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.