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The Role of Women in Sikhism

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Sikhism is unique in recognizing unequivocal equality for all human beings and specifically for both men and women.  In fact, the basic beliefs of Sikhism as revealed to Guru Nanak in 1469 support social reform of women’s roles in society.  Sikhism advocates active and equal participation of men and women in several realms of activity such as congregations, academics, healthcare and military. There are no female suppressing practices such as taking father’s or husband’s last name or  following rituals that imply dependence or subordination. The woman has been thought to be inferior to man in various religions in India and around the world. Greek philosophers have said that “woman is an unfinished man left standing at a lower step in the scale of development.

The male is by nature superior and female inferior. The one is the ruler and the other ruled. Woman is weak of will and, therefore incapable of independence of character and position”.  Such prejudices prevail even today. Against this backdrop it is significant that Sikhism, one of the world’s youngest religions, accorded women complete equality with men in all spheres of life over five hundred years ago. This was a remarkable position for any religion in any part of the world to take in the 15th century. Sikhism extended equal rights to all beings and believed in the equality of man and woman in the midst of a world that was increasingly suppressing women.

Guru Nanak (1469-1539), founder of the Sikh religion made Sikhism conform to enlightened, simple practical, progressive and humane ideals right from its inception. It shunned obscurantism, fanaticism, superstition and religious bigotry which were integral to 15th century India. This refreshingly liberal approach of Guru Nanak encompassed both religion and society.

Guru Nanak was one who condemned the concept of the man-made inferiority of women. One can understand the extent of his respect for women in his following words: “From woman man is born, within woman, man is conceived; to a woman he is engaged and married. Woman becomes his friend, through woman, the future generations exist. When his woman dies, he seeks another woman; to woman he is bound. So why call her bad? From her, kings are born. From a woman, woman is born. Without woman there would be no one at all”. (Guru Granth Sahib, 473)

According to Sikh philosophy, the human body is transitory; and hence the difference between man and woman is also transitory. The fundamental analogy used in the bani depicts the relationship between God and man, and proves that the physical body does not matter (Sahib, 2003). The Bani parallels all human beings (men and women) to the woman / wife, and God to the man/husband. This means that every person is a sohagan – a woman who is the beloved of the Lord – whether they have the body of a man or woman.

Because the human body is transitory, the difference between man and woman is only transitory, and as such superficial (Kaur, 1997). Thus, by Sikh ideology, all men and women possess equal status. Moreover, all human beings, regardless of gender, caste, race, or birth, are judged only by their deeds. The Guru Granth Sahib contains many Names for God, both masculine and feminine. These are all used to describe God. Ultimately, the Gurus do not consider God to be male or female. The Mul Mantra states that God is ‘Ajuni’ – Unborn. Thus stating that God belongs to neither sex. The Guru Granth Sahib is unique in religious history.

It is the only religious text that was compiled and authenticated by the founders of its faith. The reading of the Guru Granth Sahib is open to all. In Hinduism, a woman is not considered capable of reading the Vedas in a Mandir. This is not so in Sikhism. In fact, Guru Amar Das was brought to the fold of Sikhism after hearing Bibi Amro reciting the Gurbani. Thus, in both spiritual beliefs and in spiritual practices Sikhism honored women equally as men. In The Role and Status of Sikh Women Dr Mohinder Kaur Gill states ‘Guru Amar Das was convinced that no teachings can take roots until and unless they are accepted by women folk’.

 Historically, the Sikh Gurus invited women to join the holy congregation, work with men in the langar (common kitchen), and participate in all other religious, social, and cultural activities of the Gurdwaras. The Gurus redefined marriage as wedded to one wife only and taught that male and female alike need to practice conjugal fidelity. The Gurus spoke against the practice of polygamy and preached the concept of monogamy. Marriage was seen as a sacred institution, a spiritual bond between two equal partners, not merely a physical union of two individuals. Guru Nanak said that by “living within family life, one attains salvation”. (Guru Granth Sahib P.661). Guru Nanak underscored the fact that intellectually women were at par with men, capable of deep insights and a complete understanding of spiritual matters: undeniably an important link in the achievement of salvation by man.

A strict moral code of conduct was prescribed for men and women in Sikhism where the duties of both husband and wife towards each other were defined. Guru Nanak openly chides those who attribute pollution to women because of menstruation and asserts that pollution lies in the heart and mind of the person and not in the cosmic process of birth. “If pollution attaches to birth, then pollution is everywhere (for birth is universal). Cow-dung (used for purifying the kitchen floor by Hindus) and firewood breed maggots; Not one grain of corn is without life; Pollution is not washed away by purificatory rituals; Pollution is removed by true knowledge alone”.(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 472).

Guru Nanak’s ideals were given a practical shape and consolidated by Guru Amar Das (1479 – 1574), the third Sikh Guru. He was a great champion of women’s rights who based his concepts on complete gender equality and specified norms for ameliorating the status of women in medieval India. Guru Amar Das, the third Guru, wrote: “Only they are truly wedded who have one spirit in two bodies.”  Guru Amar Das also condemned the wearing of the veil, and female infanticide. The steps Gurus took to advocate the equality of women revolutionized the tradition of Indian society. As women began to partake in social, religious and political affairs, their contribution and worth as equal partners of men became more obvious. The Gurus taught that men and women are equal in the eyes of God, so are equal in rights on Earth.

The superior spiritual and philosophical attributes of women were acknowledged. So was their contribution towards making a happy family the basis of a vibrant, egalitarian, strong society and state. Guru Amar Das stopped women wearing purdah (the veil) and did not allow the queen of Haripur to sit in the sangat (congregation) if she insisted on wearing one. He stopped contemptuous references to women as mere child-bearing machines. “Blessed is the woman who creates life”, he wrote in the Granth Sahib. During his pontifications, he made sure women were provided opportunities to lead more meaningful lives which enabled them to actively participate in social and religious affairs. For the propagation of the faith’s ideology, he created twenty two administrative units called manjis or parishes.

Of these four were headed by women – which was unheard of in those times. In status these four women were equal to modern Bishops because each enjoyed full economic and decision-making powers within her parish or manji. Thus Sikhism had four women Bishops in the late 16th century – a remarkable feat since no other religion could stake such a claim. Of the 146 persons the Guru trained as missionaries to preach and carry the message of Guru Nanak to the masses, 52 were women.

Besides religious instruction, missionaries educated rural people, specially women, the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. Apart from equality in socio-religious affairs, Sikh women could participate in political matters as well, including leading an army into battle. This gave women in Sikhism a sense of enormous self-confidence. These initiatives of Guru Amar Das were remarkable given the prevailing conservative and archaic social climate.

The teachings of Sikhism are extremely sensitive to the needs of the woman. These were revolutionary progressive thoughts and far ahead of the times. During those days, females were subjugated in most religions of India. Female infanticide and sati were rampant. During the time of Guru Nanak, drastic distinction between the roles of the male and female existed in all sections of society. Women had grown to accept, not without resentment though, the male-dominated atmosphere of the world. Because people use religious doctrine to define their life styles, religious scriptures in both the East and the West seem to condone, even encourage, the unequal treatment of women. In the dominant Western religion of Christianity, God created man, and then woman out of man’s rib.

Eve, the first woman persuades Adam to eat the forbidden apple, thus committing the world’s first sin, a landmark recognized as the fall of mankind. Thus the Bible seems to suggest that women were inferior and had a corrupting influence. This appeared to justify their second rate treatment in Western society. In Eastern Society, the Muslim religion also demeans women. The Koran contains explicit details concerning the inferior treatment of women. This includes the right of a man to divorce his wife, never vice versa, and the wearing of a veil to cover a woman’s face, called burkah, in public.

The Koran reminds men, “Your women are a tilth for you (to cultivate) … And they (women) have rights similar to those (of men) over them in kindness, and men are a degree above them.” At the time of Guru Nanak, Indian women were severely degraded and oppressed by their society. Given no education or freedom to make decisions, their presence in religious, political, social, cultural, and economic affairs was virtually non-existent. Woman was referred to as “man’s shoe, the root of all evil, a snare, a temptress.” Her function was only to perpetuate the race, do household work, and serve the male members of society.

Female infanticide was common and the practice of sati, the immolation of the wife on her husband’s funeral pyre, was encouraged, and sometimes even forced. It is amazing that it was during this period that  Sikhism promoted the equality of men and women all the more impressive and significant. An important aspect of the rights conferred on women in the Sikh faith was that they did not have to fight for their rightful place in Sikh society: they were given their due voluntarily because of the enlightened ideals of the Gurus. Women were also accorded equal legal rights. Sikh women have full rights to contest any hereditary claim.

No restrictions can be found in the Sikh Rehat Maryada (Code of Sikh Conduct). There is nothing to state otherwise. In Women’s Property Rights – A Sikh Perspective, Prof. Dalip Singh states ‘Since all Children, both male and female are equal in all respects, the property of the father is equally divisible amongst the children; women married and unmarried, have equal share along with the male progeny’. Thus, all claimants are entitled to an equal share regardless of their gender (Jatinder, 2006).

Bibi Nanaki, the elder sister of Guru Nanak, was a perfect example. The Guru was especially close to her and regarded her as his inspiration and mentor. Nanaki had implicit faith in her brother’s ideology and encouraged him in his life’s mission and became the first person to be initiated into Sikhism by Guru Nanak. Another outstanding woman in the early Guru period was Bibi Amro, daughter of Guru Angad Dev. She was highly learned and had a thorough knowledge of Shabads (hymns) composed by Guru Nanak, which she sang in the most melodious style (Harbans, 2006). She was married to Bhai Jasoo, a nephew of Guru Amar Das (Sekhon, 2006).

Even after marriage she continued with her work of spreading Guru Nanak’s Sikhism mainly through Kirtan (the singing of hymns). The impact of Guru Nanak’s message through her Kirtan was so profound that Guru Amar Das gave up the worship of Devi (the Hindu Mother Goddess) and embraced Sikhism. Bibi Jagir Kaur was the first woman President of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC). Guru Gobind Singh’s widow Mata Sundary played a key role in Sikh history for forty momentous years. She issued Hukamnamas (decrees) to the Khalsa giving directions at a critical juncture and successfully guided the destiny of the Sikh against both the Afghan invaders and various claimants to the “Guruship”.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh owed much of his success to the astute statesmanship and diplomacy of his mother-in-law, Rani Sada Kaur. She has been called “the ladder by which Ranjit Singh climbed to greatness in his early years”. She accompanied him on his triumphant capture of Lahore in 1799 and urged Ranjit Singh to proclaim himself the Maharaja of Punjab (Sekhon, 2006). The house of Patiala too produced some exceptional ladies during the eighteenth Century. The most celebrated of them was Rani Sahib Kaur who personally led her forces into battle and defeated the Maratha Holkar in 1793. Mai Desan, the widow of Charhat Singh Sukarchakia, was a great administrator, an experienced and a wise diplomat who conducted the civil and military affairs dexterously.

Rattan Kaur, the widow of Tara Singh Ghaiba, was a brave and an able lady who kept the Lahore Durbar forces at bay for a sufficient time till the gate-keepers were bribed by the Lahore army. Mai Sukhan, the widow of Gulab Singh Bhangi, strongly defended the town of Amritsar against Ranjit Singh for some time. Dharam Kaur, wife of Dal Singh of Akalgarh, after her husband’s imprisonment by Ranjit Singh, mounted guns on the walls of her fort and fought against the Durbar forces. She was a brave and a wise lady who was able, for some time, to foil the designs of the Lahore ruler on her territory. These ladies were well known for their administrative acumen, grasp of political situations, and dexterity in handling arms and organizing defense (Harbans Singh, 2006).

The institution of Guru Ka Langar or the community meal was given great importance by Guru Amar Das. Every visitor was invited to eat food in the langar before meeting the Guru. This was not only a way of extending open house hospitality, but also a way of emphasizing a deep commitment to the concept of equality. Men and women sat side by side and ate food together prepared by themselves in a common kitchen irrespective of their religious background or social status. Even the Mughal Emperor Akbar who once visited the Guru at Goindwal ate in the langar like any other pilgrim (Bhagat Singh, 2006).

With the creation of Khalsa on the Baisakhi day (1st day of the second solar month of Vaisakh, considered auspicious to begin harvesting of the crop) of 1699 by Guru Gobind Singh, Sikhism under went a major transformation. The Khalsa was created to instil a fresh spirit of courage and confidence among the Guru’s followers. Here again women were an integral part of the celebrations. They were baptised and initiated into the Khalsa fold without discrimination. The Amrit (holy water) for baptism was prepared by Mata Sahib Kaur, wife of Guru Gobind Singh. This was a high and rare honour extended to her since in other religious beliefs the association of women in ecclesiastical affairs was viewed with extreme disdain.

In Indian society, the brides first and last name was often changed after her marriage. This still happens today. However, this tradition of name changing does not occur just in India. It is a phenomenon which occurs across the whole world today. It is considered that surnames allow others to identify a person and his family. In some cases the surname can tell others much more such as the caste. A woman’s identity changes with marriage. Once married, it is believed that they can no longer belong to their parents’ family but with their husband’s family.  Unsurprisingly, the man’s name never changes. Hindu Law giver, Manu claimed that no woman should ever be independent. Christianity considered woman to be a product of man as Eve had come from “the rib” of Adam. Guru Gobind Singh changed all this with the revelation of the Khalsa.

He gave women the opportunity to live life free of the chains of a dogmatic society. It was God’s Hukam (will). Once initiated into the Khalsa, Sikh women obtain the surname Kaur. The surname Singh (Lion) is given to men, but Kaur (princess) is reserved solely for women. The suffix “Kaur” is of immense significance as a woman was recognised as an individual who need not take her husband’s name after marriage. She could use the word “Kaur” after her name from birth to death. The word ‘Kaur” is derived from the word “kanwar” – the son of a king.

This difference in names is not about inequality. Rather, Guru Gobind Singh recognizes the difference between men and women. Women and men are different but remain equals. When you take Amarat a person is told to consider Guru Gobind Singh as his or her father and Mata Sahib Kaur as his or her mother (Bibi, 2006). The Khalsa becomes the family. Guru Gobind Singh also issued orders forbidding the Khalsa from associating with those that practiced female infanticide. He also forbade Sikhs to exercise any proprietary rights over women captured in battle, they could not be kept as slaves or wives but were to be treated with the utmost respect.

The 20th century witnessed Sikh women in the forefront in different spheres, especially in India’s independence movement. One such notable person was Rajkumari Amrit Kaur who joined nationalist politics and the Quit India Movement under Mahatma Gandhi’s inspiration. Belonging to the royal family of Kapurthala she was one of Gandhi’s closest lieutenants and took a leading part in protest. Some other outstanding women freedom fighters of Punjab were Gulab Kaur, Kishan Kaur, Amar Kaur, Harnam Kaur, Dilip Kaur and Kartar Kaur.

The latter picketed everyday during the Civil Disobedience (satyagraha) of 1930. She was arrested under the picketing ordinance and kept under strict vigilance in jail. Contemporary Sikh women are making a mark all over the world as academicians, administrators, entrepreneurs, politicians, doctors, poets and painters. Kiran Bedi is a well known Sikh senior police officer. To quote Griffin, the Sikh women “have on occasions shown themselves the equals of men in wisdom and administrative ability”(Singh, 2006).

Thus, in Sikhism the role of woman in society is well recognized and cherished.

She is considered equal to man and in all aspects, spiritually, politically, legally and socially – her rights are equal to man’s. Sikhism considers that woman has been created by God and cannot be considered inferior, ‘Women and men, all by God are created, All this is God’s play. Says Nanak, All thy creation is good, Holy’. (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, pg 304) Neither is her intelligence doubted. Between humans there is only one distinction made. In “Current thoughts in Sikhism”, Dr Gurnam Kaur expounds ‘All human beings are equal from birth. There are only two classes of human beings (man or woman) viz., manmukh and gurmukh.

Those who follow the path of the Guru, obey the will of God, the divine ordinance are called gurmukhs, and those who follow the path of their own mind, act according to their ego running away from the Guru, the Shabad (the word), are manmukhs (egoists)’. The teachings of Sikhism regarding the role of women in society seem to place the women’s liberation movement 500 years too late. The glow of the lamp shines best in the dark. So also, the liberal views of Sikhism with respect to women can be best appreciated when one understand the teachings in the backdrop of suppression, cruelty and unfair exploitation that women were exposed to during those times by other religions, countries and cultures.


Kaur, Valerie (2005). Equality of Women, in Sikh Ideology and Practice. http://www.sikhwomen.com/equality/ideology_vs_practice.htm

Kaur, Prabhjot (1997). Women’s Liberation Movement and Gurmat, Abstracts of Sikh Studies, April-June 1997, Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, p.76.

Singh, Bhagat (2006). Sikh Women’s Rights. Excerpt from History of Sikh Misals. Published by Punjabi University. Patiala. http://www.boss-uk.org/articles/pdf/sikh_womens_rights.pdf

Singh, Harbans (2006). The Great Sikh Women. Excerpt from Sikhism edited by Harbans Singh. http://www.boss-uk.org/articles/pdf/the_great_sikh_women.pdf

Jatinder Singh (2006). Islam and Sikhism: A Comparative view on Women. http://www.ektaone.com/Sikhism/update1/Islam%20&%20Sikhi%20-%20Women%20.pdf

Sekhon, Kaur Harinder (2006). Status of Women in Sikh Religion. http://www.sikh.net/community/Swoman.htm

Bibi Gurdev Kaur (2006). The Role of Women in Sikhism. http://www.sikhnarimanch.com/content.asp?id=8817235&cat=10&parentid=0

Sahib, Akhal Takhat (2003). Excerpt from “Faith in Conservation: New Approaches to Religions and the Environment”. The World Bank Group, 2003. http://www.sikhs.nl/Main/Downloads/English/FaithSikhism2003Final.pdf

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