Her fight to be heard

Guru Nanak talked about gender equality, but there is still a lot more to do

It was no fight, clarifies Mejindarpal Kaur. “It was a natural response,’’ says the internationl legal director of United Sikhs, an NGO, which led the first organised campaign for women to do seva at the Harmandir Sahib. It is post three on a hot summer afternoon. The crowd at the Golden Temple has waned a bit. In the arcades below, on the dazzling white marble, under the fans, pilgrims sleep off the langar and the ghee-laden karah prasad. Mejindarpal sits with her back to the wall, narrating the tale in a pitch-perfect story voice with a very British accent but punctuated with pind-pukka Punjabi.

It had been the end of a long day in 2003, and Mejindarpal had lost her suitcase. “With all my IDs,’’ she says. All she had was chocolate and a box of green tea. She had arrived in Amritsar just as the Guru Granth Sahib was being taken in the wooden palki (palanquin)to rest for the night. She was standing in the queue at the entrance to the inner chamber when she was stopped and asked to step aside. “I could not understand what had happened,’’ she says. But the sevadars told her that women were not allowed to perform palki seva, which involves carrying the palki of the guru when he retires for the day. This sparked a public campaign for equal rights for women at the Harmandir Sahib. It divided the community—between east and west, traditional and modern and on the much-dreaded F word, feminism. In Malaysia, where Mejindarpal is from, women perform every seva...

...Gender neutrality—central to Sikhism—is a principle that is repeated with pride. “Several statements of Guru Nanak leave no doubt that he is talking of parity between men and women,” says historian J.S. Grewal. “The highest objective of life from his viewpoint is liberation. This liberation is clearly stated for both men and women. If the highest purpose of life is open to women, then you cannot have more equality than that.”

In 1996, a hukamnama (diktat) by the Akal Takht—the Vatican of the Sikhs—upheld the principle of equality, giving women and men the right to do seva in the Harmandir Sahib. But it is yet to be implemented. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), which controls the gurdwaras, maintains that there is no bar on women doing seva. But, for example, women can perform kiratn seva at the Harmandir Sahib, usually only by invitation and on special occasions.

Kiranjot Kaur, a former SGPC member, wants to change that. “This is a topic that generates heat,’’ she says. “I think women should do kirtan seva. If they can clean their homes, why not Harmandir Sahib? We do not have women raagis (one who chants hymns) or jathedars (member of the clergy). We should.’’

Kaur, who has been trying to change mindsets for the past two decades, believes that this all stems from the ‘p’ that dwarfs everything: patriarchy. “The men are not following Guru Nanak’s teachings,’’ she asserts. “They have been influenced by the Manu-led concept of women. Guru Nanak was an example of gender equality. He went to live with his sister, which itself was a revolutionary thing to do.”...

...The gurdwaras may not be whole heartedly open to the idea of having full-time women singers on their rolls just as yet, but beyond their boundaries, there are those who have become favourites on the kirtan circuit. There is a pretty hectic season, especially around the upcoming gurpurab. Amandeep Kaur and Anmol Kaur with their brother, Jaivin Singh, who plays the tabla, are booked in back-to-back appearances. The sessions go into the early hours of the morning.

“I started out by learning music,’’ says Amandeep. “But the teacher refused to teach me after he found out I was left handed.” So, her determination to sing started out with a personal rebellion. “Each night we would go to our neighbourhood gurdwara and sing one shabad [hymn],’’ she says. It became a routine. Now, the trio are regulars at various gurdwaras during the customary women’s hours. Ask her if she wants to sing at the Harmandir Sahib, and Amandeep says, “You always have to prepare for that eventual goal. I keep myself prepared for that. We are hoping one day.”

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