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
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
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.