Why is this topic so popular today?
Does everyone seem to be talking about women’s rights recently? Conferences, talks, vigils, kathaas, blogs, counter-blogs, and now non-profit SikhNet’s recently announced theme for its eighth annual youth film festival: Sikh Women. If not for the current popularity of the theme, why this focus? And isn’t it dangerous to focus on “Sikh women” as one collective group, despite all the differences among different Sikh women? Also, is giving a ‘special’ status to women in fact increasing discrimination, and ghettoizing women’s issues?
In 1469, first Sikh Guru Nanak sahib preached a very new way of life, challenged the social order of the day, rejected the prevalent culture. Often, to break it down for elementary school kids we talk about Guru Nanak’s three golden teachings: earn an honest living, share your earnings, and be morally upright. But Guru Nanak required much more of his Sikhs: be actively involved in struggles for justice. To sit back and think “I’m a good person—I work, I pray, I share” wasn’t quite enough. Since Guru Nanak, all Sikhs have been expected to care about the culture and society around them. The nine Gurus who followed also continued to exemplify that spiritual upliftment and social involvement cannot be mutually exclusive. For this, many Gurus were declared subversive outlaws (or worse) by the powers of the day and in instances, killed.
Guru Nanak’s first subversive action came as a very young boy. Most Sikh kids hear the story about when Guruji was standing in his village home, center of attention, for a traditional special family function of his time. His family wanted to tie the janeu on him; the janeu, a thread tied in religious ceremony on upper-caste Hindu boys. And Guru Nanak rejected wearing the thread. The janaeu discriminated between people, between different caste backgrounds and between girls and boys. By articulating his disagreement to the priest, family, and all their gathered guests—we understand he remained polite throughout, yet threw everyone in a tizzy—the young Guru taught society very important lessons: in equality, solidarity, voice.