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SIKH WOMEN: Bypassed By History But Why?


Sep 24, 2004
SIKH WOMEN: Bypassed by history but why?

I.J. Singh

More than 300 years of continuous history speaks of Sikh men as bearded long-haired creatures but it hardly mentions any visible markers for Sikh women. Since it does not easily distinguish them from the millions of non-Sikh women in the world it often leaves them out of the mainstream thinking and ideas of Sikhi. Out of thinking; out of reckoning.

Over the years I had thought about this often and have even written bits and pieces about it but not exclusively and not at length. Now a recent sensitive and introspective essay “A Kaur Identity Crisis” on SikhNet by Lakhpreet reopens many issues; hence this piece today to revisit my own thoughts and opinions.

It is time these matters were re-explored and examined threadbare. Keep that in mind as you peruse this that mine is a male point of view but, hopefully, not biased or bigoted.

We don’t need to step far back into prehistoric times, but to see the world as we know it. Over the years things have changed in matters of gender sensitivity but neither enough nor willingly and just as much remains to be done.

In the United States, for instance, women’s right to vote came after a historic struggle and only as recently as 1920, fully 150 years after the country was founded on principles of equality, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Witness the unequal pay that many women still make in the corporate reality. Even so this is way better than much of the world where they have neither voice in citizenship nor any right to honest work or fair pay.

We know how society saw women when the Gurus trod the Earth 500 years ago. In the India of that time the right of a widow to remarry did not exist. She was expected to immolate herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband. Regressive dowry system and female feticide were widespread. Women were forbidden to read Hindu scriptures; but they did exist as vestal virgins and dancing girls within the temples.

Sikh teaching rejects all this. We remember and endlessly quote to others the challenging response from the Guru Granth. I will not repeat the whole composition on women that we hear every morning as part of Aasa-di-Vaar (p 474) that goes thus:

Bhand Jamiyae bhand nimiyae bhand mangan viaho; bhando hovay dosti bhando chalay rahu…

In translation:

Of a woman we are conceived; of a woman we are born.

To woman we are betrothed and married; a woman is friend and partner for life.

It is a woman who keeps the race going; another is sought when the life partner dies,

Through woman are established social ties.

From woman alone is born a woman; without woman there is no human birth.

Without woman, O’ Nanak, only the True one exists.

The message penetrates but remains less than skin deep. It becomes a powerful opportunity to preach how ahead of their times the Gurus were. That is true. But that’s as far as it goes.

Most of us crow about the equal place that women are accorded in Sikhi but seldom admit that within our culture they were and remain the lesser gender.

This dissonance -- dichotomy between our belief and practice -- hit me almost 20 years ago when I was writing an essay on gender issues for a book and a young lady asked why not even one of the first five Sikhs initiated as the Khalsa in 1699 was a woman. Don’t forget that each of the ten Founder-Gurus during the two centuries of the Guru period, too, was a male; no women there at that level.

From that conversation we worked out a plausible way out of this direct challenge by pointing out the folklore and history that as many as 80,000 people may have gathered at Anandpur in 1699 when Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth master, with a naked sword in hand, issued a call for a head. Can you imagine the consternation; surely there were no PA systems and microphones at hand over 300 years ago. If this crowd had to be fed who do you think were cooking and feeding the assembly, if not the women? And if there were small children whom were they clambering on, if not their mothers? And in the Indian culture at that time, and even today, in large assemblies when people sit on the floor men and women are somewhat segregated. It is likely that the women perhaps never even heard the call.

Keep in mind also that Sikhs exist as barely a small drop in the large bucket of non-Sikh population of India where Sikhi arose. This is so even though there are close to 25 million Sikhs that form the fifth largest religion in the world; but there are over a billion people that make up modern India. Granted that India has produced a woman head of government but familial and societal values have not really changed all that much.

In the traditional Hindu society, which is almost 80 percent of India’s burgeoning population, according to the Hindu law giver Manu’s Code of Conduct, a woman was barred from access to scriptures and her place a bit lower than that of a cow.

The former U.S. Ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith opined that anything that goes to India, even industry, gets Hinduized. It’s no wonder then that the traditional Hindu caste system has penetrated into all existing religions in India, including Islam, Christianity and Sikhi.

Additionally, dehumanizing realities in all religions extant in India are female feticide and the evils of the dowry system. Despite clear admonition in Sikhi against both, even today dowry and female feticide cast a long shadow in Sikh society as well.

The final nail in the gender issues in Sikhi comes from my reading of the Sikh Code of Conduct (Sikh Rehat Maryada) that was formally codified only in the mid-twentieth century. It has an intriguing clause that requires “a Sikh father to marry his daughter to a Sikh” but sets forth no dicta regarding marrying a son to a Sikh or non-Sikh bride.

A quick reading makes the blood boil at this seemingly rank injustice against women for it limits a young woman’s choices of a marriage partner but not the young man’s.

Again a closer look at the culture that existed in India centuries ago, is prevalent today and was equally endemic sixty years ago when the Rehat Maryada was finalized, would help.

The custom I am talking about is that of arranged marriages where the bride at marriage joins the household of her husband, which was usually a joint family model. Often a bride’s contact with her own biological family became minimized after her marriage and sometimes even her given name was changed by the “in laws.” In such a familial arrangement if the husband and his family were deeply religious, the new bride became so herself; if they followed certain special or mixed practices, she adopted them too; if they were lax in their belief, so would she become.

Ergo, it becomes critical that a young woman should marry an observant Sikh so that she, too, would retain Sikhi and then so would her children. A provision on who a son should marry was unnecessary because no matter whom he married his wife would come to adopt his religious ways, if there are any.

When I reason thus I see that the language of the Rehat Maryada is not necessarily sexist but just markedly arcane and outdated; it needs rewriting to make for clarity.

I cite here an extract from Lakhpreet’s “A Kaur Identity Crisis” that I referred to at the beginning of this column today. (Remembr this: In Sikh teaching Singhs are male and Kaurs are female; dhari or, better yet, darhi is beard while dastar is turban.). Lakhpreet says:

“The physical identity of Singhs is quite simple. Either he keeps his dhari and wears a dastar, or he doesn’t. There are a few combinations of those options, such as wearing dastar but not having a dhari and vice versa, but in general, the visual portrayal of the Sikh male is standard and universal.

The Kaur physical identity, however, is not so obvious or well defined. Some Kaurs keep kesh, others do not. Some cover their heads with dastars, patkas, or chunis, while others choose not to cover their heads. Some Kaurs believe it is okay to try different hairstyles, while others stick to one.

At this point in time, Sikhi does not have a collective, communal idea of what a Kaur looks like or what her physical identity should portray. This begs the question: Are Kaurs, as a collective, suffering from a physical identity crisis?” (Emphasis mine.)

Lakhpreet makes an excellent point here. It is obvious that, irrespective of how many or how well Sikhs follow or not the guidelines of the Sikh Code of Conduct, a male Sikh’s personal and communal persona is well known and accepted; but in the case of Sikh women there seem to be no clear guidelines at all. I understand that in every religion many adherents always carry a somewhat fluid identity but I don’t see quite the gender gap and dichotomy that we see between Sikh men and women in their public and communal persona.

This piece today is not to argue for greater or lesser fluid identity for men or women. It is to explore why and how greater fluidity for Sikh women may have evolved in India that has always been restrictive of women, and oddly, in Sikh society as well where the teaching is purposefully focused on gender equality.

That woman is the lesser gender even today is beyond debate. And that’s not the question.

Today I merely offer plausible hypotheses of how such practices very likely took birth; I absolutely DO NOT offer them bearing a stamp of approval-- my imprimatur, so to say.

I sometimes think of women in our religion as the invisible half. Most, if not all, of us will insist that the blinders with which we operate in life are cultural and not at all stemming from Sikh doctrine or teaching. The question then is why do we not change things? We have changed some realities – in the generation of our parents generation, women were generally educated but not very much. Very few pursued careers. Now matters are increasingly different.

I know what cultural and social norms dictated in the past. Times have changed but our cultural shackles remain. When gurdwara management is to be decided, it is 99.99% men. Good heavens, we won’t even let women perform keertan on a regular basis, and in some gurdwaras never. But they can cook langar for zillions.

The role of women in our home and communal life should be such that no gender difference is apparent and their prominence in gurdwara or society raises neither eyebrows nor applause – in a truly egalitarian society, that we say the Gurus founded, it should be such an ordinary matter in the course of things.

We have two choices as we talk about this issue: We can debate it and lament it until the cows come home, as we have done before -- or we can change it starting with homes and gurdwaras.

And don’t point to Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher or Rani Jindan; they were outliers.

History tells us about Sikh women like Rani Jindan and Mai Bhag Kaur or Mata Sahib Devan.

But look at the published record about them and it is no more than a couple of inches of print.

Have we not, in fact, written women out of our history?

Should women really have no place in our memories and no role in shaping our spiritual lives?

Cultural norms only harden over time and then dislodging them requires a Herculean effort and then some. Or they become a Gordian knot that may be cut but not unraveled. Our cultural blinders were not meant to become booby traps or land mines but that’s what they now are.

That’s where we are at this time. What we do is up to us, isn’t it?

December 1, 2013

Brother Onam

Jul 11, 2012
IJ Singh ji,
Thank you for that crucial and timely contribution.
Until we willingly face, and challenge, the deep-rooted patriarchy in Indian culture, we will continue to wonder why we ever fall short of having a strong, heavenly community for the world to admire and strive to equal.
The first step, of course, is to cast light on areas we rarely acknowledge or confront, and in writing the preceding piece, you have done so.
At the risk of getting kicked out of this network, (if I'm out of here, nice knowing you all!), I'd go one step further.
Beyond the male-centric bent of the Maryada, I would like to comment on a male-centicity even in the Guru Granth Sahib. As stated, a certain male supremacy is reflected in the fact of ten male founders, five male piyare, and a history of prominent males in Sikh history. The Granth was compiled by males, in a specific time and place, in which male domination prevailed.
There is a reason
ਸੋ ਕਿਉ ਮੰਦਾ ਆਖੀਐ ਜਿਤੁ ਜੰਮਹਿ ਰਾਜਾਨ

So why call her bad? From her, kings are born (GGS pg473)
is so often cited when this issue comes up in Sikh discourse, is because in all of the Guru it is one of the only passages that speaks of woman's holiness. (and even that one is qualified: woman is good, because through her come great men)
There was a time I was looking through scriptures to find a reference to female aspect of the Holy One, Sacred Woman, Divine Earth Mother; anything along those lines. In truth, this is what I found:
Virtually every mention of female was either 'mother and father' (ie 'parent'), 'husband and wife' (ie 'person'), or else mentions of women as motherly functions: raising babies, breast-feeding, child-rearing, etc. Or else woman as metaphor for spirit-soul longing for the Husband-Lord (ie 'everybody'). I found, in the whole Granth, perhaps one or two mentions of woman as divine.
This is not to question the authority or divinity of the Guru, but rather more an appeal to the necessity of emphasizing the shared divinity of the female, absolutely co-equal in this spiritual quest to attain Waheguru.
As for women in the Sangat, I feel they have been complicit in their invisibility. Every time a woman willingly fades to the role of silent obedience to social norms and accepted secondary status, rather than asserting herself and striving for greatness, stepping forward and leading kirtan, reading Granth, writing books, publicly rallying for greatness of Sikhi, she perpetuates the relative irrelavence of kaurs.
Guru Nanak has clearly taught male and female as having absolutely equal divinity and worth; this is really all we need to strive to attain a culture of devotion in which women really do occupy a royal position, free from any constraints of (dubious) male supremacy in the world as it happens to be.
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1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Brother Onam ji

I clicked "Appreciate" but I am appreciating only the sections where you celebrate the value of women. I am not appreciating the critique of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji as being male-centric because it is not. Both men and women are on an equal plane as "soul-brides" of the Sat, making the divine principle the "pir," the Husband Lord. The gendering of translations into male and female attributes of 'god,' to used a tired phrase, is unavoidable because the English language, like other modern languages, is gendered. This makes it very difficult to refer to "she" as "god" in the feminine without sounding like pagans and idol-worshipers. Using the neutral "it" confers a cybord flavor to the sat and the scriptures. By the time we get to the most contemporary work-around of "they" and "their" to avoid male and female reference, things start to sound very over-worked. And the words "they" and "their" are plural whereas the sat is One.

Also stemming from translations is the figure of a personified 'god.' The cultures of English speakers, for example, contain the idea of God taking human form as a father or a son or both. These images come from Jewish and Christian belief. There really isn't any way to translate ideas of 'god' into English without speaking of 'god' in the masculine gender. This problem continues even now. For Sikhs, 'god' does not take form as a male or a female but is ajooni.

Many important concepts and vocabulary of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, an example would be "sat," are borrowed from Sanskrit which, unlike Punjabi, has a true neutral gender. Punjabi does not... creating another unavoidable situation. The neutral words come into Punjabi as either masculine or feminine, usually masculine. In my opinion, the male-centric flavor of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji is only the appearance of maleness, an accident of language more than anything else.

Beyond these abstractions, from the earliest days of the Gurus, women played very important parts in the organization and ultimate development and cohesion of the sangat. It was Guru Amardasji who appointed several women to act almost like bishops, or administrative heads, of geographical subdivisions of the panth in different parts of India. Gurus' wives issued hukamnamas with more legitimate authority than the jathedars of today.

Yet, for centuries, in India women were forbidden to read, recite or discuss vedic scriptures. The hindu-i-zation of Sikhi according to spheres that are male and those that are female over generations has masked an apartheid of the spirit that undermines the Gurus' revolutionary way of thinking about our relationship with 'god' and with one another.


Sep 3, 2014
Wahe Guru Ji Ki Ka Khalsa, Wahe Guru Ji Ki Fateh
Greetings everyone!
You all have brought up good points. Yes, they should be addressed.
This whole thing of women being under-represented in just about every arena you can think of is most interesting. In the U.S., yes, women have gained ground, however, when you look at the most successful women in politics and the entertainment industry, among others you will find that, for example, Oprah Winfrey has, as they say in show-business, done it all, except being a wife and mother.
In the mid 1970's there was a big influx of women into the corporate world and women were told they could have it all; be a career woman and a wife and mother. They were terribly lied to. A woman cannot do all that all at the same time. If she is a career woman and has a child in order to continue her career she has to either have a nanny or a stay-at-home husband. While this does happen, it is rare.
I could go on about this, but you get the point. For eons in many cultures woman's main value has been that of child-bearer and caring for the home. She has been expected to cater to everyone else's desires and to sacrifice her own. This is true in the cultural life of many religions, as well. Perhaps we might examine just why this is so. Why was this established as a normal way of doing things in the first place? However, it must be seen that when one looks at some cultures, notably the Native American Sioux of the U.S. this is not the norm.
As to why it was that the Gurus took male form, perhaps it is because males were the gender that people in general listened to.
At any rate, this gender bias is something to consider, and so Thanks to all who are doing so!

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