By Paola Di Florio
I’ve been contemplating whether women are uniquely qualified to make an unprecedented impact on world peace, equitable prosperity and climate change. A panel of female spiritual, religious and scientific leaders took the stage last October to discuss these very issues at the 2015 first-ever “Women’s Assembly” at the Parliament of World Religions. Four thousand women and men from across the globe came together to discuss a new paradigm for living and to address a feeling shared by many: that the world has lost its way. As a filmmaker who is exploring the role of women in a new planetary leadership movement, I packed my camera and joined them.
In past decades, women who have “leaned in” and emerged as leaders in the world have mostly done so by adapting to men’s rules. But I believe there is something missing from this approach, and that missing ingredient is a sacred one. While the male culture of conquering the unknown has brought us great advances in science and technology, it has become distorted.
“The culture is out of balance,” explains Phyllis Curott, the catalyst behind the inaugural Women’s Assembly. “ The way we have treated the Earth is exactly the way we have treated our women, and the way we are going to treat our women is the way that we will treat the Earth.”
Humanity is at a tipping point. Patriarchy has become a fertile breeding ground for greed, and violence is being inflicted on a scale never seen before in human history. We cannot heal the problems of the world until we heal the heart of civilization, and that can only arise when we heal the heart of women. Gender inequality is not only a primary human rights issue, it is also costing the world trillions of dollars. According to the World Bank, women-owned firms in the United States alone contribute approximately $3 trillion a year to the economy and produce nearly 23 million jobs.
But of even greater impact is what drives women in their work. Leadership scholar Bernard Bass’ studies show that women have highly effective transformational qualities which include fostering higher moral maturity, encouraging followers to look beyond self interest to the common good and promoting cooperation and harmony. Bass predicted that by the year 2034 the majority of high-level leaders, remarkably, will be women.
Men are also a major part of this conversation. Award-winning investigative journalist and best-selling author Nafeez Ahmed claims that “the systemic marginalization and repression of women is not an accidental feature of our civilizational crisis. It is inherently bound up with our male-dominated system of violence toward the natural world as a whole.” Like a growing number of men, Ahmed is calling for a much-needed transition that allows for women to step into roles of leadership in order to shift the balance on the planet. Neuroscientist and moderator at the Women’s Assembly, Dr. Satpal Singh claims “men are wired to grab as much power as possible. Unless you internally believe you have to rectify your situation, you’re not going to do that.” A recent New York Times editorial called “Men’s Lib” says “rather than trying to recreate a patriarchal past, men have to embrace a more feminine future.” Perhaps an embrace of the Goddess archetype is in order.
In small ways, this is already taking shape across the planet. Saudi women voted last December for the first time in history and have subsequently been elected into local counsel. German Chancellor Angela Merkel made the cover of TIME as “Person of the Year” for her courageous leadership with respect to the Syrian refugee crisis. Egyptian activist Asmaa Mahfouz used her video blog to instigate a mass uprising in Egypt and Malala Yousafzai has become an agent of change all over the world, encouraging women to use their voices to create cultural shifts. All of this has unfolded in the past few years, in spite of the fact that there is not a country in the world where women are economically and politically equal to men.
As the mother of two teen-aged boys, I see the Goddess slowly making her way into popular culture as well: She is Daisy Ridley as Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens; she is Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everydeen in The Hunger Games, who fights to preserve the world from its perverted trajectory; she is Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series; she is Sandra Bullock in Gravity, who seeks answers from the beyond. Even Avatar hit on ancient truths, unveiling the sacred feminine to mythic proportions. The women in these films assert themselves in an attempt to preserve something authentic and true, which is being threatened or is lost. But the regenerative power of the Goddess cannot be destroyed. It may be mitigated but cannot be extinguished.
Throughout millennia, this force has been feared by men and consequently women have suffered. Religious and secular authorities alike have kept women suppressed, tortured, raped and even killed throughout the centuries. “We don’t burn women at the stake anymore, but that doesn’t mean we’ve routed out this projection of suspicion onto a woman who own her voice,” says Marianne Williamson, who spoke at the Parliament. “We are remembering as a human race something which we had forgotten. A mass spiritual awakening is absolutely essential,” claims Williamson. “The feminine primordial memory… is the principal of nourishment, nurturance, healing, love and peace,” says Ayurveda master Maya Tiwari. “If that eroded, it means the entire earth is going to be eroded.”
What seems clear is that our task in the 21st century is one of awakening to the fundamental reality that we are not separate from one another. What I bore witness to at the Women’s Assembly is a form of subtle activism, which author Dr. David Nicol describes as the use of spiritual work for collective transformation rather than personal development alone, which is a foundational piece in the shift that we need to make on the planet.
What this produced at the Parliament in Utah was a strengthened sense of cooperation rather than competition, compassion rather than blame and a profound desire to combine our collective wisdom to get ourselves out of this reductionist, fragmented worldview that has imprisoned and spiritually crippled us. Dr. Jane Goodall, primatologist and UN Messenger of Peace perhaps summed it up best: “There is a Native American saying that the tribe is like an eagle and one wing is male and the other is female. And only when the two wings are equal will the tribe fly high and true.“
Photos (in order of appearance in the article from top to bottom):
- Physicist, Peace & Sustainability Activist and Ecofeminist Pioneer Vandana Shiva addresses the plenary at the Women's Assembly.
- Attorney, author, Wiccan Priestess Phyllis Curott served as Chair of the Women's Task Force.
- Author and Activist Ilyasah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, takes the podium.
- Attendees at the inaugural Women's Assembly of the Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City.
- Audience shows solidarity at the Parliament of World Religions.
PAOLA DI FLORIO is an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker and founder of Counterpoint Films, whose latest feature, AWAKE: The Life of Yogananda, is about the Hindu swami Paramahansa Yogananda, who brought yoga and meditation to the west. She is developing a new project about the sacred feminine in the world today.
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This article appears in:
2016 Catalyst, Issue 1: Winter of Wellness & Feminine Spirituality