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Women's Rights : A Protracted Struggle

Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Womens Right: A Protracted Struggle
Jagmohan Singh

Sikh British women activists' intervention for Sikh women's right to do seva and Kirtan in Darbar Sahib is welcome. Nevertheless, the Sikh Diaspora should resist all temptation to use malice and condescension as their tools as then hostility and disregard will be the natural corollary.

I strongly and unequivocally support the cause of women doing seva, including that of lending support to the palanquin carrying of Guru Granth Sahib and performing Kirtan at Darbar Sahib, Amritsar.

The Palki seva procession is not a ritual. To call it a ritual is to belittle it. This is a daily reiteration by the Sikhs to themselves and to the world at large that for every Sikh, Shabad - the Word - is the Guru. The Guru Granth Sahib is more than a scripture. It is the living embodiment of the teachings of the Gurus. It is the Sacha Padshah, the True King. The royal majestic walk, singing the hymns of Gurbani and meditation upon the Naam of Vaheguru is a clarion call to the Sikhs to unflinchingly reaffirm the significance of this revolutionary theological ideal propounded by the Gurus.

I am a strong advocate of all-round reforms in Darbar Sahib and in our Gurdwara Management affairs worldwide. I personally led the cause and successfully achieved reservation for women in the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee in the 1996 SGPC elections. I am a staunch male, feminist propagandist and denounce all male and female chauvinists that cite stupid and archaic laws, traditions and customs to subjugate women.

Yet, I do not applaud the passion for quick results.

Sikh women may have to follow the example of protracted struggles of women all over the world when they got the right to adult suffrage. Women did not get their adult suffrage so easily. American women struggled for seventy-five years, Canadian women for fifty years and British women for eighty long years. Only Australian women perhaps had to put up a comparatively lesser fight.

It took the American women almost eighty years to achieve victory: from 1848, when a resolution calling for women's suffrage was adopted at the Seneca Falls Convention, to August 26, 1920, when the federal women's suffrage amendment was finally ratified.

Toronto's Women's Literary League, formed around 1886, was the first women's suffrage organization in Canada. Women's legal right to vote was obtained at both the provincial and federal level over a nine year period (1916-1925) with the exception of the Province of Quebec where the right to vote in provincial elections could not be obtained until 1940.

A leading woman suffragette of her times, Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh, the daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last sovereign of the Sikh empire, chained herself to railings in Downing Street to make a speech to focus on the right to vote for British women. But she did not make a forcible attempt to enter the Parliament!

Though it is not within my present purview to comment on the religious aspect, it is pertinent to note that the Christian women's rights to priesthood and other echelons of their theological positions have still not been resolved. The Christian world is still in the process of evolving a new standard of female religious priesthood.

In England as in most parts of the west, even when women got the right to vote, they were not taken seriously. In the 1920s, Winston Churchill blushed at the sight of a woman politician in Parliament and said, "It was as embarrassing as if she burst into my bathroom when I had nothing on with which to defend myself."

During my recent visit to England, I was witness to an altercation between a husband and wife in the middle of a by lane, when they were attempting to start their car, which was giving them trouble. The man shouted at his wife and said, "You silly cow, come here."

I was shell-shocked. The wife did not retaliate. Lots of questions crossed my mind: "Why cow?", "Why did she listen to this nonsense?"

My research led me to this: In 1867 when Benjamin Disraeli's government introduced the 1867 Reform Bill, supporters of general suffrage hoped the vote might also be extended to women. They argued that by Lord Romilly's Act of 1850, the word "man" applied to woman as well. But the extent to which women were held in disdain was clearly indicated by the remark of one MP: "If a woman could be brought in under Lord Romilly's Act," he said, "so might a cow!"

The right of Sikh women for gender equality on the basis of Gurbani is inalienable. Gurbani and Sikh history not only uphold this but also is full of revolutionary steps taken by Gurus and Sikh historical figures.

Guru Tegh Bahadur, in an unprecedented step in that time, in the sixteenth century, purchased the land of village Mukhailpur to build what we today know as Anandpur Sahib, in the name of Bebe Nanki. The first name of Anandpur Sahib was Chakk Nanki. By doing so, the Ninth Master asserted two rights, one to equality and secondly, a woman's right to property. In comparison, British women obtained the right to property in the 19th century. In India, women do have this right, but equal rights of succession to property are still to be fully and properly codified.

Although the Sikh faith clearly rejects any discrimination between males and females, yet Sikh women and their supporters - men and women - have to cover a lot of ground to achieve equal gender rights. The harsh social realities of our society are before us. They cannot be easily wished away. How these realities affect Sikh women in the social milieu of present day Punjab or elsewhere in the Sikh Diaspora, are a matter of degree not of kind.

There are many Churchills lurking within Sikhdom. The mindsets of the Sikhs and the people of Punjab haven't changed. The ever-recurring dowry deaths have not stopped. To fulfill the greed for greener pastures, today Punjabi parents are increasingly willing to send their daughters, and of course sons as well, to marry beyond the shores of Punjab without cross-checking and verifying the antecedents of the would-be spouse and family. I have come across very few - only a handful of cases - where young girls have refused such proposals.

Punjab has one of the highest female foeticide rates in the Indian sub-continent. According to data published by a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) study entitled 'Sex-Selective Abortion and Fertility Decline in Haryana and Punjab', nearly 62,000 sex-selective abortions were conducted in Haryana during 1996-98, while 51,000 such tests took place in the state of Punjab.

Despite government curbs, ultrasound clinics flourish in all cities and towns of Punjab. I need to reiterate that women take the lead in female foeticide because of ancient Indian societal pressures, the quest for a nuclear family and the passive and active participation of mercenary doctors.

Lately, since the government has become a little more pro-active, another dangerous and sinister trend is emerging. As doctors are under some pressure, instead of foeticide, now it is infanticide and abandonment of the female child when it is just a few days or weeks old.

During the last year alone, in 2002, the male-female ratio in some districts of Punjab and Haryana has come done drastically to 1000:700. Bride hunting will soon be a major task. The adverse female sex ratio is the most worrying factor, as exemplified in the Punjabi folk-song, popular a few years ago, whose theme was, "Maasi nu tarsangay."

The state of affairs of education of the girl child in Punjab is another area of serious concern. Verbal and physical domestic abuse at home and at work, which continue unabated, yet another.

While exposure to satellite television has provided more opportunities to young men and women, it has also brought in its wake new problems of adultery, divorce, promiscuity and blind aping of a pseudo sub-culture propounded by 'new-age' films and popular soap operas. Unfortunately, the pressures are so strong and devious that the Sikh population too has been unable to escape it.

Except for a few honourable exceptions, generally there is an abysmal lack of concern on our part for the widows of our martyrs in particular, and for all widows in general. We have completely ignored the women who became widows in the massive population transfer of 1947, the widows of the Sikh activists who were killed in 1978 and the large number of widows of the struggle in the last two decades.

It was a British historian, Professor Ian Tevlod, who during his recent trip to Punjab appealed to world historians and the international community to do a thorough study of the agony of the massive migration of 1947, in accordance with modern international law.

We have not yet estimated the trauma, which our mothers and sisters have and are facing as a result of the personal tragedies that struck them not very long ago. We thrive our religious ethos and political rhetoric on martyrdom, but if we contemptuously disregard the sorrow of our women and children, we will be guilty of personal and collective sin.

The Sikh Reht Maryada, or the Sikh Code of Conduct, candidly advocates widow remarriage. My assessment is that we have miserably failed on this front too.

What have we done for the widows of the November 1984 pogrom against the Sikhs in more than 200 towns and cities of India? There are no doubts that some individuals and organizations, have done exemplary work. Harinder Singh, Advocate and Nishkam in Delhi deserve kudos for their dedication in this field. But I will not be wrong if I say that as a nation, we have failed to make it a central issue.

I have no inhibition in saying that it is more appropriate to wipe off tears of a single widow, offer her consolation and solace than to do any other kind of Seva. It is perhaps in this spirit that Guru Gobind Singh said, "Garib ka mooh, Guru ki Golak," meaning, "The mouth of the needy is the saving box of the Guru". I have no doubt in my mind that the Guru did not mean this to be taken only literally.

I am not discounting the sacrifice of women, but I am attempting to show the other side of the picture. I propose the setting up of a Sikh Mothers and Sisters Association, which can begin work by revisiting the families for consolation and reassurance.

A section of the Sikh religious leadership opposes the entry of women into various forms of Seva. Like the rest of the society, they too need to be educated. There is a huge gap between Guru Nanak's portrayal and importance of women and the situation we have today largely due to the influence of Indian social mores. This gap between precept and practice has to be abridged, slowly and steadily, with commitment and grace, without acrimony and haste.

There have to be institutional changes, positive actions and the resolution of women's problems and mobilization of women at the grassroots level. The modalities regarding Seva in Darbar Sahib and elsewhere have to be drawn up. Serious brainstorming by concerned Panthic individuals and organizations should begin with dedication and without rancor.

These are stark realities and not excuses for not supporting the women's cause. This is also not to say that women should forgo their mission. I only want to caution that there is no fast track.

On 9th March, 1940, the Religious Advisory Committee of the SGPC, comprising of all men, namely Jathedar Mohan Singh, Bhai Labh Singh, Ganga Singh and Teja Singh passed the following resolution: "The matter of women performing Kirtan in Darbar Sahib was raised and discussed. It has been accepted that women should be given the same opportunity that is extended to men."

Though women activists have recently claimed so, the 1996 directive of Sri Akal Takht Sahib is not about seva of carrying the palanquin from Akal Takht Sahib to Darbar Sahib and back. It is only about the seva of daily cleaning the floor of the sanctum sanctorum of Darbar Sahib. Suffice it is to say here that Panthic scholars and activists are not unanimous about the content and methodology of this early hour Seva. However, on 9th February 1996, a directive was issued by the then Acting Jathedar of Sri Akal Takht Sahib, Manjit Singh and co-signed by other Jathedars. The Hukamnaama, while endorsing equality of gender, granted permission to women to do seva and inter alia, "directed the manager, Darbar Sahib to make necessary arrangements for women to do seva." It also specified a code of conduct to be followed by women.

The time and context of these resolutions should be borne in mind. Some women's organizations and their supporters have cited the SGPC resolution of 1940 and the directive of the Jathedars of 1996. But is it not a fact that neither women's organizations, nor individuals in general, made any effort to ensure implementation of the resolution or that of the directive?

And this is not the only resolution that needs implementation. There are many more which need to be taken to their logical conclusion. Gender equality has to come on many fronts -at home, at work, for seva, for Kirtan, for decision-making and for religious and political leadership.

Prior to the 1996 election, the number of women in SGPC did not cross the figure five. Sikh women got the right to vote in the SGPC in 1925. But their participation was minimal. The Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) put in pioneering efforts for the cause of reservation for Sikh women members in the SGPC in 1993, in preparation for the first SGPC election the party contested. This party lobbied the National Commission for Minorities and was able to achieve this because of the cooperation of the then Deve Gowda led government in India. The result is that you see a number of women in the SGPC general house. It is another matter that almost all the women who won the elections were wives of party leaders.

My belief is that it is not the time to cling to a drawback and go hammer and tongs against the religious leadership. Many questions need answers. We need to go further on.

In Punjab, India and the Diaspora, no Sikh organisation has propagated the Hukamnaama against female foeticide issued by Sri Akal Takht Sahib. To be more precise, many activists - women and men - are not even aware of the directive, because we are so fond of seeking mistakes and misgivings, the brighter side of the picture is not even seen, and when seen, deliberately forgotten. The Hukamnamma issued under the seal of Sri Akal Takht Sahib, on 18th April 2001, by the present Jathedar of Sri Akal Takht Sahib, Giani Joginder Singh upholding the status of women in the Sikh religion and Sikh history, categorically states:

"To put an end to this inhuman, immoral and irreligious practice, in the light of Gurmat thought and philosophy, the Five Singh Sahibans from the portals of Akal Takht Sahib order all Guru Nanak Naam Levas that no Gurmukh man or woman, on detection of a female child in the womb, should resort to the Manmukhi act of female foeticide. Any person doing so is a Tankhaiya. We also appeal to humankind that we should respect the individuality of every person rising above gender considerations."

Don't you think that the Jathedars have done their job and we need to do ours?

We need to carry it through. This canon should reach every Punjab home. It should reach every Sikh home in the Diaspora. We need to use our skills and the force of the Sangat to ensure usage of resources effectively. We need to be part of the solution, not the problem. We need to do our bit of publicity as well, through writing, through docudramas, through activism from home to home.

We need to reemphasize that the Rehatnamas are strictly categorical: "No liaison or relationship with any person, man or woman, who is guilty of female foeticide or infanticide."

The Rehatnamas recommend total ostracisation of such a person and family from society.

What have we, as the Commonwealth of the Khalsa, done to further this? Can we just blame the religious leadership and forget our role?

It is time to organise a long and thorough battle with those who are entrenched in power. Every form of peaceful political, legal and social strategy should be used to achieve justice. The parameters of the struggle are not limited only against those in authority; it has to encompass the entire society.

Nevertheless, even if we have to wait for another hundred years, no attempt must be made to undermine the authority of Sri Akal Takht Sahib. All temptations to use the precincts of Darbar Sahib and Sri Akal Takht as a playground for conflict-mongering and political chicanery should be resisted. Let us continue to pray. Let us invoke the blessings of Waheguru to shower the boon of "bibek daan". Let us all celebrate more respect for women and follow the innumerable examples of Sikh women in Sikh history.

A band of dedicated women and men with a gender-equality agenda should fan out into the heartland of Punjab. A door-to-door call for equality to generate community awareness must begin. This call should focus on women, young and old, with special focus to prepare women and men against foeticide and to take a neutral stand against dowry. Simultaneously, we should enrich each other with more education and self-esteem and rekindle the commitment of Sikh society in letter and spirit to the high pedestal for women given by Guru Nanak.

A women's movement with the declared mission to rid Punjab of the menace of liquor, drugs and inequality is imperative. The devastation of homes and the pain inflicted to womenfolk after drug and alcohol abuse has not been documented at all.

The misdemeanour and denigration of womanhood at marriage ceremonies in Punjab during the vulgar presentation of song and dance sequences can put men and women of any age group to shame. Believe me, the ostentatious expenditure and indecency in Punjab marriages is worse than in Bollywood ridden Mumbai. It is only when women themselves take up the cudgels to boycott such functions and protest against such disgusting display of nouveau-riché wealth and shamelessness, that gender-equality will get a boost in our male-dominated society.

The right to do seva does not exist in isolation. It has to be seen and understood in the complete unbiased perspective. A Sikh Women's Brains Trust should examine the whole gamut of the status of Sikh women in our society so that the values enshrined in Sri Guru Granth Sahib are implemented without delay.

Whether women will choose to include some men in this collective will be their choice. Entirely.

Copyright ©2002 Jagmohan Singh. About The Author
Feb 19, 2007
Delhi India
Soul_jyot ji,

A women's movement with the declared mission to rid Punjab of the menace of liquor, drugs and inequality is imperative. The devastation of homes and the pain inflicted to womenfolk after drug and alcohol abuse has not been documented at all.

There has never been any documentation of any Social issues and no women activism in Punjab for a very very long time. I vaguely remember hearing about such things during the time of Kairon and Master Tara Singh. Occasionally some kathavachacs have been raising these issues off and on. But with no concerted effort this can hardly have any real impact

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