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Is Sikhism Straying From Its Feminist Roots?
The Roundtable Open Forum # 91





“Guru Nanak is to me a feminist,” says Sikh scholar Dr. Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh.

That’s why the professor can’t accept how her religion has become so patriarchal; filled with “machismo” and a “warrior” mentality that often strays from its central teachings.

The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak (1469–1539), was a truly “egalitarian,” “inclusive” man and a champion of women’s rights, Nikky said this week before giving a lecture at the Asian Centre at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada.

The author of a dozen books, including the just-released Of Sacred and Secular Desire: An Anthology of Lyrical Writings from the Punjab (I.B. Tauris), laments how, in some of the historical gurdwaras in India, many of the duties continue to be performed by men.

Such patriarchy defies Sikhism’s liberationist core, said Nikky, including its teaching against any official priesthood. So why are the Sikh scriptures publicly recited by men in many gurdwaras?

Nikky said she was treated respectfully when interviewed by Punjabi-language broadcasters this week in Surrey, which has one of the largest Sikh diaspora communities in the world.

And even though Nikky maintained a cheerful demeanour during our conversation, she was disturbed by the way female fetuses are systematically aborted across the length and breath of India.

“The obsession with sons is so great in northern India that modern technology is abused by Sikh families to promote abortion if the fetus is female,” Nikky laments in her book, The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent.

[Though the practice is primarily prevalent in India's majority Hindu community, it is pathetic that even Sikhs, who are strictly prohinbited from such practices, are also subscribing to it.]

Nikky, in addition, argues that centuries-old Indian “feudal” values have illegitimately penetrated the otherwise gender-egalitarian Sikh faith, including to some extent in Metro Vancouver (B.C. is home to roughly half of Canada’s 500,000 Sikhs).“It’s very, very troubling to me,” said Nikky, who moved from India to the U.S. in her late teens and has taught at Colby College in Maine for more than two decades. She returns at least once a year to India.

In contrast to Sikhism’s current patriarchal practices, Nikky emphasizes how founder Guru Nanak opposed the Hindu caste system, as well as the Hindu custom of cremating wives while they were alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands, and the need for women to wear veils.

Influenced by Western feminist theologians such as Rosemary Ruether and Rita Gross, Nikky Singh takes it in stride that it is now common for women to serve as clergy in many North American mainstream Protestant and Jewish denominations.

Nikky, like all observant Sikhs - male and female - wears the traditional five articles of the Sikh faith, the Five K's.

She points out that the founders of Sikhism wanted both men and women to wear them.

As a specialist in the Sikh religion, Nikky is also convinced that Sikhism’s sacred scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib, have often been mistranslated to fit a subconscious patriarchal agenda.

God in Sikhism is not meant to be reduced to one gender, she says, but to be understood to contain feminine and masculine qualities. It is most accurate, she said, to refer to God in Sikh scriptures as the all-inclusive number "1".

Yet, in much the same way that feminist Christian and Jewish scholars have complained about traditional Bible translations of the word God, Nikky says the Guru Granth Sahib is repeatedly mistranslated to refer to God as “He” and as “Lord.”

Despite her trust that Sikhism’s foundational teachings are tilted toward freedom and sexual equality, Nikky has long worried most Sikhs today are not listening to calls for reducing patriarchy.

So Nikky was inspired by a major event last year at the University of Toronto. Many young Sikh men and women gathered to speak of freedom of expression and equal rights for women within the faith.

“That was a big moment for me. There is a lot of energy in young diaspora Sikhs. I’m a scholar and a Sikh and I need transformation of my own society. I’m going back to my roots,” she said.

Nikky is convinced, if more Sikh women ask for it, Sikh men will welcome them taking a more prominent role in the religion.

“They are our brothers, fathers and husbands. And they respect us and love us as much as we love and respect them,” she said.

“They will change, because the Sikh tradition is a system of love, not a system of fear.”



There is no doubt that many practices within the community today - in gurdwaras and outside it - are abhorrent to Sikh values.

How did we arrive at this juncture?

How do we correct it?

Are women themselves doing enought to fight for their rights and take them back?  


[Courtesy: Vancouver Sun. Edited for]

April 9, 2012


Conversation about this article

1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), April 09, 2012, 1:49 PM.

No matter what anyone says, both Sikhism and Sikhs are way ahead of every other religion and faith community on earth in terms of giving equality to our women. However, it is also true that many Sikhs have strayed away from Sikh ideals in this regard, influenced by the Bollywood industry and by the regressive Hindu majority that surrounds us. We as Sikhs have NO excuse to fall short of total equality for women - our scriptures, unlike any other, have been unequivocal on this. While we urgently need to pull ourselves up by our boot-straps, other faiths can still certainly learn a lot from us.

2: Harmeet Singh (U.S.A.), April 09, 2012, 6:19 PM.

We need to pro-actively tackle our failings within the community. I was in Punjab last year and there were two honor killings around the month of September in Tarn Taran alone and I was shocked, however, to see there was no outcry from society or the politicians at all. We as Sikhs need to address this, even though the problem is primarily a nation-wide one. But we as Sikhs know - or should know - better!

3: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), April 09, 2012, 7:40 PM.

Harmeet Singh at comment # 2 has hit home something disturbing! Sikhism does NOT permit any violence against anyone (it is sanctioned only in self defence and ONLY IF all other peaceful means are exhausted) and certainly not against females and your own daughters! These perpetrators are neanderthal. In India, our people are being drowned in Hindu-style ignorance! Recently I came across some so-called Sikhs in Amritsar in Nihang attire, and the female of the group was crying. When I asked what was wrong and if I could help, they told me they were waiting outside a Hindu temple for a Hindu 'mantra' to get rid of their daughter's measles! And when I told them that this was wholly wrong, they said: "But we are from Hindus ... ek-onkar comes from the Hindu Om, and all the people do it and believe in it." It's but the tip of the iceberg ... and primitive, uncivilized thought-processes are thus infecting our community.

4: Manjeet Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), April 09, 2012, 8:15 PM.

No other religion except Sikhism that has elevated woman to the highest pedestal. Guru Granth Sahib is replete with hundreds of such shabads. For example: "nij bhagti silwantee naar" [GGS:370] - 'She is a bride of greatly agreeable disposition'. And, "roop anoop pooree aachaar" - (GGS:370.18] - 'Of incomparable beauty and perfect character.' Again, "jit garihi vasai so garihu sobhaavantaa" [GGS:370.18] - 'The house in which she dwells becomes a fortunate abode.' This should suffice: "so ki-o mandaa aakhee-ai jit jameh raajan" (GGS:473.9] - "Why call her bad; from her kings are born!" Sikhi hasn't failed us - but we Sikhs have!

5: Jaskaran Singh (Australia), April 09, 2012, 10:52 PM.

While I agree with the article in general and also all the comments, I was troubled at something about the Sikh scholar Dr. Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh. I was under the impression that Kaur and Singh were names given to females and males respectively. In joining the two together, is the scholar trying to espouse equality? Because this genuinely confuses me, especially when I see other women who call themselves Sikh and yet use Singh as their last name. I was always taught as a Sikh that women and men were equal, but they still had there own respective identities, hence we were given the Kaur and Singh names.

6: Ravinder Singh (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), April 10, 2012, 7:25 AM.

Nikky has a point, no doubt, but to call Guru Nanak a "feminist," diminishes him. Not to say he wasn't concerned about the plight of women; indeed he championed their cause. But that was not his central message or agenda. Guru Nanak is Guru, period. He describes his mission himself on p 150 of the Guru Granth Sahib where he describes himself an out of work minstrel, summoned into the Presence and given the task of singing praises and spreading the glory of the Shabad. In other words, Guru Nanak's work was to help us see our authentic selves (self-realization). All else flows from there. Of course, we tend to project him in our own image.

7: Davinder Singh (Nawan Shahar, Punjab), April 10, 2012, 3:10 PM.

i agree, today we have strayed from the righteous path and teachings of Guru and gurbani. How did we arrive at this juncture? For Punjab, I find two main reasons - 1) Self choosen ignorance, if you wish to call it, by not actually reading and understanding gurbani and its principles and treating Guru Granth Sahib same as an idol only to bow our head and using it for akhand paatths and performing them as other rituals and rites. So, basically, we are isolating ourselves from Guru and gurbani's message and thus subscribing to all these malpractices that gurbani prohibits - such as gender discrimination. 2) External forces with vested interests working in order to separate people from gurbani and promoting false propaganda just to foster casteism, inequality and gender discrimination amongst society so that people are not awakened/ enlightened enough to differentiate between right and wrong and no one questions their authority. In the very same systematic manner, our major religious places and institutions are being taken over. This is how Buddhism lost its hold in it's homeland (the same religion that also embraced equality and shunned idol worship). So, fundamentally it's the enlightened mindset that these narrow-minded and selfish people in power or majority are afraid of, not an identity (Sikh/ Sardar). I think the above-mentioned factors are straying Sikhs from gurbani and its actual message itself that is leading to present evils in society (e.g., gender inequality, caste-creed, drug abuse, dowry, female foeticide, etc.) How do we correct it? I believe by imparting right education and knowledge at grassroot levels by setting our own Sikh colleges, schools, research institutions and universities and also we direly need to reform our gurdwaras in Punjab. They are the places from where gurbani's actual message can be spread throughout the society and they can also be used in a very constructive manner to impart moral education. If gurbani's actual message is spread among masses, I don't think there will ever be any question like this.

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The Roundtable Open Forum # 91"

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