You are truly a guru on engaging spiritual women’s voices in global efforts. How did you come to be so involved?
My focus on women’s voices in interfaith events and efforts sharpened after the 2000 Millennium Summit of Religious Leaders. Women were not prominent there, and a number complained, asking for a follow-up event that would address the gap. We convened a meeting of women religious and spiritual leaders in Geneva in 2002, and as a result the Global Peace Initiative of Women (GPIW) was formed. It is an international group, and focuses on peace, but peace broadly defined. Our mission is to look at how to mobilize the spiritual resources for peace that are too often hidden from view.
But the effort was never designed to be just about women. Yes, women are the leaders, but it is not just formal religious leaders. We bring in young people and men also. More and more, our events and networks are not just women. But what we want to see, and do see, is women emerging in leadership positions. And we have seen this in many places, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. But how did you get involved in the Millennium Summit in the first place? Had you been involved in interfaith work before that ambitious initiative?
I was a seeker from my earliest years, and when I was at Barnard in the early 1970s began to explore spiritual paths, but purely on a personal level. I found my spiritual teacher, Paramahansa Yogananda, when I was 20. Later, in the 1980s after I was divorced, I went back for my masters degree, and studied sacred literature. But I was not happy with the way it was taught, and I decided not to continue on to a PhD and instead went into journalism! But my interest was always there and I continued my study of sacred books.
The Millennium Summit for Religious Leaders came about almost by accident, as did my role. It started with conversations between Maurice Strong, who was then working closely with the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, and Ted Turner, who was considering his huge gift to the United Nations (to make up for what the United States was refusing to pay). Maurice was on Ted Turner’s board and introduced him to Kofi Annan. In the course of the conversation, which was exploring the upcoming heads of state Millennium Summit for the year 2000 at the United Nations, Ted Turner, almost casually, remarked that if you really wanted peace in the world, you should invite religious leaders and ask them to sign a commitment to peace. Kofi replied that this was a good idea.
Maurice repeated the comment to his wife Hanne, and Hanne’s immediate reaction was “let’s do it”. So Maurice went back to Kofi and Ted Turner. Ted Turner was rather shocked that his comment was taken so seriously, but agreed to support it. Hanne had recently met Bawa Jain, who had just joined the New York Interfaith Center (he had come to New York to work with his Jain teacher). Hanne suggested to Gillian Sorenson (then Assistant Secretary General for External Relations in Kori Annan’s office) that Bawa help organize the summit. They looked to my father, David Finn, a long time friend of Kofi Annan’s, for advice and help. And my father then volunteered me to work with Bawa on the effort.
Up until that point, my interest in religion and spirituality had been entirely academic and personal, but I plunged in, and travelled everywhere for two years as we prepared for the Summit.
The issue of having women participate in the Summit came up during the planning phase; for example, Gillian Sorensen said to make sure women were represented. But for Bawa and other religious leaders, that recommendation was not central. Given how new I was to interfaith work, I was in no position to press the issue. I had never been a public speaker nor had I been much in public affairs. I was a writer and thinker, and was in an intense learning mode. But in the course of our travels I developed an important network and could casually bring up questions, like, where are the women religious leaders? The answer was always “we don’t have any," and also, “don’t go there." I stored that in my mind. Clearly the focus was elsewhere: the main question at hand was the Dalai Lama, which took over everything, because the Chinese made sure that he could not be part of the Summit.
In the end, the challenge of including women in the Summit was lost. And at the event, there were only a handful of women speakers in plenary sessions, and most of them were not religious leaders. I remember well one horrifying incident at the opening plenary. The Thai delegation of 13 included 12 monks and a nun (Mae Chee Sansanee Sthirasuta, who is now a friend). They were seated in the center section in the General Assembly Hall. A major Hindu leader arrived. The monks in this order were not permitted to see women, and so he could not enter the General Assembly Hall if there was a woman in his path. Mae Chee was sitting just there and so he could not enter. Our staff was frantic trying to get this resolved, and finally I was asked to move her. And I did, but this spoiled the opening for me. I found myself trying to explain and to apologize to her afterwards.
There were other things that made the few women spiritual leaders who were at the Summit unhappy. To accommodate for the lack of women religious leaders, we invited prominent women like Jane Goodall, but the women religious leaders felt seriously underrepresented. So a breakfast was organized where these concerns were aired. Indu Jain, head of the Times of India, recommended that we organize a special meeting that would focus on women. So we went ahead, with Kofi Annan’s blessing, which meant that it could be held at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.
The meeting took some time in planning, because September 11 intervened. And it took some doing to mobilize the resources we needed to make it happen. The initial reaction we got from many leaders was that wanting to have a meeting of women religious leaders was just American feminism: there are no women religious leaders, we were told. Women are important in faith communities, but not as leaders. There were also problems around Bawa Jain, as many were annoyed at many aspects of the 2000 Summit and did not want to work with him. And resources were initially a problem as we went to raise money. About $3 million was raised for the 2000 Summit but when we asked for support for a women’s meeting, there was simply nothing. Not a penny from foundations. So we went to women business leaders, and there we were far more successful. We found a united focus. And the meeting went ahead.
The October 2002 meeting in Geneva was a great success. None of the grand issues from the 2000 Summit were discussed. The question was, how can women be of service in conflict areas? That’s when Sister Joan Chittister
, Reverend Joan Campbell, Venerable Dhammananda, and a constellation of women religious leaders came on board and agreed to form the nucleus of a continuing organization. The Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders emerged as that new organization. Eventually, as we learned that foundations did not want to support religious leaders, we shortened the name to Global Peace Initiative of Women.
And what we found there, and still find, is that there is indeed a real need to bring women’s presence and voices into the leadership of the interfaith world. Women were there before, but they were not leading. And the interfaith mix made it especially complex given the attitudes of some who were in high positions to working with and respecting women. What happened over the succeeding years? What did the GPIW do?
That’s how we started! We went on from there to organize a series of peace dialogues. We agreed in Geneva that we must start to mediate some dialogue around the Israel Palestine conflict. Then Iraq happened. We started to bring women together to discuss and look for solutions, in small sessions. And we met with considerable success.
I split with Bawa at that time, insofar as we were both following up on the 2000 Millennium Summit. The tacit understanding was that I would take the women’s piece and he would do the rest. But gradually it became clear that many were not happy with this division of labor. Men religious leaders began to gravitate to me, a bit confused about their role in what we at GPIW were doing, asking how they could be part of a women’s initiative. My position took shape, that the effort was not just for women, but that it was led by women. Some men and organizations began to join us, including for example Dharma Drum Mountain. Throughout, the vision was held by a core group, including the two Joans (Chittister and Campbell) and others who were in Geneva, including our dear friend Kamla Chowdhury. The group overall moved a bit more into the mainstream and towards a spiritual more than a formal religious concept. We took on other causes than conflict per se, including the environment and youth. How did you come to be so involved with youth?
That came from the United Nations, who approached us, saying they wanted to do something with young people. We had some very interesting meetings but it was not satisfying, because the United Nations had so many issues with religion. But how can you talk about the Millennium Development Goals without talking about spiritual values? How can you not bring in sectarian divides? Yet they were so frightened of being divisive and uneasy about bringing in spiritual voices in the Summits we organized to talk about the MDGs, that I gave up. After two years of trying to bring in those voices and issues, even to talk about values and spiritual dimensions, I came to see that those questions were far too much at the center to agree to let them have a minor role (as the UN wanted). And we were not interested in interfaith per se. We found that working with institutions was a problem because they were too slow to change. How are events different, in your experience, when women are in a majority or in leadership positions?
The energy is different, and so is the agenda. What do you see as the next issues? What is the essence of what will bring peace, and how are women spiritual leaders involved?
There is no question: women are critical to peace. Women together can go further than any institution. And there may well be a real benefit that so few spiritual women are tied to positions of institutional leadership. True, some very significant people like Joan Chittister and Sister Joan Campbell and, to a degree also Dhammanada in the Buddhist world, can speak to anyone anytime because they have influence and are respected within the religious cultures. There are perhaps a dozen others like them. But we can go much further if we step away from institutional positions.
Because what we need to talk about are changes in consciousness. An example of what I mean is the letter that Sister Joan Chittister and 50 other Catholic women leaders and prioresses sent recently about the US Health Care bill. They did that on their own, not asking the bishops and against their position. That’s the direction I see things going.
The work of GPIW began to shift about two years ago. From the start I saw the work we had started with women as just a platform for moving in directions that the women leaders thought were important. And to highlight that what they articulated as priorities and framing of issues was important, of value, different, and essential. Can you give examples of the agendas and how they are different?
Those are difficult issues to articulate. Some say that there is no difference. Some women in leadership positions today are models of this position: Margaret Thatcher, to hold up one. So we have indeed given a lot of thought to the question.
The question of what women bring and how it is different was a central theme of the meeting GPIW organized in Jaipur, India in March 2008. It asked, what are the distinctive values and qualities that we bring. Men, of course, can have and bring the same qualities, the feminine qualities, and we can see some ways in which there is a broader shift in society in that direction. As we began to organize the next, follow up meeting in Aspen, (in November, 2008), we realized that while were seeking out women spiritual leaders, we were also looking for leaders with more contemplative qualities. So again GPIW shifted course, moving along another path. The focus was not so much on women, religion, and peace, but on a more broadly defined agenda. The Fetzer Institute has been influential in supporting that direction (they are organizing a think tank along those lines in June). At Aspen, we had a small and very inspiring discussion about how contemplative traditions should penetrate and influence American society. Interestingly, we have realized that most of the participants are Christian but there are people from other traditions (Sufi, Hindu, and Buddhist especially). And Copenhagen and environment?
We see those issues as central and intimately part of the peace agenda. We organized a remarkable group that participated in the December 2009 Copenhagen Summit. So how does this relate to the theme of peace which was the starting point?
We have even thought of changing our name, but decided not to for the time being. The significance of the shift towards the contemplative approaches and disciplines is that we see that peace must be seen in the largest sense. Our work truly began in conflict areas. But now we see that we must engage on climate change and other issues because the issues are all connected. By peace, we really mean that we are looking at consciousness change and at underlying values.
Thus we are looking at peace in its broadest definition: the development of sustainable, inclusive, balanced societies that are truly prototypes of more peaceful, harmonious ways of living. We are finding materials that reflect where we are.
And in this, even more than before, we find important reasons why women have to lead. Women have not created the structures we now have that are not functioning, so we can more easily lead the changes towards the new structures we need. Women, we find, can more easily envisage and articulate the kinds of change that we need across all parts of society. Can you give any examples of what you mean? We are trying to articulate this hard to define sense of what is different.
One is a study of what happened to some villages in India when they came under the leadership of women. That led to some real differences; I will send you the study.
I have found that when I sat with women, no matter where they come from and how harsh the conditions and conflicts are that they are living, the women, from Israel, Palestine, and Iraq, for example, come as divided as the men, but are far more able to come together on common issues.
And the issue where women always come together is the damage that conflict causes to children. No matter how divided they are, they find themselves on the same side of the fence. When a group of women leaders get together, within the first hour or two children always come up. Men can sit together for days of talk and the issue will not come up. Women are simply more finely tuned to how family structures are suffering, and how the different layers of society are damaged.
They are also, I have found, more prepared to plunge in to try to solve the problem, more prepared to sacrifice for the solution. They have less need to hold onto positions. That applies even to the hardest core women, who are deeply set in conflict modes, and have suffered terribly. Even they can focus on the issue of children and look for common ground. I have seen this again and again. What do you see our initiative, looking at the intersections of religion, women, and peace, contributing? What are the main challenges we should address?
We need to consider whether we are looking at the issues of women and peace or explicitly starting from women and religion. For example, Rev. Joan Campbell has a session at Chautauqua this summer on peace in the Middle East but most of the women who come are secular, as is usually the case. How do we bring in religion? How can we explore how religion informs women’s thinking and actions?
I see a great need to empower women in those conflict areas who have strong religious commitments. In most areas with conflict, notably Israel Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and much of Africa (it may be less true for Pakistan where there are women Sufi leaders), there are women involved but very few women of stature. In Israel, for example, they do have women rabbis, but they are marginalized. There are, though, women of real stature who need to be supported and brought into more visible positions. It is truly remarkable how invisible the women are. Take, for example, the Alexandria Process. I do not think that there was a single woman leader there.
This is not a minor change, not a minor issue. It is major. And it should be our objective to ensure that does not happen again.
And we should explore how the religious dimensions of life inspire peace efforts. That is the area that intersects most directly with my work.
We can also explore some specific initiatives. One is the successive meetings of the Rabbis and Imams. Before each meeting they have come to me, looking for women. But I ask, in what role? If they are to be invited as observers, I won’t do it and that has been the pattern in the past. They are coming to us again, and again my question is whether they want seriously to involve women. The next meeting is in India in November, and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar will host it. Doudou Dienne is involved.
The major shift will come only when they realize that women need to be at center stage, and core members of the planning group that is shaping strategies for events and institutions.
We should also be looking at the obstacles in the way, and at how we can be more effective. How do you see the role of networks? What works and what does not?
Networks are the key. And in this field they play particularly essential roles, because everything is based on personal relationships. Building trust is what is important also in religious worlds. But it is important in building networks to be clear as to what your agenda is. It is important to have networks that go across faiths. I have found that it is possible to work deeply with different faiths, in part because I show such interest in different faiths. That interest and curiosity are a critical ingredient to the effort to be able to cross over and share experience.
Networks are vital because they are about seeing people as the most important thing. That means that they simply must involve face to face meetings. And that means being willing to travel. Email is important but it works only for some people and there are groups, many Buddhists for example, where it simply does not work. I often have to travel just to see and talk to someone. And there is also the fact of showing the interest and commitment. Again, that means that I must often travel and meet with someone again and again. The personal investment and personal trust are central to relationships in many places, especially Asia. Sister Joan spoke last week at a meeting in Mexico (Gender Justice Dialogue in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, April 18-22, 2010), that I was unaware of. Do you know what it was about?
No, frankly. There is so much going on that we simply can’t keep up.
That highlights the importance of our own networks. I find that I invest in my network and work hard to keep in touch, to participate in events. But it makes it hard if not impossible to keep track of what others are doing. You are traveling soon. As an illustration of your activities, where are you going?
I go to South Korea, then Bangkok and Japan. In Bangkok I will be speaking at a gathering on the occasion of the Buddha’s birthday, and in Japan I meet with a Shinto leader and Shinto organization, Shin u En. The Japanese religious landscape is remarkable, in terms of the resources that are devoted to it and its dynamism.