Archive for the ‘Human Rights’ Category

Cyrus Cylinder

IN THE SIXTH CENTURY BC, CYRUS THE GREAT OF PERSIA conquered the Middle East and a large part of Asia. Upon his entry into Babylon, he freed the many captive peoples found there. His magnanimous gesture liberated the Jewish nation and entitled her people to return to Jerusalem with their Temple treasures and begin rebuilding Solomon’s Temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. The Prophet Isaiah referred to Cyrus as “anointed by the Lord.”

Cyrus’ legacy as a humanitarian monarch continues to this day. Xenophon, a student of Socrates, wrote The Cyropaedia, a biography of Cyrus which extolled his virtues. Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar carried copies with them. America was directly founded under the benevolent monarch model offered by Cyrus’ example. Thomas Jefferson read the Cyropaedia frequently.

Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Cyropaedia

Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Cyropaedia

In 1879 a clay record of Cyrus’ decree was unearthed in the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon in Iraq. Known today as the Cyrus Cylinder this priceless account has been referred to as “the first Bill of Rights.” Our very concept of religious tolerance and personal freedom dates to the mind of the Great Persian King. To liberate slaves of a conquered nation and restore their birthright was an extraordinary concept.

Cyrus’ empire, which we now call the Middle East, was a far-reaching ménage of different cultures and faiths. The Cyrus Cylinder decreed a paradigm for coexistence — a blueprint which established an enlightened order.

Now, in a historic tour sponsored by IHF America, the original Cyrus Cylinder is on loan to the United States from the British Museum. Beginning at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, the Cylinder will be on display in Houston, New York, and San Francisco, concluding its visit in Los Angeles in early December 2013. This historic effort is the culmination of almost twenty years of work by the Iran Heritage Foundation.

In addition to the influence of the Cyropaedia on the US founding fathers, its core principles resonate with those of the United Nations. The high-minded concepts fathered by Cyrus in Persia thousands of years ago have found expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Brought to life by John Peters Humphrey and the UN Commission on Human Rights chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the Declaration was adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948.

eleanor roosevelt - UDHR 2Disregard and contempt for Human Rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people… All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. UDHR

In the aftermath of WWII, the United Nations created a Partition Plan for Palestine which called for an International Trusteeship for the city of Jerusalem. This plan was never given the chance to be implemented. In essence, the blueprint to create two states, with Jerusalem under UN auspices as a religious center for all faiths, was thwarted before it could be realized. Unfortunately for both Arabs and Jews, as well as the world at large, we have all lived with the tragic result.

Originally opposed to the creation of Israel, Eleanor Roosevelt reversed her position when faced with the sad realization that the world community was refusing to allow immigration for the victims of Hitler’s nightmare. The United States itself refused sanctuary after the war just as it had before the conflict. Eleanor supported the Partition Plan and was appalled when the Arab states refused to accept the two state solution.

As the clock ticked down toward the expiration of the British Mandate in Palestine in May of 1948, and under pressure to finalize the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor reached a tipping point when George C. Marshall’s State Department reversed its policy at the final moment and chose to appease the oil-producing states and oppose partition of Palestine. Eleanor then decided to resign from the US delegation to the UN. She famously stated in her letter to President Truman, “I cannot believe that war is the best solution. No one won the last war, and no one will win the next war.” Truman did not accept her resignation. But Eleanor realized, ahead of her time, that the United States’ refusal to back the Partition, which included international status for Jerusalem, would critically weaken the credibility of the UN and place the region itself in an untenable situation with regard to long-term stability.

The current Middle East fiasco should defer us once once again to Cyrus the Great for a history lesson. Cyrus’ vision of leadership was a forerunner to the UN 1947 resolution for the future of Palestine. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum stated, “Cyrus set up a model of how you run a great multinational, multifaith, multicultural society . . . It left a dream of the Middle East as a unit, and a unit where people of different faiths could live together.”

Today we must revive that dream or, as history has already chronicled, face disastrous results. Just as a strain of music creates a distinct melody through repetition, we now hear clearly — yet again — the strains of war in the Middle East. It is time for a new refrain, in vision and deed.

Building upon Cyrus’ model, creating a social order which allows the expression of individual cultures and faiths is the avenue to peaceful co-existence and governance. Our present-day Middle East drama calls for us to recognize that we already have the seed for fostering that co-existence. Creating an international peace zone within the Old City of Jerusalem is the key. Those in the United Nations who originally conceived this idea were expressing the wisdom of governance by recognizing that a leap was necessary to actualize peace in the region. They were well aware that the area was of monumental importance to three world religions and that stabilizing Jerusalem was essential to maintaining peace.

               Jerusalem, sacred to the three great monotheistic religions, stands for something higher and more sublime than nationalism. It stands for the ideal which lies behind the very creation of the United Nations itself. Any attempt to oppose by force the internationalization of Jerusalem would be an affront to civilized men everywhere.” — From a letter sent by Reverend Charles T. Bridgeman, former Canon of St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, to the President of the UN Trusteeship Council in January 1950

In his book, The Temple at Jerusalem: a Revelation, John Michell recognized the Old City of Jerusalem itself as the Temple. He saw it as the convergence point for all peoples of all cultures and faiths — Jewish, Muslim, Christian, as well as other spiritual traditions — to unite in peace, a United Nations for all religions.

Pure Vision covThat very concept, expounded by political and religious leaders throughout the world as well as by writers such as John Michell, has found expression through the arts. PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation is a novel based on a return to this noble ideal. With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the creation of an international peace zone within Jerusalem as foundational elements, Pure Vision sparks a transformative dialogue. The aim is simple. Once openly discussed, powerful ideas reshape reality.

As Neil MacGregor, Director of the British museum asks, “What story of the Middle East, what story of the world, do you want to see reflecting what is said, what is expressed in this cylinder?”

That question resounds with a fundamental answer — human rights for all. The dramatic tale of the Middle East can change radically, as it has in the past. A region of trauma can once again be transformed into a land where religious freedom and individual dignity is honored. Then Jerusalem can finally become what it is meant to be: The City of Peace.


Article written by Angelina Perri Birney and Lawrence Birney


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One Billion Rising -logo-webOn February 14, 2013, V-Day celebrates its 15th Anniversary. Valentine’s day and V-Day — it makes sense. What better day for hearts to rise in unison as one global voice, refusing to accept violence against women and girls. This revolutionary movement is a much needed wake-up call for those who have complacently accepted the atrocities.

Imagine one billion women and those who support them rising together in a global strike, dancing together in the streets in an act of solidarity. Sounds crazy? Well, may it is. You don’t gain attention by being dainty or by conforming to the status quo. A wild dance party, a planetary flash dance, will definitely strike a chord. Want to join in and support the cause? Then get the One Billion Rising toolkit.

As Eve Ensler, V-Day founder, stated in a 2012 Huffington Post article: Today 1 out of 3 women in the world — more than 1 billion women — will be raped or beaten. As economies collapse and the 99 percent struggles with less and less, as global warming increases, and fires, floods, drought abound, the violence against women and girls increases. They become targets. They become commodities, sold in many places for less than a cell phone.

The thought that women’s and girls’ lives have such little value in so many areas around the world is one that should knock us off our duffs. In an age of internet, blogs, and videos we still need to take serious objectives to the streets. Eve is simply in tune with what’s already happening on a planetary scale. Women are coming to the fore because they need to. It’s a wave that’s been building — a powerful force that we need to ride. So let’s get visible. Let’s be heard. Let’s start . . . dancing!

One Billion Rising video

One Billion Rising video

Break the Chain
Lyrics by Tena Clark
Music by Tena Clark/Tim Heintz

I raise my arms to the sky
On my knees I pray
I’m not afraid anymore
I will walk through that door
Walk, dance, rise
Walk, dance, rise

I can see a world where we all live
Safe and free from all oppression
No more rape or incest, or abuse
Women are not a possession

You’ve never owned me, don’t even know me I’m not invisible, I’m simply wonderful I feel my heart for the first time racing I feel alive, I feel so amazing

I dance cause I love
Dance cause I dream
Dance cause I’ve had enough
Dance to stop the screams
Dance to break the rules
Dance to stop the pain
Dance to turn it upside down
Its time to break the chain, oh yeah
Break the Chain
Dance, rise
Dance, rise

In the middle of this madness, we will stand I know there is a better world Take your sisters & your brothers by the hand Reach out to every woman & girl

This is my body, my body’s holy
No more excuses, no more abuses
We are mothers, we are teachers,
We are beautiful, beautiful creatures

I dance cause I love
Dance cause I dream
Dance cause I’ve had enough
Dance to stop the screams
Dance to break the rules
Dance to stop the pain
Dance to turn it upside down
It’s time to break the chain, oh yeah
Break the Chain, oh yeah
Break the Chain

Dance Break Inst.

Dance, rise
Dance, rise

Sister won’t you help me, sister won’t you rise x4

Dance, rise
Dance, rise

Sister won’t you help me, sister won’t you rise x4

This is my body, my body’s holy
No more excuses, no more abuses
We are mothers, we are teachers,
We are beautiful, beautiful creatures

I dance cause I love
Dance cause I dream
Dance cause I’ve had enough
Dance to stop the screams
Dance to break the rules
Dance to stop the pain
Dance to turn it upside down
Its time to break the chain, oh yeah
Break the Chain, oh yeah
Break the Chain

(Repeat chorus)


front cover.inddJust as music is a powerful tool to create change so are films and books. Imagine one billion women rising to create an international peace zone. That’s exactly what happens in the novel, PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation by Perri Birney.

Birney infuses this epic novel with feminine echoes of The Da Vinci Code and The Red Tent, with her eyes on the prize of world peace.” Chronogram

PURE VISION is available in print and as an eBook on Amazon U.S, Amazon UK, Amazon CANADA, Amazon GERMANY, Amazon ITALY, Amazon FRANCE, Amazon SPAIN, Amazon JAPAN, Amazon INDIA, Amazon BRAZIL, Amazon MEXICO, Amazon AUSTRALIA, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple.

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               The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all.                                     — Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau

Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau is literally a force of nature. She brings a heart-centered approach to every arena of her life, from her marriage to Justin Trudeau, a liberal member of the Canadian Parliament and son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, to raising her two children, to being a social activist, right through to her position as Quebec correspondent for eTalk, Canada’s most-watched entertainment news program.

Listening to her speak, one can’t help but think she has a natural flair for connecting with people, especially to women and girls, who readily respond to the openness and transparency she offers. Sophie immediately demonstrates her willingness to be straightforward, speaking about her struggles as well as what brought her to the different aspects of her path as an advocate and a reporter.

“To make a long story short, I’m an only child,” Sophie states. “I was brought up in a very loving family and I was fortunate to have a privileged upbringing. We weren’t millionaires, not at all, but we never lacked anything and we led a good life. My parents sent me to camp and paid for my travels and studies, so and I was very well cared for. I’m still very close to them, and they’re also amazing grandparents. Yet, obviously, everyone has their own struggles and I had mine. In my teenage years, I was faced with dealing with an eating disorder, which of course was an illness, but it was also a symptom of greater wounds. And as any other teenager who is dealing with building a notion of self, I was having difficulty building mine when it came to who I was, why I was here, and what my place was in this world.”

As an only child, Sophie mentions feeling a special kind of pressure. “You are trying to answer to so many things that are asked of you and you’re trying to perform. I know I wanted to be good at everything. I did well in school and sports and tended to be a perfectionist. Actually, I was asking way too much of myself.”

Sophie notes that adolescence is a time, especially for girls, when bonding and intimate relationships are at the core of building self esteem. She recognizes that her desire to excel compensated for a deeper need to connect. “It’s very important to have a good social network. When I struggled for years with an eating disorder, I knew very well what I was suffering from. Every time I was into binging and purging, I was really feeling isolated in my mind and deep down somewhere in my soul. Today, as a thirty-six year old woman, and now a mother of two, I understand that I was looking for something deeper back then — for my place in the world. I had wanted to pack my bags, and just travel and explore,” she says laughing, “but obviously, you have to go to school, and there are rules to follow. But what I really wanted to do was connect with human beings.”

Raised by parents who were always sensitive to the suffering of others had its effect. Sophie mentions that even at a young age she naturally extended herself to children who were lonely or being taunted. “My parents always said I had a tender heart. And today, I’m married to someone who’s like that, too. My husband, Justin, and I are both moved easily. We know how fortunate we are, and that it comes with a responsibility. I also felt at a young age — although I couldn’t put my finger it — that I had to do something greater. Not just for me,” Sophie says, pausing to reassess, “but you know, actually it was for me — for me to become the person that I wanted to become. But when you’re a teenager, that’s all blurry, which is normal.”

After studying Commerce at McGill University and attaining a BA in Communications from the Université de Montréal, Sophie worked in advertising and sales for several years before deciding to redirect her course. “I was not finding my place in that world, and I wasn’t feeling happy in my jobs. At one point, I decided to go to radio and television school because I had a gift for sharing information and for speaking to people. So I went to school and did very well. I landed my first job as a journalist in a newsroom, writing the ticker — the news you see at the bottom of the screen. I worked night shifts and it was actually a cool job. Being in the newsroom was exciting — you’re in touch with what’s happening around the world so it was all very interesting. And then, a couple of months later, there was an opening for a cultural entertainment reporter on the same channel. I was called in to audition, and I got the job.”

Being a media personality provided Sophie with an additional opportunity to connect with people, but now on a much grander scale. Literally having a voice that could reach millions of viewers, Sophie disclosed she had struggled with an eating disorder. “I remembered journalists asking me, ‘Have you ever had a problem with your body image?’ When I actually told the Quebec and the Canadian public that I had suffered from an eating disorder, the response was so amazing. At first, some people would ask, ‘Were you completely insane when you came out with that? Didn’t you wonder what people would think?’ And to be honest with you, No. Because I knew that so many of my friends and so many girls that I didn’t know were suffering. And from that point, it became a snowball effect. I started giving speeches and being invited to host events. And as more time passed, I really started to invest myself in women’s issues.”

As Sophie notes, she moved into advocacy work as a matter of course. “I didn’t wake up one morning saying, ‘Okay, now I’m going to do this.’ It just came naturally. I started to get more and more requests to speak. What really struck me was the response I received when I met people after a speech, and how the women — mothers, aunts, grandmothers — came up to me with tears in their eyes and shared their stories. It just all made sense. The message became loud and clear: This is what you have to do.

Telling her own story was just the beginning. The open doorway Sophie provided, allowing people insight into her personal struggles, proved to be the passage she used to venture out into the world, acting as a voice for women and children in need.

One journey that was especially moving for Sophie was the trip she took to Ethiopia in 2006 with her mother-in-law Margaret Trudeau, Honorary President of WaterCan, a leading Canadian charity dedicated to fighting global poverty by helping the world’s poorest people gain access to clean water, basic sanitation and hygiene education. Their life-changing venture was captured in the CTV documentary, A Window Opens: Margaret and Sophie in Ethiopia.

As Sophie explains, the trip to Ethiopia with WaterCangave her further insight into the difficulties people were facing. “I had been to Africa and had seen suffering,” Sophie remarks, “but not in the way that I did in Ethiopia. We traveled through the country with WaterCan, an organization which among other things, builds wells and brings clean water to remote regions in Africa. When we were traveling, we stayed with families for many hours during the day, and we saw that women were actually victims of the water problem more than men. That’s because they’re the ones who usually fetch the water and put their lives in danger, walking miles and miles and sometimes meeting up with violence. Little children are also walking way too far and are involved in accidents. So once again, when it comes to basic human rights, women and children are often the first ones to pay.”

Sophie has also lent her voice to a number of other initiatives, including being a spokesperson for Shield of Athena, an organization which operates therapeutic services for women and children who are victims of domestic abuse and violence. Among their services, they provide emergency housing and offer a safe and empowering environment, employing social workers, educators and cultural intermediaries who offer multilingual services. In addition, Sophie encourages girls’ activism through Girls for the Cure, a student-led initiative of young girls from six independent Montreal-area schools — Miss Edgar’s and Miss Cramp’s School, Queen of Angels Academy, Sacred Heart School of Montreal, The Study, Trafalgar School for Girls and Villa Maria — who work together to make a difference in their communities. They offer a Student Scholarship Program which allows young women of participating schools the opportunity to develop projects focused on philanthropy, volunteerism and education. “In September, Girls for the Cure [watch the 2010 CTV video] will be doing an amazing event where thousands of girls will be uniting on Mount Royal Summit in Montreal,” Sophie informs. “They’ll be walking to raise awareness for women-related cancers and research.”

As Sophie clearly indicates, women’s issues are of primary importance to her, both in Canada and around the globe. She points out that even today, in 2011, over sixty million girls cannot lay claim to basic human rights, including access to education or personal safety. “When you think deeply about it, women today are being raped, violated, coerced into the sex trade, and humiliated for one reason — and for one reason only — because they’re women. That is unacceptable. And we’re paying the price worldwide since nations are becoming impoverished because women cannot fully participate. Obviously, there are some regions in the world where this problem is extreme, like in China and India, where we’re talking gendercide and infanticide with regard to girls. The situation is quite alarming. If you read the facts and know what’s going on out there, there’s no way that you’re not going to be touched by all of this, especially if you’re a woman.”

At the same time, Sophie acknowledges the importance of men’s participation regarding women’s rights. Respecting women and focusing on their empowerment does not represent a ‘women against men’ issue, but rather only helps to create a balanced approach to human rights in all sectors of life. “Each time I get to address an audience, and I see the men that attend these events, I always thank them because without them, without all of us holding hands together, where are we going to go with all this?”

As Sophie indicates, more men need to advocate for girls and women in order to turn the tide. “Unfortunately, when we talk about these problems, about gendercide and crimes against girls and women, especially within some regions of the world, these extreme actions have often been led by men. Obviously, there have been some instances, especially with regard to female genital mutilation, where it’s a vicious cycle. Women who have not known anything else actually encourage young girls and other women to get that sort of thing done.”

Nonetheless, the pendulum has been stuck on the side of patriarchy a bit too long. There’s no doubt that it’s an unbalanced paradigm, with disregard for the feminine creating its own deficit problem.

“I truly believe humanity is facing a huge imbalance between the male and female energies,” Sophie asserts. “We have disrespected, in such a deep way, the womb of humanity — women — and we are paying the price right now on all levels. We’re even seeing it in our pop culture. It’s so in our faces that it’s kind of hidden at the same time, because we’ve become accepting of it. Talking with young girls, I realize that there’s a culture of self-hatred that really has been rampant, and it’s actually normal to hate yourself when you’re a teenager today. That’s unacceptable. That is why we have to address these issues, and we have to do it locally, one baby step at a time.”

And those baby steps have led to much bigger strides. As Sophie travels have informed her, more and more women are coming to the fore around the globe, supporting one another and advocating for their basic human rights. “There are women’s movements all over the world, including in the poorest regions and places where women have not had a political voice,” Sophie states. “I think that’s because we’re in an era of information. These women now have more of the facts and they realize this is not right. So as much as in Canada as abroad, I think that these little cells of women, of energy, are feeling one another. I don’t want to sound too esoteric, but there’s definitely something remarkable happening and more and more men are beginning to address the situation. And fortunately enough, I’m with a man who shares my values and thoughts, and obviously part of his battle will be dealing this issue as well.”

Adding more women to the mix seems not only rational, but essential. Sophie emphasizes the importance of women’s roles as leaders, whether in politics, education, or any other sector of society, noting that women bring certain qualities to the table that benefit the whole.

“You know, there’s a reason why there are more women in volunteer work,” Sophie remarks. “There’s a reason why there are more women in social work. The reason is because in times of struggle, we tend to open our arms and build a social network, to come out with our problems and to talk about them because we need to. Also, women leaders have been shown to be more compassionate colleagues. Generally speaking, that’s been demonstrated. Of course, many women are occupying amazing roles in society, but there’s still a huge gap in the financial world and the political world.”

Sophie indicates it’s really about our future. Her panoramic view takes in the larger sphere of the human family where additional women in leadership means a more balanced paradigm, one that would help us take the next step as a noble humanity. That includes peace resolution work as well.

“You know, I don’t want to fall into a cliché because there are clichés out there,” Sophie notes, “but yes, I do believe that women have certain qualities — especially when you’ve become a mother or you go through your own struggles — that have allowed us to build a larger tribe to face our problems. And once again, if I go back to volunteer work, social work, health care, or nursing, I think there are a lot more women doing these types of things because some part of our bodies, not just our minds, are meant to create peace around us and to foster democracy and justice.”

Philosophically speaking, Sophie notes that we all have masculine and feminine qualities, and our internal dynamics have often set the stage for the larger societal problems we face. “When it comes to talking about gender discrimination, I think that the first thing you have to ask yourself if you’re a woman is how do I treat the man in me? And if you’re a man, it would be how do I treat the woman in me? I think that’s the first question you need to ask yourself, and the answer probably indicates how, as a human being, you interact with your environment as well as how you perceive others and the world around you.”

Sophie also enhances awareness of gender discrimination in her role as national ambassador for Plan Canada.

Plan International’s Because I am a Girl initiative is a social movement to unleash the power of girls and women to claim a brighter future for girls in the developing world.

And just why is focusing on girls’ empowerment so important?

“Helping young girls throughout this world is really at the core of the issue,” Sophie asserts. “First of all, we need to stand up for the millions of girls around the world who face barriers to their survival, basic rights and their ability to develop simply because they are young women. And when we invest in them we are directly reducing global poverty and suffering for the whole, for all of society. It’s incredible that right now, over sixty-five million girls are being denied even a basic education.”

          Girls and women are particularly affected by poverty. This is partly because they have less power to fight it, less access to the means to overcome it, or their entire families are suffering in poverty. Being born underweight, given little or poor-quality food and having little or no education can prevent girls from developing properly. Poverty can also force girls to work or get married at young age instead of going to school.        Plan Canada

“Plan Canada really believes in the Because I am a Girl project. We really want all young Canadian women to be aware of what’s happening because we feel that we have the power, the tools and the democracy to create movements that can help abroad and bring about social change.”

Girls advocating, giving public talks, driving transformative agendas . . . Plan Canada’s Because I am a Girl clubs and speakers bureau engage girls to do just that, empowering and supporting their efforts to stand up for girls’ rights at home and abroad. “The girls give speeches and are really creating a social movement with others their age. There are website blogs and fundraisers and there’s also been a documentary made. So they’re using different kinds of media to really get out there and reach out to each other.”

With regard to Plan International’s other initiatives, Sophie explains there are current projects such as the one in Bangladesh, which supports human rights, including the protections of women and girls. She also mentions the Early Girl Child Marriage Project in Kenya which works to protect girls from this illegal practice. “There have been some documented impacts,” Sophie indicates, “and they have seen a reduction in teenage pregnancies and marriages. Also, in Burkina Faso, there’s a program called BRIGHT — Burkinabé Response to Improve Girls Chances to Succeed. So once again, it’s about education. Obviously, when you get to girls, you’re also getting to young boys and their families. So we’re trying to change parental views on girls’ education as well. That’s where it starts. If a girl is not educated you’re losing her whole soul and heart and mind. Not being educated means a girl isn’t able to fully participate in society, and the nation will be paying the price for that on every level.”

Plan Canada has also championed the presentation of a motion which was passed by the Canadian Parliament, proposing the creation of a UN Resolution proclaiming September 22nd as the International Day of the Girl.

“I think that because of the privileges we have here in Canada, we need to be leading the way on this matter,” Sophie states. Spearheading the initiative, Canada has now established the groundwork for a global movement. In fact, the call for the International Day of the Girl is imminent and can also be supported by signing the Girl Petition.

As Sophie reflects on her own advocacy work dealing with women and children’s issues, she remarks pointedly that no matter who she meets or what type of position they may hold, there’s are certain type of person that inspires and impresses her. “Women following their own passion. Their message and their energy are completely contagious.”

As eTalk’s Quebec correspondent, Sophie is also in a unique position to not only inform but to do her own brand of inspiring. “This job is an amazing tool and a window for me to connect with youth because so many of them watch the show. Besides doing interviews, I also talk a lot about the responsibility of public personas and stars to use their voices for something important because young people look up to them so much. And there are some people in the entertainment industry who are doing amazing things. I would say that celebrities like Angelina and Brad are putting it out there that it’s important to do things to make this world a better place. I also know many other celebrities who have started fundraisers and foundations and who are doing great work.”

Sophie also mentions finding inspiration through many adventurous avenues. She plays flute and guitar, composes songs, and loves to sing (perhaps we’ll hear her sing at an event one day).

“I also get inspired a lot from my yoga practice,” she reveals. “I think that it brings me to that little person inside of me that’s the same as in everyone else. As yoga philosophy mentions, that person is in a continuous state of gratitude and peace . . . a person that’s both male and female — the perfect balance between the two. Then there’s the feeling yoga gives me of being connected to everyone — from the people in my class to every human being on this planet. It’s a feeling that really pushes me on a deep, deep level. Also, in yoga practice, there’s always this little voice that comes across in its own language and vibration that makes me feel that everything is going to be okay. That good does prevail.”

Idealistic and passionate, Sophie inspires in a way that is both personal and touching. Even as she reflects on the advice she would give her own children, one can’t help but think that, on a universal level, the message is meant for all of us.

“If I were to say one thing to my little ones, I think I would tell them that the only word to live by is love . . . self love and love for humanity.”

As a reporter, an advocate, a wife and a mother, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau is a woman whose struggles have awakened her heart to the world, allowing compassion and tenderness to direct her course . . . a woman who understands that the light of courage is far more powerful than any darkness.


Photo Credits:  Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau headshot – Courtesy of CTV, Bell Media. Photo of Margaret Trudeau and Sophie in Ethiopia – Peter Bregg, 2006. Photo of Mutsumi Takahashi of CTV News, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau and Elena Kratsios – Courtesy of Girls for the Cure. Because I am a Girl Ambassador photo – Courtesy of Plan Canada.

Article written by Angelina Perri Birney, author of the blog, Powerful Women Changing the World, dedicated to women’s influence on world affairs. Angelina is also coauthor of the novel, PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation, available in print and as an eBook on Amazon US, Amazon Canada, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple.


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      When you give women power, you are assuring the progress of humanity.                         — Former Governor General of Canada Michaëlle Jean   

Almas Jiwani

Jumpstarting the progression of women’s rights throughout the world is no easy task. Gender equality is a cool and clinical term for a fundamental and essential right –- the right for women and girls worldwide to live free of discrimination, violence and poverty. Championing the challenge, UN Women has been in the forefront working throughout the world to secure women’s equality and empowerment.

The National Committee for UN Women Canada is an independent, non-governmental entity that supports the mission of UN Women. The organization is definitely making landmark strides in supporting the United Nations in its efforts, not only in Canada, but throughout the world. Almas Jiwani, President of UN Women Canada, exemplifies inspiration in action. A renowned humanitarian and enterprising entrepreneur, she is dedicated to the advancement of women’s rights at home and throughout the world.

As Almas relates, her resourcefulness and desire to serve a greater good developed early in her life. “I immigrated to Canada with my family in my early teens from Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We were leaving a region where political, humanitarian, and democratic institutions were collapsing. Arriving in Canada, we began rebuilding our lives, learning to navigate Canadian culture and practices and to integrate our own culture and faith.”

Almas also mentions that as newcomers and minorities, her family faced challenges but also experienced great opportunities. “At that time of my life, I realized that many communities in the developing world were apathetic towards women and did not allow them an environment for their social and intellectual growth. I also realized the importance of making a difference in the lives of the underprivileged, alleviating poverty, and uplifting women in society. This realization inspired me to begin volunteering with initiatives to promote women and advocate for their empowerment. I then became very involved with the Aga Khan Council for Canada with their various projects and portfolios. As a young teenager, facing the challenges of integrating into a new community, I made a commitment to do all in my capacity to ensure that women live as equals.”

Eventually, when Almas was making a presentation to community members in Vancouver, the president of a corporate company approached her and asked, Did you know that you have a hidden selling talent? “I felt offended, believe it or not, and he was actually trying to compliment me,” she remarks. “Then he called me a trooper—I didn’t know the meaning of the word trooper at the time—and introduced me to someone who was involved in a multimedia business. I remember being told, ‘You know what Almas, you will knock on ten doors—cold calls are extremely difficult—but eventually a door will open.’ I always remembered that message and use it in my speeches with regard to empowering women. Even if you’ve knocked on ten doors, don’t give up because the eleventh door may open for you.”

Still in all, Almas’ initial media endeavor didn’t last too long. “Being young, and having no clue . . . My dad passed away when I was eleven years old . . . I was like a one woman show. I had no idea who to talk to or who to confide in. I was doing everything on my own. It was a huge risk.” But being a risk-taker is Almas’ forte. She then ventured into international trading for a while until turning down her current road — President and CEO of Frontier Canada Inc., a corporate communications company.

Accomplished in both business and in the humanitarian field, Almas has also offered her volunteer efforts at the international level for the past nine years. “As I mentioned, I was involved with the Aga Khan Council and one of our mandates was to settle Afghan Ismaili refugees who were arriving in Canada and help the people integrate into the community and society. I was the national settlement vice chair. During the course of this, I had to attend a couple of government meetings and I guess people began to notice me. Eventually I was elected to be a member of the Board of Directors of UNIFEM Canada, and after several years, I undertook leadership in June 2009.”

Almas Jiwani and Michaëlle Jean

The efforts of both Almas and the Board has taken UN Women Canada into new territories, expanding their efforts to promote gender equality in more sections of Canada than at any other time in the organization’s eighteen year history. Almas especially notes that in 2010, a year after becoming president, she had the honor of presenting the prestigious UNIFEM CANADA Award to Her Excellency Michaëlle Jean during her term as Governor General of Canada . . . the ideal candidate because of her extensive involvement in advancing the issue of gender equality in various capacities around the world.

And just as Almas reorganized the National Committee in Canada, the United Nations also restructured its efforts to establish women’s rights around the globe by creating a new, overarching entity:  UN Women.

“UN Women — United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women — is charged with advancing gender equality,” Almas states. “It was established by a General Assembly Resolution in 2010, and became operational on January 1, 2011. We had our first official launch on February 24th in New York. Now, UN Women is operating under the auspices of Under-Secretary-General Michelle Bachelet (former President of Chile).”

As Almas notes, the creation of UN Women came about as part of the UN reform agenda. Its main objective is to connect resources and mandates for greater overall impact and to accelerate progress towards the goal of gender equality. This includes increasing women’s economic empowerment and leadership as well as bringing women to the center of peace and security issues. UN Women is the result of the cohesive merging of four previously distinct parts of the UN system:

  • Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW)
  • International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW)
  • Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI)
  • United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)

“UN Women’s work today builds on the strong foundation of these four parts and represents a movement to put gender equality on par with other development priorities,” Almas explains. “It represents a stronger voice for women in the United Nations and a greater advocate for larger financial investments to support gender equality initiatives. UN Women will serve as a dynamic and strong champion for women and girls and we will provide them with a powerful voice at the global, regional, and local levels.”

As one of UN Women’s independent, non-governmental National Committees, UN WOMEN CANADA (previously UNIFEM Canada), founded in 1993, is a volunteer-driven organization. As Almas explains, UN Women Canada’s key strategies of advocacy, awareness and fundraising are implemented through the following initiatives:

  • Executing advocacy and media campaigns
  • An annual Award Fundraising Gala
  • Collaborating with public education platforms
  • Public speaking opportunities
  • Building membership drives and campaigns
  • Partnering with private and public sector funding
  • A Youth Development Conference

“This year, we have hosted five successful launches in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Papineau, QC, and Winnipeg to raise awareness of UN Women, and more launches are planned,” Almas informs. “We are also putting together a prestigious black tie fundraising gala and a youth conference to engage and empower young Canadians in actions that will advance the gender equality mission. The bottom line is we want to raise awareness and ensure that everyone knows what UN Women is all about and what our goals are.”

One of these goals, women’s economic empowerment, is of primary importance to Almas. Without it, many women continuously face a vicious cycle. “Women bear a disproportionate burden of the world’s poverty,” Almas asserts. “Statistics indicate that women are more likely than men to be poor and at risk of hunger because of the systematic discrimination they face in education, health care, employment and control of assets. Poverty implications are widespread for women, leaving many without even basic rights such as access to clean drinking water, sanitation, medical care and decent employment. Being poor can also mean that they have little protection from violence and have no role, absolutely no role, in decision making.”

According to some estimates, women represent 70 percent of the world’s poor. They are often paid less than men for their work, with the average wage gap in 2008 being 17 percent. “Women face persistent discrimination,” Almas remarks, “not only in developing countries but also in the developed world when they apply for credit for business or self-employment. They are also often concentrated in insecure, unsafe and low-wage work.”

And just how does the present economic crisis affect women in the work arena? What special difficulties does it present?

“The current financial crisis is likely to affect women particularly severely,” Almas maintains. “In many developing countries where women work in export-led factories, or in countries where migrant women workers are the backbone of service industries, women’s jobs have taken the greatest hit. When there’s a recession, women are the first to be laid off.”

And the proof is in the statistics. In 2009, the International Labour Organization estimated that the economic downturn could lead to somewhere around 22 million more unemployed women, jeopardizing the gains made in the last few decades in women’s empowerment. In addition, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) forecasted that women’s unemployment would accelerate at a faster rate than men’s throughout 2010 as the crisis continued to affect female-dominated industries such as manufacturing and tourism.

So that leaves us with getting down to the basics: A fundamental ingredient to advancing women’s human rights and economic stability lay in obtaining monies for the endeavour, as well as initiating awareness that investing in women creates a win-win situation. “Financing for gender equality is more than just securing resources and funding for institutions such as national women’s organizations and gender equality projects,” Almas recognizes. “To accomplish sustainable and deep-rooted changes, financing for gender equality must recognize women as active economic agents that are central to a vibrant economy.”

Empowering women fuels thriving economies, spurring productivity and growth.

Almas explains that gender-responsive budgeting can make a huge difference in how governments allocate funds. “A budget is the most comprehensive statement of a government’s social and economic plans and priorities. In tracking where the money comes from and where it goes, budgets determine how public funds are raised, how they are used, and who benefits from them.”

Although women’s empowerment is the focus, Almas emphasizes that gender-responsive budgeting is not about creating separate budgets for women. “I believe a gender-responsive budget should recognize the ways which women contribute to society and the economy,” Almas adds, “including through their unpaid labor in bearing and rearing children and caring for the people in the country—that’s my perception. I also feel it’s important that people see the benefits that can be derived from supporting gender-based budgeting. Seeing the benefits will encourage further support.”

Yet, it appears the most lucrative changes will occur when those power brokers steering the world economy start practicing as well as implementing changes to purge a system beset by imbalance and corruption. Nothing short of corporate catharsis will do the trick. Those sitting on top of the economic stockpile need a dose of gender equity to help provide balance in how, where, and how much funds are allocated and if women’s rights are part of the picture.

To that end, Almas relates that when making a presentation at the World Bank, she was confronted with a question regarding the prevalence of corruption within governments worldwide. “I answered by saying, ‘Let me present a counter question: How many women are sitting on your Board making decisions?’ They were silent. ‘Zero . . . that’s the answer. You want to prevent corruption, have more women on the Board. Give them the power to influence the policies and you’ll see the difference.”

In addition to supporting gender-responsive budgeting initiatives, UN Women also works to strengthen women’s rights to land and inheritance. Almas describes the struggles women face when these rights are denied.

“In many countries around the world, women’s property rights are limited by social norms, customs and at times legislation,” Almas states, “hampering their economic status and opportunities to overcome poverty. Even in countries where women constitute the majority of small farmers and do more than 75 percent of the agricultural work, they are routinely denied the right to own the land they cultivate and which they are dependent upon to raise their families. Ownership of land and property empowers women and provides income and security. Without resources such as land, women have limited say in household decision-making, and no recourse to the assets during a crisis. This often relates to other vulnerabilities such as domestic violence, HIV and AIDS.”

In other words, in most countries in the world, property rights provide protection and security. Often denied these rights, women fall victim to rejection and destitution. “In regions of conflict, the impact of unequal land rights has particularly serious consequences for women — often the only survivors,” Almas notes. “In conflict and post-conflict situations, the number of women-headed households often increases sharply as many men have either been killed or are absent. Without their husbands, brothers or fathers — in whose name land and property titles are traditionally held — they find themselves denied access to their homes and fields by male family members, former in-laws or neighbors. Without the security of a home or income, women and their families fall into poverty traps and struggle for livelihoods, education, sanitation, health care, and other basic rights.”

International agreements already underscore the importance of women’s land and property rights. The Beijing Platform for Action affirms that women’s right to inheritance and ownership of land and property should be recognized. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has addressed it as well regarding rural women’s rights to equal treatment in land and agrarian reform processes. In addition, women’s property rights are essential to realizing the Millennium Development Goals, specifically the goals of eradicating extreme poverty and achieving gender equality.

Almas also describes how globalization has contributed to an increasing flow of migrant workers from countries with limited economic opportunities. Women migrant workers, whose numbers have been increasing, now constitute 50 percent or more of the migrant workforce in Asia and Latin America.

“By creating new economic opportunities, migration can promote economic independence and status for women workers, who are often sustaining communities at home,” Almas states. “Studies indicate that migrant women workers contribute to the development of both sending and receiving countries — remittances from their incomes account for as much as 10 percent of the GDP in some countries. In 2008, remittances were estimated by the World Bank at US $305 billion. These monetary investments — used for food, housing, education and medical services — along with newly acquired skills of returnees, can potentially contribute significantly to poverty reduction and the Millennium Development Goals.”

But migration is also a risky endeavor for women, many of whom end up at the lower end of the job market. “Female migrants often work as domestic workers and entertainers — a euphemism for sex workers — in unregulated informal sectors that do not fall under national labor laws,” Almas states. “Migrant women routinely lack access to social services and legal protection and are subjected to abuses such as harsh working and living conditions, low wages, illegal withholding of wages and premature termination of employment. The worst abuses force women into sexual slavery.”

For these reasons, UN Women focuses on promoting safe migration for women around the world. It works with governments and civil society to eliminate trafficking and establish laws that protect the human rights of women migrants as well as strengthen migrants’ organizations. Since due to economic stress, women are venturing all the more to obtain livelihoods in countries other than their own, national poverty reduction programs in their homeland, including the advancement of women’s rights and ability to procure a decent living would be actions well worth pursuing to remedy the problem.

So it appears that for lasting change to take hold concepts of women’s economic viability need to change. How are women’s equality and their economic empowerment connected to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals?

UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet visiting with the women of Panama

“The statistical data at the UN reveals that the majority of Millennium Development Goals such as literacy, alleviation of poverty, access to maternal health care, reduction of childhood mortality, environmental sustainability, and the eradication of HIV/ AIDS and Malaria are all inextricably tied to gender equality and women’s empowerment,” Almas declares. “I believe that the investment in gender equality is an essential characteristic of secure and efficient societies. Presently, women and girls make up more than half of the world’s population. Yet most women are discriminated against, mistreated and deprived of their basic human rights. For this reason, gender equality needs to be regarded as a moral imperative and an urgent priority in all regions. UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, consistently emphasizes the necessity for the empowerment of women. The notion of gender-based budgeting and investment in international development projects is no longer a concession but a compulsion.”

In addition, Almas emphasizes that in societies where women have equal access to economic assets, decent livelihoods and a voice in decision-making, the economies are stronger, maternal mortality rate drops, and child nutrition improves. “Therefore, gender equality lies at the core of this issue,” she stresses. “If we want to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, we need to mainstream gender equality in developing countries. Without accomplishing this on a global scale, we will continue to ignore the plight of almost half the world’s population.”

There also appears to be a direct link between women’s economic security and an individual country’s peace and security issues. “We can clearly notice that in countries where gender equality has been mainstreamed into economic, political, social, educational, and literary arenas, such as in the USA, UK, and Canada, the economic progress of those countries increased by significant margins. Also, case-studies that include Afghanistan, Iraq and Rwanda reveal that when women are empowered economically, the country’s economy and state structure flourish. Yet, we also can see that when war and insecurity plagues these countries, any reforms or gains toward gender equality deteriorates . . . and the abuse of women’s human rights increases immensely.”

With regard to post-conflict situations, Almas notes that in Rwanda, women now make up more than 70% of the Parliamentarians. In that climate, the status of women’s economic opportunities rose. “After the resolution of the Hutu-Tutsi tribal violence in Rwanda, the United Nations and the Rwandan Government worked together to ensure gender equality, and the proper representation of women. Thus, in this time of peace, we observe a significant presence of lucrative economic opportunities for women.”

Throughout all the losses and gains, women’s groups large and small have been coming to the fore around the world in amazing numbers. Almas takes a look at the phenomenon and its effect on the progression of women’s rights. “Years of advocacy by the global women’s movement have been instrumental in the creation of UN Women,” Almas recognizes. “Civil society, in particular women’s organizations, play a vital role in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment. Strong relationships between UN Women and partners from all over the world are crucial in working towards achieving these goals. So together, we can become a much stronger voice and make a more powerful impact.”

Almas refers to the current predominance of women’s rights groups flourishing around the world as a “ripple effect.” In many places, whether in the developing world such as in South or Central Asia, Africa and Latin America, or in the developed Western countries, the issues of gender equality and the progress being made in the realm of women’s rights has really struck a chord with most women.

“As a result, we have noticed exponential growth in women’s grassroots movements on the ground in the developing world,” Almas informs, “whether it’s regarding a battle for land rights, access to health-care, alleviation of poverty or a host of other social justice issues. And in the developed world, where we have overcome the core issues such as poverty and land rights, the women’s rights movement is more focused on parity between women and men in the workforce, women’s access to education, and eradicating the issues of domestic abuse . . . So I personally think that this rippling of women’s equality movements in large numbers is a positive sign. These movements also indicate that more and more women in contemporary society have the opportunity to mobilize together and champion their rights for equality.”

Throughout the years, whether volunteering or in her present sphere as President of UN Women Canada, Almas has found inspiration through her spiritual beliefs as an Ismaili Muslim, as well as from those prominent individuals who have influenced her work.

His Highness the Aga Khan

His Highness the Aga Khan

“I’ve gained much inspiration over the years from many individuals and entities that drive me forward and make me who I am as a leader,” Almas conveys. “Since my childhood, His Highness Aga Khan IV, the Ismaili spiritual leader and humanitarian, has been a huge inspirational source for me. His humanitarian ideals for empowering the underprivileged, educating women, and using civil society as a force for positive change and international development in order to foster an ‘enabling environment’ for those less fortunate is the catalyst that humbles and motivates me to serve the unprivileged women and girls of the world.”

Almas mentions other influential figures that have affected her leadership. “Emily Murphy of the Famous Five and the out-going Governor General of Canada, the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean are exemplary women that I have consistently looked up to for inspiration. These visionaries inspire me with the legacy of women’s equality present in their public service work.”

In addition, Almas also recognizes the Government of Canada and its consistent devotion to the cause of gender equality, as well as UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet and Outreach and Business Development Advisor, Mr. Antoine De Jong as important sources of encouragement. “When I see that our hard work, our time, and our knowledge is impacting and making a difference in the world, it just encourages and inspires me to do more. I want to be that drop in the ocean that makes a big difference.”

Certainly her contributions are worthy of admiration. Almas has brought her whole self to the task, including her spiritual beliefs, her culture, and a CAN DO philosophy that’s extraordinary in measure. In short, Almas Jiwani has recognized that uncertainty is not an excuse for inaction. Her fearless drive has served to motivate others in their own work toward women’s empowerment.

That personal stance is reflected in a quote from the poem, The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost which Almas finds especially meaningful.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less travelled by.

“I’m a firm believer in taking the road less travelled,” Almas conveys. “Many career women today face a number of obstacles while trying to shatter the glass ceiling. In lieu of these challenges, some women lose hope through the realization of there being no ‘easy’ way out. However, it is only through the trials and tribulations faced on the road not taken that my own inspiration and success has been nurtured. And so, I urge all women and young girls to also embark on this journey. As a result of an innovative and non-traditional approach to life, beset with challenges, I’ve become a stronger woman.”

Of that, we have no doubt.

A number of years ago in Nairobi, at an international business conference where she was a speaker, Almas addressed the audience with words which ring just as true today, embodying the spirit of her approach to life, business and the women’s movement.

“It turned out that I was the only Indian woman speaking at the conference,” Almas relates. “There were seven speakers and I was the last one. I listened to all the other presenters before me and when my time came to talk, I told the audience, I’ve decided I will not read my speech today. I will speak to you guys from my heart. I will tell you how I got myself where I am today — about my challenges and experiences, and with no background education in the field that I’m in. With no training, no guidance, and nobody to tell me what to do. Today, I am here because of perseverance . . because of this passion . . . because I want to make a difference. If I can do it, you guys can do it.’’

The story of her life is the story of her leadership.

Perhaps we can find our own strength by taking those words of encouragement to heart. For those of us questioning whether we have the power to act, we can stop wondering. Just take the plunge, as Almas did, and give it all you’ve got.


All photos used by permission.

front cover.inddArticle written by Angelina Perri Birney, author of the blog, Powerful Women Changing the World, dedicated to women’s influence on world affairs. Angelina is also coauthor of the novel, PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation, available in print and as an eBook on Amazon, Amazon (Canada) Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple.

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            Feminist.com cares not only about supporting women’s accomplishments in the outside world, but about a woman’s inner growth and healing, underscored by the belief that fostering women’s personal empowerment is the first step towards being able to express our true power and individual special gifts in the world.

Marianne Schnall

Cultivating awareness and educating and inspiring women and men globally, Feminist.com is a dynamic online community that acts as a portal, funneling generative ideas while providing information and resources that address issues such as violence against women, gender equality, environmental sustainability, and peace.

And just who is the feminist behind this dot com? Marianne Schnall, founder and Executive Director, is also a writer and interviewer who has dedicated herself to building the organization’s ever-broadening horizons. Interviewing influential and powerful women and harnessing their inspirational messages has been her forte.  

As it turns out, 2010 was an exceptional year for both Feminist.com and Marianne. In December, Feminist.com celebrated its fifteenth anniversary, and along with that milestone, Marianne Schnall launched her new book, Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness, and Finding Your Own Voice.        

Born in New York, Marianne says she realized early on she was going to be a writer, right from the time she won a city-wide contest in sixth grade for one of her short stories. “I always really enjoyed writing,” Marianne states. “I became an English major at Cornell, and then when I graduated, I worked for a literary agent. After that I applied for a job as an editorial assistant to the managing editor of US Magazine. One of the editors there started sending me out to cover industry events like movie premiers and award shows. So I would go and get on the red carpet with my little recorder and ask my questions. It was really fun and glamorous, and I had a great time doing it. I didn’t think it necessarily connected with what I really wanted to do with my life, but I got a lot of experiences through it. Certainly, that’s how I started with interviewing.”

Marianne also credits the March for Women’s Lives in 1992 for influencing her career path. “I decided to ask US if they would send me to cover it as a reporter. That was the first time that I interviewed people like Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, Jonathan Demme, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Cyndi Lauper. All of a sudden I found myself speaking to celebrities about a cause they felt passionate about.”

The March, as it turned out, was an awakening for Marianne on several fronts: the first with regard to her feminist consciousness—a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body; secondly, as an activist, she was able to experience the power of being in a community of people who cared about similar issues; the third awakening, as Marianne notes, was about the use of fame itself—celebrities using their renown to promote a good cause. “It was the first time that I felt that I was doing something that was really connected to my path . . . something that was meaningful, and I felt like I was talking to the real person behind the celebrity.”

Shortly after the event, Marianne left US and began doing free lance work. “When InStyle Magazine started up, I started doing their Cause Celeb column. That allowed me to interview all sorts of amazing people about their causes.” Marianne recalls talking with Bette Midler about the New York  Restoration Project. “They were cleaning up a park and she was there in her overalls with her daughter and her husband.”

Investigating this whole other aspect of celebrity became Marianne’s passion. While she was interviewing famous people about their causes and charities, her husband, Tom Kay, whose background is in solar energy, was surfing another wave. “Tom always had a very pioneering way of thinking,” Marianne remarks. “He decided to launch this site on the internet called Ecomall.com back before people knew what the internet was. I mean literally, when we first launched, people couldn’t find the site because they were spelling out the word dot. That’s how new it was.”

Venturing forth onto the web, Ecomall launched in 1994. Feminist.com took off soon after in 1995. “People didn’t even understand what we were doing. They didn’t have home computers, no one had e-mail, and no one knew what the internet was.” As Marianne explains, after having just interviewed Gloria Steinem and other feminists she found herself at a picnic one day speaking with a women’s studies major—a conversation which led her to acquiring the domain name Feminist.com. “I got the name before I knew what Feminist.com was going to be and before I would have ever said ‘I’m a feminist’. That wasn’t part of my identity.”

Marianne immediately called several friends and colleagues to help define what this budding organization would represent. Those friends, still on the board and advisory board today, include Amy Richards, Lauren Wechsler Horn, Karen Obel Cape, Susan Celia Swan, and Jennifer Meyerhardt. Together, along with her husband, Tom, they pioneered what literally has since become a “feminist Google.”  

“Back then, about 15% of internet users were women,” Marianne states, “so there were very few women on-line. Also, most organizations didn’t have websites. So the very first thing we did was to provide a service to have a free web presence for groups like the Ms. Foundation, Equality Now, Girls Inc., and V-Day.”

As it also turned out, Marianne relates, V-Day was actually founded at a Feminist.com board meeting. She recounts how she made the initial connection with Eve Ensler through the suggestion of a mutual friend of theirs, actress and activist, Kathy Najimy.

“Kathy just said, Her name is Eve Ensler. She’s a writer, she’s a feminist, she’s an activist. Call her. Don’t ask questions.” Marianne did just that and has shared a rich history with V-Day ever since. “Eve was just starting to do the Vagina Monologues downtown and knew she wanted to do it as a fundraiser to help stop violence against women. She came to a Feminist.com board meeting in my dining room. That’s where the term V-Day was coined and where the seeds for that first fundraiser happened . . . So I can really attest to what Eve has accomplished.”

The story is another example of how Feminist.com has grown, allowing structure to form naturally along the way. “The whole site has really developed organically,” Marianne maintains, “without a set mission or plan, which turned out to be a good thing because we could really change with the internet, with the number of women coming on-line, and also with where feminism was headed. We could be a little bit more fluid.”

Just as the definition of feminism has been broadening, Marianne indicates that Feminist.com is continuously evolving. She mentions how freeing it was not to approach the site holding a limited view. “There are a lot of definitions of feminism that I would definitely not sign on to. So I think that what has been wonderful about how Feminist.com has developed is that we’ve been able to see how we can use the site to correct misconceptions and how to present a version of feminism that is more inclusive—that doesn’t shy away from the little controversial elements and actually holds them up for dialogue and reflection.”

In addition, Feminist.com also looks for the voids and niches it can fill. “We’re launching a section called Young Voices in conjunction with Carol Gilligan,” Marianne offers. “She’s an amazing psychologist who wrote this pioneering book called In a Different Voice which is all about how gender roles start so early. Boys lose their authentic voice around four or five and girls lose it around nine or ten. The idea is that there’s all these societal pressures that, before you know it, make people lose their true voice. You see it so much in little girls. I have two daughters so I’m hyper aware of this type of thing, even though they’re so much more empowered and independent and centered than I was at their age.”

And giving those voices a platform is essential. Feminist.com’s new section Girls & Young Women appears to be not only offering messages of empowerment to the younger generation but also a space for their ideas to flourish. “There are two reasons why we reach out to younger women at our site,” Marianne says. “One has to do with just what we were talking about—a lot of these issues happen really early on. So we’re constantly looking for both content and resources that we can offer by, for, and about girls and young women. But also, there’s this misconception that the younger generation is just completely complacent and that there’s this kind of resentment thing going on between older and younger generations of women.”

Marianne mentions that, although there may be some truth to the statement, she believes the notion is mainly fostered by the media. “I think that it may look different . . . feminism . . . in the younger generation than it did for let’s say people of Gloria Steinem’s era . . . but I take issue with people who say that younger women these days are completely apathetic. That’s not my experience,” she contends. “It’s hard to speak for a whole generation, and granted, there are going to be exceptions to every rule. But there are so many amazing blogs and groups and things happening on college campuses these days, so I really don’t think that’s true. At Feminist.com we are constantly trying to find young women’s voices and groups that are doing amazing work, and we’re helping to promote them.”

Furthering a holistic view of feminism that encompasses being environmentally conscious is also an initiative.

               In addition to supporting humanitarian causes, feminism should also include taking care of and nurturing the Earth, the planet we all live on and depend upon for our sustenance and survival.     — Reflections [Feminist.com]

“I see it all as being interconnected,” Marianne asserts. “The definition of feminism that I hope that Feminist.com presents is this idea that it’s larger than just a gender thing—that it really is about our interconnection with each other and with the earth. What we do to the earth affects us. It’s a symbiotic relationship . . . So, for me, feminism is really about respect for all life and all of its various manifestations.”

As Marianne confirms, what we’re really talking about is raising our awareness and consciousness to a level that serves men, women and humanity as a whole. “It’s about love and respect,” Marianne asserts. “It’s just like the same way that having an eating disorder is self destructive—it doesn’t honor ourselves or our bodies—if we mistreat the earth . . . if we pollute the earth and put toxins into it . . . then that’s also connected to how we treat our bodies and the beautiful planet and animals that we live with.”

Marianne’s interviews have also placed her in contact with extraordinary women who are truly inspirational, linking feminism to global initiatives affecting the planet. “I’ve had the great privilege of interviewing two amazing environmentalists,” Marianne remarks “One is Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel peace prize for the Green Belt Movement. She planted forty-five million trees across Kenya. . . And then of course, there’s Jane Goodall. That was actually one of my favorite interviews. Who better to talk to about some of these themes in such a deep and thoughtful way.”

When exploring the subject, we can’t help but discover an important fact — Pillaging the earth is symptomatic of a larger problem which needs addressing: a disregard for the feminine and the abuse of women. Through columns such as those provided by Amnesty International, V-Day, RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), Equality Now, Men Can Stop Rape, and Nobel Women’s Initiative, as well as questions explored in the Ask Amy – Violence Against Women section, Feminist.com is offering resources to assist those who are victims of abuse as well to help on a preventative and educational level.

“Regarding violence against women, we have worked really closely with V-Day because of our long-time relationship with them.” Marianne also notes their collaboration has produced the Anti-Violence Resource Guide, which provides both international and U.S.-based resources. “I have to say, because I’ve interviewed Eve Ensler so many times and constantly post her work and V-Day’s work, I think there’s nobody better than Eve to make sure we’re remembering what’s happening in places like the Congo. Actually, out of all of the interviews that I’ve done, some of the ones that have been the most wrenching have been with her . . . And she doesn’t talk about it as just a women’s thing. It is that, but it’s also about if we’re treating women and girls this way, then that’s a symptom of an overall problem with humanity and with a culture that breeds people who rape and produce violence—with a culture that produces wars, like what’s happening in the Congo.”

Marianne also stresses the importance of not condemning men or making sweeping statements like, “Oh, all men are bad. It’s more about let’s have a thoughtful conversation.” That means including men in the dialogue and making sure they are an active part of the solution.

“We’ve had a column for many years called Men’s Voices, Men as Allies. It started out being done specifically by a wonderful organization called Men Can Stop Rape and then it evolved into including a diversity of male voices. It’s one of our most popular columns. Pat McGann and I—Pat works at Men Can Stop Rape—decided that it would be very useful and timely to devote a section to the whole idea.” 

As Marianne explains, this upcoming section—Men and Women as Allies—would provide a space for dialogue. Not only would it continue highlighting men and women joining forces on issues such as rape, physical violence, and gender equity, but it would provide a venue for “redefining masculinity and helping men see how constrictive gender roles impact them in negative ways.” It would give men a safe base where they could read about the issues as well as dialogue with each other, and just as important, dialogue with women. “It’s actually one of the projects I’m most excited about,” Marianne mentions, “because I think that, with the groups and people that we have in place to be partners, we can do something in a really thoughtful, sensitive, and dynamic way.”

And isn’t that the aim? Working toward creating non-violent societies, no matter where in the world, means embracing humanitarian values. For men to ally with women, for them to break free of stagnant and harmful societal roles, for men to view gender equality as a human rights issue as well as a women’s rights objective, and for men to be a vital part of prevention makes ending violence toward women and creating a more peaceful world finally seem attainable.

               Our mission is to empower people to re-imagine and transform the roles of women and men and encourage them to break barriers so they can be agents of social change in the world. 

Concurrent with the partnerships men and women are creating to address the problem, women’s groups are coming to the fore everywhere around the world, and like many of the powerful movements in history there seems to be a spiritual dynamic involved. Marianne addresses the phenomenon—what’s been called spiritual activism—as it relates to feminist causes.

“Well, I think that people are calling that the fourth wave of feminism,” Marianne states. “Actually, I try to get away from linguistics although sometimes they come out of my mouth, but I do think that there’s this spirituality-infused social justice movement that is connected to Gandhi and Martin Luther King. This idea that it really does start with our inner world and that we have to be the change we want to see. That’s what the Our Inner Lives section which we just launched tries to do—honor all the paths, whether you define that as spirituality or as a traditional, organized religion.”

               We are committed to creating a space that represents as many women as possible—women who embody a diversity of religious, faith and spiritual identities as well as those women with an unnamed hunger, longing, or confusion. Together, we translate our compassion into tangible paths to positive change in the world, recognizing our interdependence with each other and the earth.

As Marianne indicates, there’s an interconnection between our internal and external reality. Our Inner Lives emphasizes the commonalities between many of the world’s religions and its various spiritual traditions in the sense that most of them, at heart, try to promote compassion and love. 

“And it’s not just about going out and joining the Peace Corps,” Marianne enumerates. “It’s also about how you treat your neighbors or someone in your family who is being difficult and going through a hard time. Just finding ways, both little and big, to have more consciousness and mindfulness in how we’re going through the world.” Marianne regards the fact that it starts with some inner reflection—that we’re often unaware of what we can or should do. “One of the quotes I include in my book is from Natalie Portman who mentions that volunteering is more for her than it is for the people she helps. It’s very soul nourishing and meaningful and joyful—that sense of doing good.”

Feminism’s big picture encompasses so many diverse elements. What about the issue of including spirituality in the conversation? Can we go as far as to say it’s an essential part of the equation?

“I think it’s hugely important, but I think it’s delicate,” Marianne concludes. “It has to be very sensitively handled because I think, in the same way that feminism is one of those loaded terms, spirituality can be so misinterpreted.” Marianne mentions that at Feminist.com they’ve taken special care to have an advisory team that includes women from Omega Institute as well as others who represent different faiths and perspectives. She also makes a point of connecting regard for the spiritual with the need for men, as well as women, to respect and value their own feminine wisdom. “I always thought that Feminist.com represented the feminine energy in the world as being something metaphysically bigger than just the gender association of feminism. And that’s one of the wonderful things I think Omega does in their conferences, which are all about women and power—bringing forth this idea of feminine power and new paradigms of power—honoring values that are typically associated with the feminine, which doesn’t mean necessarily with women.”

Marianne makes the connection between spirituality and the need to honor feminine energy in our attempts to resolve many of the world’s difficulties. “It’s making sure that we are in touch with the feminine values that we all have—the masculine and the feminine, the yin and yang in the world.” Marianne notes the timeliness of the concept, making reference to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s important book, Half the Sky, and its global initiative. “Right now it’s becoming more mainstream to acknowledge the truth which is that helping, empowering, and educating women and girls throughout the world is completely interconnected with all of these other issues that we’re facing—whether it’s war or violence or whether it’s about poverty or the environment.”

It is definitely a vast, humanitarian effort in many ways. And in order to make any significant strides, we need to emphasize women’s leadership, especially with regard to peace initiatives. Feminist.com is highlighting the issue through its evolving Women & Peace section, which has plans to expand and will examine women’s roles in building peace.

And the reason for emphasizing female leadership is simple. As Marianne observes, women need to be an integral part of conflict resolution. “As over half the world’s population—as the mothers, the daughter, the sisters, the wives, the educators, and the leaders—we have to be involved in every aspect of the peace process in order to accomplish lasting peace. And also, just look at how domestic and political violence are connected. You can’t have peace in the larger world without looking at what’s happening behind closed doors. It’s the connection between the private and the public—how women are treated in a society. . . If you look at Afghanistan or at Kenya, girls aren’t educated . . . it’s seeing how these things are connected to why war and violence are happening.”

Throughout her assessment, Marianne stays clear of stereotyping. When speaking about “the feminine” in any arena, including peacekeeping, she stresses that she’s referring to qualities like compassion, cooperation, intuition, and expressing emotion, “and that it’s okay to cry if our son goes off to war and dies. Not that men don’t do that, but men have often been taught to suppress their emotions. Carol Gilligan talks about the first time a boy cries when he’s about four or five and he’s called a sissy and from then on thinks that showing emotion is wrong and unmanly.”

Derogatory remarks and unrealistic gender expectations have been a big part of the problem. Thus the struggle. As mentioned in Daring to be Ourselves, we don’t need to be wrestling with words, especially with the term “feminine.” We certainly don’t need to be feeling pigeonholed if we use it. Both women and men have feminine traits, and as Marianne notes, these qualities need to be celebrated as part of all of us. Could authentic living may be part of the answer? Sounds a bit simplistic, but allowing the feminine and the masculine to be expressed in our lives, whether we’re male or female, may finally help create the kind of balance our world desperately needs.

Marianne regards Omega Institute’s Women & Power conferences as being pivotal events that address this quest for balance. She acknowledges them as inspirational forums that help women believe in their ability to be leaders and voices of change. “I think that Omega is at the forefront of really promoting some of these themes that we’re talking about,” Marianne remarks. “I have such respect for that organization. Elizabeth Lesser [cofounder of Omega], who is also in my book, is a true visionary, an incredible person and author.” Marianne also makes reference to the Women’s Institute, now officially known as the Women’s Leadership Center.Carla Goldstein, who runs it, is a very good friend of mine. They are doing really exciting work and are a very close partner of Feminist.com.” 

At Omega’s 2010 Conference, Our Time to Lead, Marianne and Feminist.com cofounder, Amy Richards, taught a workshop together, Activism in Your Own Voice. “One of the things that was great about doing the workshop with Amy is we had everybody go around and say what their definition of activism was and what brought them to the conference and to our workshop . . . the women were so excited and happy to share their stories. Yes, there are these amazing people who speak at the conferences, but there are also some really amazing people in the audience.”

As Marianne concludes, women inspiring and motivating each other to keep the momentum of self-awareness and change going is important. Overcoming the fear of acknowledging their own voices—of becoming authentic—is a key step in harnessing genuine power.        

At the first reading and book signing for Marianne’s book, Daring to Be Ourselves, which was held at the Kleinert/James Art Center in Woodstock, NY, she cited a quote by activist and author, Loung Ung.

Courage is when you dare to be yourself.

Marianne found that theme popping up with most of the women she interviewed. She now reflects on what the quote means to her personally as well as within the context of feminism. “I think that for the book, it just emerged as the overlying theme,” Marianne remarks. “As I looked at all of the various quotes and messages, it was just very clear that it was that simple—just being who we are. It almost sounds ridiculous because it sounds like the easiest, most obvious thing we should all be doing and yet very few of us often are, or we’ve gone through periods of our life where we’re not.”

Perhaps, as Marianne suggests, that’s because there are so many forces affecting all of us—women and girls, as well as men and boys—which constantly inform us that we’re not acceptable as we are, ceaselessly urging us to change and make ourselves into something else.

Girls, in particular, are under constant pressure from the media about their body image. Marianne reflects how that stress affected her as a teenager. “I blew dry my hair straight every day, dyed it blonde, and dieted my way until I was borderline anorexic,” she divulges. “We’re all told we have to look like a super model or just why bother. But also internally, like Carol Gilligan says, we’re told from early on not to value our genuine voice. Sometimes I think what happens—and this happens to a lot of women and happened to me for quite some time—is that we have no clue who we are, and that’s a really lost feeling to have. I think we’re so on autopilot that women can go through their whole lives having no idea who they are and therefore aren’t in touch with what would give them fulfillment and happiness. What a waste and what an atrocity. So to me, it’s really that simple and that powerful—just finding your true voice and honoring your authentic self in all the various ways that you can.”

And if you bring your whole self to the task, whether that’s furthering a feminist cause or any other human rights issue, it makes the endeavor all the more powerful.

Marianne agrees with the premise. “Yes, that’s what naturally happens . . . like when we were talking about the connection between spirituality and feminism or spirituality and activism. Once you do this kind of inner work and start honoring yourself, it becomes this contagious thing. You can’t look at other people without seeing your common humanity and recognizing yourself. I remember—I think it was with my older daughter when she was in fourth grade—there was another girl who was saying unkind things again and again. I  found myself saying something so simple which really resonated, something like ‘You know, for this girl to act like that she must be a really unhappy person. I feel so bad for her because if you were a happy person, it doesn’t make you feel good to act that way.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t you try, rather than fighting back or getting into a thing with her, just responding with love. You know, compliment her or just smile.’ As Marianne relays, her daughter told her the advice helped. “Now sometimes when things like that happen, I’ll just say, ‘Just respond with love,’ which is easier said than done. But sometimes it’s just about that . . . having compassion.”

Of the many fascinating women Marianne has interviewed, when asked to choose one who was particularly inspiring, she mentions Jane Fonda.  Just before their interview, Marianne read Jane’s autobiography, My Life So Far, which is about her personal journey—about her eating disorders, her marriages, being an actress and the pressures and insecurities that came along with her career. “But it was also about how it took her until she was in her sixties, post her divorce from Ted Turner, to really find her power and find her voice—to find out who she was. That was a big theme through my interview with her,” Marianne recognizes. “It just had a profound effect  on me because it really helped clarify the fact that the same thing had happened to me. . . It took me until my thirties to really start to wake up out of this society-imposed slumber that I had been in. So it not only was a personal revelation that way, but it also made me want to focus on making sure that we instill these messages in young women and girls so they don’t have to wait that long to reclaim their voices or, perhaps, not lose them at all.” 

Although it’s difficult for her to pick one quote from Daring to Be Ourselves that resonates with her own personal journey, after a moment of reflection, Marianne acquiesces. “It actually closes the whole book—the Alice Walker quote. It ties in with the overlying message, which has to do with finding your own voice and also finding your inner leader in order to produce change in the world.”

               We do carry an inner light, an inner compass, and the reason we don’t know we carry it is because we’ve been distracted. We think that the light is actually being carried by a leader or somebody that we have elected or somebody that we very much admire and that that’s the only light. So we forget that we have our own light—it may be small, it may be flickering, but it’s actually there. So what we need to do, I think, is to be still enough to let that light shine and illuminate our inner landscape and our dreams—especially our dreams. And then our dreams will lead us to the right way.       —  Alice Walker

Expanding on those words of wisdom, Marianne offers further insights to those of us who feel a bit dwarfed by the overwhelming needs we see expressed in the world today—whether they be women’s agendas, humanitarian issues, or global initiatives addressing peace and security. What exactly should we remember as we venture forward?”

“To have love and compassion for yourself,” she says plainly. “To take the pressure off that you can do it perfectly. . . It’s starting where you are and not thinking that you’re going to go out and found another V-Day. It’s literally just looking at your own family, your own neighborhood, and into your own community as you go through the day for ways to be mindful. It’s about how you’re interacting and the energy you’re putting out into the world. And . . . it sounds corny . . . just spreading love the best we can.”

Spreading love may just be a dare in itself. But if it’s a heartfelt desire, we’ll muster the strength to be up for the challenge. With enthusiasm and courageous effort, Marianne exemplifies that one woman is capable of doing just that—believing in a vision and becoming herself.


Visit Marianne’s website to find out more about Daring to Be Ourselves and for scheduled appearances.

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       Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. That’s their natural and first weapon. She will need her sisterhood.  — Gloria Steinem

Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK

A radical, a crazed lunatic, unpatriotic, a communist. . . perhaps even a sorceress.  

Strong women speaking truth to power have always received some form of derogatory press. By the time either the media or more conservative, political zealots are through, an outspoken intelligent woman can be portrayed as the next Medusa.  

Medea Benjamin is no exception to the rule. Brushing past the slurs, an intelligent observer quickly concludes that Medea is no ordinary woman. With a master’s degree in public health from Columbia University and another in economics from the The New School, Medea has worked as an economist and nutritionist in Latin America and Africa for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health organization, the Swedish International Development Agency and the Institute for Food and Development Policy. Medea is also co-founder of the San Francisco-based human rights organization, Global Exchange, as well as co-founder of CODEPINK Women for Peace.  

So what turned “a nice Jewish girl” from Long Island into a political activist?  

“Now that goes back some,” Medea remarks. “Actually, I think it all began for me in high school. I remember when my sister’s boyfriend was sent to Vietnam and mailed home a souvenir of an ear of a Vietcong. I was so disgusted by it that it set me on a path of trying to understand why some people considered others lesser human beings. I wondered how we could reverse that. Also, there were real inequalities in the high school that I went to which resulted in race riots. So here I was in a supposedly quiet, suburban Long Island neighborhood that was suddenly racked in the sixties by race relations and war. That kind of thing certainly leaves a mark on you, especially if it happens earlier in life as it did in my case, when you’re just trying to figure out what you want to do and become, and how you want to live your life. All of it urged me down a path of trying to get people to like each other more.”  

Helping people to like each other can sometimes be a monumental task. Intolerance, abuse, greed, political gain . . . War is often the sad result of their erosive wear. CODEPINK Women for Peace is dedicated to turning the tide -– from funding war and aggression toward looking for new avenues for our resources such as green jobs and better healthcare. They are resolved to helping support policies based on diplomacy and compassion rather than those rooted in fear and suppression. From stopping the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to preventing new aggressions from arising, CODEPINK seeks to activate, amplify and inspire a community of peacemakers through creative campaigns and a commitment to non-violence.  

Oftentimes when we hear of such monumental endeavors, we tend to envision some huge campaign behind them. Not always the case. CODEPINK, Medea explains, started when a group of women concerned about the environment got together for a retreat that was organized by a group called Bioneers. “We sat around for several days talking about ways we could address the environmental crisis. During our breaks, we also talked about 9/11 and the US response—the bombing of Afghanistan. We discussed the pending war in Iraq and the color coded alert system that Bush had just declared. It was so odd and nobody knew what to do. We were laughing about it and saying ‘okay if it gets to orange is that when we get out the plastic tarps? When do we use the tape? Do we put it around ourselves or the terrorists?’ So initially, we had some good laughs about the whole thing. But of course, we also realized how serious it was. We could see there was all this negative male energy out there — Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and also George Bush. We felt we needed to inject some rational, loving female energy into the situation. So we put the group together, initially thinking we’d call it Code Hot Pink until we found that the URL was taken by a porn group,” Medea conveys, laughing. “So we dropped the “hot”, which was very disappointing to some of us, and we went with the name CODEPINK. The idea was to turn the color pink on its head from being this nice, feminine, sweet color to one that was very energetic, bold, and determined.”    

That bold determination has created initiatives like Women Say No to War, inspiring women around the world to become active participants in peacemaking and social change. “We wanted to mobilize women in this country, but we also found in the process that women from other countries were contacting us and saying it’s time we all work together across borders. So Women Say No To War is our attempt to take on issues that we can work on with other women. Some are joint projects like supporting refugees from Iraq who are now living in countries all over the world, but particularly in Syria and Jordan. We’re also helping to promote women’s voices in Afghanistan who are speaking out against the war, as well as working on smaller scale projects run by women that we feel are helpful in building community.”  

CODEPINK has actively supported women of the Middle East when they have risen up to oppose injustice. “In Afghanistan, when the Karzai government was passing a law in order to get more votes from the Shia community, the president, Hamid Karzai, agreed to a law that basically instituted marital rape. Some of the women in Afghanistan rose up to oppose it under very difficult conditions, and we were there to support them and to echo their desire to get rid of the law. Our efforts were successful to a large extent. Then there’s Iran. We have looked toward people like the Nobel Peace prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, for guidance with regard to good campaigns to support. We have also taken groups to Iran, Afghanistan, and to Iraq—obviously places that are oftentimes dangerous and difficult for Americans. That’s because we feel it’s important for us to meet directly with women from different countries so we can learn from them and have a deeper understanding of how we can best support their efforts.”  

Women-induced peace initiatives are creating imprints in other Middle Eastern arenas. CODEPINK, as Medea explains, is one of several groups which are taking on the gritty task of demanding humanitarian relief for the Palestinians virtually imprisoned in Gaza. “CODEPINK became very involved in Israel/Palestine after the Israeli invasion of Gaza that left over 1,400 Palestinians dead. We felt particularly concerned that US tax dollars and our military hardware was used in the attack. CODEPINK has also taken many delegations to Gaza in the last two years. It’s hard to get in which is why many other groups don’t try. We had a beautiful delegation of almost 100 people, including Alice Walker, that went in on International Women’s Day in 2009.”  

Medea also stresses the need for us to remember what’s actually happening in Gaza. “There’s a population of nearly 1.5 million people who are living in what’s equivalent to an open air prison. They aren’t allowed the freedom to go in and out of the area, really only surviving thanks to the United Nations and other charitable organizations,” Medea states. “So we’ve been trying to push the Israeli government to lift the siege. Along the way, we’ve made great connections with the women inside Gaza and have been encouraging them as much as possible, both politically and practically. We support projects like women’s crafts, for instance, so they can make a living. That’s what we do — back concrete projects as well as longer-term policy goals.”  

Yet real change in policy will never manifest while human beings are being held in bondage and humanitarian aid denied as the international community stands by, allowing it to occur without repercussions. The Humanitarian Flotilla situation is no exception. What have we really seen in the Obama administration that leans toward condemning such actions, especially with regard to the Israeli government?  

“We haven’t seen much change from the Bush administration to the Obama administration in terms of policies toward Israel,” Medea asserts plainly. “They’ve been somewhat firmer on the issues of settlements but continue to really turn a blind eye to Israeli violations of human rights.”  

          The U.S. government has been complicit in arming Israel and enabling its human rights abuses, including the ongoing siege of Gaza that has kept 1.5. million people living in the world’s largest open-air prison. In July 2008, the United States signed a contract worth $1.9 billion to transfer the latest-generation of naval combat vessels to Israel at U.S. taxpayer expense. Currently, Congress is in the process of appropriating a record $3.2 billion in military aid to Israel this budget year. This aid must be stopped.   CODEPINK – May 31, 2010  

Medea gives her assessment as to why the U.S. government continues to support Israel in such a biased way. “If you look at who controls policy, it’s really the lobby group AIPAC –- American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It’s really strong and well organized. On one level, you have to be in awe of their ability to influence policy. They even draft legislation and get it passed before we’ve even heard of it. It’s quite remarkable,” Medea states. “Along with the NRA and AARP, AIPAC is one of the strongest lobbies we have in the U.S. It gives tremendous amounts of money to the Democratic and Republican parties so it has a very fierce stranglehold on policy, always showing unconditional support for Israel. We’re actually mobilizing now to try to directly expose AIPAC and how it’s policies control American interests. When AIPAC holds its annual meeting this coming March in Washington, D.C., CODEPINK will have a counter gathering there at the same time in order to discuss what we consider a more even-handed policy.”

No doubt, confronting organizations such as AIPAC by shedding light on hard-nosed and unfair tactics are becoming more and more necessary. It’s also become obvious, as well as essential, that women’s voices are heard in any serious attempt to attain peaceful resolution.  

“Oftentimes women and children are the number one victims of war, and they are usually excluded when it comes to trying to find peace,” Medea remarks. “Take the example of Afghanistan where women’s oppression is used as a justification for U.S. military intervention, and yet when it comes to trying to develop a process of reconciliation, women in Afghanistan have had to struggle hard even to have a place at the table. CODEPINK has been working with the women there to push for them to gain that seat. It’s not easy because whether it’s the Taliban or the Karzai government or whatever, no one wants to include women in peace talks. So since most of the time women are not at the table, then the process often doesn’t take into account women’s needs. Using Afghanistan again as an example, any peace process has to include a guarantee that girls will be able to go to school under a negotiated peace settlement. For women, that issue is high up on their list. Yet if they’re not at the table, who’s going to voice those kinds of demands. That’s why CODEPINK is helping to support them in having more of a say. That’s why the United Nations passed Resolution 1325 which states that women must be part of any peacemaking process.”  

Although women’s roles are emphasized, CODEPINK is not exclusively an organization of women. Medea talks about men’s response to the organization’s mission.  

“The support we get from men, depends on what part of the world we’re in. Unfortunately, there are still many areas where women are treated more like property than like human beings. There’s still so much work to do to guarantee women’s rights. Actually, we have a lot of men that work in CODEPINK that are our allies, our colleagues. They’re some of our best activists. So even though we’re a women-initiated group, we have never been exclusively made up of women. We feel that this gives us a unique kind of position. We have the women’s perspective that’s front and center because it’s run by women, and yet we get the best of both worlds because we have a lot of good male ideas and energy behind our initiatives.”  

And some of those endeavors can take on a life of their own. People from all over the world converging in Egypt in order to cross the border into Israel to help the people of Gaza . . . Sounds like a stupendous feat meant more for a movie screen, yet a real life attempt was made during the Gaza Freedom March on December 31, 2009. What happened during that initiative and what was CODEPINK’s objective?  

“We had been taking delegations into Gaza through Egypt on smaller levels — about 100 people each time,” Medea explains. “The Gaza Freedom March was an attempt to scale that up. We thought that meant we might get something like 300 people joining, but it turned out that 1,300 people signed up from around the world.”  

Egypt is the route that the delegations have been taking to get into Gaza because the Israelis won’t let them in if they make the attempt within Israel. This particular time the additional people joining the march was a surprise for Egyptian officials. “The event became massive, and that really scared the Egyptian government,” Medea states. “They had been allowing us in with these smaller delegations, but since this one was so big, the government clamped down and said that they would not allow us into Gaza, and they would not allow us to be meeting in Cairo where everybody was converging.”  

The official Egyptian government explanation was that seven or more people gathering would be considered illegal. “So imagine,” Medea adds, “here we were in charge of 1,300 people from all over the world, and we’re told we can’t meet. So it ended up that we had a lot of demonstrations in the streets of Cairo that really shocked and rocked the government there. Because we were coming from so many different countries, officials were too embarrassed to really crack down on us the way they would have if we were Egyptians. As it turned out, they eventually allowed 100 people out of the 1,300 to go into Gaza with humanitarian aid.”  

And what about the possibility of holding another Gaza Freedom March? “What we’re doing now is going back to smaller delegations,” Medea conveys, “more manageable ones. In fact, the next delegation we’re taking will consist of about ten people. In terms of doing something massive, we would prefer doing that in Washington D.C. where we can try to influence the politics of our government and where we have more control over our ability to meet.”  

In the midst of her reflections on the Gaza situation, Medea reveals that it’s difficult to perceive how a resolution will come about. “It’s so hard to see, with the one-sided nature of U.S. policy, how we’re ever going to move in a direction that will give peace to the people who are living there now,” Medea remarks. “I still tend to feel very despairing about the future of that tiny strip of land.”  

Medea also recognizes the need to be lighthearted from time to time to alleviate the gravity. “We did a little parody of the peace talks in front of the White House the other day [Peace Charade 2010]. I play Hillary Clinton. We try to have some fun with this stuff so we don’t get too despairing. Doing protest after protest all the time — it can become overwhelming.”  

As the world watches the Israeli/Palestinian dilemma, many of us wonder what is happening among the women of Israel—Jewish and Islamic—with regard to their own ventures toward peace. Are more peace groups forming and are some of them working directly with CODEPINK?  

“There are a number of wonderful women’s groups,” Medea offers. “There’s one called Coalition of Women for Peace that consists of both Jewish and Arab women. These women have learned over the years how to work really well together. They hosted one of our delegations that went to Israel. At one of the separation walls, we did a very creative protest that consisted of Arab, Jewish, Israeli and American women, calling for the removal of these walls. We basically forced the Israeli military to let us go through one of the checkpoints which had been closed so that we could meet and embrace. It was a very beautiful moment. In general, when protests are led by women, it’s almost guaranteed that it will be peaceful. That really challenges the Israelis in their response, making it harder for them to react with violence.”  

Still, the occupation is affecting women and children on both sides, Israeli as well as Palestinian. “The other day, there was an attack on Israeli settlers that led to the death of four people, including a pregnant woman, and Hamas took credit for it. Credit . . . what a horrible term. It’s awful when you see civilians being killed no matter who they are, and in this case, a pregnant women was murdered. It’s very painful. There’s been worldwide condemnation of that attack, and rightly so. But what I have also seen are daily attacks of women and children in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and in Gaza. As a Jewish American woman, I feel that I have to speak out against those incidences because my government, the Israeli government, and the media tend to belittle the lives of the Palestinians. When a pregnant woman dies at a checkpoint because she was not allowed through to get to the hospital in time, that does not become worldwide news. When a woman in Gaza is killed by an Israeli bomb, that does not become worldwide news. So I feel that we have to speak out against all violence against civilians.”  

There are other ways in which the Israeli occupation, especially the siege, has taken its toll. “In Gaza, where the economy is disastrous, there’s about a fifty percent unemployment rate. So just trying to put food on the table is very difficult for women. Men are feeling impotent because they don’t have jobs and because they don’t feel they’re fulfilling their obligations toward their families. So you also see a rise in domestic violence. All of this, unfortunately, relates back to the lack of basic freedoms.”  

Yet, no matter how often women around the world hear about the situation in Gaza as well as in other conflict zones, it is becoming more imperative that we not only feel the outrage and compassion and desire change, but we actually become forces of that change—basically being less abstract and more concrete. In short, taking it out of our heads and onto the street.  

Medea addresses the concept. “One of the most exciting things for me about CODEPINK has been empowering so many women around the country and around the world to become active because we tend to complain a lot and oftentimes on the computer—writing to each other, bemoaning the state of the world and not getting out to really make change. It’s too easy to be an armchair peacemaker. So we’ve got to get people off their couches and away from their computers and out into the world, be that into the streets or into the halls of congress or into their local shelters helping poor women, wherever that is. We have to be actively engaged in changing this world. Actually, it’s the best possible antidote to depression. It’s very easy to get depressed when you watch the news or you sit around and exchange e-mails about how bad things are going, but it’s very inspiring and refreshing when you get out in the world and try to make change, mostly because you’re surrounded by other women—and men—who are doers rather than talkers. And that is very inspiring.”  

Seems like CODEPINK is appealing to the deeper qualities of women as a whole. There’s a spiritual element to how women are being addressed:   

            We call on women around the world to rise up and oppose the war in Iraq. We call on mothers, grandmothers, sisters and daughters, on workers, students, teachers, healers, artists, writers, singers, poets, and every ordinary outraged woman willing to be outrageous for peace. Women have been the guardians of life-not because we are better or purer or more innately nurturing than men, but because the men have busied themselves making war. Because of our responsibility to the next generation, because of our own love for our families and communities and this country that we are a part of, we understand the love of a mother in Iraq for her children, and the driving desire of that child for life. — Starhawk  

CODEPINK calls women to break free from learned roles and become more of what many consider to be spiritual activists. It seems to be a revolutionary call in its most positive sense.  

“It’s a call that really involves all aspects of our lives,” Medea relates. “How can we be nurturing in our homes and out in the world, how can we be compassionate in our communities and build a government that reflects that compassion? How can we find beauty in our daily lives and bring more beauty to the larger world? So it’s a very holistic kind of call that really looks toward an era of cooperation and negotiation over the use of force, as well as having that sense of cooperative involvement prevail in everything from our homes and families to our government policies and the way we live and work with each other in the broader world.”  

Yet, in order to create an era of national and international responsibility, we cannot avoid asking ourselves a simple question: How are the actions of our government affecting us as people? If we allow leaders to actively support, especially financially and militarily, nations that are consistently involved in human rights violations, we are basically signing our name to their agenda. In essence, we are condoning their actions by not speaking up to refute them and demanding change.   

But is the tide finally turning in our own country? Are men and women in the U.S. getting the message?  

“Yes and no,” Medea states. “I think that there was tremendous energy that people put into overcoming the Bush years and bringing in a new era. We pinned a lot of hopes on Barak Obama and then felt that after that huge rush of energy to get him elected that we did our job and we could go home and relax. That was a huge mistake because, unfortunately, there is no relaxing. This work is a constant. It requires constant involvement and vigilance, and I don’t say that in a negative, exhausting kind of sense. I say that in a positive, energizing sense. We need to remember that when we let down our guard, the forces of violence never lets down theirs, and we can find ourselves back where we were before.”  

It appears that people may have become a little too complacent since the election of Barak Obama, too willing to allow the policies to emanate from Washington instead of from the grassroots? “The energy we used to get rid of the Bush administration should have then been turned into positive energy to force the Obama administration to be the government that we hoped we had elected,” Medea asserts. “Instead, it went from how do we push against something we don’t like, i.e. the Bush administration, to just feeling like the Messiah had come and he’ll take care of it. Let this powerful, wonderful man, Obama, just do his thing and we’ll be okay. I think that, particularly for women, we should have known better, and we should have not let down our guard. Actually, it’s been very difficult for CODEPINK to organize since Obama has come into power. We still want to end the wars and bring our troops home. We still want to close the foreign military bases that we have–over 800 bases around the world–and invest that money in green energy, good jobs and education. We still want to have our government support basic human rights and close down Guantanamo and restore habeas corpus. There’s all kinds of things that we still have left to do, and yet we haven’t found the same energy among our supporters that we had during the Bush years.”  

Whether we hear it through the media or during town hall discussions, people have expressed a sense of deflation.  

“They certainly feel let down,” Medea concurs. “First they were elated. ‘Okay, let’s let Obama do it for us.’ And then when he didn’t do what we wanted, whether that was ending the wars or bringing in new policies that we desired on everything from jobs to the environment to immigration, we got disappointed and depressed. That’s not good for us as individuals and it’s not good for making the changes we want to see. That’s why CODEPINK is constantly out there trying to revive people’s sense of being active, engaged, and involved. Presently, we’re part of a big mobilization [One Nation: Working Together to Fund Jobs, Not War] that’s taking place on October 2nd in Washington, D.C. It’s being organized by civil rights groups and unions, and we’re bringing the peace message into that mix. It will definitely be bigger than Glen Beck’s and certainly not as white,” Medea adds. “The point is rather than just complaining about Glen Beck, we had to ask ourselves: How do we mobilize forces for what we believe in?”  

Perhaps part of the answer lies within a simpler framework—how men and women can become more pink.  

That may sound a bit too simple, maybe even frivolous. After all, when one thinks pink one does not normally think strong or unwavering. Perhaps, as CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin concludes, the color pink has taken on a special meaning and force.  

“Wearing some pink helps,” Medea says. “We had a lot of people who hated pink when we started who have now come to really love it, including me. I was not a pink person at all. I’ve learned a lot from the whole pink thing. It sort of brightens up my outlook a little more. People’s responses are certainly a lot more positive. Sometimes doing and saying something dressed in black tends to put out a little more of a dire, negative energy than if you’re conveying the same message dressed in pink. The color can be very disarming. It can disarm the police, it can pacify your adversaries, and it can make people want to join you because it’s more inviting and positive. So I would say in general, while we’re working on these issues of life and death, rape and violence, and so many other negative and heartbreaking conditions in the world, adding a little pink can bring some joy into our work.”  

That may be worth contemplating. After all, pink is the color of universal love . . . the color of approachability, harmony and inner peace. The color pink is connected with the heart, our source of compassion and human decency. It’s even been known to neutralize violent behavior—definitely a desirable result.  

Maybe we do need a color-coded, wake-up call:  The heart of humanity is blocked, causing fear, anger, and hatred. In short, it’s causing war.  

So pink may be the warning color we require, detangling us from the knots of domination and greed that have enabled us to squander human life. Perhaps what we really need is to be saved from our own ignorance.  

Now that’s a CODEPINK alert.  


Photo credits:  Introductory photo — Julie Brashares. Medea at the podium — Rae Abileah. All other photos — by permission. 

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                                         We are not human beings having a spiritual experience.                        We are spiritual beings having a human experience.          — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Carla Goldstein

The Omega Point. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin imagined such a critical threshold, where humankind would reach its highest point of socialization and consciousness, breaking through time and space to a new level of enlightenment. The organization’s name reflecting this idea, Omega Institute for Holistic Studies is dedicated to fostering movement toward that pivotal point of integration, encouraging both individual growth and social change.

Sitting in her office located amidst Omega’s sprawling, nearly two hundred acre campus in Rhinebeck, NY, Carla Goldstein, Director of External Affairs as well as Director of the Women’s Institute, describes how she discovered Omega and how that meeting transformed her life.

“I consider myself an advocate,” Carla relates. “That’s really been the bulk of my professional life. I’m a lawyer by training and spent many years on the public policy front. I worked in the New York State legislature as well as in the City Council. It was while I was working for Planned Parenthood that I discovered Omega. I found out about the Women & Power conference and it looked really interesting, so I decided to attend. I heard Jane Fonda speak that weekend. Eve Ensler and other great women were there as well. It was such a powerful event, the best conference I’d ever been to, bar none.”

Elizabeth Lesser, Eve Ensler, Jane Fonda, and Sally Field

Carla found herself thinking it was a shame that those amazing women were not being heard more beyond the conference environment. “This was all happening pre-digital download and the internet had not become what it is now. That’s when it occurred to me that since Planned Parenthood was a global organization, we might partner with Omega to figure out how to get that content distributed in some way, so I approached Omega with the idea. This was all happening just when the organization first began its Service Week program, opening its campus to nonprofits to do their own retreats. Through Planned Parenthood, I went on a retreat along with a team of thirty leaders, and we all fell in love with the place. After that, I brought my family to Omega during Family Week. It was a very transformative time for us. That’s when I realized Omega really had something going on that was special.”

Carla expresses that Omega’s and her own desire seemed to be synchronizing. In the universe of her policy work, while people were talking about heartfulness, caring, community and childcare, Carla reveals her personal experience was that “there was something missing underneath the rhetoric—a depth of spirit and community. And as far as Omega was concerned, the organization was at a time in its development when it was feeling its ‘grownupness’. The mission to bring hope and healing to individuals and society had been expressed really one person at a time through various educational programs. Omega was now interested in figuring out how it could deepen its impact on the social/cultural questions. So meeting up with the organization at that time was perfect. I was looking for spiritual depth, and Omega was looking for political/social action.”

Since joining Omega, Carla has seen the organization realizing its goal. The Women’s Institute . . . The Omega Center for Sustainable Living. . . The Scholarship Program . . . building a program around Mindfulness for Educators . . . the development of a Veteran’s Week. “The road has led to really figuring out how to serve the greater good at a social level in addition to the individual level,” Carla states. “The way I see it is that coming on the heels of the 60’s and the 70’s there were really two paths to social change. One path advocated changing the social structures—the laws, the policies. The other was the Ghandi path, the eastern path. ‘We’re going to be the change.’ What Omega was coming to understand, as well as what I and many of our teachers have come to understand is that it’s not an either or situation. It’s a both and more situation. So the question is how do we really bring these different prongs together in an endless cycle.”

Seeing two sides of the coin, Omega recognized that a deeper balance within the world at large needed to be attained for successful social changes to take place—a new paradigm where feminine wisdom is valued. Supporting a balanced power paradigm that is neither feminine nor masculine, but a healthy blend of both, will help create a more peaceful and just world that honors our interdependence with each other and the Earth itself. Thus, the formation of the Women’s Institute, a dynamic and innovative part of Omega’s mission to attain that objective.

Empowering women around the world, the Institute supports them in developing their visions and their voice, recognizing that feminine wisdom is an essential element in any effort toward sustainability and global peace.

“The goal of the Women’s Institute is primarily to cultivate women’s leadership and empowerment so that women can be change agents,” Carla notes. “We’re interested in helping women who want to transform the power paradigm from being one of dominance and exploitation to one of cooperation and collaboration. We’re interested in not mimicking the kinds of leadership that we have grown up watching but inventing our own authentic leadership using our whole selves—mind, body, spirit, and heart—and doing it in the global context. The way that I understand it, where we are as women in the west today stems right from WWII. Since that time, when 6,000,000 women went to work and then left their jobs when the men came back from war, we have been in a largely adaptive relationship to power—conforming to the existing structures in relation to questions like ‘How do we get what we want? How do we hold it? How do we find our way? How do we navigate the power structures that exist that were created without us?’ But that’s changing. We’re now moving into a period where women are very interested in having power redefined to reflect our own unique values and visions. This is not to say that women are monolithic. We are as different as we are many, but nonetheless all of the social constructs were created primarily without any input from women, so we’ve been functioning in them in this adaptive mode and now it’s like ‘Well, wait a minute.’ Not to discard it all, but how can we infuse the power structure with our own visions? How do we challenge some of the assumptions upon which the system was based—a lot  of those assumptions having to do with the exploitation of women? So that’s really what the Women’s Institute is interested in helping women do.”

But it’s not only women’s empowerment that the Institute is promoting, it’s feminine wisdom.

By healing and promoting feminine wisdom in women and girls as well as in men and boys, all of society benefits.

“The terminology is all problematic,” Carla explains. “When we use the term ‘the feminine’ which we mean in the Jungian psychological sense, people think we’re talking about feminine hygiene products or a hyper-genderized sense of the feminine so there’s all these challenges around stereotypes due to the language. That makes it tough, especially for men. In reality, we’re trying to convey the word feminine in the sphere of nurturing, as well as in reflective and relational qualities. Gloria Steinem once said at one of the conferences that every human being possesses all of the qualities that are available—360° around the wheel—but we grow into them at different stages of our lives. So the best aspiration would be to help all humans experience all aspects of themselves. With regard to women’s empowerment work, it’s about helping women find their own authentic voice and visions. It’s also about helping them become more comfortable in their masculine traits. It works the other way around with men. Many men can be extraordinarily nurturing. So none of this is simply biologically predestined. The real question is how can we bring balance for everyone? Of course, from a resource point of view, the Women’s Institute is interested in empowering women, but helping to awaken, enliven and support the feminine in men will definitely be a part of our agenda.”

Emphasizing female leadership in the world is essential at all levels. Carla makes reference to Nicholas D. Kristof’s book, Half the Sky, which describes the brutal inequality that women and girls face in the world today as well as the powerful resilience of those who have been harmed, who literally changed their oppression into opportunity. “Allowing women to play key roles is one of the answers to many of the development questions that we have,” Carla asserts. “It makes sense. Actually, it’s kind of a no brainer. If you have all these human problems and half of the humans are not at the table to help solve them, then you’re really not utilizing the full of human potential. It’s very simple. We need more women in leadership positions. At the same time, it’s an oversimplification to say it’s just about the biology. A lot of the reasons why have to do with patriarchy and what the overarching system is valuing. So although we need more women leaders, it’s not just more women in the biological sense, but specifically, more women who are interested in bringing in the values of the feminine.”

Omega’s Women & Power conferences, cultivating those values, are dynamic events, inspiring and affirming women’s leadership and empowerment. “Of course there’s only so much one can do in a weekend,” Carla remarks, “but it’s definitely an inspirational event and acts as a confirmation for those of us who think Hey, I want to wake up and strengthen this part of myself. Also, the conference offers a sense of community. Even though technologically the web connects us more than ever, we’re very isolated from one another. We live in a hyper-specialized society and culture so you could spend your entire life just staring at a computer screen. That’s why one of the main goals of the conference is to bring people into community with each other and to build a movement — a social movement.”

And that movement seems to be emerging around the globe. An amazing number of women’s organizations are bringing women together to explore the power paradigm as well as to create some changes in the blueprint. Carla points out that “everywhere you look, even on the internet, if you google women and power conferences, you will find events all over the world now. The Women’s Institute is not unique in the sense that we are part of a growing movement. That’s another one of our goals—to share that information, to help people feel connected to something larger than themselves. It’s important for us to know that we’re a part of an emerging global network of women trying to change the path of history, trying to bring a different set of values and experience to the table as well as forging new pathways and new vocabulary for what is developing.”

That initiative vocabulary will have the chance to be explored at the next Women & Power conference scheduled at the Rhinebeck campus in September. OUR TIME TO LEAD is a call-out to women of all ages and backgrounds to become the leaders we have been waiting for. There is no ambiguity in the program’s agenda—the recognition that sustainable change is truly dependent upon more female leadership.

“I think I heard a statistic recently that women have only been officially part of 3% of all global peace negotiations,” Carla asserts. “The percentage is very small. There’s a problem with that. I think women have an enormous potential contribution to make toward conflict resolution. I have met some extraordinary women who have been key in the reconciliation process in their countries. There’s Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela who was important in the reconciliation endeavor in South Africa. I have just come back from Rwanda where I met Aloisea Inyumba. She was instrumental in the peace process post-genocide. One of the women coming to our conference this September, Leymah Gbowee, organized Christian and Muslim women in Liberia.”

Leymah Gbowee, as documented in the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell, was one of the main organizers of a band of several thousand women, who helped bring peace to Liberia after a 14-year civil war.

“So once again,” Carla stresses, “it’s a no brainer—tapping  the potential of women to bring the fruits of our wisdom to bear on the peacemaking table is essential.”

And what qualities did these women posses that magnetized their ability to achieve peaceful resolutions? “A willingness to process grief,” Carla reflects, “to be open to the other even though they may be classified as an enemy, to see the common humanity and to be committed to finding nonviolent solutions.”

In fact, many women around the globe are committed to using those attributes to realize peace in their countries. At the International Forum on the Role of Leadership in Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment that convened in Rwanda in May, an alliance of women met to regard the issues of achieving greater gender equality, human rights, and security for all.

As Carla mentions, as well as relates in her article (also accessed through her column at Feminist.com, Spiritual Activism), the Conference in Rwanda was focused on sharing that the country has become a world leader in women’s empowerment and equality. It’s the first country in the world where the majority of legislators are women—56% in fact. Even the head of their supreme court is a woman.

A stunning achievement. The establishment of so many women as leaders seems an incredible landmark.

“I think it’s complicated,” Carla remarks. “I’m not an expert in Rwandan history or politics, but what I discerned from what President Paul Kagame said is that women had a key role in the liberation struggle to end the genocide. I met several women there who were part of that–one of them happened to be a major fundraiser for the liberation struggle and one was a general. So it seems that personally, the President is committed to women’s empowerment. He was the commander of the revolutionary struggle, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. I was told by the women I met at the conference that during the process of organizing the RPF, he asked women to play key roles. Then, when he ultimately became the president, he insisted that the constitution require that 30% of the legislators be women, which is the UN recommendation. As we know, it turned out they exceeded that figure. The women also mentioned that President Kagame and the leadership in general view women as key to development, and that is why the country has succeeded in turning around from the crisis. So Rwanda is definitely setting an example for the world. In a country where nearly a million people were killed in a hundred days, they are now utilizing female leadership to rebuild.”

On May 16, Carla witnessed the One Million Women and Girls’ March for a Better Future which convened women and men, girls and boys, from across Rwanda. “The most impressive thing about that March was that almost half of the people were men. I did not get the feeling that they were marching to patronize the women, but to support their leaders and to support the idea of women’s equality.” When Carla asked their male guide why the men were so supportive, he said that it was because of watching the women in leadership: They have helped save the country and pulled everything forward, and the men are grateful.

Awareness of impactful events like the One Million Women March seems to create its own momentum. “If something happens in one part of the world,” Carla contemplates, “it becomes easier for the rest of us to imagine it happening where we live. ‘Well if they did it there, then we can do it here.’ It’s inspirational. My sense of all of these women’s groups coming to the fore everywhere around the world is that there’s an emergence. The why of it, like why now, we don’t know. I think there’s an evolutionary quality to what is happening, probably something to do with  the evolutionary nature in which we have lived and seeing that what used to work for us in the past is no longer viable. There’s also the issues around distribution of resources and the other challenges we face. The analogy that comes to mind is rotating crops. We started with fertile soil. Patriarchy spread through that soil and we were ruled by it. But now that system is failing. It’s breaking down. It’s done. So the new bed of soil has to have the capacity to allow many more people to grow. An essential quality to cultivate to that end is love—being able to nurture and understand our interdependence. The ability to do that is something women have been honing all the more, specifically because they’ve been surviving in a patriarchal system. So feminine wisdom, if you will, is what needs to be planted.”

Relying on those qualities, women are amassing globally, highlighting the issue of gender equality and underscoring its importance regarding the establishment and continuance of peaceful resolution and justice. Organic and growing exponentially, this powerful movement, like others throughout history cannot easily be explained. Many have asserted it’s a spiritual revolution that is creating the tide.

Considering the idea, Carla weighs the concept. “It’s too complex to reduce this down only to the spiritual. I think that it’s also a question of leadership. Martin Luther King was a leader and Gandhi was a leader. I think that people become leaders for a lot of different reasons, some of which are definitely spiritual, and some of which have to do with grief. It reminds me of the women in Nigeria, in particular this one woman who lost her seven children. She didn’t have any reason to live, yet she was determined to march. Then there’s Pastor Esther Ibanga,” Carla adds, “the woman who led the march of 100,000 people. A minister, she was definitely coming from a place of being a spiritual warrior. So I guess it’s a vocabulary thing for me. I believe we need to be careful and clear about what we really think is happening. One can always say there’s a spiritual dimension to what’s going on. ‘It’s spirit at work.’ But it’s important to also ask what else is at play. What are the other forces involved?”

Whatever they may be, each an every social action—all of the women and men who are working toward gender equality, every march, including the 1,000,000 women march in Rwanda—all of it has made a difference.

                The story of Rwanda and the wisdom shared by the 400+ women who came to the conference from around the world gives real grit to the possibility that we are finding our way out of the endless cycles of retribution, war, and conquest. I come away from this event with a profound sense of having been completely rearranged. It will take me some time to process the genocide of Rwanda, which also has brought me closer to my own history as a Jew, and to knowing that the seeds for love and hate lie in all of us. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with wise, accomplished, daring women from many different countries and contexts, who have helped build and heal their communities and create bridges over seemingly impossible divides, radically affirms my belief that women’s leadership is helping to change the face of human relations all over the world.       — Carla Goldstein

And women’s leadership is needed now more than ever. So much of the work regarding peace negotiations and creating the reconciliatory atmosphere post-conflict appears to be contingent upon making sure more women are at the peace and security table.

Perhaps, as Carla suggests, a big part of accomplishing that aim is unlearning what we have been taught about our capabilities. “We need to become a bit more gutsy,” she advises. “The world could look differently. A lot of things are based on religious storytelling and explanations that basically regard the nature of existence as just being the way it is—that it would be a folly for us to try to change things, that relationships between men and women have a natural or God-ordained hierarchy to them, that violence itself is natural, that survival of the fittest is the mode or mechanism of human existence, and that it’s a pollyannish view, a naïve view, that anything could be different. I think that since half of the human beings haven’t really participated in designing the system, then to say that the way things are is the only way they can be is missing half the beat. I think that part of the Institute’s work will be to encourage and to give women the confidence and the strength to bring their visions forward and to affirm the possibility that the world can, in fact, look differently than it looks today because we have not been a substantial part of the creators, the philosophers, or the visionaries. All of the storytelling about what life is and all of the structuring about how we will organize ourselves at a societal, public, resource distribution level as well as how we will solve our conflicts—all of that has been created without our voice by and large. Of course, the story can be very different if our voices are a part of it. So it’s really about that. It’s about being strong enough and brave enough to bring our voices forward so we can change the story.”

Yet, to make that transformation, there must be a breakthrough. Unifying around the globe, women’s voices are being powerfully unleashed to that end. As Carla and Omega suggest, it’s certainly our time to lead—not instead of men but with them. Together, we can design a new matrix, connecting and nurturing, creating a new paradigm that honors the feminine in us all.

* * * * *
Our duty, as men and women, is to proceed as if limits to our ability did not exist.
We are collaborators in creation.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Intoductory photo of Carla Goldstein – Courtesy of Omega Institute for Holistic Studies. Photo of Carla Goldstein from Women & Power: Connecting Across the Generations (2009) – by Dan Goldman. Photo of Elizabeth Lesser, Eve Ensler, Jane Fonda, Sally Field from Women & Power (2004) – Courtesy of Omega Institute for Holistic Studies.

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