Women and Sikh Philosophy
Women, have since antiquity been symbols of love, faith, honor, motherhood, strength, and devotion. Nature has bestowed women with many aspects to her physical and psychological being that make her different from men. These differences between genders ought to be celebrated, and it is because of these differences that men and women are inherently unequal. However, despite natural inequality, should women not be treated as fairly as men? Historically this has not been the case, and even today we have to wonder if women are truly respected and treated fairly in their homes, workplace, social settings, and overall society. When contemplating what to write about on the topic of women and Gurmat I could not help but notice that there is a wide gap between Guru Nanak Sahib Ji’s ideology of how they ought to be treated, and how it is actually practiced today. While I am saddened by this realization, as many of you may be, I hope to highlight in this article what some of the reasons for this may be, and how change may be insinuated.
The exalted status that Guru Nanak Sahib Ji gave women in the 15th century was nothing short of revolutionary at a time when they were oppressed and considered inferior to men. Horrific social practices at this time, were actually crimes against women. Sati, a custom in the Hindu tradition encouraged and even forced women to burn alive and die on the funeral pyre of their husbands. Parda, a social practice prevalent in the Muslim communities compelled women to cover themselves in front of men for the sake of modesty. The practice of Jauhar was common during Guru Nanak Sahib Ji’s time as well in which queens and female royals burned themselves alive when their kingdom faced defeat at the hands of an enemy. Further, in many Indian communities women were considered impure since they menstruate, and particularly during their menstruation were forbidden entry into temples and participation in religious practices. Guru Nanak Sahib Ji emphasized that purity was a spiritual state in which one’s mind is filled with love of virtue, as opposed to mere physical cleanliness. On Ank 472 of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji he writes:
ਜਿਉ ਜੋਰੂ ਸਿਰਨਾਵਣੀ ਆਵੈ ਵਾਰੋ ਵਾਰ ॥ As a woman has her periods, month after month,
ਜੂਠੇ ਜੂਠਾ ਮੁਖਿ ਵਸੈ ਨਿਤ ਨਿਤ ਹੋਇ ਖੁਆਰੁ ॥ so does falsehood dwell in the mouth of the false; they suffer forever, again and again.
ਸੂਚੇ ਏਹਿ ਨ ਆਖੀਅਹਿ ਬਹਨਿ ਜਿ ਪਿੰਡਾ ਧੋਇ ॥ They are not called pure, who sit down after merely washing their bodies.
ਸੂਚੇ ਸੇਈ ਨਾਨਕਾ ਜਿਨ ਮਨਿ ਵਸਿਆ ਸੋਇ ॥੨॥ Only they are pure, O Nanak, within whose minds the Lord abides. ||2||
Centuries after Guru Nanak Sahib Ji’s time, I cannot help but wonder how much we have advanced in our perception and expectation of how women should behave and be treated. Prevalent today in many homes where a daughter resides is the obligation to give some form of dowry when she gets married. The converse is also true; where families of sons still often expect some form of dowry from the parents of their daughter-in-law to be. In families where there are mainly or only female children, a sense of pathos, pity, and helplessness is often projected by friends, relatives and the parents themselves. Moreover, female children are seldom considered rightful inheritors along with male siblings of their parents’ wealth. This promotes the idea that she is less important than her male siblings and supports the concept of her being considered “pariah dhan.” If property, wealth, and the responsibility of parents’ care was divided equally among children irrespective of their gender, perhaps there would be less cause for lament, for those that feel so, when daughters are born. On Ank 605 of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, Guru Ram Das Ji writes:
ਸਭਿ ਘਟ ਆਪੇ ਭੋਗਵੈ ਪਿਆਰਾ ਵਿਚਿ ਨਾਰੀ ਪੁਰਖ ਸਭੁ ਸੋਇ ॥
The Beloved Himself enjoys every heart; He is contained within every woman and man.
In light of this Shabad, if God is truly contained equally in every woman and man, then why are women treated and perceived so differently than men? Self-reflection is the foundation of Sikh Philosophy and is necessary for change to occur. Guru Arjan Sahib Ji emphasizes the importance of self-reflection in his shabad on Ank 259, ਰੋਸੁ ਨ ਕਾਹੂ ਸੰਗ ਕਰਹੁ ਆਪਨ ਆਪੁ ਬੀਚਾਰਿ ॥ which means “Do not be angry with anyone else; look within your own self instead.” Some important questions to ponder in order to foster change within ourselves are what are the expectations we have of women in our lives? How many of those expectations are simply because they are a woman? What choices can we make that showcase women as having inherent worth? What can we change in our thought process and behavior in order to treat women with respect, and fairness? How can they be more included in conversations and settings that are male-dominated? How can we teach women in our own personal spheres to see their femininity as a gift rather than as an aspect that limits them?
I personally believe that change begins with the self, whether we are hopeful of seeing it in our families, social circle, community, or world. The reason why there is still a gap between Guru Nanak Sahib Ji’s teachings on many subjects in life, and the way they are practiced, is because somewhere down the road (and not very far along) people stopped reflecting on what is right and instead went along with the social norms prevalent in society. Perhaps a pivotal question that we must ask ourselves at this stage is do we want to live in a world that is more just, safe, and non-discriminating? We play a role in the world being or not being a certain way and have the capability to commit to different perceptions and different behavior. Benefitting from this change are not just our mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters but our fathers, brothers, husbands and sons too, since learning how to respect each other is at the heart of what it means to be a good human being.
Kamal Deep Kaur