg 17, Shri Guru Granth Sahib ji.