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Female Feticide: The Sikh Gurus’ Response

Killing of the female fetus in the womb of the mother is called female feticide. The practice has been prevalent since olden times in the form of female infanticide, which in these days of science and technology has taken a more subtle form by not allowing the child to even to take birth, with the help of new inventions. The practice is as old as most of the cultures in the world and is prevalent all over the world in varying degrees. Hobehouse points out:

This history starts with early Roman family,
organized as it was under the highly developed potestas of the father.
All the children are the father’s, and in law he can dispose them off at pleasure.
He can chastise them, sell them into slavery and even put them to death.

The practice of infanticide was common in different parts of the ancient world. It appears that in the absence of birth control methods, the parents kept only that many children alive as they could afford. The rest were put to death immediately after birth. Infanticide seems to have been practiced among many tribes of Mexico, Central America and Northern South American and a large number of South American tribes. In Germany the primitive German father had the power of life and death over the children.2

However it was the female child that was more often put to death immediately after the birth. “In a strictly patriarchal regime, a father can condemn to death his male and female children at birth; but in the case of a male child, society most often puts limits on this power: a normally constituted newborn male is allowed to live, whereas custom of exposure is very widespread for girls; there was massive infanticide among Arabs: as soon as a girl was born, girls were thrown into ditches.” 3

The act of killing the female child is not a unitary phenomenon. It has several dimensions: social, economic and psychological. But the main reasons behind the evil practice appear to lie in socio economic conditions of a particular area.

Since earliest times, when man lived in forests and hunted for his living, it has been the male who has been procuring food for the family. The man living in the most inhospitable and hostile conditions needed more hands that were strong enough to help him in the survival. This was not possible with more number of females in the family. The birth of a girl meant another mouth to be fed. Moreover women were a liability for the man living in jungles, in pre-civilization days; as they had no fighting value. So when the number of children was to be kept restricted, only boys, who had the potential of being the providers for the family, got a chance to live. Even during the times of agriculture society, the male members of the society did the tough manual work in the fields, for the production of the food, while the women would do less strenuous jobs at home. Here again the birth of a boy meant another earning hand.

Evidence of history and anthropology tells that no known society positively prefers female babies to boys. Millions and millions of gender selective killings have taken place through history. In the present times, when technology has advanced at an unprecedented pace, the practice of female infanticide has taken a more subtle form. After the sex of the fetus is determined through ultrasound or amniocentesis, the fetus is aborted, if it is found to be female, and the girl child is not allowed to be born. As per United Nations estimates, about 2000 girls are illegally aborted every day in India

It is sad, that technological advancement, as a result of the spread of education, instead of breaking the barriers of superstition and narrow thinking, should have resulted in problems of such magnitude. What is more disturbing is the fact that the trend is far stronger in urban rather than rural areas, among the literate rather than illiterate and among more affluent rather than the poor, exploding the myth that growing affluence and spread of education put an end to gender bias. In spite of increasing literacy rates among women, the problem has assumed alarming proportions in recent times. The sex ratio has consistently been in favor of boys. Obviously the problem has deeper roots than the mere socio-economic reasons.

Female Feticide: Manifestation of Violence

Female feticide is a manifestation of extreme violence against women. By and large, the laws have proved to be ineffective in preventing this violence against the female gender. Unfortunately, religion too has played its part in favor of the boys. Almost all religious societies prefer boys to girls: “The son is his (man’s) own self, the wife a friend, but the daughter is known for misfortune”, says Mahabharata (1.147.11); “a daughter’s father even if occupying a position as exalted as the king of gods, has to put up with insults not only from equals but also from his inferiors” (Ramayana: 2.119.35-36). 4 We find reference in Atharvaveda of sacrifice being performed for the avoidance of the birth of a daughter: “May he put elsewhere female birth, but he put here a male (AV. 6.11.3)”.5

The religious and social belief that it is through the male that the family name is carried on and that one gets salvation only if the male offspring performs the last rites; contributes to the preferential treatment for the male. The birth of a son is regarded as essential and many prayers and offerings are made seeking the birth of a male child.

The custom of dowry for girl children is another reason that exerts considerable economic pressure on families to use any means to avoid having daughters who are seen as a liability. Posters on sex-determination tests before they were made illegal, often read, ‘It is better to pay Rs 500 now than Rs 50,000 (in dowry) later.6 Not that these tests have stopped from being conducted after being made illegal; these are now being conducted clandestinely by unscrupulous elements. Most of those in the medical profession, being part of the gender biased society, don’t mind terminating the female fetus, if so desired by the parents. The irony of the situation is that the number of ultrasound machines is much more than the number of prenatal clinics. Mobile sex selection clinics drive into almost any village and are readily available to perform the test. Medical malpractices are flourishing, and ban on gender selection is being blown to the winds, completely disregarding the grave consequences of killing of the girl child. The impact on society of this evil cannot be overestimated.

Increasing female feticide can trigger a demographic crisis. Rise in sexual violence, child abuse, wife-sharing, polyandry and trafficking of women, are only some of the problems that stare in the face, when such practices are not checked. The abduction of girls is another phenomenon that can arise from a lesser number of women in society. A society with a predominance of unmarried young men is prone to dangers like women being exploited as sex workers. Increase in molestations and rape are an obvious result of the situation. Analysis undertaken by World Bank point to a link between a high number of males and increase in crime and violence, not only against women, but all sections of society. Adverse effects of the situation on the mental and physical health of a woman undergoing abortion appear to be nobody’s concern.

This certainly is not the picture of the society that the Sikh Gurus had envisaged. They stood for a healthy balanced society with equal rights for all members, girls as well as boys; a society where every human could live a life of dignity, free from all kinds of fear; where no one was denied as basic a right as to be born. They were aware that both masculine and the feminine gender needed each other to sustain the society as a whole. It surely was to be a society based on the partnership model rather than a society with one group dominating the other. Human race cannot think of surviving peacefully by exterminating female section from the society. Neale Donald Walsh appears to be echoing the voice of the Gurus when he says, “Few people understand the rhythm of life more than women. They live their whole life by rhythm. They are in rhythm with life itself. Women are more able to go with the flow than men. Men want to push, pull, resist and direct the flow. Women experience it- then mould with it to produce harmony. A woman hears the melody of flowers in the wind. She sees the beauty of the Unseen. She feels the tugs and pulls and urges of life. She knows when it is time to run and time to resist, time to laugh and time to cry, time to hold on and time to let go. Most women leave their bodies gracefully. Most men fight the departure. Women treat their bodies more gracefully when they are in them too. Men treat their bodies horribly, the way they treat life.” 7 No doubt the life is what it is with more number of men in our society. Research has shown that no weapons were found in the artifacts of the cultures where feminine and masculine components of society got equal weight age. This goes on to prove that when women got full opportunities to bring their personalities to full bloom, the societies lived in peaceful co existence without the one subjugating the other. No doubt by trying to silence the intuitive feminine component, the society is denigrating the divine qualities of compassion, cooperation and tolerance; the consequences of which confront us daily in the newspaper reports when hardly a day passes without some blood curdling incident being reported.

Instead of silencing the divine voice of the feminine, the Gurus gave women an authentic voice in their spiritual outpourings contained in Guru Granth Sahib by making a woman the central character in the scripture. As far as the prevalent social evil of killing the girl child immediately after birth was concerned, they took practical steps to put the unhealthy trend in the reverse gear.

Sikh Guru’s Response

The Gurus considered religion to be a potent force to bring about any positive change in the society. What laws cannot achieve by force can easily be achieved by making a call to the conscience of the people. An injunction prohibiting the killing of the girl child was issued. The Sikh Gurus gave specific instructions that no one of their disciples will indulge in female infanticide. In his letter to the Sikhs in Kabul, Guru Gobind Singh ordained them not to have any social relationship with a person who kills his daughters. Sikh code of conduct clearly states the Sikh position on the issue: “A Sikh shall not kill his daughter, nor shall he maintain any relationship with the killer of a daughter.” 8 Bhai Kahan Singh Nabha, the noted author of Sikh encyclopedia, puts on record: “In Sikhism a daughter enjoys equal status with a son. A killer of a daughter is to be excommunicated from the community.” 9

Guru Hargobind Sahib, the sixth Guru, realizing the positive role to be played by daughters in the family set up, requested his mother to pray for the birth of a daughter:

A family without a modest girl is doomed.10

Sikh history records that when Guru Har Rai, the seventh Guru, found an abandoned baby girl, he brought her home, adopted her and brought her up like his own daughter. The girl named Roop Kaur grew up to be an academician, a writer, the first Sikh woman historian who put on record everything the Guru said. 11

Code of conduct written by Bhai Desa Singh, says:

O Man, shovel out of your mind all the men
who indulge in female infanticide.

Guru Granth Sahib very clearly ordains against this evil social practice:

If a Brahmin kills a cow or a female infant, and accepts the offerings of an
evil person, he is cursed with leprosy and criticism; he is forever and
ever filled with egotistical pride.

Unfortunately, disregarding the dictate of the Guru in this regard, the Sikhs too have started indulging in the evil practice of female feticide. Taking notice of this unhealthy trend, Akal Takhat, the highest socio-religious authority of the Sikhs, issued a stricture against this evil practice vide memo no 998, dated 18th April, 2001, declaring female feticide/infanticide to be a practice that has no place in the Sikh socio-religious milieu, and anybody indulging in the practice should be socially boycotted. 14

Recently, (in 2005) a 2000 km. multi-faith pilgrimage was led by Swami Agnivesh, an activist for social justice, so that people could be made aware of the serious consequences of the rising trend of killing the unborn girls. Such efforts need to be replicated by the leaders of all religious groups.

More important is changing the mindset of the people in a way that respecting the dignity of women should become integral to the way of thinking and living, which is possible only in an environment of respect for moral and family values and the manner in which these are lived in day-to-day life.

And most important is the attitude of women towards themselves. They must rediscover their intuitive selves which is lost somewhere in the race of materialism and so called equality with men. An intuitively awakened woman is emotionally balanced and stronger, which helps her handle herself well even in the face of adversity. Such a woman will be able to take a firm stand if pressurized to abort if the fetus turns out to be female. A woman has been bestowed with a wonderful capacity to impact the lives of the people with whom she comes into contact with. She should use this capacity to bring about a positive change in the social, political and economic conditions of the society. This is possible only if she develops her deeper intuitive self.

I will end my paper from a quote from the poetry of Bhai Gurdas, the most revered Sikh bard, a contemporary of the Gurus, wherein he tells how affectionately a girl child is expected to be brought up in Sikh culture:

A girl child is an apple of her parents’ eye in her parental home. She is a
darling of her brothers and equally adored by her maternal and paternal grandparents.
She is not a burden on the family; though all kinds of gifts are presented to her at
the time of her marriage out of pure love for her, to whom the parents want to give
their all. She enjoys a respectable place in her husband’s family. She fully enjoys
the marital bliss relishing the delicacies available to her. She is not a hindrance
on the spiritual path, instead she is man’s soul mate who leads him on the path to
salvation. Only a really God oriented person deserves such a virtuous and steadfast
person as his companion.

1 Hobehouse, L.T, Morals in Evolution, p. 210.
2 SGGS, p. 223.
3 Simon de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, pp. 90-91.
4 Altekar, A.S., Position of Women in Hindu Civilization, p. 6.
5 SGGS, p. 6.
7 Neale Donald Walsh, Conversation with God, p. 72
8 Shiromini Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee, Sikh Rehat Maryada, p. 20.
9 ਸਿੱਖ ਮਤ ਵਿਚ ਬੇਟੀ ਪੁਤੱਰ ਤੁਲ ਹੈ। ਕੁੜੀ ਮਾਰ ਨਾਲ ਵਰਤੋਂ ਕਰਨ ਦਾ ਹੁਕਮ ਨਹੀਂ ਹੈ॥ Bhai. Kahan Singh Nabha, Gurmat Martand Part I, p. 308.
10 ਸੀਲ ਖਾਨ ਕੰਨਿਆ ਇਕ ਹੋਵੈ।ਪੁਤ੍ਰੀ ਬਿਨ ਜਗ ਗ੍ਰਹਿਸਤ ਵਿਗੋਵੈ॥ Bhagat Singh, Gurbilas Patshahi Chhevin, Gurmukh Singh(ed.), p. 347.
11 Simran Kaur, Prasidh Sikh Bibbian, p. 126.
12 ਕੁੜੀ ਮਾਰ ਆਦਿਕ ਹੈਂ ਜੇਤੇ। ਮਨ ਤੇ ਦੂਰ ਤਿਆਗੇ ਤੇਤੇ। Rehatnama Bh. Desa Singh, in Piara Singh Padam(ed.), Rehatname, p. 128.
13 ਬ੍ਰਾਹਮਣ ਕੈਲੀ ਘਾਤੁ ਕੰਞਕਾ ਅਣਚਾਰੀ ਕਾ ਧਾਨੁ॥
ਫਿਟਕ ਫਿਟਕਾ ਕੋੜੁ ਬਦੀਆ ਸਦਾ ਸਦਾ ਅਭਿਮਾਨੁ॥ Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p.1413.
14 Roop Singh, Hukamname Aadesh Sandesh-Sri Akal Takhat Sahib, p.179.
15 ਪੇਵਕੜੈ ਘਰ ਲਾਡਲੀ ਮਾਊ ਪੀਊ ਖਰੀ ਪਿਆਰੀ॥
ਵਿਚਿ ਭਿਰਾਵਾਂ ਭੈਨੜੀ ਨਾਨਕ ਦਾਦਕ ਸਪਰਵਾਰੀ॥ ਲਖ ਖਰਚ ਵੀਵਾਹੀਐ ਗਹਿਣੇ ਦਾਜੁ ਸਾਜੁ ਅਤਿ ਭਾਰੀ॥
ਸਾਹੁਰੜੈ ਘਰ ਮੰਨੀਐ ਸਣਖਤੀ ਪਰਵਾਰ ਸਧਾਰੀ॥ ਸੁਖ ਮਾਣੈ ਪਿਰੁ ਸੇਜੜੀ ਛਤੀਹ ਭੋਜਨ ਸਦਾ ਸੀਗਾਰੀ॥
ਲੋਕ ਵੇਦ ਗੁਣੁ ਗਿਆਨ ਵਿਚ ਅਰਧ ਸਰੀਰੀ ਮੋਖ ਦੁਆਰੀ॥ਗੁਰਮੁਖ ਸੁਖ ਫਲ ਨਿਹਚਉ ਨਾਰੀ ॥16॥ Bhai Gurdas, Var 5, Pauri 16.