Why Are Sikh Women Being Denied Their Rightful Place In An Equal Faith?

A drastic distinction between the roles of the male and female exists in all of history’s modern human societies.

Women have grown to accept, not without resentment though, the male-dominated atmosphere of the world. Because people use religious doctrines to define their lifestyles, religious scriptures in both the East and the West seem to condone, even encourage, the unequal treatment of women.

But Sikhism crowned women with the identity of ‘Kaur’ (derived from the word kunwar) which means next in line for power, at a time ‘when women were seen 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.

The concept of being Kaur was liberation from the systems and hierarchies that bound women in religions across the world. It was a declaration that a woman is not beneath you, but beside you. It is a name that all Sikh women carry. A religion that never discriminated women on menstruation, gave free entry to temples, kitchens and taught women the art of warfare.

Guru Nanak condemned the man-made notion of the inferiority of women and protested against their long subjugation. The Ultimate Truth was revealed to Guru Nanak through a mystic experience, in direct communion with God. Guru Nanak conveys this Truth through the bani, Sikh scripture. It first argues against the sexist sentiments of the pompous man about the necessity of women:

“In a woman, man is conceived, From a woman, he is born, With a woman he is betrothed and married, With a woman, he contracts friendship. Why denounce her, the one from whom even kings are born? From a woman, woman is born, None may exist without a woman.”
-Shri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, Ang 473

On one of my visits to Sachkhand Darbar Sahib, Amritsar, I talked to several religious heads on this matter and after a heated debate, one of them tells me, “Aurtein kirtan di seva kiyu karangi, vo paleet hai.” (Why on earth should women do seva, they are polluted.)

Why should women be excluded from seva because of menstruation? This menstruation allows for the birth of everyone and ironically, allows for the birth of those who deny her rights. No man would be here without a strong woman. Why should you speak ill about a woman, when she was the one who gave birth to you?

Sikh women at a Gurudwara in Yuba City, California. (Photo: jasleen_kaur/Flickr)

Guru Nanak Sahib openly challenged people who claimed women to be “impure.” So, why do our leaders feel it is okay to manipulate the words of our Gurus? Consider this shabad revealed to Guru Nanak Sahib:

“As a woman has her period, month after month, so does falsehood dwell in the mouth of the false; they suffer again and again. They are not called pure, who sit down after merely washing their bodies. They are pure, O Nanak, within whose minds the Divine abides.”
– Shri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, Ang 472

On Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary, I would like to point out the discrimination condoned by Sikh religious men when it comes to Kaurs.

The guru’s teachings have never been fully realised, which is clearly evident from the treatment of women in Sikh society today.

Sikh women are not being allowed to perform hymns and kirtan or read the Guru Granth Sahib (vakh lena) at any of the historical Gurudwaras across the country. They claim that it is the Sikh Rehat Maryada (Code of Conduct) which condemns women from doing kirtan, but the truth is, that the Rehat Maryada has been conveniently modified by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee to employ discrimination against Sikh women. Only recently has a resolution been passed to curb this practice.

There is no mention in Sikh history of any discrimination against women, then why is it that today they stop women from performing kirtan at the Sikh holy shrine at Amritsar?

In fact, Sikh women like Mata Nanki (the first Sikh), Mata Sahib Kaur the Mother of Sikhism), Mata Khivi (the pioneer of Langar Seva), Mai Bhago (the warrior Kaur), Mata Gujri Ji (the great martyr) have immensely contributed to forming this religion of ‘Sikhi.’

And yet a woman has never been elected as the president of Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (the Central Management Committee to manage the affairs of the Gurdwaras in Punjab), or as the head of any of the five Takhats (the thrones of authority).

Indian society discriminates against women in workplaces and denies them the right to fight on the battlefield. People measure a woman’s value as a bride by the size of her dowry, not necessarily by her character and integrity.

Sadly after a head start of 500 years, Sikh women are no better off than their counterparts in any other religion or nation.

I urge our leaders that instead of striving for political gains, focus on the name of Waheguru. What difference does it make if a woman or man is doing kirtan? Waheguru is not a man nor a woman, as one is not superior to the other. The first word revealed to Guru Nanak Sahib and that starts Guru Granth Sahib is “Ek” (one). To me, this means that between you, me, and us, there is no difference as we are all children of the One.

So, why do we create this difference that only men possess the right to do kirtan and seva at Harmandir Sahib? If it is for political gains, bani has clearly stated to stay away from this mind-corrupting power. For a sacred place that is built on the elimination of ego, greed, and corruption, why do you practice it yourself?

One of the many qualities of a Gursikh is to put others before yourself. Yet, many Giannis who call themselves ‘Gursikhs’ are sitting back in silence, not willing to protest this injustice, simply because it doesn’t involve them.

Why did we not endeavour long ago to realise fully the freedom and equality the Gurus advocated for all human beings, regardless of gender? Is the equality the Gurus preached even understood by Sikhs? At one time, Sikhs risked their very lives to fight for equality by opposing the caste system. Yet, today, many Sikhs judge each other by the caste they are from and the amount of income they earn.

How can women expect equality, when the Sikh community seems unable to distinguish between religious tenets and the culture imposed by the majority community which engulfs them?

Many Sikhs will acknowledge this truth, but instead of finding the enthusiasm and hope to shape the future, they will sadly shake their heads. After all, can we possibly unravel thousands of years of deep-seated Indian mentality? Do the powers of revolution truly lie within our grasp?

We need only to remember the words of Guru Gobind Singh for an answer, “With your own hands carve out your destiny.”

Note: This article was first published here.

Featured image for representative purpose only.
Featured image source: Brian Holsclaw/Flickr.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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