by Radha devi dasi
Radhadesh, Belgium 28-29 June 1998
New Ramana Reti, Alachua, USA, 25-30 September 1998
If the truth is to be told, it is about everyone: men, women and children in our society who require recognition, honour and respect with sufficient opportunities for devotional service, free from impositions of culture, race or gender. It’s about opening a solid, recognisable platform of services in all areas of equal proportion and recognising, identifying, correcting and preventing areas of mistreatment against any devotee in ISKCON by any other ISKCON member.
Malati devi dasi at the Mayapur Meeting of the Governing Body Commission in 1998.
The Women’s Ministry of ISKCON has sponsored two conferences in the last four months where members of ISKCON met to discuss the position of women in ISKCON and the contributions which women can make in improving our society. Following on the heels of the historic First Annual Vaisnavis in ISKCON conference in Los Angeles last December, the conferences in Radhadesh (Belgium) in June and Alachua (USA) in September 1998 sought to deepen and extend the examination of issues which affect women. In addition to analysing institutional structures that challenge the participation of women in ISKCON, participants at both conferences discussed the extent to which the treatment of ISKCON’s women has affected our movement as a whole.
The European Conference
The first European conference of the Women’s Ministry took place at Radhadesh.
The conference was organised by Jyotirmayi devi dasi and Hari devi dasi, working in conjunction with Sudharma devi dasi. Over fifty women and men gathered for the conference which opened with presentations by Jyotirmayi devi dasi and Radha devi dasi summarising the work of the International Women’s Ministry, the Los Angeles Conference, and the response of the GBC to the Ministry’s work. The conference attendees were inspired to learn of Malati devi dasi’s appointment to the GBC and the support she received from many of the GBC members. Other presentations included Gaurangi devi dasi on ‘ISKCON Language and Women’, Radha devi dasi’s paper titled ‘Participation, Protection and Patriarchy: Roles for Women in ISKCON’, and a panel discussion on ‘The Impact of the Women’s Situation in ISKCON on Preaching’.
One of the conference’s most moving moments was a testimonial by second generation devotee, Chakrini devi dasi, who used her personal experiences to explain some of the ways in which our society has failed women. Describing her childhood as a time when her mother was pressured to neglect her, Chakrini noted that she and her friends ‘felt, as we grew up, that the role of women was very much frowned upon. We were told that it was just our bad karma to be women’. Her maturity and insight were evident when she concluded that ISKCON needs ‘mothers who are happy and confident in their capabilities as women and who therefore pass on those feelings to their children, because those children will grow up to be the parents of the future’.
The balance of the conference was spent in lively and thoughtful discussions between the participants on the roles which women can and should undertake in ISKCON as well as the importance of their contributions in helping the larger society to overcome the social difficulties which currently trouble our organisation. The conclusion of the participants was that ISKCON’s women and men must co-operate, not compete with each other, in an atmosphere of equal spiritual rights to devotional service and spiritual advancement.
The North American Conference
The Second Annual North American Women’s Ministry conference in Alachua was an ambitious undertaking which included three days of workshops on a wide range of topics, a one day retreat at a local cold spring spa, and a two day formal conference. Over a hundred devotees participated in some portion of the six-day event.
The workshops that opened the conference were impressive in their range and depth. The twenty-eight classes, all presented by Vaisnavis, covered topics ranging from child rearing, marriage, public speaking, leading kirtan (sung prayers), traditional Vedic roles and journal writing, to building self esteem, recovering from mistreatment, organising events and running a temple kitchen. One of the most enthusiastically received workshops was Arcana Siddhi and Mahandrani’s presentation entitled ‘From Victim to Victor’ which focused on healing from past experiences of mistreatment. The wealth of knowledge displayed by the women present was an overwhelming testament to the talent and enthusiasm which women bring to the service of Lord Krishna, and a persuasive argument for the continuing expansion of service opportunities for women.
One of the highlights of the women’s retreat day was the panel presentation on Srila Prabhupada’s pastimes. Laxmimoni devi dasi, Hari Puja devi dasi, Kusa devi dasi, Vishaka devi dasi, Jayasri devi dasi, Malati devi dasi and many others shared their first-hand experiences with Srila Prabhupada. In the process, they inadvertently reminded us all over and over again, how wonderfully and fully Srila Prabhupada engaged women in service, never limiting them by stereotyped gender roles.
The two-day formal conference included presentations by a number of academics, senior leaders of ISKCON, second generation devotees and women who are making a difference in our society today. H. H. Bhakti Tirtha Swami opened the conference with a presentation entitled Putting the Heart Back Into ISKCON. This presentation highlighted how the participation of women at higher levels can help our movement to become more in touch with the needs and concerns of our members. H. H. Hridayananda Swami described how his view of women changed as ISKCON developed, highlighting the transformation which others have previously noted from a family oriented society in which women were accepted, to a more repressive form which devalued women at a later point.
Vishaka devi dasi spoke on the topic of femininity, presenting scriptural sources and concluding that strength, service and public roles are not inconsistent with sastric injunctions on the place and treatment of women. Sudharma devi dasi, Rukmini devi dasi, Pranada devi dasi, Vraja Lila devi dasi, and Madhumati devi dasi used their personal experiences as devotees to reflect and comment on the ways in which women have overcome institutional barriers in order to serve and advance in ISKCON.
Sociologist Professor Burke Rochford, spoke on the mobilisation of women in ISKCON, noting that his research showed widespread support for more equal roles between men and women amongst ISKCON’s membership. Professor Vasuda Narayana, an expert on Vaisnava devotional poetry, shared her research and her personal experience as a woman raised in a Vaisnava culture. She described strong female role models within the Vaisnava tradition.
The conference ended with a presentation by Radha devi dasi that proposed the adoption of a Bill of Rights for ISKCON. Noting the existence of psychological and sociological causes for oppression of women in the larger society outside of ISKCON, Radha devi dasi argued that ISKCON’s development institutionalised some oppressive behaviour. This, she argued, was achieved by labelling similar types of material discrimination, as experienced in everyday society, as ‘spiritual’ practice. Her presentation concluded with a description of various types of human rights that ISKCON might adopt in seeking to improve the treatment of devotees. While the discussion of women’s roles in ISKCON continues, the conferences sponsored by the Women’s Ministry leave no doubt that women are making a profound and meaningful contribution to our movement. As H. H. Hridayananda Swami pointed out in his presentation at the women’s conference in Los Angeles last December, the eloquence, intelligence and spiritual consciousness shown by the women who participate in these conferences is a loud and persuasive cry that ISKCON open its doors wide to give Vaisnavis unlimited access to devotional service at all levels.