by Pranada dasi
Presented at the First Annual Women’s Conference 1997
I’ve been asked to speak on my experience of bringing the subject of the treatment of women in ISKCON to the foreground.
I wanted to consider the challenges women have faced, what we currently face, and a vision of tomorrow. Therefore, I’d like to look at yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
As a society, we have finally come to understand and accept the abuses our children have suffered in the gurukula system. I don’t believe we have understood the physical abuses women have suffered. Neither do I want to dwell on this. But it should be stated that from inferior living facilities, to lack of equal prasadam facilities to physical abuse from husbands, women’s parties leaders, and others, there is a staggering amount of physical abuses women have suffered in ISKCON. It is not less significant than the abuse our children have faced.
And perhaps more significant is the psychological abuses. This has been casually mentioned at this conference as the de-empowerment of women in our movement. To understand the significance of the damage that has been done is important, but impossible to convey in a few short minutes.
In the not-so-distant past, the climate has been so intolerable, that daily Bhagavatam classes proclaimed the position of women as a dangerous element in our society to be reckoned with. And we reckoned with them by instituting unspoken laws prohibiting them from certain services, keeping their participation in temple programs to an absolute minimum, and allowing an atmosphere in the social status quo to create deep inferiority complexes and fear. Most women were embarrassed to be women, and knew they were thoroughly unwelcome in ISKCON. Even today most women find it difficult to come forward to participate because the climate has been so anti-women for so long.
My own experience with the status quo in ISKCON can hint of the depth of the problem. The atmosphere created by negative thoughts and perceptions about women made it impossible to question the unspoken or invalid laws in public.
I started grappling with issues about women in ISKCON in the early ’80s and sought an understanding of just what Prabhupada wanted for women in his movement. It had become evident to me that the status quo was not one administered by Srila Prabhupada. I tried to gather information, but even in private conversations, Godsisters were frightened of what might happen to them if they were associated with those discussions. Indeed when it was time to bring facts of physical and psychological abuses, changes made to temple programs not at Prabhupada’s request, and how women were becoming increasingly distressed about ISKCON’s prohibitions against women, no Godsister or Godbrothers would stand with me to speak up.
The concerns of my Godsisters and Godbrothers about speaking out were not unfounded or unwarranted. Although I was gradually becoming known as someone questioning issues, I put my concerns in writing, finally, in 1984. That letter was sent to all the GBC members and was published in the Vaisnava Journal. That letter also sealed my fate, as I stood alone for my Godsisters, as a black sheep of my family. I was told I was a demon destroying Prabhupada’s movement, and I received the most controversial label: Pranada is a women’s libber. Labels are just labels, but they have the ability to discount human beings and create social rejection. Social rejection is feared by any one of us whose heart has been given over to Srila Prabhupada’s movement, and working within his movement is our life and soul. Therefore, labeling was not a light matter. And what was my great sin to receive such rejection? I suggested women should give Bhagavatam classes and were authorized to do so by Srila Prabhupada.
Even though social rejection was difficult I promised myself to work toward change. Even if I was the only one who would say something during a Bhagavatam class, whose speaker left out a balanced presentation I would say something. If I was in a group and someone made ill reference to women I would state my piece. I would use whatever method of communication available to keep alive a consciousness-raising dialog.
After all, dialog and communication can bring any change. My personal conviction was that there would be change if it was Krsna’s desire. Although I didn’t know Krsna’s desire I had an abiding belief that Krsna’s desire was not to see His dear devotee women-who have done so much to build ISKCON and have so much to offer-hurt in the way they have been in ISKCON
It has been after a long and arduous journey that Vaisnavis find themselves today at this conference. I don’t think we should neglect to understand the significance of our coming together to further this goal of healthy relations in ISKCON. This conference is an important event in ISKCON history where women are coming together to make a stand. Abuses, physical or psychological, will no longer be tolerated. Yesterday was only a short time away. It was a time when bringing up even two or three of the hundreds of thoughts we’ve shared at this conference was so heretical that one feared complete disruption of one’s spiritual life. No, it’s really no small feat that the swelling of acknowledgment and concern has grown into the formation of a national and international women’s ministry, with small changes worldwide in women’s services.
Being here today gives me great joy and hope for tomorrow.
But today I still have concerns. I’m concerned that no Los Angeles leaders are here. Women under their care have spent months of their lives to put this conference on. It would be good for the leaders to understand the hopes and desires of those under their care. It is being held only 15 minutes from the temple. I wish they could be here.
I’m concerned that we can’t find it within the realm of possibility to allow an exalted soul like Visakha Prabhu to give Bhagavatam class.
I’m concerned that there are men in Alachua that won’t do something Nanda Prabhu asks of them because they’re not convinced it’s devotional service.
I’m concerned that the countries opening up in Europe are making the same mistakes we made. Men are leaving their families for renunciation or book distribution, there is spousal abuse, and social issues are suffering in other ways.
I’m concerned that recently in Vrndavana a gurukula girl was given permission to lead the bhajanas in the temple, but then a brahmacari stopped her and she left crying.
I just spent the past two months with Sesa and Madhumati. They have two little girls, Vraja and Pranaya. Both of them are so endearing. Vraja is very shy, but Pranaya, since she was two or three years old calls people into the temple room and sits down to give Bhagavatam class and lead kirtanas.
I have a great hope about tomorrow. I want to see that all the Pranayas in the world, wherever they are-Africa, South America, India, Europe, United States, Canada-that all my Godsisters and enthusiastic young women like Shakuntala and Krsna Devata have facility to use their full mind, body, and words in Krsna’s service without fear or insecurity, demeaning attitudes, or abuses. I want to see them fully empowered in Krsna’s service.
I want to see a day before I die, where services have opened up for women to the extent that their balancing energy as nurturers and care givers can make sense of the disastrous social ills that our management to date has created.
I hope to see the day when, around the world, intelligent women see ISKCON family as an attractive alternative to pseudo-religions and material life.
As I was fully confident yesterday that I would see change even though everything seemed dismal and impossible, I am fully confident today that we will continue to see improvements tomorrow. But I know it can only be done with you.
If you share this hope, and can see this vision, then let’s join together through the medium of ISKCON’s Women’s Ministry to make sure we have this tomorrow.
Each one of us individually must make the same commitment I made to myself yesterday. Whatever the cost of our personal social status, let’s not remain silent in even one negative Bhagavatam class, in even one negative conversation. Let’s use every method of communication to raise consciousness. Let us no longer tolerate psychological abuses or the de-empowerment of movement.
Let’s join together to support the Women’s Ministry through finances and time to enable ISKCON policy-making for women, to communicate amongst ourselves through newsletters, and have more conferences nationally and internationally.
Much of yesterday’s problem for us was because we weren’t a united front. Let’s ensure tomorrow by coming together today. Let’s overcome any hesitation in doing that for Pranaya, for Shakuntala, for Krsna Devata for all Krsna’s Vaisnavis.