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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for securing this important debate. I believe our different faiths in the UK can do much to promote the full equality of women in this country and further afield.
Equality does not mean we are all the same; it means equality of opportunity and of respect. There are a few things that men can do better than women and, from my own experience of having a wife and two daughters, there are many things women and girls can do better—like dominating family conversation and not letting me get a word in edgeways. My wife and children, however, always turn to my expertise in choosing clothes. It goes like this: we enter the shop and I go for the nearest chair to sit down, while they spend ages looking at different dresses. When they have narrowed the choice down to one or two, they come to me. I smile smugly and say, “This one”. They then look at each other, smile and say, “We’ll take the other one”.
In the past, the roles of men and women in the family were quite distinct, with the man being the major breadwinner and the woman the main carer. The welcome move to greater equality in society has resulted in wider acceptance that both roles are important and that there is nothing demeaning in men playing a greater role at home. While in our family I am still the hunter-gatherer—I frequently brave the charge of supermarket trolleys as I hunt for food—I also sometimes do the dishes and cleaning.
Sikh teachings place a strong emphasis on the equality of all human beings. Right from the start, Guru Nanak—the founder of the faith, born in 1469—made clear that this teaching of full equality and dignity included women. In a memorable line, the guru criticised prevailing negative attitudes to women, saying, “How can we call those who give birth to kings and rulers, lesser beings?”. In 1699, when Guru Gobind Singh gave Sikh men the common name Singh—meaning “lion”, to remind us of the need for courage—he gave the name or title “Kaur”, meaning “princess”, to women, to remind them and others of their elevated status in Sikh society. On reflection, that seems to be a bit more than equality. I would rather be a princess than a four-legged beast.
Incidentally, when the Punjab was taken over by the British and the son of the legendary ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was exiled to Britain, his daughter became a prominent suffragette. In the Sikh marriage ceremony, the couple are reminded of their equality and their responsibility to work as a team in looking to the needs of the family and wider society.
The Sikh gurus were aware then—as is sadly still true today— that war is often used to justify brutal treatment of enemy women. Sikh teachings remind us that in times of conflict, women and girls should, as appropriate, be regarded as mother, sister or daughter and be treated as such.
Sikh teachings on the equality and dignity of women were way ahead not only of society at that time, but of much of society today. However, we cannot afford to be complacent. In some Sikh families, the still-negative culture of the sub-continent sometimes overrides religious teachings, with girls being treated less favourably than boys, promoting a false sense of male superiority. Today, Sikhs and non-Sikhs need to do much more to make the dignity and complete equality of women the norm, within our different faiths and in wider society.