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Religion Library: Sikhism

Gender and Sexuality

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Unlike many of his predecessors and contemporaries (religiously minded poet-saints who are renowned for speaking on behalf of the lower castes), Guru Nanak (1469-1539) also spoke up on behalf of women. Calling women "the vessel" or "repository"—perhaps to speak for the expectation that women were carriers of culture and honor—Guru Nanak delineates men's dependence on women:

We are born from her, formed in her, and ask her to wed,
We befriend her, and she shapes the road ahead,
If she dies, we seek her again, we are bound to her!
So why should we malign her who births kings?
(GG 473)

Although the above composition is his most famous intervention on behalf of women, Guru Nanak also shows concern for the plight of women who have to suffer on account of the greed of men in compositions bemoaning the violent conquests of the Mughal invaders. (For example, see GG 417-8.)

Writing from a feminist perspective, Sikh scholar Dr. Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh has made the argument that the Sikh founders' use of the feminine voice in their poems is indicative of a larger project associating with the plight of women, and equalizing all humanity to one gender that is distinct from the divine. Guru Nanak's stance on gender laid the groundwork for his successors, like the third Guru, Guru Amardas, who spoke out against the practice of widow-burning, or sati:

They are forced to burn with their husbands
If we knew the Husband, we would not cause such pain
. (GG 787)

And

Call them "Sati" too, who live modestly and contently
They serve their Husband by rising daily to remember Him.
(GG 787)

Clear advocacy for justice shows up in later tradition as well. For example, early Khalsa codes of conduct, from the late 1600s, require Sikhs to break ties with those who commit the sin of female infanticide. Therefore, in Sikh doctrines and ethics, women and men are equal before Kartar. Doctrinally, women ought to have access to every level of privilege, leadership, and responsibility that men enjoy.

Like so many of the world's great religions, Sikhism emerged out of a patriarchal, male-dominated social context. But the vast majority of Sikhs see the ideals of their faith as socially liberating for women. Therefore, the mainstream Sikh stance is that doctrinal equality will overcome gender inequalities endemic to Punjabi society. Sikh women all over the globe are demanding the real-life enactment of the equality that their Gurus promised them as equal members of the Sikh community.

 
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