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From woman, man is born;

within woman, man is conceived; to woman he is engaged and married.
Woman becomes his friend; through woman, the future generations come.
When his woman dies, he seeks another woman; to woman he is bound.
So why call her bad? From her, kings are born.
From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all.

Guru Nanak, Raag Aasaa Mehal 1, Page 473

These are words that were uttered by the founder of Sikhism, Sri Guru Nanak Dev in about 1499. So for Sikhs from that period, there has been compulsion to treat women as equals and gender discrimination was not allowed. However, high principles set by prophets and religious leaders have always been very difficult to implement and put into practise. In this respect, equality for women has been a difficult right to actually achieve in reality.

In Sikhism, the Holy Scriptures have clearly stated that the Sikh woman has always been regarded as an equal with man and has all the rights and privileges enjoyed by a man. She is considered to have the same soul as man and has equal right to grow spiritually. The Sikh woman is allowed to lead religious congregations, to take part in Akhand Path (the continuous recitation of the Holy Scriptures), to perform Kirtan, to work as Granthi (priest) or a preacher and to participate freely in all religious, cultural, social, political and secular activities.

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Sikh woman have played a glorious part in Sikh History and have proven themselves as equal in service, devotion, sacrifice and bravery. Examples of their moral dignity, service and self sacrifice are and will remain a source of inspiration. Women are the backbone of the history of the Sikhs, their culture and tradition yet there is little written about this huge contribution by the Sikh women to the great history of this religion.

Man and woman are two sides of the same coin - the human race. Man takes birth from a woman and woman is born of a man. This system is interrelating and inter-dependent. A man can never feel secure and complete in life without a woman. A man’s success depends upon the love and support of the woman who shares her life with him and vice versa.

The first woman to be remembered in Sikhism is Mata Tripta Ji, the mother of the first, and founder Guru, Guru Nanak Dev Ji. She meditated while carrying the child Nanak in her womb, and brought him up with love and tender care trying to protect him from his father Mehta Kalu’s wrath for being solitary.

Bebe Nanaki Ji, the elder and the only sister of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, was a highly intelligent, spiritually awake, and pious lady. It was she who recognised the divine light in her brother and envisaged his mission of life before anyone else could perceive it. She didn’t treat him just as a brother, she respected him like a Guru for the whole of her life. She supported her revolutionary brother for the whole of her life who had come to redeem people from misconception and superstitions.



Women who had many equal privileges with the menfolk in Vedic India were reduced to a position of utter subordination during the time of the lawgivers. In the codes and institutes laid down in the dharmasastras (holy shrines) they were given the status of sudras (the low caste). They were declared to be intrinsically impure and unfit, hence ineligible, even for listening to the recital of sacred texts and receiving religious instruction or initiation. The inherent attraction of the female was considered to be a temptation to sin, and man had to remain on guard all the time. Woman was maya, illusion; “nature had designed her for the enjoyment of man” and she had “no other function than to serve him.”

With the Muslims came pardah, the veil, and zananah, confinement of womenfolk to the interior apartments. The female became a greater liability for the male of the invaded populace who, weakened economically, had not only to feed his female dependants but also to be ready to protect their honour and chastity in those troubled times. This, among other causes, social as well as cultural, led to the practice of female infanticide, as also of child marriage. The state of a widow was the most pitiable. Polygamy was permissible for man, but a woman could not remarry even after the death of her husband. The smrtis enjoined upon the widow to practise sahamarana, lit. simultaneous death, commonly known as sati, by burning herself on the funeral pyre of her husband. Where concession was made and the widow allowed to live on, being pregnant or having infant children, for instance, she remained ostracized from society, submitting herself to rigorous discipline of self-denial.

With the advent of Sikhism appeared a liberating force in Indian society. Affirmation of the dignity of the human being, male as well as female, was central to Guru Nanak’s teaching. His mystical vision of the immanence of the Creator in all of His creation was concretized in a forceful enunciation of the gospel of equality. Guru Nanak said that all creatures were equal before God and that to make distinctions among them on the grounds of birth or sex was sinful. For women especially, he had many bold and sympathetic words to say. Quoted most often in this respect are verses from Asa ki Var, a long composition sung in sangat in the morning service.

“Of woman are we born, of woman conceived; to woman engaged, to woman married. Women are befriended, by woman is the civilization continued. When woman dies, woman is sought for. It is by woman that the entire social order is maintained. Then why call her evil of whom are great men born?”

In another stanza in Asa ki Var, Guru Nanak rejects the prevalent superstition of sutak, according to which a woman giving birth to a child remains in pollution for a given number of days, depending upon the caste to which she belongs. Pollution is not in childbirth, says Guru Nanak:


“Greed is the pollution of the mind; lying the pollution of the tongue; looking with covetousness upon another’s wealth, upon another’s wife, upon the beauty of another’s wife the pollution of the eye; listening to slander the pollution of the ears. The pollution in which they commonly believe is all superstition. Birth and death are by Divine Will; by Divine Will men come and go” (GG, 472)

As against celibacy and renunciation, Guru Nanak recommended grhastha - the life of a householder, in which husband and wife were equal partners. Fidelity was enjoined upon both. In the sacred verse, domestic felicity was presented as a cherished ideal and conjugal life provided a running metaphor for the expression of love for the Divine. Bhai Gurdas, poet of early Sikhism and authoritative interpreter of Sikh doctrine, pays high tribute to womankind. “A woman,” he says (Varan, V.16), “is the favourite in her parental home loved dearly by her father and mother. In the home of her in-laws, she is the pillar of the family, the guarantee of its good fortune. . . Sharing in spiritual wisdom and enlightenment and with noble qualities endowed, a woman, the other half of man, escorts him to the door of liberation."


To ensure equal status for women, the Gurus made no distinction between the sexes in matters of initiation, instruction or participation in sangat, holy fellowship, and pangat, commensality. According to Sarup Das Bhalla, Mahima Prakash, Guru Amar Das disfavoured the use of veil by women. He assigned women to the responsibility of supervising the communities of disciples in certain sectors, and preached against the custom of sati. Sikh history records the names of several ladies such as Mai Bhago, Mata Sundari, Rani Sahib Kaur, Rani Sada Kaur and Maharani Jind Kaur who played a leading role in the events of their time and left their imprint on them.

In the tumultuous decades of the eighteenth century when Sikhs went through fierce persecution, the women displayed exemplary steadfastness. Their deeds of heroism and sacrifice are to this day recounted morning and evening by the Sikhs in their ardas.

“Our mothers and sisters,” they repeat every time in their prayer, “who plied handmills in the jails of Mannu [the Mughal governor of Lahore (1748-53)], grinding daily a maund-and-a-quarter of corn each, who saw their children being hacked to pieces in front of their eyes, but who uttered not a moan from their lips and remained steadfast in their Sikh faith—recall their spirit of fortitude and sacrifice, and say, Vahiguru, Glory be to God!”


Even in those days of severe trial and suffering, Sikhs were guided in their treatment of the womenfolk of enemy captured in battle by the highest standards of chivalry. They showed towards them utmost respect. In AD 1763, for instance, one of Ahmad Shah Durrani’s generals, Jahan Khan, was defeated by the Sikhs at Sialkot and a number of his female relations and dependants fell into their hands. “But” says ‘Ali ud-Din, in his ’Ibratnamah, “as the Sikhs of old would not lay their hands on women, they had them escorted safely to Jammu.”

Another Muslim chronicler, Ghulam Muhaiy ud-Din, vituperates the Sikhs in his Fatuhat Namah-i-Samadi, yet he does not fail to notice the esteem they had for women. “They (i.e. the Sikhs),” he records in his book, “look upon all women in the light of mothers.”

This is how a Sikh was defined by Bhai Gurdas a century earlier. He said, “A Sikh casting his eyes upon the beautiful womenfolk of families other than his own regards them as his mothers, sisters and daughters.”

Such being the respect for womanhood among the Sikhs, monogamy has been the rule for them, and polygamy a rare exception. Female infanticide is prohibited. The Rahitnamas, codes of conduct, prohibit Sikhs from having any contact or relationship with those who indulge in this practice. As for sati (widow-burning), The Sikh Scriptures reject it.


In a shabad (hymn) in measure Suhi, Guru Amar Das says,

“Satis are not those that burn themselves on the husband’s funeral pyre; satis are they, O Nanak, who die of the pangs of separation.” (GG, 787)

Stanza follows: “They, too be reckoned satis who live virtuously and contentedly in the service of the Lord, ever cherishing Him in their hearts”. “Some”, continues the shabad, “burn themselves along with their dead husbands: [but they need not, for] if they really loved them they would endure the pain alive.”

As a practical step towards discouraging the practice of sati, Sikhism permitted remarriage of widows.

In the present-day democratic system in India, women as a whole have been rid of many of their disabilities. They all enjoy political franchise and many new opportunities for advancement have opened up for them. Sikh women have shown enterprise in several fields and are among the most progressive in education and in the professions such as teaching and medicine. In the Sikh system, they are the equals of men in all respects. They can lead congregational services and participate in akhand paths, uninterrupted readings of scripture to be accomplished within forty-eight hours. They vote with men periodically to elect Sikhs’ central religious body, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, which administers their places of worship, but as of yet they have not been allowed to participate in the institution of the Panj Piares and their duties in the Pahul ceremony.

Quotes by Scholars

See also

External Links



  • 1. Robert O. Ballou : The Portable World Bible, Penguin Books, 1976, p. 237-241.
  • 2. Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, translator : The Meaning of Glorious Koran, Mentor Book, New American Library, New York and Scarborough, Ontario, 1924, p. 53, Surah II, 223-228.
  • 3. Kanwaljit Kaur : Sikh Women, Fundamental Issues in Sikh Studies, Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, 1992, p. 96.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Guru Granth Sahib : p 73.
  • 6. Ibid. : p. 1268.
  • 7. Prof. Prabhjot Kaur : Women's Liberation Movement and Gurmat, Abstracts of Sikh Studies, April-June 1997, Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, p.76.
  • 8. Guru Granth Sahib, p.788.
  • 9. Ibid., p. 787.
  • 10. Kanwaljit Kaur : op. cit., p. 99.
  • 11. Alice Basarke : Where Are the Women ?, Current Thoughts on Sikhism, Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, 1996, p, 265.
  • 12. Ibid.
  • 13. Ibid.
  • 14. Ibid.
  • 15. Sabdarath Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1975
  • 16. Baig, Tara Ali, India’s Women Power. Delhi, 1976
  • 17. Marenco, Ethne K., The Transformation of Sikh Society, Portland, Oregon, 1974
  • 18. Nikki-Guninder Kaur Singh, The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent. Cambridge, 1994

Above adapted from article By G. S. Talib

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