ISKCON at the UN and the ISKCON Vaishnavi Ministry have organized an interfaith panel discussion entitled “Shared Stories: Culture, Religion & Women’s Empowerment” which will take place virtually on March 21st as part of the NGO Commission on the Status of Women Forum. The panel, which will take place from 12:30pm to 2:00pm EDT, is co-sponsored by Muslims for Progressive Values and ACT Alliance, a coalition of Protestant and Orthodox churches and church-related organizations engaged in humanitarian, development and advocacy work.
Every March the UN hosts the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), a two-week conference with hundreds of events discussing gender equality, the empowerment of women, and the issues facing women globally. While the CSW usually takes place in person in New York City, this year’s will be held virtually due to COVID-19, from March 15th to 26th. Representatives of Member States, UN entities and ECOSOC-accredited non-governmental organizations (NGOs) will sponsor the events. The interfaith panel is open to all who register for free, and ISKCON members are encouraged to attend.
So how did ISKCON become involved with the UN? Back in 2016, ISKCON Communications received ECOSOC accreditation, the highest level at which an NGO can be associated with the UN, and Anuttama Das was formally designated as a representative to the UN. To support and assist this effort, Gopal Lila Das, who has been working with the UN since 2015 in various capacities, was asked to oversee the “ISKCON at the UN” project by ISKCON Communications.
ISKCON at the UN has identified five thematic focus areas to engage with the United Nations on: climate change and the environment; gender; health; youth empowerment; and food, or prasadam distribution. Through Gopal Lila’s existing work with the UN and Govardhana Eco-Village, engagement on the environment is already taking place. And now, for the past six months, ISKCON at the UN has been working with Vaishnavi Minister Radha Devi Dasi and Prema Vilasini Devi Dasi from New York to engage with the UN on gender issues.
The March 21st event will be a part of that effort, and will explore the idea of women’s empowerment from diferent cultural contexts and faith traditions. It is described as “A fireside chat followed by a panel discussion, which brings together women from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Muslim and Christian religions to explore the interconnection between religion, culture and women’s empowerment.”
The speakers are Ani Zonneveld, Founder and President of Muslims for Progressive Values; ISKCON Vaishnavi Minister Radha Devi Dasi; and Gladys Nairuba, Co-Chair, ACT Alliance Africa, Gender Community of Practice.
“ISKCON faces a unique challenge as a global movement,” says Radha Devi Dasi, who originated the topic. “How do we approach issues like women’s empowerment in a way that is sensitive to differences in culture without sacrificing any religious principles? We also invited other faith groups so that we’re not just looking at it from the standpoint of Gaudiya Vaishnavas. And everyone is really excited about this topic. I think it resonates with every religious group. Because every religious organization has some extent to which cultures differ from place to place. And we’re all wrestling with how to accommodate that without sacrificing the faith tradition.”
In the panel discussion, each speaker will begin with a story from her personal life or faith tradition that illumates a principle of women’s empowerment they wish to highlight.
Radha Devi Dasi, for instance, will cite the story of Asvatthama’s punishment from the first canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam. In this story, Asvatthama, the son of Drona, beheads the five sleeping sons of Draupadi at the end of the Kuruksetra war, and Draupadi’s voice is solicited in deciding how to punish him. “They [Krishna, Bhima and Yudhistira] aren’t going to make a decision without hearing from her,” Radha says. “And she brings certain concepts into the discussion that are important, generally speaking, to women, such as community, and relationships.”
She adds: “We will also talk about inclusion – how women can have a voice, express their leadership, and inspire.”
The panel will end with a question and answer session.
According to Radha Devi Dasi, “ISKCON has something important to add to the global discussion about women’s empowerment, in terms of the necessary balance between male and female.”
“For us,” she explains, “God manifests not just as male, but male and female. There is always a partnership between male and female. And so this is an important thing to consider – we don’t want just men’s voices speaking in a space; we don’t want just women’s voices speaking. We want both voices, so that there’s balance.”
An internal follow-up discussion with ISKCON Vaishnavis, expanding on the topics discussed at the UN interfaith panel, will also take place on April 18th, and will be announced on the ISKCON Vaishnavi Ministry Facebook page. Featuring Vaishnavis like Kishori Jani and Sri Radha Govinda Dasi, it will continue the conversation about women’s empowerment.
Gopal Lila Das, who oversees ISKCON at the UN, comments, “I think that Srila Prabhupada wanted ISKCON to engage with global thought leaders, and contribute to global discourse on contemporary topics. Issues around gender, women’s empowerment, and gender equality are high up in people’s priorities today. So it’s important that ISKCON share our perspective with global policy makers, to try to contribute to creating a better world. And at the same time, it’s important for us to hear and understand what other people are saying. To understand what are the concerns in the world around gender, and use such learnings to improve our communities as well. It’s a two-way dialogue.”
To attend the “Culture, Religion and Women’s Empowerment” panel discussion and other events that are part of the NGO CSW65 Forum, you must be a registered Advocate on the platform. You can register for free here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/ngo-csw65-forum-advocate-registration-tickets-137312871495
For information about the follow-up discussion on women’s empowerment with ISKCON Vaishnavis, please visit the Vaishnavi Ministry’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Iskcon-Vaishnavi-Ministry-748463408608318
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