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The Importance of Women Spiritual Teachers

I wish the role of woman spiritual teacher (or leader as some consider me) was rahrah and shiny, but it is riddled with the same old humiliations that don’t contribute to personal humility but rather to a wrong that needs to be righted. I was reminded of this on the final morning of the SAT Conference when I was the only teacher not publicly acknowledged and thanked, and the only woman teacher. To be fair, I was profusely thanked by everyone in private, so I know I was appreciated, but this was not public acknowledgement. And the distinction is crucial. Private is not public, yes? Private is a whisper in your ear that you deserve the house. Public is a signature on a document that says you own the house. I don’t, for my personal ego, need the world’s approval. I really don’t, but respect and acknowledgment due to women spiritual leaders and teachers needs to be stood up for. It is a political action. It is still too easy to dismiss or ignore women.

First, money:

When women aren’t acknowledged and respected, we aren’t paid as much, (and in money-grubbing America the reverse is certainly true—less money, less respect) and when we aren’t paid as much we have less freedom of the ordinary sort. To live and breathe. To chant and meditate. To feel. To think. To be creative. Money gives us independence to pursue our spiritual path. Spiritual path has never been without the little practicalities of housekeeping. Acknowledgement and money and freedom. That is the grounded part.

Second, archetype:

The point of having women spiritual leaders as an archetype is to frame, within the collective consciousness, the idea of women’s spiritual authority. Women can author spirituality, and that spirituality is legitimate. The archetype sculpts the internal right to regard our sense of spiritual self as real. This subtle point can be hard won for women, often escaping them entirely. Every evanescent template is shaped by the bodies we occupy and half of us occupy a female body. When the world’s iconography of women does not include, in real terms, female leadership, women have a blank space in their internal array, or worse, a hole in the reflection of their core self. Having women spiritual leaders makes women’s spirituality real.

How do women teachers garner respect? It’s a long, hard row to hoe. We have a habit of viewing women in authority as our mothers partly because it is a well-established icon. (No wonder older women who aren‘t our mothers bristle when shunted into this delusion.) When I was a young woman there were fewer role models to emulate. I chose ‘dancer’ in part because the role models were so wonderful—Margot Fonteyn, Martha Graham, Ruth St. Denis—women who had artistic and physical freedom. I also had the Women’s Movement at my back proclaiming that we could be anything we wanted to be. As time progresses, however, and my path becomes clearer, I feel the paucity of role models. There are very few women Sufi Masters before 20th century America. (Are there really any? And don’t trot out the almost-one-and-only Rabia who was an ascetic who smacked down her big boy contemporaries. Tokenism.) Where do I turn for that affirmation as my Path protracts? These later stages on the Path have few women beacons. Of course I have wonderful interlocutors, but this piece is about the lack of cultural affirmation and the need to act in the court of culture as well as within the court of the self.

Everyone’s life is political action, large or small. We make choices. Our actions display our ethics. The public bow of respect and appreciation makes a rightness real.


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    1. A big yes to all you say…..and you must be the model……

      April 28, 2012
    2. Anastacia #

      This is such an important message for all women on the path. Actually, it’s important for everyone -any gender, on or not on the path – to consider these issues. Dunya – you’re so courageous to face this work every day, and to share your experiences with such honesty. You’re a pioneer breaking new trail for all of us. Deep gratitude and Respect!

      April 28, 2012
    3. Exactly why I want to study with you. My heart and body have been dancing since we met. I’d asked the Universe for a female spiritual teacher and then I met you.

      April 28, 2012
    4. Thank you all for these energizing words! This topic will keep turning up. No question. Embodiment does that to a woman.

      April 29, 2012
    5. Fiona Murphy #

      Thank you, Dunya. Anastacia’s Facebook post led me this page. Your words put the latest travesty from the Vatican, the censuring of American nuns for speaking their own minds and not the church’s party lines, into a broader perspective. I haven’t quite thought this through, but reading your post in this context gets me thinking about the extent to which women’s spiritual leadership has historically been framed as self-less service, as personal sacrifice with no remuneration, as though it were selfish to expect and demand recognition. And then, in the vicious cycle that you identify so well, the authority of women spiritual leaders is denied on the grounds that if they were truly powerful and enlightened, they would have the recognizable rewards that they were discouraged from claiming in the first place. Good for you, for working to break that cycle!

      April 30, 2012
    6. Thanks, Fiona.
      Your words brought to mind the witch trials where she wasn’t guilty if she drown. Different topic, of course, but the familiar ersatz logic that the powers-that-be use to keep the confined confined. Yes, this was a much-labored post to write because I wanted to be concise but the can of worms is so big and the worms are so very very long…

      April 30, 2012
    7. Anita Teresa #

      Thank you Dunya! And more and more women are creating this precedent NOW! I love what you said about spiritual authority. I feel that too, so keenly! I suppose I draw from a number of role models for a variety of qualities…the ones who come to mind right now: Amma, St. Catherine of Genoa, Hildegard von Bingen, St Teresa de Avila, Maria Magdalena, Thais (Alexander the Great’s lover), Gurumayi, Cleopatra, YOU, Banafsheh Sayyad, Master Stella, Maria Soledad, Lalla, Mother Teresa, an Athenian Queen whose name I can’t remember, and so many more! ( : Thank you for being it.

      April 30, 2012
    8. Re: on not being acknowledged at SAT. One word: Feh!

      The immense egotism around male spiritual teachers and their flocks may be why I have always been more drawn to female teachers. When the teacher is female, the teachings seem less diluted by posturing and competition, the followers less obsequious and subservient.

      You’d appreciate the Sufi gatherings in Santa Cruz, I think. It’s mostly Murshidas leading zikr, Dances of Universal Peace, etc., though there are plenty of men in the community.

      Two of the most dynamic religious leaders I have ever met are here too – Rev. Deborah Johnson, of Innerlight Ministries, and Rabbi Paula Marcus, of Temple Beth El.

      You wanna be appreciated and paid for who you are, come here! Hint hint hint.

      May 2, 2012
    9. Feh, indeed. You have always been very clear about this gender piece and I love it. I totally agree about the posturing bit.

      May 3, 2012
    10. David #

      “the need to act in the court of culture as well as within the court of the self.” . . .
      Yes !

      June 10, 2012
    11. Pat #

      Seems like so many of us who have “spiritual” things to share use the channeling pathway. You can do it sans any organization, structure, politics…. just share your spiritual revelations directly with those drawn to your wisdom and knowledge from higher sources.

      The Sedona Journal has done a great job of allowing women spiritual teachers to connect directly with seekers. Ditto for Facebook, blogs, online groups and forums, etc.

      Digital connections avoids the cultism that seems to arise among some when they meet a teacher in the flesh.

      Having said that, I have really benefited from the female spiritual teachers I have encountered – the ones who live the talk they espouse – and carry spiritual wisdom and energies of the loving light from source – regardless of the tradition(s) they studied during their preparation and evolution to become a “teacher”.

      The best teachers I like are perennial and humble students of the great “wisdom” – which is unending in its magnificence and application in everyday life on this very planet earth with our fellow beings.

      I suppose I am really really really tired of male teachers – of all stripes – who just can’t seem to keep their hands and other body parts from roving around the shapes and crevices of female “devotees”… endless stories of such antics… exposing the chinks in the armour of “spiritual” teachers…

      Thank you for this post bringing this topic into the light.

      July 23, 2012

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