Moving away from inequality as evidenced by female foeticide, I want to highlight how the Sikh religious community is very much a man’s world. Many of the rights given to women by the gurus have been superficially utilized by the religious community. Take the importance of women being involved in religious activities: this was paramount to the gurus. In particular, women’s involvement in religious observance and services, which was intended to take women out into the wider community where they would have a definite and defined ‘public’ role as mothers and teachers of the youngsters. According to such teachings this requirement makes the Sikh religion progressive; however representation does not equal power. Women are excluded from various activities within Sikh religious institutions and this is related to the sexual divisions in Sikh society. Apart from a few high-profile examples, women continue to be left in the margins. In gurdwaras there are relatively few women on the committees and those that are find that their voices are rarely heard. Women preachers are also rare and essentially only cater to the female population:
Moreover, public worship is also dominated by men. Almost always in Gurdwaras male lenses interpret the scriptural passages.
Men have the privilege to touch and read the textual body during all forms of public worship. Since men conduct rituals and ceremonies, their voices and hands have seized the sacred modality of the sacred word. (Nikky Singh 2005b: 201)
Opinderjit Takhar (2005) argued that women could not do such sewa because her respondents informed her that ‘women have other duties such as preparation of the langar and cleaning of the gurdwara, which do not leave time for participating in the akhand paths’ (Takhar 2005, p. 49). It is also important to note here that some women, especially the older women, argue that they are happy with doing sewa in the kitchen (Jhutti-Johal 2010). It is the younger women who seem to be more vocal and demanding in asking to be allowed to do sewa where traditionally they have not done it.
Apart from discrimination on the basis of sexuality, discrimination is also grounded in the belief that women do not have the capability to organize and run gurdwaras. This is incorrect. Many women have the qualifications and experience, but have been historically discriminated against from being part of decision making in Sikh organizations. However, there have been instances in Coventry, Leicester, Birmingham and London where women have taken over the running of gurdwaras when rival factions developed in the all-male committees.
Guru Nanak Gurdwara, Smethwick, was managed by local women during 1981–2; Guru Tegh Bahadur gurdwara, Leicester, which had no elections for nine years, was also taken over by women. The Shepherd’s Bush gurdwara, when faced with a crisis as a result of rivalry between two factions, delegated charge to an all-women’s committee in March 1983. (Singh and Tatla 2006: 85)
Although these instances are rare and do suggest that women can take control if they want to, we must also consider possible arguments for why women are not in these leadership roles. Some argue that women are not in these decision-making roles (such as in gurdwara committees and service organizations) because they do not have the qualifications or experience. However, one can argue that the reason they do not have these qualifications or experience is that they historically have been discriminated from having access to opportunities that would enable them to gain skills that are required in the context of Sikh organizations. On the other hand, it could be argued that women themselves are just not taking the lead on these matters and are not putting themselves forward. This could be due to apathy or because they are uncomfortable with the whole environment of the gurdwara ‘committee’, i.e. a boy’s club; similar arguments could be made for the lack of women in parliament.
While gender divisions in most gurdwaras may be taken for granted, it is quite noticeable that the Harmandar Sahib (Golden Temple) , the most visible and visited place of worship for Sikhs, does not allow Sikh women to read from the Guru Granth Sahib play Kirtan or perform any sewa in the sanctum sanctorum (main prayer room). These sewas are ‘reserved’ for men only.
Thus, to date it is clear from investigations that women are still encountering problems and cannot perform sewa, which goes against Sikh tradition, as that there was no precedent in Sikh history whether or not to allow women to perform sewa.
However, it is important to note that when religious priests are asked why women are excluded, the common response seems to be that their exclusion from certain activities is not due to a strict code of pollution and to men’s fear of distraction. They argue this because they are aware of the contradiction that exists between the religious teachings and what happens on the ground, for instance social and religious discrimination of women. Instead, they argue that ‘this is always how it has been done and that there are, good practical reasons for not having women performing certain activities’. When probed as to what these reasons may be there are usually no further explanations.
Thus, although the Guru Granth Sahib and the Sikh Rehat Maryada does not prohibit women from taking part in religious services and leading prayers, it is clear that there is some form of gender discrimination going on in many gurdwaras with reference to the activities that women can participate in, both in the Punjab and in the diaspora. As a result of this discrimination women have been confined to the private sphere, while men have access to the religious sphere, which is justified on the grounds that this is how it’s always been.
Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal is a lecturer in Sikh studies at the University of Birmingham.
- Singh, Nikky Guninder Kaur (2005), The Birth of the Khalsa: A Feminist Re-Memory of Sikh Identity. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
- Takhar, Opinderjit Kaur (2005), Sikh Identity: An exploration of Groups Among Sikhs. London: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
- Singh, Gurharpal, and D. S. Tatla (2006), Sikhs in Britain: The Making of a Community. London: Zed Books Ltd.