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Sikhism and Gender: One Traveler’s View

10 August 2012 4 Comments

Three Sikh women in front of the temple are about to walk around the sarovar (holy pool). The golden dome behind them is a common feature in most Indian Sikh temples.

Amber Webb
New Delhi, India

“For me, the distinguishing characteristic is the philosophy of equality shared among men and women in Sikh culture.”

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“It is a woman who keeps the race going; we should not consider women cursed and condemned, from women are born leaders and rulers.”

- Guru Nanak, Founder of Sikhism

Walking towards New Delhi’s main square, Connaught Place, a street vendor exposes himself and taunts me as I pass by. As a female walking alone in this over-populated city, it’s an opportunity for him to entertain his friends at my expense. When I reported the incident to a police officer just around the corner, my complaint was met with inaction and a suggestion to ignore it, as it was ‘just meant to be funny.’  I seemed to be the only one not laughing.

These moments are common in India, which often ranks as one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman. Over the years, India has struggled with issues such as bride-burnings or sati, the act of a wife throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, but the most serious issue of today is likely the continued aborting of female fetuses or infanticide post-birth. These statements may generalize an otherwise beautiful, rich, and deeply spiritual culture, but statistics back them up. Women face a multitude of social problems and discrimination in India, and my traipsing through marketplaces only scratches the surface of it. For many women in India, every day can be a challenge. For single female travelers, it can be a frustrating experience.

A moment of reprieve came during a visit to one of the few Sikh temples in Delhi. Located off the beaten path, it was a difficult but fortunate find. Sikhism is the world’s 5th largest religion, but Sikhs remain a minority in all regions of the world except the Indian state of Punjab. Sikh men are usually identifiable by the large turbans with which they conceal the hair their religion prohibits them from cutting. Sikh women are more difficult to identify among the majority of Hindus in India, but sometimes can be recognized for the knives, or kirpans, they carry to protect the weak and oppressed — one of the five ways Sikhs show devotion to their religion. For me, the distinguishing characteristic is the philosophy of equality shared among men and women in Sikh culture.

A Sikh woman washes in the sarovar.

According to Sikhism, men and women are born to complement one another. This diverges  from many other religious philosophies, which believe that women came to exist only as part of a man. Sikh scripture outlines that women are to be regarded as equal to men and have the same right to grow spiritually. Many temples are actually led by women, who are considered part of a co-dependent and symbiotic relationship with men. This equality among genders was noticeable to me in many ways.

Upon entering a Sikh Temple, men and women wash their hands and feet together. Both sexes are allowed to worship amongst each other in the prayer room as well as splash holy water from the same pools. The grounds included a community kitchen that feeds thousands of Delhi’s most destitute every day and is manned (excuse the term) by men and women alike, who volunteer to serve anyone who wanders into their dining hall. I found that I was welcomed into this community, my only restrictions being to cover my head and walk barefoot about the grounds as all Sikhs do. My experience that day led me to find the Sikh philosophy to be one of inclusion.

Understandably, an existing philosophy is not always translated into practice. Ultimately, equality is something that women have yet to achieve in many societies that are dominated by patriarchal structures, no matter the religion. When further explored, the philosophy of gender equality promulgated by the Sikhs I encountered contradicts the abysmal sex ratio of the Punjab, homeland and birthplace of Sikhism. However, it is a refreshing point of view in the chaotic environment of India. It is an idea I saw manifested in the many ways the men and women interacted at the temple.  Sikhs are only a small portion of India’s booming population, 2% to be exact. Yet the ideas of the original Sikh scriptures are important and relevant in a context where, often, women struggle to simply be women.

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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

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4 Comments to “Sikhism and Gender: One Traveler’s View”
  1. Mahesh says:

    The article about in inequality among gender is true go the core. Infant fetocide of woman prevails among both the urban and rural areas and largely among the urban middle class group.

    Well written article on Skihism and on Delhi. The northern part of India faces a lot more problems of abuse. The sex ratio of men to women is very unfavourable where men out number the woman by over 25 percent.

  2. Harbans Lal says:

    I enjoyed your well written note on your experience. Yes, there are problems that we recognize and struggle to work on. Please join us here in USA to share our Langar with us and see the women participation in our organizations, religious and otherwise. Call me at 8174468757 and I will invite you to one of our events.

  3. reshmi singh says:

    The sikh religion is a really beautiful religion, if it would have been truly practised with heart by everyone, the world would be a much better place

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