When Sikhs talk about their religion, they often emphasize the belief in one God and the tradition of men wearing turbans. Unfortunately, turbans have sometimes been wrongly associated with negativity, especially post-9/11. But let's take a moment to explore another aspect of Sikhism that deserves attention—the equality of women in our faith.

Unlike many other religions, Sikh scriptures explicitly state that women are equal in the eyes of God. It's a proud part of our beliefs. However, if you ask about famous Sikh women, you might notice a gap in our collective knowledge. We can readily share stories about the mothers, sisters, and wives of the Ten Gurus from the 15th and 16th centuries, like Mata Tripta, Mata Nanki, and Mata Khivi. But as the list ends there, a realization dawns—it's time to bridge the divide between our ideals and how we actually live them. Let's delve into the untold stories of Sikh women who have made significant contributions throughout history.

Real picture of Sikh women 

Sikh Americans often discuss women's equality, yet our traditional culture, rooted in a male-dominated system, unintentionally contributes to sidelining the achievements of women, both in the past and present. Even the few well-known women in our history are often seen only through their relationships with men, overshadowing their individual contributions as thinkers, poets, and warriors. This leads to a practical consequence: today, Sikh girls are told they have equal standing, but many are still expected to adhere to traditional gender roles, with limited examples of alternative paths.

We may not openly admit this issue, and it's not our fault. Our community is small, making it challenging to address internal problems, especially since the aftermath of 9/11 when simply explaining the basics of Sikhism became a daily survival necessity. As a third-generation Sikh American activist, it took me almost a decade after 9/11 to even start discussing women's issues again. Following the attacks, women in our community silently agreed to temporarily set aside our concerns. The priority was to protect our men—brothers, husbands, and sons whose distinctive turbans and skin color made them prime targets for hate in the post-9/11 years.

We made a mistake. While we hoped the discrimination would fade away, some problems in our community got worse. Sadly, women and girls are the most affected when minorities face tough times. It's the same for us. In our Punjabi culture, like in many other places, women's bodies are seen as something honorable. Back in 1947, during the Partition of India, some Sikh men chose to harm their own daughters rather than let them face danger. Today, in America, even though many Sikh families support education and freedom for everyone, some have become stricter with women and girls since the 9/11 era. In the worst cases, men facing racism outside may resort to domestic violence at home, intermarriage is seen as betrayal, and honor killings are a real threat. Let's take a closer look at how these issues affect our community. 

Call for liberation 

Yet, there exists another narrative. The resonance of liberation echoes within the very fabric of the Sikh tradition, woven into our scriptures, melodies, and tales. Hearing this call, a new wave is surging through the Sikh community, led by a remarkable generation of Sikh women. They are breaking barriers as lawyers, artists, entrepreneurs, doctors, filmmakers, and more.

These contemporary Sikh women are redefining the essence of a warrior-saint, finding innovative ways to protect their communities while adding their distinct voices to public conversations.

In this article, let's shine a spotlight on 10 Sikh women who embody the timeless ideals of the warrior-saint. Half of them are legends from early history, mysterious figures whose heroic acts fuel our imagination as the first female warrior-saints. The other half consists of modern-day heroines, representing the countless Sikh women forging their own paths as the warrior-saints of our era. Join me in celebrating these remarkable individuals who deserve to be recognized for their courage, resilience, and contribution to the Sikh narrative.

The First Sikh

Born in Chahal village, which is present-day Lahore, Pakistan, Mata Nanaki cherished her younger brother Nanak. In 1469, something extraordinary happened to Nanak – a divine vision that led him to become the initial Guru, or teacher, of the Sikh faith. Mata Nanaki, being his supportive sister, was the first to embrace his teachings. She deserves recognition as the inaugural Sikh, embodying the essence of being a "disciple" or a "seeker of truth." 

The First to Serve Langar

Meet Mata Khivi, a devoted follower of Guru Nanak and the wife of the second Sikh guru, Guru Angad. She played a crucial role in serving free meals, known as langar, to everyone who gathered to hear the Guru's teachings. Mata Khivi continued this tradition, welcoming people from all walks of life, regardless of their social status or background. Nowadays, this practice of serving community meals in Sikh gurdwaras worldwide honors Mata Khivi's legacy.

The Fearless Warrior-Saint

Born in the village of Jhabal, which is now part of Amritsar, Punjab in India, Mai Bhago lived during a challenging time when Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th guru, was defending Sikhs against Mughal forces and hill chiefs. In 1705, during a significant siege, Mai Bhago courageously gathered 40 deserters and led them into battle with her sword in hand. They fought bravely and are remembered as the Chali Mukte, the Forty Liberated Ones.

Following this heroic act, Mai Bhago became the Guru's bodyguard, adopting a turban and dressing as a male warrior. Her dedication and bravery earned her the status of a saint. Today, Mai Bhago is remembered and revered for her remarkable role in defending the Sikh community during a crucial period in history.

The First Woman Commander-in-Chief

Meet Rani Sada Kaur, a brave woman who turned adversity into strength. When her husband fell in a battle between Punjabi leaders, she didn't succumb to grief; instead, she embraced her newfound role as a warrior. Picture her in a high turban, wielding weapons with determination. In the face of challenges, she led battles and played a pivotal role in establishing the Sikh empire from 1799 to 1849 in Punjab. As a wise advisor, she guided her son-in-law to become the first Maharaja of this new empire, Maharaja Ranjit Singh. 

The First Female Freedom Fighter

Meet Jind Kaur, the brave Maharani who stood against the British in India's fight for freedom. Married to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, she became a key figure in the Sikh empire. When Ranjit Singh passed away, the British seized control of Punjab using both money and force.

But Jind Kaur wasn't one to back down. She spoke out passionately against the British through powerful speeches and writings, earning her a spot in British prisons across Punjab, Nepal, Calcutta, and eventually England. Sadly, she breathed her last in 1863 at the age of 46. Jind Kaur's impact was profound, and she is often recognized as the woman who planted the seeds for India's eventual struggle for independence.

The Great Poetess

Amrita Pritam is the standout poet of the 20th century in Punjabi. She's like the unsung hero for the Sikh community, making waves as the first well-known woman poet, storyteller, and essayist in Punjabi. Loved on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, her influence spans over six decades and boasts a whopping 100-plus books. Amrita Pritam symbolizes the emergence of Sikh women in the arts - as writers, artists, filmmakers, and scholars. Let's delve into the journey of this remarkable figure who has left an indelible mark on literature and culture.

The Fierce Social Worker

Inderjit Kaur is a compassionate and dedicated doctor serving as the President of the Pingalwara Charitable Society in Amritsar, Punjab, India. This renowned home warmly welcomes the less fortunate, including the poor, handicapped, diseased, and mentally ill. Taking charge since 1992, Inderjit Kaur has fearlessly upheld the vision of the society's founder, Bhagat Puran Singh. She represents numerous Sikh women, including doctors, nurses, healthcare advocates, and volunteers, all devoted to the well-being of the sick and underprivileged.

The Champion for Girls

In the heart of Punjab, where the struggle against female infanticide is a longstanding battle, Prakash Kaur stands tall as a beacon of hope. Located in Jalandhar, her home is a sanctuary for 60 little girls who were left alone in the world. Remarkably, Prakash Kaur's journey is deeply personal – she too was abandoned as a newborn, discovered just hours old in a drain. Since 1993, she has dedicated her life to rescuing and nurturing these unwanted and forsaken infants. Her story mirrors that of countless Sikh women who are courageously standing up against the issues of abandonment, domestic violence, sexual assault, and forced marriages that plague women and girls in the region. 

The Civil Rights Lawyer

Amrit Singh is a strong advocate for civil rights and a force to be reckoned with. As a dedicated lawyer, she passionately opposed the mistreatment of prisoners during the Bush Administration in the U.S. Working with the ACLU, she fought legal battles on issues like torture, indefinite detention, and discrimination post-9/11. Today, she continues her mission for justice as part of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

Born into a family where leadership runs deep, Amrit Singh is the daughter of Manmohan Singh, the 13th and current Prime Minister of India. Yet, she stands out not just as a political figure's daughter but as a trailblazing Sikh woman in the legal arena. Armed with the law as her sword and shield, Amrit represents a new generation of women who fearlessly navigate the legal battlefield in pursuit of justice.

The Senator

Anarkali Kaur is a champion for human rights and a Senator in Afghanistan. In a country where only 3,000 Sikhs and Hindus reside, she tirelessly advocates for the rights of minorities and women. Back in 2001, when the Taliban was ousted, Anarkali played a crucial role in shaping the nation's future. She actively participated in the Grand Council, Loya Jirga, helping elect the interim government and contributing to the drafting of Afghanistan's new constitution.

Breaking barriers, Anarkali Kaur made history as the first non-Muslim woman to serve in the lower house of parliament. Her remarkable achievements didn't go unnoticed, and in 2009, at just 25 years old, she earned the title of "Person of the Year" from Radio Free Europe's Afghan chapter, gaining widespread recognition in Kabul. Often referred to as a modern-day "Mai Bhago," Anarkali Kaur symbolizes the emergence of courageous Sikh women warriors, standing up for justice and making a lasting impact on Afghanistan's political landscape. 

*Based on an article by Valarie Kaur, published in Huffington Post on 26th March 2012


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