Justice Ginsburg on all-women Panj Pyare

Some lessons from firebrand Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who broke many a glass ceiling in her quest for justice and equality. She died today (19 Sept 2020)

Justice Ginsburg
By Hb Singh | OPINION |

The firebrand Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is no more. The second women to serve on the United States Supreme Court died today (19 September), leaving a huge legacy, especially on women and their position in the world.

Before I move further, let me clarify. The feminist icon and a revolutionary judge did not make any pronouncement on the Panj Pyare as the headline would suggest. That is my inference from her stated positions.

Some time ago, listening to one of her talks made me reflect on some of the question that Sikhs ask. Why were there no women in the Panj Pyare? Why no woman came forward when Guru Gobind Singh asked for sacrifices in the momentous 1699 event? Why no women in the Guruship – all 10 were men? You can add to the list.

The struggles that Ginsburg had to endure — because she was a woman — is instructive. They give us a clue as to what real life has to offer. Perhaps we can transplant it back to the Guru’s time to answer some of the questions above.

Born in 1933 in Brooklyn, New York, Ginsburg was elevated to the Supreme Court in 1993. At 60, she became the second women to be appointed as a Supreme Court justice. Twelve years earlier, President Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor who became the first woman Supreme Court justice in US history.

Until then, the Supreme Court had been an all-male affair! This is the US we are talking about, not some supposed backward nation. Close to two centuries since the Supreme Court was established in 1789, it had been all all male affair at the top bench. Before her death, three out of nine justices were women. They serve for life.

In her talk, Ginsburg remarked: “The question put to me was: when do you think there will be enough women on the Supreme Court? And I said: ‘When there are nine.’ People are shocked. Nobody thought anything was out of order when nine men, as there were, until Justice O Connor was appointed.”

Does this help to answer our questions above? The Khalsa was crystallised just 77 years before US declared its independence. The ways of the world were very different back then. The position of women, in real life, were pretty hard and tough. Yes, there were pockets of openings, but there were few and far between. We can quote examples of earlier Guru Sahibs appointing women to some key positions. Again, I suspect it was more an exception rather than the norm. Well, it was simply the reality of the way of life then.

So, having an all-male Panj Pyare or leaders were the norm. It is not what the Guru Granth tells us, but it was the prevailing way of life.

In the same talk, Ginsburg shared a story of her granddaughter, then eight years old, who wanted to be part of an interview. The interviewer asked: ‘Tell me, Clara. What would you like to be when you grow up.’ Her reply: ‘I want to be the president of the United States of the World.’

“A woman running for president would not have been taken seriously 50 years, even 25 years ago,” Ginsburg observed.

Change is a process and it is inevitable. She noted that changes take time and the parties wanting to push them forward must also be patient. When asked whether changes in the police were happening fast enough, she said: “We would like to have them happen overnight but it won’t. It will be slow…. We start by recognising that there is a problem. We then come up with solutions.”

The Sikh community, by and large, have started looking at the position of women in society. (We have, right?) Today, you see women in the Panj Pyare, whether leading parades or preparing the Khanda-da-Pahul (usually refered to as Amrit). It’s still not the norm, but it’s happening.

In some areas, the community is facing awkward stonewalling. One glaring example is women still not being allowed to perform kirtan in the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar. The reasons given are ludicrous.

You need to push for change to happen. It has to be planned, and, in some areas, forced. Ginsburg didn’t reach the pinnacle of her career without pushing and fighting her way forward.

When studying law at Harvard Law School, she was one of only nine women in a class of more than 500. Her dean had the cheek to ask why she was taking up a place that “should go to a man.” She stayed the course and became the first female member of the Harvard Law Review. When practicing law, she emerged as a beacon for gender equality in the courtrooms. In 1972, she broke the glass ceiling again when she co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union women’s rights project. Later, she became the first female tenured professor at Columbia Law School.

All these didn’t come on a silver platter. Ginsburg had to fight hard every step of the way. The same with our women. They, too, will have to pull no punches. One fine day, you will not turn your head when you see a slate of an all-women Panj Pyare.


Hb Singh is a Kuala Lumpur-based journalist with some experience in dealing with Sikh organisations, both from within and outside. 

* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.



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