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Women represent half of all humanity, yet they continue to face discrimination in various parts of the world. The feminist movement has done much to lessen gender discrimination in western societies. However,  women in much of the world still face severe difficulties, such as violence, illiteracy, economic and social deprivation. It is increasingly recognized that better education and economic empowerment of women can play a significant role in uplifting the economic level of impoverished areas of the world, and lowering birth rates, which is crucial for addressing climate change. 

Having noted several general rituals and traditions of his time, Guru Nanak recognized that men often degraded women. They were thought of as property and treated as lowly and unworthy. He condemned these practices. Thus several centuries ahead of the feminist movement, Guru Nanak spoke out against gender discrimination in India's highly male-dominated environment. He opposed established orthodoxy with the radical assertion that women were worthy of praise and equal to men. Besides, God is gender-neutral, both man and woman, and its creative aspect is portrayed as that of a mother:

ਆਪੇ ਪੁਰਖੁ ਆਪੇ ਹੀ ਨਾਰੀ ॥ 

God is both man and woman. (Mehl 1, SGGS, p 1020)

The same Divine essence pervades through both men and women. Rather than being denigrated and mistreated, women should be cherished and respected:

ਭੰਡਿ ਜੰਮੀਐ ਭੰਡਿ ਨਿੰਮੀਐ ਭੰਡਿ ਮੰਗਣੁ ਵੀਆਹੁ ॥ ਭੰਡਹੁ ਹੋਵੈ ਦੋਸਤੀ ਭੰਡਹੁ ਚਲੈ ਰਾਹੁ ॥ ਭੰਡੁ ਮੁਆ ਭੰਡੁ ਭਾਲੀਐ ਭੰਡਿ ਹੋਵੈ ਬੰਧਾਨੁ ॥ ਸੋ ਕਿਉ ਮੰਦਾ ਆਖੀਐ ਜਿਤੁ ਜੰਮਹਿ ਰਾਜਾਨ ॥ ਭੰਡਹੁ ਹੀ ਭੰਡੁ ਊਪਜੈ ਭੰਡੈ ਬਾਝੁ ਨ ਕੋਇ ॥ ਨਾਨਕ ਭੰਡੈ ਬਾਹਰਾ ਏਕੋ ਸਚਾ ਸੋਇ ॥ 

We all are born of woman; we are conceived in the womb of woman. To a woman, one is engaged and married. One makes friendship with a woman; through woman, future generations are born. When a woman (wife) dies, a person marries another one; we are bound with the world through woman. So why should we talk ill of her? From her, kings are born. From a woman, a woman is born; without women, there would be no one at all. O Nanak, God alone is without a woman. (Mehl 1, SGGS, p 473)

Guru Nanak and his successor Sikh Gurus actively encouraged  women's participation as equals in worship, society, and the battleground. They supported freedom of speech, and women were encouraged to participate in all religious activities, including the Sri Guru Granth Sahib's reading. The practice of Sati (widow burning) and female infanticide were forbidden, and remarriage of widows was encouraged. Remember, all this was going on in the male-dominated Muslim and Hindu societies in India, hundreds of years before the feminist movement.

Unfortunately, Sikh society has not been able to fully overcome old cultural traditions and live up to the ideals of gender equality taught by Guru Nanak. Sex-selective abortions driven by a desire for male children are driving down the sex ratio in Punjab. It is encouraging to note that most Sikh religious organizations, including the Akal Takhat, have spoken up against this practice. On this day, let us pledge together to make this world free from prejudice, irrationals traditions and gender discrimination. Let us strive together to create a world where each woman has easy access to the opportunities to reach her desired potential in life.  

Image from The Lovepost's Rowena Bahl taken by Gabrella Morton

Dr. Devinder Pal Singh

Dr. Devinder Pal Singh

Dr Devinder Pal Singh, Center for Understanding Sikhism, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, has published about 100 articles on various aspects of Sikhism in several newspapers and magazines of English, Punjabi and Hindi.

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