Thursday, August 11, 2005

Women in Sikhism: A Promising Reform

Sikhs like to talk a big game about gender equality, but most of the time it's just talk. Patriarchal institutions like dowry are still quite widespread amongst the Sikh community in India, for one thing. And worse: Punjab, as many people will know, has the highest male/female birth ratio in all of India, due to rampant female foeticide. It's hard to talk about gender equality when that is going on.

Well, this week there is one small but promising reform out of Amritsar, the granting of full inclusion of women in Sikh religious services, according to the IANS:

Sixty-five years after making a demand that they be allowed to take part in two rituals at the holiest of Sikh shrines - the Golden Temple at Amritsar - women will finally be able to enter an arena so far dominated by males.

The religious promotion and affairs committee of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) - the governing body for Sikh shrines - decided Monday that Sikh women would be allowed to perform 'kirtan' (singing hymns) and 'palki sewa' (carrying the Sikh holy book Guru Granth Sahib in a palanquin) on religious occasions.

The decision came when the SGPC has a woman president - Jagir Kaur - at the helm of affairs. The first demand to allow women to do religious service at the Golden Temple was made in 1940 but the male-dominated SGPC never allowed it to happen. Jagir Kaur became SGPC president in 1999 but was unable to get the resolution allowing women to join rituals to be passed.

The controversy over women performing voluntary religious service at the Golden Temple erupted in February 2003 when two Sikh women from Britain were prevented from doing religious service there.

Till now, women were allowed to participate only in certain activities at the temple, like preparing food at the langar or community kitchen. (link)

You might be thinking, wait, don't they already have a woman president of the SGPC? Well, the short answer is, she's no feminist. There's also a longer answer there, involving Bibi Jagir Kaur's likely involvement in the murder of her own daughter five years ago. (She was acquitted.) And there's another issue -- Bibi Jagir Kaur was actually just removed from the position three weeks ago because of a corruption scandal (which means the story above is actually mistaken; more on this at the end of this post).

This reform seems like it might be a big deal for religion in the Indian subcontinent, since neither mainstream Hinduism nor Islam currently allow women to lead prayers or conduct ritual observance. In the Hindu tradition, as I understand it, there have been reformers like Vivekananda who have advocated women's empowerment along the way, but none have gone so far as to advocate women taking on the role of Poojari. (Note: my knowledge of this is very limited; I'm willing to be educated on this by readers.) In Islam, women have been demanding their rights to lead prayers, but it's mainly radical groups in the U.S. like the Daughters of Hajar that are forcing the issue. As far as I know, no one is talking about this in South Asia itself.

While the novelty of this reform is worth celebrating, it's hard to believe it took this long for it to happen. Sikhs have long trumpeted the pro-woman qualities of Sikhism, which are inscribed in the Guru Granth Sahib in various passages, and which go all the way back to Guru Nanak. And Sikh religious services, which revolve around readings from the Guru Granth Sahib (i.e., the holy book), and the singing of hymns (kirtan) are relatively unspecialized, which means the absence of women can't be explained as a matter of "training" or "education." There is also no official priesthood in the Sikh tradition -- technically, any baptized Sikh can lead the singing of kirtan or perform the duties of a Granthi (see here for more). Given those two facts, it's remarkable that the ban on women leading religious services at the Golden Temple -- a flagrant inconsistency -- persisted as long as it did.

This reform is going through even as Bibi Jagir Kaur faces a fresh controversy. She has been accused of embezzling 700 million Rupees (70 crores; US $16 million) from the SGPC coffers. In July she was, in fact, expelled from the SGPC for five years as a result.

As to whether there is any connection between the timing of this reform at the Golden Temple and Bibi Jagir Kaur's (latest) corruption scandal, I can't say.


Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

This is a fascinating post. I had no idea that Punjab was bad on the male/female ratio. I thought it was just Rajasthan pulling everybody down. Perhaps Bangla is just as bad. I should check on the India census. Of course as Rabindranath pointed out Bengali widows are horribly treated, so its not like we can point fingers at anyone.

But I did want to point out that among Bengalees, Brahmo Samaj type groups are very popular and I've seen female leaders of such groups. Ramkrishna Mission of course have a lot of powerful female Bramhacharinis. And of course there was a large number of female Baul singers. Yes, there aren't any female poojaris that I know of. But I don't know how relevant that is. I know only one purohit, our ancestral family purohit. The only time I saw him was when there was a wedding or a death in the family. And by the time I got married my parents were fully agnostics and we had dispensed with his services. We had a full Brahmo style wedding (to the horror of my wife) officiated by my parents. As a side note our US wedding was in a University chapel (my wife is an Indian christian). My mother-in-law (a white american, who adopted my wife) was horrified to find out that the wedding would be officiated by a woman!

3:41 PM  
Suvendra Nath Dutta said...


Aside from Kerela and Pondicherry every other state has more males than females!

Census results

3:50 PM  
Amardeep said...


Thanks especially for the comments about women poojaris in the Brahmo Samaj. I don't know any Brahmos in person (and I know most of what I know about the community and its practices through studying Tagore). So it's interesting to hear about it from you.

By the way, I should have mentioned that this post too (most of my posts lately) is cross-posted at Sepia Mutiny. Many of the commentors there had similar types of encounters with women Pujaris, and one woman there is actually planning to have a sacred thread ceremony soon -- traditionally reserved for men. Apparently Pune is a hotbed for women being trained as Pujaris.

4:01 PM  
RajpaL said...

Excellent post, Amardeep!

9:53 PM  
Matto said...

I was under the impression that Hindu women poojaris have made considerable foray into priesthood,but again that's probably because I spent a lot of time in Pune. Number of people that I know there have been vociferous about having women priests perform rites for them....

Here's a link I found on the phenomenon.

11:57 PM  
Prithi Shetty said...

In Pune, there is a group of lady priests, who conduct wedding rituals. There were few news reports of a lady priest who conducts cremation too.

But I feel status in religion & choice of profession have no connection with gender equality. I am aware of the high status of women in Hindu religion - texts, ritual, etc. And workplace rules require that we be gender insensitive. But outside workplace, in the world where female-feoticide occurs, its the physical power which is the determinant factor.

4:24 AM  
jaspreet singh oberai said...

nice posting and puncturing of the complancy of the sikh community.
Regarding the yawning gap between the ideas of gender equality in Sikhism and its practice, I would regard it as an example of a deeply rooted Chauvinism in Punjabi culture.

10:35 AM  
One More Reason said...

Good Post.

Come to think of it, I haven't found any female christian priest either(in south India). Though, females do participate in almost all aspects of the church functioning... not many priests. Will try and find out some more.

10:04 AM  
Amardeep said...

One More Reason,

Though, females do participate in almost all aspects of the church functioning... not many priests. Will try and find out some more.

Uh, as far as I know the Roman Catholic church still has a total, worldwide ban on women priests. The other Christian denominations in India mostly do not (though I don't know about the Syrian Christians in Kerala... maybe they also have a ban).

4:09 PM  
BCSikhYouth said...

Vaheguru ji ka khalsa,
Vaheguru ji ki fatheh!

An interesting post. These days, every issue, good or bad, has a lot of politics behind it and even if a politician or a religious leader makes one good statement, it is not adviseable to jump on the bandwagon and support them or be in their favour, as these fake leaders will do anything to keep themselves in power - whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. And the general ratio is, they will do 10 bad things behind our backs and 1 good thing in front of our eyes!

Hopefully Guru Sahib will bless the Khalsa panth will strength of Rehit and bring back unity and self governance so that we may implement the traditions of equality and universality again in addition to gurmat maryada and respect for Gurbani.

Thanks for the post.

the Sikh Youth of BC
Sikhism, Youth issues, community, events, resources.

11:40 PM  
am said...

bibi jagir kaur has not been acquitted ... she has been charged on various counts in the death of her daughter including culpable homicide ... the trial is still on ..

9:27 AM  
7:21 AM  

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