Facilitators: Dr. Sue Evans and Suzanne Slyman
This article contains excerpts of a meeting in which 12 – 15 women, who were all both professionals and Sai devotees, came together in Northern California, USA to discuss the role of women in society.
Swami talked about and seemed to value the traditional role of women. He taught that women can accomplish anything they choose -- this is not an issue, although finding the time and resources to do this can be a problem -- but that the primary duty of women is to maintain the heart of the home. Women are the heart of society, really. We are losing this sense of the traditional role. Well, actually, we have already lost it.
Women are mostly not respected for this traditional role. If we are to follow Swami's direction, women need to be restored to that role, and in a way that is respectful. This needs to be done in a balanced way, too -- not that women should be raised up above men, anymore than they should be below. The goal is that men and women should form a mutually respectful, complementary, synergistic whole.
What do women need in order to be restored to their proper functioning in society? How do we change society? Clearly this is different in different cultures, but restoring respect for women and restoring the traditional role of women seems to be a 'hard sell' everywhere. People do not want to respect women in many places, and so many women are thinking, we just escaped from that traditional role! Or, we want to escape from that.
My experience is as a professor. I have worked a lot with students who were adult women going back to school to get masters degrees and PhD's. The women I worked with -- the other professors as well as the students -- were very competent women, and yet even at that level of education, most women seem to lack self-confidence and a sense of self-worth.
This is as far as I get in my thinking: to start, what we need to do to help women is to restore their sense of self-confidence and self-worth. And then I wonder... how?
So these are my questions for all of you. What are your thoughts – any ideas or reactions, small, large, social, personal, professional? What are the issues? What is in our way? Why don't women have confidence and self-worth and how do 'we' give that to women? What are some ways that we could do that? Activities, projects, ideas? How can we restore the proper balance between men and women, and especially, restore women to their proper role?
At our Sai Center, the women have been meeting once a month for a few years, just the women, together. And they really look forward to it. When we get busy, we cancel these get-togethers, and everybody is so happy when we start in again. These sorts of meetings are simply forums where the women can open up, and we all can discuss how to handle situations. It provides mentoring, support, a kind of sisterhood. In our case, we have become close-knit. We are a small group, and as a result, we understand each other very well by now. I think that kind of a meeting once a month, especially if it is sustained long enough to build trust and rapport, enables us to support each other and feel supported. I think this would help.
If the group has a great chemistry, this could work. But if you work in a group, this is not always the way it is. This kind of support and mentoring can even be done one-on-one with another woman who has the strength and experience and the capability to really see the situation and help.
My idea comes from my experience in Indian culture – and maybe even people from Western culture could relate to this – where we force young people into a particular career path long before we even really understand the strength and skills of the person. We go so far ahead in such fields and may even get advanced degrees, but it may not be in a field we are happy to do. So some of that lack of confidence you mentioned even in professional women may be coming from this misalignment between what they should be doing to feel fulfilled and what they are actually doing.
So, giving women professional career guidance or even guidance that makes them understand their strengths – because they may not believe in their inherent talents – would help. As a small example, I have come to see from the Sai women's mini-retreats we do here, that as we organize and work together, we come to know each person's talents and skills, and give them the opportunity to use their skills. That makes the women more confident to do this job again the following year, or to take on this role for some other project.
What I see in doing this is that women start to reorient themselves toward what works for them, and then self-confidence blossoms naturally, because there is more alignment within themselves.
So, you are saying that it is hard to feel self confidence and self worth, no matter how confident you get, at something that you do not really want to be doing.
I find that the Sai Organization is a wonderful forum for women to develop their self confidence in many ways. Maybe people are very nervous about singing, or playing an instrument, or being involved in the many Organization activities, or serving as president of a Sai Center, and they are given opportunities for such activities. I have seen confidence and understanding and maturity being built over the years from this.
So to take this out of the context of only the Sai Organization, any opportunities that women can be provided in a supported, structured way would give them the chance to develop skills and confidence. Can we generalize in this way? Or perhaps we should add, giving women opportunities to develop self confidence like this in an environment in which there is also a shared belief system is even more effective than if there is nothing to bind the women together and lead them to be willing to take such risks.
What I have experienced at my work, in the field of technology – and this is being done at a number of workplaces – is that many small groups of women are formed for purposes of mentoring and skill development. Through this system, the business provides workshops that help us develop our skills, and a forum where we can sit down and talk with other people from the industry.
When we are new or young, we do not always know what is the right or wrong thing to do, or if our judgment is correct, and we tend to keep our problems to ourselves. If we hear other people talking about the same problems, we feel more confident of ourselves and we can learn from their different perspectives. If we sit and listen to people who have been successful in the industry and achieved a higher level, we get advice on what to work with and how to do it. This opens our eyes, and teaches us so many things.
In this approach, they also form little core groups from different parts of the organization and try to combine everybody in various situations to learn how to work with people who are different from you, especially how to work with men and how to better yourself. They teach you about the issues you face working with men -- and working with women.
So, breaking it into smaller groups like this rather than being part of a vast ocean helps women a lot. You start forming relationships and develop a feeling of closeness. This makes you want to start going to the group and trying things and working to develop yourself. In the past few years that I have been attending these various groups, these "networking circles", I have noticed how much better I feel, and how much better I have become at seeing how to do things. I have even been able to help other women.
Is it necessary for this to work that the people all be in the same field?
No, I do not think so. As long as the topics and issues are of general interest, I think it actually helps that people are from all different fields. They give examples and suggest many ways to approach problems. I have found this very useful for me, not only in my career, but even at home with my husband and kids. They are wonderful, but sometimes I doubt if I am doing the right thing. Now I feel more confident that I can solve problems that come up. I realized a long time ago that although I am an engineer, engineering is really not for me, but now, because of these support groups, I feel confident that whatever I take up, I can accomplish successfully. Before, the confidence was not there. Everyone could benefit from this process.
And do you think it would have made a difference if you had gone into a field that was more suited to you?
That is what I keep thinking. But the choice was not there. In India, the education system is that if you get a certain percentage of marks, you are taken as a doctor or an engineer. And since I got 100% in math…. [Everyone laughs and sings out, "Engineering!"] But I wanted to do art. My home became a battlefield for some time. I had done art and creative work and crafts since I was a kid. I also loved dance. But we were a poor family, and my dad urged me to lift myself up, so that maybe I could help others.
Even now I do not know if I am doing the right thing. How do you find yourself?
And if I quit my job, how can we manage financially? On the other hand, the kids need my attention, and I am not there for them. What is right?
This is such a common dilemma for women! And -- do your kids deserve a happy mom, too...
This is the issue of how does one find one's 'swadharma', or what one should do in the world – what is from one's heart -- and what happens to us when we are not doing that. As I am listening, pieces are falling into place for me, so I am going to pull together a few different pieces here. Like Sue, I have had that feeling from Swami that it is TIME: time for women to find their proper role. A few years ago, we were wondering if our local women's retreat could really continue. There was quite a bit of opposition to it. The only thing Swami has ever said to me directly was, "Wait, wait." So I was not used to Him talking to me, but at my last day in darshan a few years ago, I was 'telling' Him, "I have to go back and deal with this issue of the women's retreat, Swami, and You cannot just leave me out there all by myself."
He was in the car, leaving, and He was looking in the other direction as usual, and He suddenly wheeled around and just poured into me and the whole group of women I was sitting with. That whole group of 25 - 30 women 'got it'. They just did not move after darshan, and then they suddenly all started hugging each other. So I have been feeling strongly since this darshan that there has got to be a place where women can find themselves, a separate 'place', outside their ordinary role expectations -- expectations from themselves and from other people -- because we cannot have self-confidence if we cannot listen to the Self.
So that is one piece. Here is another piece. I have been working with a woman from an Eastern culture (not Indian). She had been really struggling, and I asked her if this was about self-confidence. She was very offended, and said she was struggling with a deep feeling of shame and fear, and what she needed was to feel secure. Self-confidence, for her, was about aggression.
So, as I have been listening to this discussion, I have been reflecting that it is not possible to be in a situation where you are not allowed to find yourself, without feeling shame. We are all naturally shining, right? We have divinity at our core, and so we want to shine, but if that is not reflected back, or if we are told we are wrong or bad, that causes shame, which is a very deep, painful feeling, and one that is hard to admit to. It is also one that is hard to come out of without a lot of loving encouragement and support.
I am just processing here, I have no conclusion to offer -- but these things seem to have an order to them, and I believe this is part of what we are up against, when we talk about really bringing the Feminine, full-blown – not as a reaction to anything, but as just the beautiful quality that it is – into expression in the world.
It is a process, then. Maybe it first has to be as a reaction, and then it becomes a process.
I think the question for discussion is so relevant. Your question has so many levels, it could be cultural, it could be global, but what I am thinking that has worked across many cultures is women coming together and sharing their experiences and accomplishing something to better their situation, even if it is a small thing.
That is where the shame comes into play, when as a child, not even being aware of being a boy or a girl and you are interested to do something and then you are told no, no, no, that is for your brother, or that is not for girls. That is shaming. But when you have these opportunities in a group of women, to share, and to find common strength, you find out this is normal. Then if you have a goal to accomplish something, no matter how small, that builds your self-esteem and chips away at your core of shame that is nobody's fault, really, but that occurred naturally as you grew.
Even if women come together from across different cultures, there is a commonality that is always just there, defined by their being women.
I would like to take it from the career aspect. I have so many colleagues who try to find their soul-mate. And they struggle through that process! It is hurt after hurt after hurt. They have a goal of finding a partner, but you can see that through that process, their self-confidence has just gone down. I think women need help with this. They can even be completely satisfied with their work, but there is still a self-esteem problem coming from their personal life. By doing well professionally, this gets masked, but it is there.
I think a common thing which all of us are trying to say is, first, create a forum where women can come together. Smaller ones are better for a regular basis, so there is always someplace you can go. This gives confidence. That is such a good feeling.
Because our problems come up on a regular basis! [Laughter]
That issue of finding a life partner is very culturally defined, and there are many levels to this, but -- it is a huge issue! The women we work with…. Their self-esteem is not low, it is in the gutter! What helps these women, also, is to have support groups, and to have something to achieve, but the most important issue to them is a man. And the men they are with are horrible! These men beat them, and do other terrible things, but the women have the attitude, "He's my man."
I think that is where we have problems. Women need to learn that they have value, and they do not need a man to give this to them. Media plays a role in their believing this; the pictures we see of women who are 'happy' also need to change – it is at all levels. We are responding to this bigger field out there where we get our beliefs from, that we have to deal with and change.
Something has to spark an awakening in any person to make a change. It could be a group, or a dissatisfaction, or an interest, or a belief that it is even possible. Sometimes this can require outside intervention. This can wake someone up to believe that maybe it is OK if I learn how to read or write, or change jobs, or take care of myself.
I would agree, but I think couching it as there is something wrong and I need to change puts way too much pressure on the women. If you take it out of the abstract – politics and social mores -- and into the practical, I believe that is better. So instead of thinking, I am a woman, should I do X? You can think, I see that my family needs money/food/whatever. What could I do to make that happen? And just the tiniest little victory helps, and the person can build upon and build upon this.
I happen to be an attorney. I also happen to be a woman, and I help women. One thing I do is to go out with them and we deal with their 'roadblocks' of people and the system. Being trained as an attorney, roadblocks are nothing to me and I blast right through them. The women I am with are always surprised and marvel, "Oh, I didn't know that could work…" and the next time we go out to deal with one of their issues, they reflect, well, here is what worked last time, let me try it. The women start believing, I can do something to get myself out of this hole. And success breeds success. So getting this one little success to start is so important.
I agree that groups help, and also one-on-one mentoring.
I like to say that if you do not ask, the answer is always no. Then I say, and if the answer is no, that is just their first offer. [Laughter] This opens up doors.
I think women are not as good at negotiating as men, because we believe this is being confrontational or asking for something, and we do not like to ask. Instead of asking for something, when someone would say no to me, I started saying, "Really! How can I get you to say 'yes'?" And I swear, people tell me the answer! [Laughter]
So, not asking for something, but asking for a solution, for knowledge, asking them for their experience – how can you bring your experience to bear to help me solve this problem of getting around you?
I think that is so good, because this goes to self-confidence. This shifts our attitude.
Another useful strategy, if you are dealing with a man who tells you no, is to ask, who can I go to who does have the authority to say yes? Men will move heaven and earth not to have to admit that they do not have the authority, so usually they will help you somehow after this. And if they really do not have the authority, then you are wasting your time. Leave and go figure out something else.
I think this is also hard for women to figure out and to do. But this does not have to be confrontational. You are really just asking, can you help me out? Are you the right person for me to be talking to, and if you are not, can you please direct me to the right person? You can be respectful and courteous, and even still be feminine, and still ask these questions.
This is like trying to buy shoes in a candy store. It is a good idea to ask where the nearest shoe store is.
Part of this is preparing yourself for how you will put the question. The way you phrase it, the words, are so important. You need to bring people into the conversation.
There is so much power in asking questions rather than making statements. You can also say, can I offer you an observation? This is much less confrontational than offering your advice. These little strategies are things that we can all do every day, things that help us accomplish what we need to accomplish. I do not think women are bad at navigating situations, but I think they need to learn the confidence to begin the process – to believe they have the right to ask. And to exist!
You are reminding me of life in my own profession Men have their own language, and women do not speak that language, and I believe a lot of the problems we run into is because we do not speak that language, like pushing that authority button you were describing. In my profession it was, "How can we get this job done?" If you used the 'job' word, the reaction would be, "Oh, we're getting a job done." That would shift the conversation and create a whole different mindset from: we are having a power struggle here.
But how do we come to these insights? How can other women come to understand this kind of approach to problem-solving and communication, and come to do these things themselves?
I think training and mentoring is crucial here. Women need to help other women.
One thing I would like to add, I find that if you tell a man, no, you did something wrong, he will just go away, but women seem to have the persistence to come back and revisit the issue and come back to the problem and think about it, and ask, what did I do wrong, and they can learn from this without feeling their ego got hurt.
As far as the point about women not asking for help, women are so hesitant. If we do not know something, we are scared to ask. We wonder, what will people think, or how will it reflect on me? I myself have been in this situation, and I was too scared to ask, so I spent a lot of time trying to figure it out on my own. But now I'm no longer scared to go and ask, and I have learned who to ask, too. This saves me time, and I get the work done.
We need to overcome this!
Your question, how should we get this across to other women, I think there are many workshops available that they could go to if they knew about them. But to start small, we could start locally in the Sai Organization. I think a workshop would be very valuable, if it could be done in a non-intimidating atmosphere, where people are open. What is a workshop if you are not going to open up? So people have to be comfortable talking. Then these kinds of points could be brought out, and women could find their 'buddy' or their mentor, who could take them through the next step.
I think there is a first step before this, though, that women need to even have the concept that things could be better for them.
I would like to speak to that point about women needing a stimulus or a reason to change. I saw a documentary on an African country, in which the women were so tired of war that they started banding together. They started small, in fact with just one woman, and she did not have the confidence to do this, but she was just tired of war. She and a few others decided to use nonviolence to speak to the men. They would sit down when the men were meeting, and just their presence started to inhibit and change the men.
Seeing this, the women began to strategize, and eventually they ended up meeting with the country's leaders. They chose nonviolent but very effective strategies. For example, in that culture, a mother would never disrobe in public, but the woman leader said that if the leaders did not stop the fighting, she would disrobe in public. This was shocking and shaming to the men. Slowly, these tactics worked, and finally these women changed their whole country and stopped the war.
It has to start somewhere. One woman just started planting seeds in a place where all the trees had been cut down. There are so many projects that just one or two could start. We are talking about more personal growth, but these are examples where a group of women can affect a whole nation.
This speaks to the power of women. I think this is a good example of the kind of inspiration that wakes people up. There are examples like this of powerful women and groups of powerful women all over the world.
One example is from India, where a group of women got together for literacy, and that alone made them think they could do more. Their husbands were alcoholics, so the 'more' was that this group of women actually changed the laws in that state so that alcohol was no longer easily available. These were illiterate women! Imagine what could be accomplished by others.
How do you get that information to women to wake them up? And maybe a woman does not want to do something big, maybe she just wants to tell her husband, "Sundays are for me". For self-confidence, it does not always have to be big. What is important is how it looks in your eyes, the conviction and understanding that you deserve to be, and whatever that means to you.
This requires a process of expanding women's horizons a little bit, through mentoring or workshops, or even through seeing a documentary of women accomplishing wonderful things.
So that would be helpful, to put out examples of women accomplishing things like this. [Enthusiastic agreement] And there are so many examples. I keep thinking of the micro-economy model. It was a man who started this, but it is women who make it work.
I think Swami has also said that women have become like men. You couched this in a different way – you talked about the balance – but what does this mean for us?
To generalize, I think we have gone to two inappropriate extremes nowadays: women are worthless or women are men. But neither of these models is working for us. In fact, to generalize a step further, human society is not really working anymore. To heal society, we need to help women.
What about the fact that women are now outside the home and not caring for the children? The problem of dual incomes?
Yes, it would be difficult to bring women to that role again. It is a critical role, but one that has been so devalued.
And isolated. I think it is hard to tell a young woman who is full of life that she no longer gets to speak with adults and she no longer has a life of her own. The way culture is right now, at least here, there is no community of women who she will be in communication with. It is broader than just the individual.
I think there are some positive trends in that, like men and women sharing the responsibility for raising children. This paradigm can shift. I do agree, though, that the children cannot be raised only by nannies, or by nobody. Our culture is changing in that the workplace is becoming more respectful to both mothers and fathers who need to leave work to go and help their child.
In our work, we see the sad products of the present situation, women who did not get good values and who were not raised by their parents. We, the society have painted this picture, so let us un-paint it!
I think what you said about asking questions instead of just reacting -- that is so powerful. I was talking with a woman the other day who was upset about how her daughter was dressing. I suggested she ask her daughter about it, and have a conversation.
I came to this country with a degree in microbiology, and got married right away. I thought I would be able to work, but I married into a family where that was not allowed. I used to war in my head so much: why can't I work? But life went on, we had children, and one good thing, we were both able to work from home and be with the children. They are so successful now. And you know, with patience, everything does come – now, 20 years later, I am working in my field and I am so happy.
Any last thoughts? Directions this should go?
I think whatever discussions we have, we should not forget the basics: the Swadharma of a woman, and what Swami's teachings are about that. We have to build on that and see how we can fit it into our present-day situation, but that should be our foundation.
I have been going through discourses and pulling out what Swami really said about women. Swami did this all along, working to restore women, so that is my question: how did He do it? What did He do, to help restore women and to help restore the balance? And I notice as I read that He made a whole variety of points, but one of the things that He did, as one of you mentioned, was to talk about exemplary women, and He just kept putting forth the stories of great women. This can give us the idea that we can be good or 'great', and this gives us a model.
He was also very clear that soul does not have a gender. Women are every bit as able as men to self-realize. He was adamant about that.
We see in the world today disorder, violence and conflict. What is the cure for these ills? Man must shed his selfishness, greed and other bad qualities and rise above his animal nature. He must cultivate Charity (unselfishness) to achieve Purity. Through purity of heart, men will achieve Unity, which will lead to Divinity. In the cultivation of these basic qualities, the role of women is crucial. Only dedicated mothers can offer to the nation children who will strive for a great future for the country. Truth, sacrifice and peace are predominant qualities in women. Women are concerned about the purity and welfare of the community.
From ancient times, Indian scriptures have glorified the examples of great women like Maithreyi, Seetha, Saavithri. Their lives continue to be a source of inspiration to this day. We cannot afford to forget them.
~ Sri Sathya Sai Baba