International Women’s Day is celebrated every year on March 8 all over the world as a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women, past and present. In fact the whole of the month of March has been dedicated to women by officially celebrating the month as Women History Month. The celebration began as a grass root effort to recognize and honour the social, cultural and economic contributions of women—the contributions that were largely ignored earlier resulting in their secondary status in society.

The first National Woman’s Day was observed in the United States on 28 February. The Socialist Party of America designated this day in honour of the 1908 Garment workers’ strike in New York, where women protested against their lamentable working conditions. The horrible situation faced by women at work, had reduced them to the beasts of burden. To get justice, they started organizing themselves in unions. With great efforts, they were able to get Sundays off and the work day was limited to twelve hours. Though very slowly and gradually more laws were framed to make the lot of women a bit better, it was not enough to make their life worth living for a human being.

Though apparently the question of women equality emerged during 1800s when it was the time of industrial development and the growth of social reform movements; Roman women filled the Capitoline Hill and blocked every entrance to the Forum in 3rd century B.C. when Marcus Porcius Cato resisted attempts to repeal laws limiting women’s use of expensive goods. Cato is known to have said, “if they are victorious now what will they not attempt? As soon as they begin to be your equals, they will have become your superiors.”

The Renaissance period (1300-1700), starting from Italy to finally spread over the whole of Europe, was a period of development in the fields of art, philosophy, literature and science. The Renaissance scholars had humanistic approach to intellectual pursuits. Even during this period of individual development, the things remained the same for most of women. Strict morality was imposed on them and they received minimal education. Still, the environment that had grown somewhat liberal provided intelligent women with an opportunity to indulge in conversations in art, literature and the politics of the time. Through these discussions they acquired knowledge and became aware of their surroundings. These intelligent women created an environment where women issues got the attention they deserved.

A good number of books on woman question were published. Erasmus, a Dutch humanist, in his book ‘The Little Senate’, made Cornelia, the protagonist, detail the grievances of her sex. In France, Christine de Pisan, a Venice born woman challenged prevailing attitudes towards women with a bold call for female education. She wrote a philosophical allegory ‘The book of the City of Ladies’ where she showed how women had been unjustly oppressed through history. In the later part of fifteenth century, Laura Cereta, a Venetian woman published her autobiography in which she talked about women issues ‘from denial of education and marital oppression to the frivolity of women’s attire’. Henricus Cornelius Agrippa, a German theologian, in ‘Declamation on the Nobility and Pre-eminence of the Female Sex’ argued that women were more than equal to men in all things, including the public spheres from which they had long been excluded. In the sixteenth century, ‘The Worth of Women’, was written by a Venetian lady, Modesta Pozzo (1555-1592) under the pseudonym Moderta Fonte. She argued, “Women have just as much right to speak about these subjects as men have, and if we were properly educated as girls……we’d outstrip their performance in any science or art you care to name.”

This started a debate about women and the true nature of womanhood, notwithstanding the fact that educated women who pursued literary interests were still viewed with suspicion on the assumption that women did not have the capacity for learning. A poem by a seventeenth century noblewoman, Lady Winchilsea reflects the hostility of the time towards women education:

Alas! A woman that attempts the pen, Such an intruder on the rights of men,
Such a presumptuous creature is esteemed, The fault by no virtue can be redeemed.

In the eighteenth century, ‘Enlightenment’ thinking had created a secular, rationalist and progressive individualism, which laid stress on equality of all humanity. But when the constitution of America came into force after the declaration of independence in 1776, nowhere the rights of women were referred to. ‘Declaration of rights of Man and of the Citizen,’ which defined citizenship after the French Revolution of 1789, did not include women and their rights. Female intellectuals immediately reacted to this and ‘Declaration of the Rights of Women and Female citizen’, declaring women to be men’s equals was published. This gave a wakeup call to women and urged them to ‘recognize their rights.

In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a book ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.’ The book challenged the notion that women were made only to serve the male members of the society. The realization, that in the general environment of democracy and the ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality, the women did not even have the right to vote, added to their persisting feeling of indignity.

The right to vote is the cornerstone of democracy. Its denial to women clearly meant the subordinate status of women. Protests and conventions started being held. The ideas which justified the American Revolution were used to demand full citizenship rights for women. The struggle started in 1848 with women organizing a convention in Seneca Falls, demanded the right to vote, which was finally granted in 1920 after more than seventy years of struggle. Official records of the time speak of struggle like this: “Achieving this milestone required a lengthy and difficult struggle; victory took decades of agitation and protests. Beginning in the mid-19th century, several generations of woman suffrage supporters lectured, wrote, marched, lobbied and practiced civil disobedience to achieve what many Americans considered a radical change of the Constitution.”

The formation of UN Commission on the Status of Women in 1946, further awakened the women to their rights and they started clamouring for their right to justice at work place, to personal freedom and full human status. The year 1975 was declared International Women Year and subsequent decision to dedicate the next ten years to women issues stirred up activity regarding women rights all over the world. Women day started being celebrated more enthusiastically in developing as well as developed countries. Every year a political, economic, social or human rights theme designated by the United Nations creates a strong political and social awareness of the struggles of women worldwide.

The theme for the year 2014 was ‘Equality for Women is Progress for All’, while the theme for 2015 was ‘Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity’. This year’s theme is ‘Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality.’ The nations all over the world will focus on UN Women’s Step It Up initiative on Gender Equality, Women’s empowerment and Women’s human rights. Though UN has set the target of achieving complete gender equality by the year 2030, the World Economic Forum’s ninth Global Gender Gap Report in 2014, estimated that the gender gap will not be eliminated the until 2095, but later reported that it was not possible at least till 2134.
Against this background the world over, it is proper to see what Guru Nanak did for women more than 500 years ago. When Guru Nanak appeared on the scene, he felt pained to notice utter degradation of social, political and religious institutions of the time and felt concerned about the deplorable condition of his countrymen. He had aspired to create a society of individuals who would evolve themselves to the highest level of evolution. Guru Nanak aspired to create a new brotherhood where there were to be no distinctions of caste, color, creed or gender; where women were equal partners and participants with men in the creation of a new era. He aimed at restoring the lost self esteem to the individual; the man and the woman; who for him were two adjectives qualifying for the noun ‘human being’.

Guru Nanak was fully aware that no community could be forward looking if its people were not respectful to its womenfolk. Shelley, the noted English poet, seems to be echoing Guru Nanak’s point of view in the words: “Can Man be free if women are slaves?” Guru Nanak believed that apart from the ignorance of the masses, the other cause of India’s thousands of years of slavery was the enslavement of its womankind. Devoid of any sense of self respect, it was not possible for Indian mothers to produce an offspring of self respecting citizens. Devoid of all courage and self respect, they dared not resist even when their womenfolk were driven away and sold like cattle in the markets of the lands to which the invaders belonged.

Guru Nanak decided to put an end to this state of affairs. As a first step towards the fulfilment of his mission, he raised a powerful voice in favour of the mothers of mankind:

ਸੋ ਕਿਉ ਮੰਦਾ ਆਖੀਐ ਜਿਤੁ ਜੰਮਹਿ ਰਾਜਾਨ ॥
Why call her inferior to man when all forms of greatness have their matrix in woman.

Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 473.

And this was not an empty slogan. Guru Nanak and his successors took practical steps to ameliorate the condition of women. He focused his attention on the family, considered to be the citadel of women. The love of one’s family, which leaders of other religions derided as a negative quality that hindered the spiritual growth of man, was glorified, elevated and sanctified by Guru Nanak. His love for his elder sister, which has become legendry in Sikh chronicles, had sacred overtones. He advocated the primacy of family life and idealized the love of a wife for her husband by equating it to the love of the devotee for the Lord, thus elevating the status of women.

Gurbani calls a woman the best of the best in the family, who deserves respect of the whole family, a Bateeh Sulakhni (ਬਤੀਹ ਸੁਲਖਣੀ):

ਬਤੀਹ ਸੁਲਖਣੀ ਸਚੁ ਸੰਤਤਿ ਪੂਤ॥ ਆਗਿਆਕਾਰੀ ਸੁਘੜ ਸਰੂਪ॥
ਇਛ ਪੂਰੇ ਮਨ ਕੰਤ ਸੁਆਮੀ॥ਸਗਲ ਸੰਤੋਖੀ ਦੇਰ ਜੇਠਾਨੀ॥
ਸਭ ਪਰਵਾਰੈ ਮਾਹਿ ਸਰੇਸਟ॥ਮਤੀ ਦੇਵੀ ਦੇਵਰ ਜੇਸਟ॥
ਧੰਨ ਸੁ ਗ੍ਰਿਹ ਜਿਤੁ ਪ੍ਰਗਟੀ ਆਇ॥ ਜਨ ਨਾਨਕ ਸੁਖੇ ਸੁਖਿ ਵਿਹਾਇ॥

SGGS. p. 371.

Possessed by thirty two merits, holy truth is her progeny.
Obedient, of noble mien, to her husband’s wishes compliant.
The younger brother-in-law and elder sister-in-law too with her are pleased
Noblest of the whole family,
To her brothers-in-law imparting wise counsel.
Blessed is the home in which she is present. Therein,says Nanak, is the life bliss.

In his ‘Mahankosh’, Bhai Kahan Singh Nabha, has listed thirty two qualities of an ideal woman. These are, beauty, cleanliness, modesty, humility, cheerfulness, concord, truth, dedicated love of the husband, purity of mind, patience, frugality, beneficence, sobriety, chivalry, active habits, interior decorations, respect of elders, proficiency in music, painting, poetry, domestic science, embroidery, hospitality and child care, The Gurus ensured that the womenfolk of their families were given a place of respect that was due to them and they all did their best to encourage the women of their families to evolve themselves to the highest level by cultivating these qualities. During the period of his guruship, Guru Angad Dev, the second Guru, paid special attention to the education of children, both boys and girls. History records that his daughter Bibi Amro had learnt a lot of Gurbani by heart. Guru Amardas made special efforts to root out all the social evils that relegated women to a secondary status in the society. He also sent many women as preachers to distant places where they would perform varied administrative duties including the revenue collection. Guru Hargobind, the 6th Guru, propagated the idea the woman was the conscience keeper of a man, and for Bhai Gurdas, the Sikh bard, a woman was ‘a gateway to salvation’ for a man, her husband. Women were considered equal partners in marriage. Husband and wife were two bodies but one soul. (ਏਕ ਜੋਤਿ ਦੁਇ ਮੂਰਤੀ)

Propagation of these ideas by the Gurus, right from the start of the Sikh movement, boosted the confidence of women and with a regained confidence, they involved themselves wholeheartedly in the making of a new social order that the Gurus had aimed at creating. In the initial period of the Sikh movement, their activities largely remained confined to the social and religious sphere where they had tremendous influence. By the time of the tenth Guru, they were confident enough to fight in the battlefield alongside men; to work as spies and to nurse the wounded in the battlefield and later during the time of Sikh confederacies, a good number of them proved to be good administrators and political advisors to the rulers too.

At a time when women in the West started realizing their lower status in society and demanding the right to vote in the mid nineteenth century, the Sikh women in Punjab, more than hundred years before that, during the time of Sikh confederacies in mid eighteenth century had been ruling their areas with great efficiency. Bhagat Singh, in his book ‘History of Sikh Misls’, is all praise for Sikh women in statecraft. He says, “The Sikh ranis(queens) as when an occasion arose, actively participated in the administration as regents and advisors. They occasionally took charge of state administration and their contribution to the Sikh polity has indeed been creditable.”

The fact is that in Sikh tradition, it is not the gender that performs specific roles. It is the consciousness, the higher consciousness that performs the miracle. The Sikh Gurus’ emphasis on the evolution of higher consciousness goes beyond the polarity of gender. The Sikh women, along with men, had the right to participate in any activity, if they had developed themselves to the level required to perform that particular activity. There were no bars. And this created a society of a people with the potential to change the course of history in the times to come.

While talking on 8th March 2016, on International Women’s Day, Madhu Kishwar, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, appealed to women “to forget feminist rhetoric and use common sense to take life’s decisions”, if they wanted to lead a well-adjusted life. On the other hand, Kamalla Rose Kaur an American convert to Sikh faith, who lived through the second wave of the women movement in the later half of twentieth century, nurtures a hope for the third wave of the movement. She says, “The Sikh faith has always promoted universal equal rights, including the equal rights of women. We do not have to fight and claw and scratch for the vote like my great grandmother did here in the USA. Sikh women made history in the women’s movement long, long ago. I lived through the second wave of the Women’s Movement here in the USA, which went very quickly. In the 1970s we changed the face of my culture and most of the reforms achieved at that time have been maintained since. Now, women all around the world are busy with the third wave of the Women’s Movement – a global movement. I have every faith that Sikh women will not back down from this challenge to fight for the Sikh Way! Meanwhile university women’s studies departments and religious studies programs are reading over our shoulders and starting to study the grand history of the Sikh women’s movement.”

It remains to be seen how far the hope of Kamalla Rose Kaur is transformed into reality.