The Friday morning plenary session at the Parliament of the World’s Religions focused on women’s roles in society and faiths around the world. The empowering session praised women’s strengths and accomplishments, but also mourned the lack of equality and the presence of violence towards women.
Humanitarian and author Maya Tiwari greeted thousands in attendance with “Namaste,” followed by a chant. “Women, I call on you,” Tiwari repeated. “Stand up and face your power. Don’t leave it for another hour. The time is now. The time is now. Remember who you are. Goddess. Mother.”
The audience stood and chanted along with her until the opening prayer was offered by Grandmother Mary Lyons, an Ojibwe Elder.
A common theme referenced throughout the Faith in Women plenary was that women are here today because of their ancestors. “When you breathe in, you breathe in a breath of Mother Earth,” Lyons said. “And when you exhale, that’s our ancestors. Our fight is nowhere near the fight that our ancestors journeyed to get us here. Every possible religion is sitting in this room. We all walk on the same path: goodness.”
Next, the Salt Lake City Drum Circle performed to honor Mother Earth and feminine power. The audience stood to dance and sing along with the group.
Tiwari spoke after, elaborating on Mother Earth and the reclaiming of feminine power. Spiritual teacher and author Marianne Williamson then took the stage, commanding attention from the audience with her forceful characterizations. Every woman “is a priestess,” she said, and needs “to answer to that still small voice within and lay it down wherever we are.”
Williamson, an internationally-recognized public speaker, engaged the audience with the force of her conviction. “We live today on a planet that is predicated on principles that foster separation and not unity, that foster greed over humanitarianism and that foster demolition and destruction and decay of the Earth and the living things upon it!” Williamson said.
Transitioning to focus more on women’s role in fixing these issues, Williamson empathized with women around the world who are discriminated against.
“Let us remember the women today who are raped, who are tortured, whose children are killed, whose husbands are killed, whose brothers are killed, who they themselves are killed,” Williamson said. “I ask myself as an American woman, ‘What if the American women had laid down on the highways across America and said, ‘No, you will not invade Iraq. No, you will not do that to their women. No, you will not do that to their children. No, you will not bomb their homes.”
Williamson recognized that doing so at the time would have gotten no effective response, but said that women can do so now.
“Passionate and free thinking women have never been appreciated by the great religions of the world,” Williamson said. “Because passionate and free thinking women raise passionate and free thinking children. And passionate and free thinking children become passionate and free thinking adults. And passionate and free thinking adults are very difficult to manipulate.”
The crowd stood and cheered as she spoke, receiving her words and encouragement with enthusiasm. As Williamson declared and demonstrated, “The divine goddess is not just beautiful, but she is fierce.” One woman called out “Williamson for President,” to the delight of the crowd.
The Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, spoke of the disconnect in how women show their faith. According to Jones, women make up the vast majority of religious adherents, estimated at up to 80 percent, yet represent less than one percent of religious leaders.
“Their work is saturated with their faith,” Jones said. “That’s where faith lives in women’s lives, not in abstracted sets of doctrine. If you want to know what they believe, look at what women are doing in their daily life practices.”
A short film from One Billion Rising was shown, focusing on modern scenarios that illustrate the historical abuse and subjugation of women. The audience stood up with hands raised in the air to show support. “I started crying,” said Nicolette Prociuk, a student at DePaul University in Chicago. “(The video) was really emotional and really powerful at the same time. It felt a little overwhelming, but at the same time a definite call to action around the world.”
Mara Lynn Keller, a professor of philosophy, religion and women’s spirituality, told the audience that they must be the ones to fix current issues like gun violence, black hate-crimes and police brutality. Keller also encouraged the women in the crowd not to listen to the naysayers.
“The discrimination against women, as if ordained by a higher power, is not acceptable,” Lynn declared.
Sara Rahim, a youth leader that addressed the United Nations on religious tolerance, spoke on overcoming diversity to promote the greater cause. “Everyone has the right to live a life of peace,” Rahim, the session’s youngest speaker, said. “We call upon women to embrace the strength within themselves and fulfill their full potential.”
Valarie Kaur, a Sikh activist and filmmaker, addressed the “sisters and brothers” in the convention hall, declaring they were blazing a path of love for a new generation to follow. “The path of love is not safe, not easy,” Kaur said, adding that it takes the eyes of a saint and the heart of a warrior.
Kaur gave birth to a son 10 months ago and said that was when she began to understand the fullness and strength of the woman warrior. That love, Kaur said, is at the heart of all faiths and is what can unify everyone. “I believe that revolutionary love is the call of our time,” she said.
She gave anecdotes about her own family and the families of others to illustrate her claim that “forgiveness is not forgetting; forgiveness is freedom from hate.”
The day her son was born, Americans in some major cities were protesting the killing of unarmed black men in support of #blacklivesmatter. When her son was only eight-weeks old, Kaur took him to a candle light vigil to mourn the three Muslim students killed in North Carolina. Last month a 53-year-old Sikh man in Chicago was beaten and called a terrorist.
“Black bodies are seen as criminal,” Kaur said. “Brown bodies illegal. Trans bodies immoral. Women’s bodies as property. No more, no more!”
Kaur had everyone in the audience hold hands as she finished her remarks. “Our love can and will remake this world,” she said.
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