Respecting Our Women In Iskcon
By Kesava Krsna Dasa
For some reason the subject of womanhood and the roles they play within our midst has raised strong feelings, usually centred on celibacy and the potential for victimisation. This shows that women are not really the problem – our inordinate fixation on matters ‘celibate’ is the problem.
On one hand, a section of us wants a ‘purity’ of spiritual existence based on strict traditional chastity roles for our women – though various interpretations of them differ, and on the other hand, another section appeals for adaptation to the modern realities of our men and women roles in service to the Lord.
These realities can become unreal when our artificial impositions of keeping the sexes ‘apart’ are based on the fear of victimisation. Was there ever an indirect historic Islamic influence somewhere in this, as some surmise?
Each time a male devotee interacts with a female; must it always be tinged with this fear? Where can this fear lead us to?
To be kept ‘apart’ on the basis of victimisation pressures entails having to focus our energy and thoughts on that which distracts us from our ultimate spiritual goals in life. It can also disrupt the family unity so essential for us – as an Iskcon family, and in our biological families.
The very notion that the sexes stay apart is not always due to avoiding just the ‘Maya factor,’ but to the issue of celibacy itself that often wedges in between healthy and respectful dealings between the sexes.
How often have we observed how boys and girls used to Western influences try to adapt to rules of celibacy, and in so doing work out how to relate to the one another in service to the Lord?
The girls, knowing they are potential ‘Maya-devis’ have to bashfully conceal their faces from celibate males, whereas the celibate males try to communicate with ‘Maya-devis’ whilst looking the other way. Are there hints of awkwardness?
In normal cultured family living, these same boys and girls do not have to behave in ‘celibate’ ways with their own sisters and brothers – there is no need to. Yet these celibacy issues can cause awkwardness and misunderstanding between us because the male and female equation is reduced to a potential for fall down.
What is the result of this? It is usually brief, cautious interactions tinged with fear of a illicit liaison, or fear that others might see the interaction suspiciously. Is this fear necessary to keep us apart? Is this fear the ‘love’ we optimistically speak of?
Does this celibacy dynamic infringe on our ability to live and serve as brothers and sisters, uncles and aunties, fathers and mothers within an Iskcon family?
Have we ever noticed how in recent Iskcon times, we have our Congregational set-up which consist mostly of families? When males and females from these families interact, we often see normal, healthy relationships without artificial celibacy uncertainties affecting them. Is there something we can learn from?
No matter what our renunciates say about the need to get away from family life, the mature among them urge of the necessity for healthy and normal family living that contributes towards a sane and balanced society.
If we are affected with on-going issues concerning the sexes and their roles, does this indicate an imbalance somewhere in our own Iskcon family? Or is it our biases that misinterpret them?
The fact that we are either male or female means we all have a definite role to play. There might be some overlapping as in the case of ladies giving class in front of renunciates.
It could be that a male temple president thinks he is running ‘his’ temple very nicely, when in fact it is the humble ladies who are doing so, in the background. He gets the credit.
It could be that a brahmacari is chanting japa somewhere, and out of necessity, a Mataji has to be in his presence for service to the Lord. The brahmacari, thinking of his sacred celibacy status may deem her presence an intrusion into his space.
Then we have to ask, is the space of Iskcon for all of us, or is it to be partitioned with anti-family values? While acknowledging that celibacy values apply for all of us, we have a tendency to politicise them, or over-react.
Perhaps there is justification for this in some cases. Do any of us think that if in normal society, if all women were treated with due respect and protection, they would have begun all these women empowerment and equality movements that have increased in influence worldwide?
If our devotee ladies were also treated with deserving respect over the years, would we not see some of the movement towards women empowerment within our ranks as well?
The men have to admit, that their sense of supposed superiority over women is not always deserved. When a woman marries a male devotee, she sometimes sees his true worth, quite different from the one portrayed in public.
In other words, the protection and assurance sought by a woman in marriage is not always met. Those strong arms of a protective husband that Srila Prabhupada sometimes referred mean not only physical protection, but also all round assurance. Understandably, an unprotected woman is not very happy. We can compound this unhappiness by our distant dealings based on the same ‘illicit’ fear.
When supposed superiority mixes with the penchant for purist avoidance, and if any problems arise there, we more or less know who will come off worse in those situations.
This is the time of the year when Mother’s Day is observed, and the sooner we realise the importance of our sisters and mothers in service to Iskcon, the better. And one does not have to be a ‘liberal’ to agree on this.
Ys Kesava Krsna Dasa