Sikhism made a radical departure from Hinduism by demolishing the iniquitous barriers that the Hindu society had erected between man and man, and between man and woman. The Sikh Gurus laid down the foundations of a healthy, egalitarian and progressive social order. They advocated the principles of universal equality and brotherhood as the only true basis of social relations. The Sikh concept of equality transcended the narrow considerations of caste, creed, clime, sex and colour. The Sikh Gurus held woman equal to man in every field of life. They pleaded for equal rights and privileges for her, both in religious and socio-political fields. Sikhism does not debar woman from attaining salvation. She can realize the highest religious goal while remaining a woman. There is no need for her to first take birth as a man to attain mukti. A woman is not debarred from reading the Scripture. She can act as a priest, conduct the service, and lead a prayer in the gurdwara. She can join any congregation without any inhibition and restriction. She does not have to veil herself while sitting in a congregation. She can receive as well as impart baptism. She enjoys equal religious rights. Guru Amar Das even assigned to women the responsibility of supervising the community in certain sectors. They were invested with the office of preachership and missionary work. Mata Sahib Kaur, wife of Guru Gobind Singh, participated in the preperation of amrit by pouring sugar crystals in it which was administered to the Five Beloved Ones at the time of the formation of Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh. Similarly, women were invested with equal rights in the social and political fields. Mata Kheevi was held in high esteem for her dedication to social work. Mata Gujri, Mata Sahib Kaur, Mai Bhago, Mai Sada Kaur, Maharani Jind Kaur and Maharani Sahib Kaur participated in political and war affairs of the Sikhs. Some of them assumed the role of a fighter for dharam yudh and fought against enemy forces. The Sikh history records with appreciation the heroic deeds performed by these brave Sikh women. It was the impact of the egalitarian Sikh teaching that these women could come to the fore and distinguish themselves.
The transformation the Sikh Gurus brought in woman’s status was truely revolutionary. The concept of equality of woman with man not only gave woman an identity of her own but tended to free her from all kinds of fetters to which she was bound in the Hindu society. Condemned to a life of misery and degradation and deprived of all social privileges and rights, she had hitherto come to develop a slavish mentality. This coupled with social restraints had totally killed her initiative and restricted her mobility. She had grown into a listless individual and wore a pathetic sight. It was in this setting that Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, raised his voice for justice to women and provided the scriptural basis for equality which was not to be found in the scriptures of other India born religions. He pleaded the cause of women and strove for their liberation in the fifteenth century whereas women’s emanicipation movement in Europe started much later, in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. In an age when the inferiority of women was taken for granted and female infanticide and the customs of purdah and sati were commonly practised, the Guru spoke out against them in a voice of reason and sanity. As the Sikh faith grew, his protest grew louder and it demolished one by one all centuries-old disabilities against woman. In an oft-quoted sermon the Guru tries to show the folly of treating woman with disrespect :
From the woman is our birth;
In the woman’s womb are we shaped.
To the woman are we engaged;
To the woman are we wedded.
The woman, yea, is our friend,
And from woman is the family.
If one woman dies, we seek another;
Through the woman are the bonds of the world,
O’ why call woman evil who giveth birth to kings
From the woman is the woman;
Without the woman there is none;
Nanak, without the woman is the
One True Lord Alone (AG, p. 473).12