By Suma Varughese
Meet Will Keepin and Cynthia Brix whose work is helping heal the wounds dealt by a patriarchal culture by bringing wholeness and balance to both men and women
A couple of months back I participated in a three-day workshop on gender reconciliation by the US-based husband-wife couple William Keepin and Cynthia Brix. It was a powerful experience. Men and women courageously shared experiences that would normally have been shrouded in secrecy – of being raped, or of being a victim of incest, or of being betrayed in love. These and other stories highlighted the all-pervasive impact of gender in our lives.
Will and Cynthia proved to be masterly facilitators, bravely encouraging the participants to lay bare their deepest hurt, but quick to spread the balm of empathy and respect over them. In those three days, we were exposed to the universality of pain, the wounds all of us bear under our impeccable facades.
As a woman I have become more sensitive to the pain men bear and which in turn they may perpetuate. Will and Cynthia have been attempting to heal this vicious cycle for the last 19 years through their Power of Reconciliation work as directors of the Satyana Institute. Will is an environmental scientist, transpersonal psychologist and spiritual director. Cynthia is an interfaith minister, spiritual director, and producer of the DVD, Cultivating Women’s Spiritual Mastery.
Their books are Divine Duality: The Power of Reconciliation between Women and Men (2007) and Women Healing Women (2009).
They have trained over 50 professional facilitators in the United States, South Africa, and Kenya in the Power of Reconciliation work. This year they are launching a new training in India. Those interested can contact the names given at the end of the article.
Excerpts from an email interview:
The premise of this anniversary issue is that only when male and female energies are balanced, will we see an era of peace, balance and harmony. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Yes indeed, harmony and balance between women and men is absolutely essential to peace on Earth, and to peace in every society on earth. As the writer DH Lawrence put it, “The future of humanity depends on relations not between nations, but relations between women and men.” Today, over onethird of all households are directly afflicted by symptoms of domestic violence, and at least another third are afflicted by psychological forms of dysfunction and abuse. Social, political, and religious institutions are replete with patriarchal gender imbalance. All of this creates a society divided against itself, and such a society cannot stand in the long run.
Unjust imbalance and discord between masculine and feminine exists at virtually every social level: the individual person, the family unit, the community, the nation, and the entire human family.
In your work you have seen so much damage and pain caused by the patriarchal system on both men and women. Do you think the system is changing?
Will: We are seeing many positive signs. Men are beginning to change, for example. The Indian men who participated in our recent workshop in Mumbai were very gracious and sincere in their declarations of commitment – to listen more deeply to women,
|Partnering change: Participants at a Power of Reconciliation workshopto|
honour the feminine, to work to uplift their sisters. These men listened very courageously to women’s pain, something rarely addressed in open forums such as the one created in the Power of Reconciliation work. We are seeing men stepping forward prepared to do their part in deconstructing the patriarchy, and realising that quite beyond so-called male privilege, the real male privilege is to begin taking apart the caste system of gender that has created so much damage over the centuries.
Cynthia: The patriarchal system that perpetuates violence and injustice against women and men is created and maintained by all of us – by the mere fact that we live and operate within the dysfunctional system.
One key way to change the patriarchal system is for all of us – men and women alike – to begin to change ourselves. We must take the time to genuinely look within our own hearts and minds, consider how we treat other people, and become aware of our own harmful behaviors and complicit thought patterns. Once we begin to know and understand ourselves more completely, we will find new space in our hearts to be kind and loving to those closest to us, as well as to strangers on the street.
Things are changing for the better. Let me give an example from our own work conducted five years ago for Members of Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa. The training group was convened for six days, during which we heard many poignant stories of personal suffering recounted by the women and men living within the patriarchal system. Toward the end of the workshop, an essential component of our work entails the men and women creating ceremonies to honour and bless one another.
In the men’s ceremony to honour the women, the men silently escorted each woman one-by-one into the room. The 16 women sat in a semi-circle, somewhat anxiously anticipating what the men would offer, and totally mystified by the towering edifice in front of them. There was a 3-meter structure, reaching to the ceiling, built of metal chairs stacked one upon the other. The men began their ceremony with a heart- warming prayer. Then one man announced, “This structure represents the patriarchal system that has wounded and harmed each of us. As your brothers, we commit to you – our sisters – to do everything in our power to break down this system of oppression and injustice.” At that moment, two of the men standing on each side of the structure pulled on the legs of the bottom chairs. There was a thundering “CRASH!” The women gasped as this strategically built structure collapsed before their eyes. Then each of the nine men proclaimed his commitment to do his part in deconstructing the unjust system of patriarchy.
As Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” This group of nine men followed through on their commitment by taking the initiative to bring the work of gender healing and reconciliation to South Africa. As a result of their efforts, this past year 33 South African women and men have been trained as professional facilitators in the Power of Reconciliation initiative. They are now facilitating workshops in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban at multiple levels of society, including health professionals, NGO leaders, prisons, teachers and youth, university students, religious and government leaders, and activists.
In what ways do you think men need to change in order to have a healthy relationship with themselves, women, and society?
This is a loaded question, because we must be very cautious when being prescriptive about how men and women should be. That said, certainly many changes are needed. Because we are focusing in this interview on India, perhaps we might offer some suggestions within a specifically Indian context.
Consider the story of Draupadi in the Mahabharata. We have not encountered in any other culture’s scriptures such a clear articulation of the profound dilemma of patriarchal injustice, and the consequences that befall a society which blatantly ignores this problem. There is tremendous insight here, and also some clear guidelines for how women and men need to change.
By way of brief background: Yudishthira gambles away his kingdom in a dice game, and finally stakes his wife, Princess Draupadi, and loses her as well. So Draupadi becomes a slave, and she is dragged by her hair into the Royal Court by the winning party, the Kauravas, led by Durodhyana. Draupadi makes a bold appeal for justice to the assembled Kuru elders. She argues that because Yudishthira lost himself before he put her up as a stake in the dice game, he had no authority over her. She further declares that the dice game was unfair because the opposing party did not put up equal stakes in the game.
Draupadi is clear and forthright, her arguments brilliant, her logic impeccable. No one can refute her. Yet none of the esteemed Kuru elders intervenes on her behalf. Unprotected by the very pillars of society who should be jumping to her aid, Draupadi is defenseless.
A jubilant Duryodhana orders his deputy Dushassana to strip Draupadi naked before the assembled multitudes in the royal court. The venerated Kuru elders – the highest political and military statesmen and religious leaders in the land – merely cast their eyes downward. Vidura, one of Duryodhana’s 99 brothers, appeals to the assembled elders to do their duty and intervene to protect the royal daughter-in-law, but none of the leaders makes a move. Bhishma, the senior statesman and normally a man of the highest ethical standards, offers a pitifully inadequate response, saying that “morality is subtle.”
The Kuru elders’ crippling silence bespeaks a profound betrayal of Draupadi, and symbolically the betrayal of the feminine. Whenever any woman, anywhere in the world, is violated or unjustly oppressed and then turns to the social and religious authorities – only to find justice thwarted or denied by patriarchal institutions, she is symbolically reliving this disturbing drama of Draupadi. She is doubly betrayed, first by the violation itself, and second by justice denied.
In the case of the Mahabharata, Draupadi appeals directly to the divine Lord Krishna, who works a miracle to save her and protect her honour. Draupadi cannot be stripped. In her moment of crisis, Draupadi fulfills one of the key teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, which is to abandon all dharmas and take refuge in the Divine alone – here symbolised by Krishna. The flagrant violation of Draupadi is a major cause for the war that ensues after the Pandavas’ 13-year exile. Despite being vastly outnumbered, the Pandavas led by Arjuna are ultimately victorious.
So how do men and women need to change?
Let us consider the lessons of this story, starting with men. The Kuru society is unable to protect its women – including even the royal princess Draupadi – from the corruption and rapacious violence within its own ranks. This is the condition of contemporary society as well. Like the blind king Dhritarashtra and the other Kuru elders, many contemporary men exhibit a similar, complicit denial of the profound violations of women in a patriarchal society. It’s not that the majority of men approve of women’s oppression, any more than Bhishma or Drona approved of Drapaudi’s violation. They may even give lip service to women’s emancipation. But if men are not willing to directly confront these issues and take action to deconstruct the patriarchal system, they become passively complicit in the resulting injustice. The role of Krishna in this story bears some similarity to the role of Jesus when he intervened to protect the woman accused of adultery. Had Jesus stood idly by, as the Kuru elders did, she would have been murdered on the spot, and those who stoned her would have gone off scot-free, reinforced in their ruthless self-righteousness.
In short, men need to behave more like Arjuna, willing to stand for what is right and fight for justice if necessary – and less like Duryodhana and Dushassana. Older men need to take responsibility for mentoring younger men into becoming responsible, compassionate servants of society and protectors of women and girls, rather than turning a blind eye – as Bhishma, Drona, and Dhritarashtra do – to the reckless immaturity of men that often perpetuates a rash violation of women.
In what ways do women need to change?
One needed change is for women to stand up for themselves, and to support one another in speaking their truth, rather than suppressing their sisters, daughters, and mothers – as women sometimes do. In short, women should behave more like Draupadi does in this encounter with the Kuru elders: speaking the truth to patriarchal power with dignity and grace, and taking refuge in the Divine, whatever her faith.
Indian women today tend to model themselves after Sita, with her devotional reverence and impeccable service to Rama. This is very beautiful, of course, but it only seems appropriate when their men behave in a loving and dignified manner like Rama. When men start behaving like Ravana, women should not subjugate themselves to their will, but should instead be true to themselves and stand up for what they know is right – just as Draupadi did before the Kuru elders. This can be challenging or even dangerous for women at times, but when women act with pure motives and integrity to transform the unjust conditions of society, the divine Lord Himself can and will work “miracles” on women’s behalf, just as Krishna did in Draupadi’s case.
Another essential way that women need to change entails how we treat one another. We need to stop gossiping about each other and putting one another down. We will never bring healing and transformation of the patriarchy as long as we are stabbing each other in the back with our words and actions.
What do you need to happen to know when your work is done?
We will know our work is done when any woman – young or old – can walk down the streets alone at night without a trace of fear. That would be one indicator. Another indicator would be when rape becomes almost non-existent, because of the profound respect for women and girls in society. People may think this is unrealistic, but it’s not. We visited Shillong, Meghalaya, a few years back where there is still a matrilineal society, and the women there told us that rape and sexual violence were virtually unknown before Western cultural values came in. This is not to suggest that we should all go back to a matrilineal society, but this example shows that human societies that respect the feminine can virtually eliminate rape.
What are the turning points that have affected you both in your journey of gender reconciliation?
Cynthia: At age 40 I had a major experience of gender injustice in the workplace. I was a middle manager in a health and wellness corporation in the United States. A few months of taking the job, I was sexually propositioned by the co-founder of the company, who was also the chairman of the board of directors. He said, “Cynthia, I’ve enjoyed getting to know you over the past few months. Now it is time to take our relationship to a deeper, more intimate, sexual level.” I immediately replied “No! I am not interested. Our relationship is and will remain entirely professional.” Over the next several days at work he continued to pressure me. At that point, I felt like I had only a few stark options. I could go to bed with him. I could quit my job quietly, never speaking a word. Or, I could speak truth to power and report this man to the CEO of the company. I hoped – however naively – that the senior management, all of whom were men, might want to reconcile with me and move beyond what had happened. My boss who had propositioned me apologised for his actions. But the corporation retaliated against me, and hired six attorneys to my one. In the end I decided that fighting on was not the answer. I had spoken my truth and found the power of my own voice. My work was to bring more healing and understanding between women and men in loving and compassionate ways. And thus I was led to join the Power of Reconciliation project. This was over 10 years ago, and the work has transformed my life.
Will: I encountered sexual harassment and exploitation of women in the workplace and a small group of us set out to do something about this. Another turning point was my six years of close collaboration with two clinical psychologists. We worked with more than 80 clients, most of whom had experienced sexual abuse, and this was a major eye-opener to the magnitude of suffering created by sexual violation of all kinds. A third turning point, which came out of the previous two, was the founding of the Power of Reconciliation International project 19 years ago. Over time I also began to see how much they too need liberation from the dysfunctional and injurious system of patriarchy. Because patriarchy denies men their humanity, just as it does women.
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