Saturday, October 2, 2010

Receiving the Goddess: A Call to Feminist Activism and Leadership

Last weekend, I attended the Omega Institute's Women and Power: Our Time to Lead Conference, in Rhinebeck, New York.

I was fortunate to have been given scholarships by Omega to bring six students to attend this conference.  Cherica, Saajida, Noelle, Janice, Sonia, and Anna are all passionate about ecofeminism, feminism, and/or women's history.  They are intense, smart, thoughtful, humble and loving people with high ambitions for their lives. The were so excited to join me; they each soaked up every bit of the weekend--from rowing on the lake (for several of them this was a first), to hiking, to taking yoga classes, to listening and considering all of what the speakers shared in their stories.  Several of them have spent little to no time in nature or in the country--so just getting out of the New York metropolitan area and into the beauty of the fall colors and the gardens, paths, and lake of the Omega campus, was eye opening.  It was an honor to share the special weekend in the country and the call for feminist change and power with them.

The conference organizers want/ed to raise our awareness about the denigration and violation of women worldwide.  More importantly, they call/ed on each of us to become leaders and activists in a woman's movement to end violence, to end war, to end world hunger, to end the denigration of our environment, to end religious divisiveness and hatred, to end racism, and more.  Thus, bringing young and impressionable women to learn from the feminist activist speakers, was a crucial component of the conference. 

The speakers at Women and Power included women who have established proactive women's organizations worldwide--such as Zainab Salibi's Women for Women, Jensine Larsen's World Pulse and Pulse Wire, and Malika Saada Saar's  The Rebecca Project .  These organizations successfully work to combat the trafficking, abuse and rape of girls and women everywhere.  (As an important aside, I urge you, as readers, to go to the links above and learn more about and help these organizations.  Sponsor a Woman, which is part of Salbi's Women for Women, for example, is an easy and important way to help desperate women war survivors. ) Other speakers, such as Mae Jemison, Pat Mitchell, Leymah Gboweer, and Gail Collins, spoke about women's and feminist history, the need for creating women's social and media networks (so that women's voices and needs can be heard and served), and they gave inspiring accounts of extraordinary female intellectual, political, and scientific accomplishments. All of these moving stories were interwoven with the rocking music of Retumba and Ani Defranco, as well as with movement, yoga, and meditation.

There is so much to say about all of the speeches and talks from the weekend--too much to write in one blog entry--- so, instead, I will share a few of my notes from my journal:

It is a time of action, no whining--women must lead---
It starts with a dream, 27 things you want to do with your life
Be the change you want to see in the world (Gandhi)
Dignity and Integrity
Burgha or no Burgha
It is all about women having a choice
A strong heart is a happy heart
The heart of darkness is inside us
Get off the horse and drop the sword
Strength comes from within
No longer silent
Courage and resilience
It is not just about saving the world
It is about saving ourselves
We can be the Sun--
We must be the Sun--
Building bridges
Most of the world's poor are women
Most of the world's violence is against women
500,000 women raped in Burma
500,000 women raped in the Congo
1 in 3 girls raped worldwide 
Who is listening?
Not the male dominated media
Only 17% of news sources  cover women's issues
Social media allows rural women to expose the violence
This is our new force; we need to harness and develop it
The world we are creating right now shapes are future
You, woman leader, must make yourself known
Reconciliation: stop the violence
Stop the hatred
Stop the battering
Stop the destruction
Stop the erasure 
Stop the trafficking and slavery
Love is a stronger impulse
The moment a woman comes back to herself 
The resurrection begins
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it begins
Sex Trafficking, Sex Slavery happens right here in the U.S.
Beloved: "the only grace they can have is the grace they
They do not love our bodies...
They do not love our hands...
They do not love our children...
We must come to the field and imagine..."(Toni Morrison)
Beloved emerged to remind us
They rape/d us forever
They shackle/d our ankles during birth
We, women and men (yes, we need the men)
Must be the change
Must be the sun
Must embrace the enemy other
Weaken them with love
Weaken them with our power
Weaken them with our truth

I was so proud and honored to have experienced this weekend and to have shared it with my students.  The speakers at the conference encouraged all of us to (re)think how we can be leaders and do the right thing (the only ethical thing) on this earth, and it made us question what it means to be feminine and female and human in a patriarchal world.  Together, we all spoke of the need for women to feel our./their power, and love and respect our bodies. We must reinvent and reinvigorate a feminine belief system which honors women and girls, and  no longer accept the mysogynistic ideology of our world culture which promotes female self-hatred and self-deprecation.  Each of my students expressed a renewed desire to empower themselves, and to help others in their future work as teachers, doctors, mothers, and lawyers.

As the conference ended, on that fall day in September--the sky was grey and cloudy, but the trees were glowing in red, gold, and orange.  Before going back home, all seven of us took a five mile walk around the lake.  When we finally came to the parking lot to say our goodbyes, my beautiful women students gave me a thank you gift of a statue of an earth/woman/goddess.  As they handed me the statue, the students said that I represent the earth/woman/goddess to them.   I was stunned and moved to tears by their words!  I believe that the goddess they see in me is really a reflection of themselves--for they are the true goddesses, so full of hope and imagination-- they are the sunlight of the future.

The mother goddess's body is both tree and woman: her arms reach high in a circle above her head, as she unifies heaven, earth, and spirit.  



Below is the response of one of my student "daughters" to the
Women and Power Conference:

 I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar!
            Anna Urazov

I am a woman.  I am a daughter.  I am a Russian Jewish immigrant.  I am an American.  I am a student, a hard worker, a lover, and a well-wisher.  I am hopeful, passionate, aggressive, energetic, opinionated, and proud. 
How did I come to know myself and accept myself?  I was always a quiet and self-judging individual.  How did I become this assertive person who looks in the mirror and says, “I’m Ok” and “I like what I see”?  While I can’t solely attribute my weekend at Omega Institute’s ‘Women and Power Conference’ to this development, for this has been an ongoing and long journey of self-improvement, it certainly molded me into a more aware, tolerant, and compassionate individual.  I am now, more than ever, aware of what it means to be a leader.  If you look up this word in the dictionary, you can see phrases that describe a leader as one who guides, influences, commands, and directs.  Other descriptions narrow this definition to being superior or having an advantage over another individual.  After this conference, after listening to some powerful and honest female speakers, my definition of a leader is this: it is a person who inspires someone to call on change, to question the norm, to fight hate, violence, and discrimination.  It is someone who is able to stir in someone’s soul a deep and unmistakable passion to fight evil with good, to change oneself and thereby change the world, to find courage and a voice, and to let that voice be heard.
If someone asks me what will forever echo through my mind after this conference, I will remember the words of some influential and courageous women: Leymah Gbowee’s phrase, “We need to redeem our time”; Malika Saada-Saar’s phrase, “Only you can tell your story”; Elizabeth Lesser’s “We are all Cassandras”; and Zainab Salbi’s “Dance, when you’re broken open/Dance, when you’re perfectly free”.  Salbi’s story and journey was particularly inspiring to me.  She is an Iraqi woman who lived in a time of war, witnessed its detrimental affects on humankind, was forced into an abusive arranged marriage, and yet survived and rebuilt her life on her own accord.  Her organization, Women for Women International, has sponsored thousands of women around the world by establishing a partnership and sisterhood between those who have the ability to help and those who need a support system more than ever.  During her speech she contrasts life in Saddam Hussein’s private circle and the misery faced by everyone else. Every woman listening to her story felt her pain.  Her face hardened as she recounted her parents’ attempt to save her by arranging a marriage in which she would move to America.  How she had the courage to rebuild her life at such a young age and channel her fears and pain into a positive way should be an inspiration to everyone.  Listening to her story was a humbling experience.  I have never experienced the traumas of war first hand, I have never been separated from my family and forced into a relationship, and I have never rebuilt my life from scratch.  And while I have all the comforts in the world, I have never done anything to not only better myself, but also to better humankind.  Salbi has inspired me to not take my life for granted.  She, along with many of the speakers, allowed me to believe that my small voice, grouped with other women’s voices, may make a change.  I logged onto and signed a petition to pass the International Violence Against Women Act.  At first it seemed like a small gesture but then I realized that any action I take, no matter how small, is better than not taking action at all.
As a woman who majored in English and is pursuing a career in science and medicine, I was particularly interested in Mae Jemison’s speech.  While I sat in complete awe of this unbelievable woman, astronaut, dancer, engineer, physician, and author, I was able to take away two very important messages.  For one, she says that science and art stem from a single root, our creative instinct.  She comically says that when deciding whether to be a dancer or doctor, her mother helped her.  Similarly, my mother also helped me in deciding what profession to pursue.  She told me, you can always write or read when you doctor, but you can’t always doctor if you write or read.  I then took a moment to thank my mother, the most important leader in my life, in always helping me see clearly, make the right decisions, continuously strive to better myself, and have compassion and understanding for everyone around me.  Jemison’s second point was how precious time was.  There are 86,400 seconds in a day, she notes, and we can be doing so much with each passing second.  It is up to me how I choose to spend my time and how productive I lead my life.
This weekend retreat of learning, discovering, and uniting has changed my life and way of thinking.  I’ve never tried vegetarian food, yoga, or meditation.  While I can’t rid myself of meat, I am trying to be a more health conscious eater.  I went out and purchased a yoga mat and I’ve been doing yoga in the morning.  I am going to make an effort to be more eco-friendly.  My small step of not using water bottles will hopefully open the door to other good deeds.  I cannot thank Omega and Professor Hutner enough for this wonderful experience.  The bonds and the sisterhood I have created with all the girls I spent these days with were certainly unforgettable and hopefully long lasting.  This was an incredible intellectual and spiritual experience, and like Salbi, I would like to close with a Rumi poem:

The intellectual quest is exquisite like pearls and coral,
But it is not the same as the spiritual quest.
The spiritual quest is on another level altogether,
Spiritual wine has a subtler taste.
The intellect and the senses investigate cause and effect.
The spiritual seeker surrenders to the wonder.


Anonymous said...

I don't want to be a woman today. It is too damn hard. I sit and pray,
But the woman in me does not want to stay.
It wants to run, so fast and far away.
The woman in me, living in the past.
Shake the dreams, the lies and the agony.
Take away this pain.
Make me sane.
I am not a woman today...

Written by Cynthia Chapman Manuszak

Atlantic Muse said...

thanks for sharing your weekend Heidi.
A great encouragement to continue thinking and striving for a more wholesome world for myself, Friends, Children, & fellow Feminists.