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.
Equality. Oft-cited are Guru Nanak’s words in Asa ki Vaar: “So kyon Manda Aakhiye Jit Jamme Rajan” (Why speak ill of woman, the one from whom even all kings are born?). Perhaps even more powerful and beautiful are the overall deeds and teachings of the Guru through his lifetime that exemplified how the quest for physical and spiritual well-being is not merely the prerogative of men. Guru Nanak’s close relationship with his first true follower, Bebe Nanki, his own sister—beautifully illustrated in Inni Kaur’s Journeys with the Gurus—is yet another example of how his actions spoke louder than most people’s words. And in fact, his actions went contrary to prevailing wisdom. Brothers living in married sisters’ homes is still made culturally unacceptable in most South Asian families. Guru Nanak spoke about Sikh women and related practices, disenfranchisements, and cultures in the fifteenth century.
So perhaps this trending topic of “Sikh women” is important precisely because it is in fact trending with Guru Nanak?
Solidarity. Guru Nanak didn’t only speak against that which hurt his own biological family—he could have worn the janeu and been merrily on his way. Rather he asked questions: why do some get this supposed honor and not others? What does this mean for those ‘others’? And he realized that those with privilege must carry the responsibility of asking these difficult questions aloud (those without privilege, for example the caste-less during Guru Nanak’s time, often face dire threats for publically asking the same questions).
If we find ourselves thinking that “in our family” “in my experience” “in the way my parents raised me” women do not face discrimination or hardship simply for being women, and so this whole discussion is moot, we have missed a serious Sikh lesson. Our family is always our larger family, Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike. (More over, if we truly believe our own families are post-gender—that is, beyond any defined roles for men and women that inhibit men or women’s achievement of their full potential—we are likely kidding ourselves; but that is for a separate discussion). The larger family has diversity. Just as saying “My family has always had shelter and healthcare, so there is no urgency to discuss class issues” or “I have never faced religious discrimination since 9/11, so the whole civil rights theme is misplaced” or “I have never been singled out for the color of my skin, so there is no racism,” would be laughable, so is the idea that “Sikh women I know never seem to face any special hardship or issues, so let’s discuss something else.” Remember Guru Nanak’s message that simply working hard, sharing some, and being a good enough person isn’t in fact enough? Guru Nanak noticed discrimination wherever it existed and stood up for those who perhaps could not stand up for themselves.