London-based Mejindarpal Kaur and Lakhbir Kaur courted controversy when they questioned why women could not be equal partners in the rituals performed by Sikhs.
On their visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar (Punjab) in February this year, the two were prevented from taking part in a ritual that involves carrying the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (sacred book of Sikhs) on a palanquin in a procession.
Worse, the two women were also assaulted by male sevadars (temple workers) during the procession. "The sevadars prevented us from queuing up. We were pushed, assaulted and insulted by them," claimed the women in their complaint to the Golden Temple heads.
Ever since, the Sikh community has been debating how equal men and women are in their religion. The rituals in the Golden Temple are considered most sacred; but traditionally, only male Sikhs perform them.
As service or voluntary work is glorified in the Sikh religion, women like Mejindarpal and Lakhbir feel they would like to participate in such work.
The women's protests in Amritsar are part of a campaign launched by non-resident Indian (NRI) Sikh women in the US, Canada and Britain, seeking the right to participate in morning rituals and other religious voluntary work.
In India, the two (Mejindarpal is a trained lawyer and Lakhbir is a factory worker) have visited many villages and cities in Punjab and managed to convince some women and Sikh organizations about their demands. Jasbir Kaur, a scholar of Sikhism in Punjabi University, Patiala, says, "In the basic concept of Sikhism, seva (religious voluntary work) cannot have different meanings for different genders."
However, according to Paramjit Kaur Tiwana, principal of Trai-Shatabadi Guru Gobind Singh Khalsa College for Women, Amritsar, the inclusion of women in the seva may only lead to chaos. She adds: "Bibi Bhani, daughter of Guru Amardas, gave her whole life in service. But she asked for the Gurgadi (seat for the spiritual head) not for herself but for her husband Guru Ramdas."
The Sikh religion, which emerged three centuries ago in Punjab as an offshoot of and reform to the Hindu religion, accorded an equal status to women and condemned discrimination on the basis of gender. However, over the years, as in most religions, men monopolized all the ceremonies and rituals in Sikhism. Since a long time, the only voluntary work women are allowed is the stereotypical role of cooking in the community kitchen. This was not so when Sikhism was taking root in the Punjab. There is historical evidence that wives and sisters of the Gurus played an active role in preaching the religion. Experts feel the inequality crept in with the institutionalization of the religion.
Meanwhile, the most crucial decision-making body of the Sikhs, the Akal Takht, has not yet expressed its views on the matter. Though the chief priest of the Akal Takht, Jathedar Joginder Singh Vedanti, in an interview to Voices of Freedom (international human rights NGO), conducted by Mejindarpal before her controversial Indian visit, stated that Sikh women had the unequivocal right to participate in the seva at the Golden Temple. He even claimed that women could participate as the five favorites of the Guru in a baptism ceremony.
Two years ago, alarmed by the low child sex ratio of the state, Vedanti had even issued a strong directive against female feticide which is rampant in most of Punjab. Yet, the Vedanti has chosen not to take concrete action on the two women's complaint against the discrimination and manhandling incident.
When contacted, Vedanti said: "The complaint has been referred to the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) which has authority to take a decision on this issue." The SGPC, the apex body that runs gurdwaras across the country, has also chosen to maintain silence on this matter.
In the meantime, some men have expressed their concern about and opposition to the campaign. Kartar Singh Goshti, a lawyer, in his representation to the SGPC states: "It would be immodest for a girl and disparaging for her father, brother or husband if she subjects herself to being pushed by men in a crowd; even if it is to shoulder the palanquin at the Golden Temple."
He adds that although there is no stricture for women to sit separately in the sanctum sanctorum of the Golden Temple, the women do so out of modesty.
Some Sikhs in Punjab condemn the campaign as an NRI-sponsored protest thrust on the homeland. They are wary of the modern approach progressive Sikh women are trying to apply to religious rituals.
But for many women, in India and abroad, this appears to be a matter of true faith.