Sikhism & Women: History, Texts & Experience


Title: Sikhism & Women: History, Texts and Experience

Edited by: Doris R Jacobsh

Edition: First, 2010

Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi – 110001

ISBN-13: 978-0-19-806002-4

ISBN-10: 0-19-806002-5

Doris Jacobsh is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Waterloo, Canada. Her book ‘Relocating Gender in Sikh History: Transformation, Meaning and Identity’ published in 2003 received mixed reviews by Sikhs. She has had continuing interest in the status of women among Sikhs, sharing her views in some published articles. Jakobsh occasionally participates in internet Sikh discussion groups and has an engaging quality about her.

This book is an anthology of 14 Articles, written, all but one, exclusively by women authors. A brief synoptic view of the Articles below should give an idea of the canvass covered:

Robin Rinehart [Lafayette College, PA] explores the gender implications in Dasam Granth. She is of the view that reading of the text including Charitropakhyan may provide a clearer picture of role of gender in understanding divinity. Purnima Dhavan [Univ of Washington, Seattle] has attempted to demonstrate that while early Sikh chiefs were inclined to be egalitarian, by the late 18th century they were promoting self perpetuating hierarchical orders with its caste and gender implications. Anshu Mahotra [Univ of Delhi] examines female infanticide practices in colonial Punjab and has traced through the contrivances by Bedis and Darbari Jats that gave lie to Sikh ideals and has led to sex ratios among Sikhs in contemporary Punjab the lowest. C. Christian Fair [Georgetown Univ] speculates that Bhai Vir Singh through his novels attempts to use Singh-like women characters to promote Khalsa ethos, motivate males to be steadfast in faith and promote imagination of Punjab as the homeland of Sikhs.

Michelle Maskeil [Montana State Univ], through a painstaking article, has collated some bits of evidence to suggest Sikhs are assuming phulkari, an embroidered work produced traditionally by rural women, as Sikh heritage. Nicola Mooney [Fraser Valley Univ. Ca] concludes that ‘Jats continue to practice other forms of inequality, not only privileging men and masculinity but also marking if not celebrating caste differences. And when women themselves do not recognize the same experiences and sources of their inequality, the ability to establish gender equity —- remains elusive.’ Preeti Kaur and Girishwar Misra [Delhi Univ] tell of changing identities and fixed roles of Sikh women [and men] emerging from analysis of marriage advertisements in the newspapers. Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh [Colby College, Maine] introspects over a grief laden experience of feeling left out in her mother’s last rites for being a woman and pleads for re-feminization of Sikh rituals.  Jagbir Jhutti-Johal [Birmingham Univ. UK] surveying women in UK and India did not see much interest in gender equity issues in Gurdwaras – some were happy with what was, some apathetic and others did not see it as a priority issue.

Kamala Elizabeth Nayar [Kwantlen Univ. BC] starting with the premise that the emigrant Sikh community has in a way moved directly from a rural setting to the Canadian society, finds that important inter generational attitudinal differences exist among them. It is only by the third generation that women seem to seek gender equality. Inderpal Grewal [Yale Univ] has examined the experience of Sikh women refugees in the 1990’s US and emerging process related gender issues. Constance Elsberg [Virginia] studying the women members in Sikh Dharma, surmises that ‘For women who wanted to see major changes in the world and its systems of power, who did not want to embrace traditional women’s roles, but did not embrace feminism, who desperately wanted to find ways to unite meaning and action, it was Sikhism that provided the form and structure they needed.’ Margaret Walton-Roberts [Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Ca] explores the disadvantaged position that women marrying NRIs face, the marital problems encountered by them and the perpetuation of traditional gender roles based on Sikh cases. Kanwal Mand [Univ of Sussex] looks at the working lives of transnational Sikh women based on real life examples.

The papers thus cover an extensive canvass and offer several new and interesting insights but if one was looking to get some kind of an integrated understanding about Sikhism & Women, the book may really be of little help. This limitation is recognized by Jakobsh in the Introduction and readers should bear that in mind. I would nonetheless commend her for undertaking this task and for bringing the work of so many scholars together for the benefit of interested readers. One only hopes that these scholars will continue to write on Sikh issues and the book spawns discussions in which many more get involved.

Doris Jakobsh, in a short acknowledgement, has recognized Eleanor Nesbitt for her insights and dedicated the book to the memory of Hew McLeod. An Introduction has been jointly written by her and Eleanor Nesbitt under a sub-title ‘Sikhism and Women: Contextualizing the Issues’ – a none too easy task in the light of diversity of themes, different starting points and approaches by the authors.

Discriminatory Practices

Expectedly the book finds repeated references to certain practices at Darbar Sahib and in some of other settings as evidence of continued practice of discrimination against women. The instances at Darbar Sahib include the exclusion of women from entering the sanctum sanctorum, perform kirtan or lend their shoulders to carriage of the palki. Other practices that have been mentioned as objectionable include lack of women visibility in liturgical services, practices in searches for marriage partners, some wedding rituals, lighting of pyre by a male relative etc. The view is that Sikh defense of most such practices citing tradition, cultural influences or using the teachings in the SGGS to imply that any ‘misogynic practices or attitudes are by their very nature outside of Sikhism’ is not acceptable in the Western scholarship. [p.22]

Instances such as those mentioned above have been written about and discussed in Sikh forums. A broad sense has been that Sikhs believe motivation and actualization of seva to be a divine gift to be thankfully accepted and rendered in complete humility. Seeking seva as a right therefore is not seen to be appropriate, nor is the act of denial of opportunity for obscure reasons thought to be in keeping with Sikh ethos. [See also Jhutti-Johal p. 244]

Several Sikh women have great erudition and in-depth knowledge of scriptures and Sikh history but none is known to have attempted to become a professional kathakar or granthie. Likewise while many Sikh women have excelled in music and sung shabds in large sammelans, only a few have tried to form Ragi jathas. In practice these are vocations that need commitment of time and effort, earnings can be abysmally low and working conditions can be too demanding and harsh. The numbers needed are large, and there is an increasing demand for these service providers to be well educated. Reform therefore will not be easy to come by especially for small community based Gurdwaras.

The comment by Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh that ‘[m]y father asked his former secretary, who had been like a son to my parents, to light the pyre [of her mother]. I did not even question the choice’ is touching [p. 207] but it reminded me of another wrestling moment I had experienced a couple of years back. A relative of ours, who had lived in the US for decades, lost her husband. They had an adopted daughter who would have been around ten at the time. At the cremation the mother asked the child to light the pyre. I almost cried thinking if the little girl would ever get over the trauma of the task entrusted to her. Did the mother make the choice in deference to any ritual tradition? I am not certain because in electric crematorium setting, the lever is moved by an operator as family members, both male and female, along with other mourners, look on.

Feminizing of Sikhi

Robin Rinehart has used the writings of Nikky Singh to hypothesize that the goddess mythology of Dasam Granth flows from the composite Dasam Granth including Charitropakhyan and goes on to say that ‘Nikky Singh’s work shows that Dasam Granth’s goddess mythology can provide the foundation for a feminist theology in Sikhism’ [p. 57] though she does express skepticism if Sikhs would accept to use Chritropakhyan as the resource for ‘shaping a contemporary Sikh vision of conceptions of gender.’

Nikky Singh contends that ‘Until we understand the special way in which Sikh Gurus included women in religious rites and practices, and the distinctive mode in which they expressed the feminine in their literature, we will not experience the true enchantment and empowerment of their legacy.’ [p. 230] She is also of the view that ‘[t]he existing translations are androcentric, closing off women’s experience.’ [p. 220]

Jakobsh has expressed that ‘For the most part, the study of women in Sikhism has ignored the contributions of critical feminist approaches to the study of women in religion.’ [p. 21]

While the book carries the findings of Nicola Mooney, Jagbir Jhutti-Johal and Kamala Elizabeth Nayar regarding the observed ambivalence in the attitudes of a cross section of Sikh women on gender equity, the writings in the book seem to coalesce in the direction of above views. Indeed if the scholars are convinced and confident about what they are suggesting to be done, they could even collaborate and produce a Sikh feminist theology, fill gaps in study of women in Sikhism by incorporating the critical feminist approaches and undertake the work of producing acceptable translations that help women [men and nipounsak[1]] realize the experience true enchantment and empowerment. Such an exercise may give shape to the ideas propounded in these conversations and the experience may even moderate some of the espoused positions. The study may also find if the expectation that Sikhi could be the answer to the search of women who wanted change in traditional roles of women but did not subscribe to feminist approaches, is valid. [see Constance Elsberg above]

New Authorities

Jakobsh has expressed a view that like the leaders of Singh Sabha movement  in the 19th century who could effectively harness the use of available means of communication to turn their position into one of authority, the present day internet and technology saavy Sikhs creating and managing Sikh websites are turning into ‘new authorities.’ [p.11]

There is merit to this suggestion. We should be wary of internet sources and to use information provided as authentic without verification could be hazardous. While many people use the web for propagating their own views and pre-dispositions, we do find that some of the fads promoted quickly run out of momentum unless these have some intrinsic worth. Nonetheless the caution is well taken.

Homogenization of Sikh Identity

Comment by Greaves has been quoted saying that Sikh texts ‘do not describe the complexity and variety of forms of Sikh identity but rather present the Khalsa as the definitive and discrete Sikh world religion —- Essentially this definition [of who is a Sikh] needs to recognize the common ethnic dimension to Sikh identity which may then manifest a variety of religious forms which should equally demand our attention.’ [p. 6]

Sikh identity and within that the identity of a Sikh woman has been the subject of considerable discussion in the book. Even though the Sikh identity model as defined in the SRM is inclusive,[2] yet the complexities introduced by differences in what is prescribed by the SRM, Gurdwara Acts, Court decisions, Akal Takht edicts, multiple traditions et al are well documented. While searches for solutions are ongoing, at the ground level the signs of community propelled change are also compelling – though not by way of women wearing turbans in spite of some web sites promoting it.

Insider vs Outsider

Jagbir Jhutti-Johal has quoted Lee to point that minorities increasingly feel threatened by the attention of outside researchers [p. 237]. This is true and we have had experience in recent years of bitter antagonism that got developed due to certain outsider writings seen to be motivated by a section of the mainstream Sikh scholars. Besides the possibilities of such feuds, the insiders feel an additional burden that to be credible to the academic community, they have to quote Western scholars to validate their findings and opinions – a phenomenon abundantly evident in this book when one sees scholar after insider scholar repeating the same examples, citing the same source.

Jakobsh on her part is careful to point out that ‘Scholarly analysis of women within religion is, in some ways, a sensitive and even challenging endeavor. More so than in most areas of academic inquiry, those choosing to pursue this field of study risk facing the resistance and sometimes censure of certain groups within the religious community.’ [p. 33]


As I have said before the book has a very broad canvass. Yet there are other Sikh women related experiences that may deserve academic interest. Examples could include the likely long term impact of Gurleen Kaur case criteria, sexual grooming of Sikh girls by Pakistani youth in the UK and the socially responsible response to eschew revenge by Sikh widows of 84 pogrom to one of the most uniquely oppressive gendered crime of modern times.[3] Also if we look at Sikh women’s voluntary activities, we might be dismayed to find how few of them are engaged in educational, social, religious, environmental, common good and women’s support work in their communities.

My hope is that Sikh women’s studies adopt a comprehensive, integrative approach so that these collectively reinforce women’s role in understanding, sharing and transmission of Sikhi and Sikh endeavor for being constructive, contributing, helping members of society wherever they are.

Camp: New Delhi

25 October, 2013

[1] Possibly applied also to those who are neither male nor female. For a comprehensive treatment read ‘Same Sex Marriages & LGBT Issues’ in Nirmal Singh, Selected Contemporary Sikh Issues, Hemkunt, 2013,  pp. 93-146

[2] For a detailed discussion read Nirmal Singh, Diversity or Conformity: Internal Sikh Tensions, in Searches in Sikhism, Hemkunt, 2008 [ISBN 978-81-7010-367-7]

[3] For a detailed analysis and discussion see my Article ‘Sifting the Dust of 84 Pogrom for Some Positives’ serialized in Sikh Review, Jan-Mar 2013 issues; Abstracts of Sikh Studies, Jan-Mar 2013; Nirmal Singh, Selected Contemporary Sikh Issues, Hemkunt, 2013, pp. 146-210 [ISBN 978-81-7010-397-4]

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