Many historians see Guru Nanak, born in a medieval patriarchal society, as a social and religious revolutionary who boldly went ahead to destroy existing social and religious practices. The new order he established challenged, among other institutions, the treatment of women by society. His verses are testimony to this. Let’s begin with a bird’s view of the social norms concerning women preceding and during Nanak’s times.
During Muslim rule, women suffered the most. They were taken away by the rulers, raped or made to do menial chores. To avoid all this humiliation, the girl child was either killed at birth, making infanticide a common practice, or else married off at the age of five or six, making them unhealthy mothers. Adult women were neglected and, if they became widows, forced to commit sati or cut their hair and wear unattractive clothes. Remarriage was prohibited. There was a pronounced desire for sons in the patriarchal setup and women’s status was denigrated. They were wrapped in a subservient psyche and dependent on father, brother or son. The Vedas propounded it, Manusmriti enhanced it, and the Mughals drove the final nail by introducing the purdah and polygamy. Guru Nanak, who grew up in such times, was close to his sister Nanaki. He and the Gurus who came after him empathised with women. Guru Nanak defied the norms of his time, telling women to denounce the purdah and discontinue the practice of sati. He asked them to sit with the men for satsang, and attend his sermons and the singing of divine hymns. Men would bring the rations for the langar (communal kitchen), women would cook and both would serve the congregation.