It is apparent to those with any knowledge of Punjab’s history and culture that there are fundamental differences between Sikh teachings and some of the less enlightened social practices on the sub continent. This is particularly noticeable in attitudes to the status of women in society, and we will deal with them separately.
Around the time of the birth of the Sikh Guru; Nanak in 1469AD, in Punjab, India as in other parts of the sub continent, it was customary to discriminate against women, regardless of caste. In 15th Century Indian society, female infanticide was all too common. Dowry was a massive burden on the bride’s parents and murdering daughters, if dowry could not be amassed was common practice. Sati, the voluntary/involuntary burning of the widow on the funeral pyre of her husband was encouraged by society. The status of women was low; references would be made to women as ‘having her brain in her ankles’. Women were not eligible for any social positions, and declared to be intrinsically impure and unfit, therefore ineligible to listen to sacred texts and religious sermons. And female infanticide or foeticide was fairly common.
Guru Nanak’s condemnation of discrimination against women
Guru Nanak directly challenged the existing discrimination. He did this by liberating all women, declaring equality between men and women for the first time in this part of Indian society. His teachings were against rituals or customs that discriminated against women. He did not consider women in any way impure and/or evil, and his teachings reinforced this. He recorded many bold compositions in praise of women: “Of woman are we born, of woman conceived; to woman engaged, to woman married. Women are befriended, by woman is the civilisation continued. When woman dies, woman is sought for. It is by woman that the entire social order is maintained. Then why call her evil of whom great men are born?” (Asa ki Var, Guru Granth Sahib).
To ensure equal status for women, the Guru made no distinction between the sexes in matters of initiation, instruction or participation in congregation. The Sikh Guru’s forbade female infanticide in their code of conduct for Sikhs, prohibiting Sikhs from having any contact or relationship with those who indulge in this practise: “With the slayers of daughters. Whosoever has social contact; him do I curse”. And again, “Whosoever takes food from the slayers of daughters, Shall die unabsolved” (Guru Gobind Singh, Rehat nameh, pp.385. Cunningham, J.D. History of the Sikhs. 1st Publ: 1849). Accessed: [page 8, MPSA_Booklet_24_5_10.indd 11, 24/05/2010, 09:50]
Long before Lord William Bentick declared Sati illegal (Madras Regulation 1 of 1829 Bengal), the 3rd Sikh Guru made a seminal pronouncement by annulling the draconic requirement of the cremation of the living wife on her husband’s funeral pyre. He also encouraged widow re-marriage: “A virtuous wife is not one who burns Herself alive with her dead husband. She, indeed, would be a sati who dies through Shock of separation. But, says Nanak, a True Sati is she who bears the shock of Separation with courage and lives her natural Span of life in a disciplined, dignified and virtuous manner.” (Guru Granth Sahib, pp. 787)
Sikhism postulated equality between the sexes and the promotion of an egalitarian society. The Sikh Guru’s abolished the need for dowries, and over 400 years ago appointed and ordained a large number of women preachers, and that at least one woman was ordained and appointed as a Sikh bishop; Mathura Devi.
The Sikh stance is a remarkable phenomenon in the history of world-religions and marks a new insight into the innate capacities of women in relation to the highest spheres of human activity. [page 9, MPSA_Booklet_24_5_10.indd 12, 24/05/2010, 09:50]
The Punjabi Culture – on women
As we have observed the Sikh Religious stance on this issue is unique, however, there is a conflict between the high values of this Religion and what is actually practised by some Punjabi Sikhs. The conflict here is one of Sikh theory challenging demeaning social practices. In the Punjab, female infanticide is still sadly a real problem. There are recorded figures which illustrate a disparity in male/female birth rates, with the Punjab having a strangely and irregular higher male than female birth-ratio. Modern techniques are sometimes used to abort female foetuses, a new form of female infanticide. Baser social practices find new ways of circumventing more enlightened thinking. Laws against dowries have been enacted but are usually not enforced by Indian Governments, fathers and fathers-in-law still occasionally murder daughters if dowry is lacking.
As for Sati;
“Such is the pull and thrill of the mystique of sati…. that the practise has staged a nostalgic comeback here and there, after the British left India in 1947”
(pp.46, Me Judice, Singh, Kapur. CSJS, 2003).
Regardless of the high ideals of the Sikh Guru’s, individuals choose when it suits them to digress from these values reverting back to their ancient Punjabi past, (which existed for thousands of years prior to the advent of Sikhism). Daughter-in-laws often suffer at the hands of mother-in-laws.
In Punjab, like other parts of India, news headlines of women being killed in suspicious circumstances are quite common. What also must be borne in mind by observers and practitioners is that each person, is a Sikh by religion and Punjabi by culture, and has this dual role. Invariably, as in the context here, these can severely clash. Religion and religious values can be discarded by choice; Punjabi/Indian culture can often be more ingrained. Most Semitic religions are able to divorce women within the constraints of their faith. Sikhism emphasises the sanctity of marriage, but a marriage can be annulled through a country’s legal system. The failure of a marriage is more difficult to accept than in modern western society, and there can be greater repercussions in attitudes to bitterness and shame. Occasionally these can assume unacceptable forms of behaviour.
What the Sikh Religion and Punjabi culture have in common is abhorrence of female genital mutilation; however, there is a massive gulf separating the teachings of the Sikh religion versus the Punjabi/Indian culture in attitudes to:
- Female infanticide
- Female only abortions
- So-called ‘honour’ killings.
All the above information was sourced from A Brief Guide to Honour Based Violence by the Metropolitan Police Sikh Association. Some grammatical corrections have been made.: http://www.sikhpolice.org/MPSA%20Repository/Articles/Honour_Violence_Booklet.pdf
For more information about Sikhism and Violence and Women please see the following websites: