A REPORT BY DR. KATRIEN HERTOG
International Women’s Conference Celebrates Women’s Leadership
Bangalore, 6-8 February 2009
“If the Lehman Brothers would have been ‘Lehman Sisters’, would we be in the same mess as the one we are in now?” This provocative question characterizes the lively atmosphere of the Third International Women’s Conference, organised by the International Association for Human Values (IAHV) in Bangalore at the beginning of February. The Conference was dedicated to ‘The Light of Leadership: Integrating Global Perspectives’ and brought together 700 women from 68 countries and the most diverse cultures. All these women have taken up a leadership role in the world, whether on grassroots level or at the top, and this in the most diverse areas, such as health, politics, business, media, education, art or science. A top manager of the World Bank was sitting next to the first elected aboriginal woman, Miss Universe was sitting next to a renowned scientist, and all were sharing their experiences, motivation and challenges as a woman to make a difference in this world. The conference highlighted the daily, often invisible contribution of women to the wellbeing of our world and served as a platform to inspire and be inspired.
The position of women in the world today shows that a lot has become possible, but that many challenges still remain. Yes, there are indeed women ministers in Muslim countries in the Middle East, but the role of women in the film industry in India remains very limited and stereotypical, for example. During her breath-taking performance the celebrated Sufi artist Zila Khan sang about the many doors which have been opened for women, but also about the responsibility to walk skilfully through these open doors and not trample them. A constant theme throughout the speeches was the call among and upon the women present to take their responsibility and their rights as women instead of waiting for them till they are given. If you do not like the role of a silly beauty queen, then start writing your own scripts, it was argued. Instead of silently submitting to the ruling norms and limitations and avoiding conflicts as much as possible, women should apply their strength and talents to create “intelligent and constructive conflict”, according to Barbara Etter, as senior police woman from West-Australia. “If we keep doing what we always did, we will get what we always got. We have to do things differently. Business as unusual!”
On the basis of personal experiences, historical facts and modern statistics it was argued that women have special talents and possibilities for leadership. Some said that women have a natural inclination towards ethical values such as integrity, transparency, listening, courage and compassion, with a few exceptions. Mothers told about their fundamental concern for the wellbeing of their children as a motivation for their service to society, since their children “could not be seen in isolation from all the other children in the world”. Their deep longing for harmony would make them natural negotiators who are creative in finding win-win solutions, just like managing a household can never be or-or, but always and-and. “Men inspire to fight, women to unite”, it was said. According to Sister Concilia from Sri Lanka there is a big need in her country for spiritual women, who are courageous and compassionate, in order to reconcile the people where the religions of Sri Lanka have failed due to a lack of spirituality. Women were also seen as natural long-term visionaries, for whom addressing immediate, concrete needs is self-evident. Their intuition and flexibility help them in both crisis situations and daily routine to be of service to the present moment. In short, women have an inherent talent for leadership. You can see this, according to H.H. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of IAHV, when in peaceful times you put several women together: immediately there is work for conflict resolution practitioners!
Also from Belgium the conference was attended by some special women. Sister Jeanne Devos spoke about her work of 25-years in India to give domestic workers rights and dignity: “It is a mystery why in the Indian culture today there is so much reverence for an airhostess, but no respect at all for domestic workers, while they are doing the same work after all? The only difference is that one works in a plane and the other in a house.” She left a strong impression through her inspiration and her perseverance, which have made a big difference for millions of women and children in India. Katrien Beeckman, working for the Red Cross in Geneva, shared some keys for successful leadership, such as transparency and honesty, belongingness, a spiritual way of living and a long-term vision. Special Guest at the conference was Mrs. Hennicot-Schoepges, Member of the European Parliament and Rapporteur for the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. She was deeply touched by the warm and authentic atmosphere, the strength of the women who were present and the intercultural experience “compared to which Europe stands nowhere”. In her speech she emphasized the role of music and culture to bring people together.
But maybe most special about the whole conference was the spirituality from which it was conceived and in which it was embedded. What else is spirituality if not dancing together from the heart, celebrating diversity in all colours of the rainbow, empathizing with the mother who lost her son in the fighting for the Taj Hotel in Mumbai and being touched by the compassion of the woman who survived, being inspired by the enthusiasm to make a difference in this world, or meditating together? Or like Lara Dutta, Miss Universe 2000, said about the questions she was asked why for God’s sake she would waste her time somewhere in an ashram, not even in the city but somewhere in the hills, for some women’s conference: “I am happy it is in this place, because spirituality is the basis of everything. If you are centered and peaceful in yourself, then you also have the strength to stand up against your boss.” This is also the vision of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: “Only through spirituality can holistic change be brought about, since spirituality touches on each and every aspect of life.”
The whole event was bursting with enthusiasm, energy and possibilities for women’s leadership.
© Marc Gopin