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Canada Sikh Founder's Egalitarian Vision Seconded By Patriarchy: Prof

Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Sikh founder's egalitarian vision seconded by patriarchy: prof

Despite 'machismo' beliefs and practices like sex selection, feminist scholar thinks Sikh men ready to welcome women into religious leadership

By Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun - April 9, 2012


"Guru Nanak is to me a feminist," says Sikh scholar Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh.

That's why the Punjabi professor can't accept how her religion has become so patriarchal; filled with "machismo" and a "warrior" mentality that often contradicts its original teachings.

The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak (1469 - 1539), was a truly "egalitarian," "inclusive" man and a champion of women's rights, Kaur Singh said this week before giving a lecture at the Asian Centre at the University of British Columbia.

The author of a dozen books, including the just-released Of Sacred and Secular Desire: An Anthology of Lyrical Writings from the Punjab (I.B. Tauris), laments how virtually all sacred duties within the 23-million-member religion continue to be performed by men.

Such patriarchy defies Sikh-ism's liberationist core, said Kaur Singh, including its teaching against any official priesthood. So why are the Sikh scriptures always publicly recited by men?

Kaur Singh said she was treated respectfully when inter-viewed by Punjabi-language broadcasters this week in Surrey, which has one of the largest Sikh diaspora communities in the world.

And even though Kaur Singh maintained a cheerful demeanour during our conversation, she was disturbed by the way female fetuses are systematically aborted in the Punjab, the region of northern India where Sikhs predominate.

"The obsession with sons is so great in northern India that modern technology is abused by Sikh families to promote abortion if the fetus is female," Kaur Singh wrote in her book, The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent.

Independent government agencies report the presence of only eight women for every 10 men in the Punjab. One respected anti-poverty group, ActionAid, claimed only three females per 10 males.

Some observers blame widespread "female feticide" on Indian customs that frequently require poor parents of brides to give dowries to prospective husbands, making it a grave financial liability to have girls.

Kaur Singh, in addition, argues that centuries-old Punjabi "feudal" values have illegitimately penetrated the otherwise gender-egalitarian Sikh faith, including to some extent in Metro Vancouver (home to roughly half of Canada's 350,000 Sikhs).

"It's very, very troubling to me," said Kaur Singh, who moved from India to the U.S. in her late teens and has taught at Colby College in Maine for more than two decades. She returns at least once a year to the Punjab.

In contrast to Sikhism's cur-rent patriarchal practices, Kaur Singh emphasizes how founder Guru Nanak opposed the caste system, as well as the ancient Indian custom of cremating wives while they were alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands, and the need for women to wear veils.

Influenced by Western feminist theologians such as Rosemary Ruether and Rita Gross, Kaur Singh takes it in stride that it is now common for women to serve as clergy in many North American main-stream Protestant and Jewish denominations.

In a small act of protest in the name of feminine Sikh power, Kaur Singh makes a point of wearing the traditional five articles of the Sikh faith, which include bracelet, simple under-wear, unshorn hair, small comb and ceremonial sword (she wears a tiny version of the latter on a necklace).

The symbols are mostly associated with males, she says, but maintains the founders of Sikhism wanted both men and women to wear them.

As a specialist in Punjabi and Hindi languages, Kaur Singh is also convinced that Sikhism's sacred scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib, have often been mistranslated to fit a subconscious patriarchal agenda.

The God of Sikhism is not meant to be reduced to one sex, she says, but to be under-stood to contain feminine and masculine qualities. It is most accurate, she said, to refer to God in Sikh scriptures as the all-inclusive number 1.

Yet, in much the same way that feminist Christian and Jewish scholars have complained about traditional Bible translations of the word God, Kaur Singh says the Guru Granth Sahib is repeatedly mistranslated to refer to God as "He" and as "Lord."

Despite her trust that Sikh-ism's foundational teachings are tilted toward freedom and sexual equality, Kaur Singh has long worried most Sikhs today are not listening to calls for reducing patriarchy.

So Kaur Singh was inspired by a major event last year at the University of Toronto, called Sikhi. Many young Sikh men and women gathered to speak of freedom of expression and equal rights for women within the faith.

"That was a big moment for me. There is a lot of energy in young diaspora Sikhs. I'm a scholar and a Sikh and I need transformation of my own society. I'm going back to my roots," she said.

Kaur Singh is convinced, if more Sikh women ask for it, Sikh men will welcome them taking a more prominent role in the religion.

"They are our brothers, fathers and husbands. And they respect us and love us as much as we love and respect them," she said.
"They will change, because the Sikh tradition is a system of love, not a system of fear."

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