Gender equality or inequality in the Sikh community?

Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal


Gender inequality is a global issue, and in the context of religion one naturally asks how religious doctrine has been used to justify discrimination and violence against women. Alternatively if gender inequality is due mainly to cultural and social practices, rather than religious ones, do religions have the precepts, influence and power to change these age-old beliefs and practices? There are challenges and opportunities for women of all faiths particularly in the UK, but how do we create real change and empower women? And how can we support one another in making change?  In this week’s blogs I will be focusing on gender inequality amongst the Sikhs and we will conclude by addressing the inequality that is also present in Christianity. 

The Sikh Gurus’ instituted egalitarian ideals in the 15th Century and their theology was inclusive with emphasis on social as well as religious equality. McLeod (1997, p. 242) stresses how Guru Nanak‘s teachings regarding gender ‘carry us well beyond the conventional view of his time or, for that matter, the present time as well’. However, it is evident from current research that, while progress has been made in gender equality, the Sikh religious community is still very much a man’s world, particularly in the area of family, community and religious life.  

In a society submerged in rituals, caste and gender prejudice, and intolerance to other faiths and religions, the Sikh Gurus opened the way for sexual equality (Banerjee 1983). Throughout the teachings of the Gurus it is clear that the patriarchal polarization which existed – women and nature on the one side against men and culture on the other – was repudiated, and the Sikh Gurus tried to give women greater equality, social and religious. Women, according to the Gurus were neither a hindrance nor a negative influence; but necessary for the continuance of society and for the preservation of its social structure.

The Gurus preached what some people might call a revolutionary message, which accorded women equality and recognized the importance of women with reference to giving birth and life while creating a solid foundation on which they hoped future generations of Sikhs would build. However, the Sikh community has failed in many ways to live up to this vision.

Generations of patriarchy have been programmed to fear her body, and this threat of her sexuality has kept readers and hearers from recognizing the semiotic significance of Sikh sacred verse. Bani permeates with female force and fecundity, but the fear and disdain of her presence has kept Sikhs from acknowledging female images in the poetic world of the Gurus. (Nikky Singh 2005, p. 208)

McLeod also argued that the gender ideal did not take shape in society then and now because patriarchy still prevailed and women played a secondary role in the sacred and secular domains and to date women are defined in terms of their role as wife and mother:

The Gurus certainly conferred equal opportunity on both women and men, but it was equal opportunity of access to spiritual liberation. It was not equality in the sense that women might do everything that might be open to men. A woman’s place was in the home, sheltered there by the caring and devotion of an upright husband. Patriarchy had certainly been deprived of its domineering aspects, but patriarchy was still intact (McLeod 1997, p. 243)

Hence, the ‘emancipatory conception postulated by their Gurus is aborted and sadly, a patriarchal structure is reproduced in the Sikh world’ (Nikky Singh 2005, p. 202).  The Gurus’ religious ideal has not been achieved due to the Indian traditional and cultural practices, which enforce gender inequality. For example, culturally, Sikhs have shown a preference for sons, which has been reinforced by an intensely patriarchal mind-set. These traditional and cultural practices have become merged with Sikh religious practice.  As a result today many Sikh women have their place ascribed to them in society and family by male members – be they fathers, grandfathers, older brothers or brothers-in-law. Women still do not have the same opportunities within the religious arena, and there is still an unequal pressure on women in terms of upholding family honour and homemaking and child care even though they may hold down the same jobs as men.  Most importantly this pressure is evident when a woman is married and having children.  There is strong pressure to produce sons and this has today resulted in a practice of female foeticide, which will be considered in a later blog.

Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal is a lecturer in Sikh studies at the University of Birmingham.

Bibliography and useful links 


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