In this piece of writing I will look at how women were treated in Hinduism in the historical context, and how Sikhism and the Gurus in the religion changed the situation, and affected the status of women. I will also look at how Sikhism is still not perfect after all these years and how even still there is some inequality between men and women. Also I will talk about some examples of how inequality is shown to girls in today’s society.
Hinduism was the religion that dominated India and the Punjab at the time of the gurus. Historically speaking, in Hinduism women were taught that they couldn’t get liberation from the cycle of Samsara, so they were excluded from leading religious ceremonies. They were taught that they couldn’t become one with God, and wouldn’t reach Mukti. Women and girls were regarded as the property of men (Paraya dhan); therefore divorce was impossible for a woman to initiate. Girls were not educated, as they were seen to stay at home, and look after the house and the children. They could not get a job, whereas men would be educated and would earn money for the family. Many Hindu women were sold to Islamic foreign countries as slaves. Baby girls were murdered by their parents (female infanticide) as they were too expensive to bring up and didn’t bring any money into the family. Also, because they were seen as the property of their husband, widows were expected to throw themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands (sati) as they were seen as having no further use in the society. This patriarchal society treated women worse than animals! In addition, the birth of a daughter in the family was not an occasion to celebrate; it was humiliation.
The Gurus lived in a time when women were only there to serve men. They were meant to stay at home and look after the family and house. Women were not allowed to work nor have any means to live independently. Sikhism therefore changed the situation, and the gurus taught that everyone is equal regardless of colour, race, beliefs, or sex. They taught that everyone is born equal and that everyone contains the divine spark: ‘everyone has the same form, everyone has the same soul’ (Guru Granth Sahib). Sikhism not only practices equality between the sexes, but also between religions and races. This idea was revolutionary in India at the time. The idea had never been introduced before and it was a drastic change in ways of thinking and behaving. Many men didn’t convert to Sikhism because of the fact that Guru Nanak believed in equality. They wanted to own women as their property, and they wanted to maintain that figure of superiority. Women were treated as a prize, and only treated as a servant or for entertainment. Guru Nanak sent out his sister to become a missionary, (Religious worker), however many people opposed this, as they still believed that women should be excluded from religious activities. Some people argued that men and women are different biologically and so act differently. Women are naturally the people to stay at home and care for the children because they are programmed to do this (The natural argument). Others argued that men and women carry out different roles in society because this is what they are taught to do. Young girls help their mothers with housework, while boys spend time with their fathers. In this way, boys and girls learn to ‘conform’ to the stereotypes. This was the nurture argument. The Gurus changed the situation for women by insisting that women as well as men could achieve liberation from samsara. Guru Nanak’s action of sending out his sister to become a missionary changed many people’s views about women, and led to the introduction of women becoming granthis and members of the gurdwara committee. The gurus accepted the right of women to lead any religious or public service. They changed the situation for women by permitting them to become members of the Khalsa and go through the exact same ceremony including wearing the 5K’s, just like men. The Gurus also encouraged the participation of women on the battlefield. They gave women the name Kaur (princess) which originated from the same caste in Hinduism as Singh (lion). The gurus banned dowries which was money given to the groom or his family by the father of the bride. They banned sati as murder. Widows were now not allowed to throw themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands. The gurus began a Sikh wedding hymn which is called the Lavan. This stresses equality within marriage. Another way that the gurus and Sikhism shows equality is by insisting that men and women worship in the same prayer hall and then prepare and eat Langar together. Both male and female are encouraged to perform sewa, which is service to others, in all three ways (tan, dhan and man). Also both men and women sit at the same level in the Diwan hall. The gurus expected girls to also be given an education, just like boys. The guru’s teachings on the role of women are in the Guru Granth Sahib. In one part it says “We are conceived and born from women. Woman is our life-long friend and keeps the race going. Why should we despise her, the one who gives birth to great men?” Guru Hargobind declared, “A woman is the conscious of man” from his respect for women.
Equality is now central to Sikhism because of the gurus. The Gurus taught that Waheguru (God) is neither male nor female; therefore in today’s society women have equal rights to men. Women are allowed to hold any office in the Gurdwara. This includes becoming a Granthi, a Ragi, and/or a member of the Khalsa. According to Sikhism, males and females are two sides of the same coin. They are considered to have the same souls and are seen equal in service, devotion, bravery and sacrifice. According to Hinduism, women and men have different roles and responsibilities. As a young child the female will stay in custody of her parents. When she gets married she will become the property of her husband, and then when she will have sons she will become the property of them. The role of a woman is always given very high status in Hinduism, so they are expected to be good mothers and wives. Some Hindus have a traditional point of view, and they believe that women should stay at home and look after the family. They believe that women should be protected by men because they are not independent. Other Hindus are less traditional, and therefore education is becoming more popular in females.
In Sikh society gender discrimination is not allowed, however this equality has been difficult to achieve. Parents sometimes treat boys and girls differently and may have different rules for one. Girls are more likely to do better in education, so some teachers in schools might treat boys and girls differently. Women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, and they’re more likely to be victims of ‘date rape’ and ‘drink spiking’. Even if both the husband and wife work full-time, the woman often does most of the house-work. Women are much more likely to give up work to take care of the children and home. Women’s salary levels are on average 25% lower than men’s. Women are less likely to be promoted and only 10% of managers are women. Because of this women are more likely to be poor – single mothers are one of the poorest groups in society. And finally, nearly all of Britain’s 6 million ‘carers’ are women – most are unpaid and their work is invisible. Even though the gurus taught that everyone is equal, Sikhism is still not perfect after all these years. Some Sikh women would say that although the gurus raised the status of women in society and gave them new, more meaningful roles, the situation in Sikhism still isn’t perfect. Why? They say that it is still rare to see female granthis, and there are few women serving on Gurdwara committees. The dowry is still paid, but just in a lesser form. The milni, which is a simple ceremony where both families exchange well wishes on meeting each other, is dominated by the male relatives. Girls are still expected to stay at home looking after the family when they are married. And giving females the name Kaur still expresses a deep rooted idea that girls/women are expected to be prim and proper, and treated in a different way to men. So although the Gurus put across such powerful messages of equality, men are still sometimes seen superior to women.
Overall, the gurus played an extremely big role in preventing inequality between the sexes. Before the gurus’ teachings, women were treated appallingly. But soon after the teachings that women were equal to men, views on women changed and they were respected more. However Sikhism and also other religions are still not perfect. There is still some difference between the genders. Though now, the role and status of women has greatly improved.
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