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Gender Issues in a Changing World
Dr Deepa Padhi

A talk given at the International Convention of the TS December 2014

Dr Deepa Padhi, Vice-President of the Theosophical Order of Service Odisha region, India and President of the TOS Mahabharat group.

Gender issues are a global phenomenon, even though they differ widely in their outer form and expression according to region and culture. They are as old as humankind itself. In fact right back in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve probably argued over who was going to do the weeding and the sweeping up of the fallen leaves!

But gender issues can’t be reduced to a simple battle of the sexes. What exactly do we mean by gender issues and how can we as Theosophists help to bring about progress in this area in today’s dynamic and changing world? Gender issues usually focus on men, women and the relationship between them: on their roles, rights and responsibilities.

Gender-related issues have become of such interest and concern that many universities now have Gender Studies departments. For us as Theosophists, the main preoccupation is gender equality and doing all we can to achieve it. This is part of the principal Object of the Theosophical Society after all.

Whatever country we come from, most of us recall a time when men generally worked outside the home and were the sole breadwinners for their family. Women, on the other hand, governed the domestic front. They were expected to stay at home, raise children and look after the comfort of their husbands. They were not supposed to take any decisions independently. In other words they did not have any individuality. In some areas they were really no more than privileged servants and objects of enjoyment. This is still the case in many countries, of course.


The social changes of the 1960s and 1970s caused a cultural revolution, particularly in the West, that found many women changing their role from child-bearing and rearing to breadwinning. During this period, there were significant changes in the property rights of women in relation to their marital status. Women were given the right to vote in many countries, but within India there was still disparity between men and women. While the voting age for men was 18 years, for a long time it was 21 for women. Only lately it has been brought down to 18 for women in India. In India and almost everywhere else, there still remains a disparity between the wages of men and women for exactly the same jobs.

Whatever changes and flexibility in gender roles are evident today are due to the changes in the social structure, education, advancements in science and technology and to economic factors. Unfortunately the underlying mind-set of men and women in our still largely patriarchal society has changed very little and not at all in many places. With changing times, the role of women in some countries has acquired new dimensions, there is no doubt, but there is a long, long way to go.

I have no need to remind you of the many forms of violence against women: rape, war rape, domestic violence, girl child sexual abuse often in the context of child marriage, forced marriage, forced prostitution, female genital mutilation, honour killings, acid attacks, dowry killings, forced sterilisation, trafficking and mistreatment of widows. A strong preference for sons has been causing gender imbalance in certain countries during the past decades through female foeticide, female infanticide and abandonment of new-born girls. It is evident that large parts of China and India will have a 15-20% excess of young men during the next two decades. This will give rise to other gender-related problems.

Fighting against all these crimes is considered a key issue for gender equality. It is not only men who are responsible for them. Even women are to some extent responsible directly or indirectly. They are both victim and agent within the system. The central issue now is the rights of women. Men and women need to enjoy the same rights, resources, opportunities and protections.

UN Women Global Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson, is gathering global attention for the HeForShe movement launched recently. HeForShe is a campaign led by UN Women in which men all over the world are encouraged to speak out against the inequalities faced by women and girls. It is really heartening to know that men have begun to defend the rights of women, to protect their interests and promote the development of their capacities. Says Emma Watson, “Now it is time to unify our efforts. HeForShe is a solidarity movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity, for the benefit of all.”

Last month, Denmark was crowned ‘The Happiest Country in the world’. One of the reasons why Danes are so happy is the fact that gender equality is prioritised and that they feel a responsibility towards one another. Scientists today tell us that sexual orientation and even gender are not biologically determined. It is the prevalent social and cultural norms that are the determining factors, they say. So-called masculinity and femininity are apparently nothing but social constructs. The study of different human cultures down the ages and across the world today seems to bear this out. The more rigid the gender roles in a given society, the more uncomfortable its citizens feel with changing notions of gender definition and sexual orientation.

In fact, our spiritual studies indicate that men are not absolutely masculine nor are women solely feminine. Women can be female or male at the emotional level and female or male at the mental level. Similarly, men can be female or male at higher levels while male at the physical level. This is very much in tune with the concept of the ‘Ardhanareswar’ in Hindu mythology which symbolises the union of Shiva or Purusha (power) and Shakti or Prakriti (creation). It represents a balance of masculine and feminine energies in the universe. In fact, gender equality aims at a balance between femininity and masculinity as both are indispensable for human life.

There is another gender issue which is emerging recently and that is the inclusion of transgenders. Transgender is the state of one’s gender identity or gender expression not matching one’s assigned sex. Some people who were assigned a particular sex, usually at birth, feel that this is a false or incomplete description of themselves. Transgender people face multiple forms of physical and emotional torture. They have been fettered in their professional and civic life. They have been restricted access to education, health services and religious places.

Many countries have claimed to see more than five genders, like Indonesia and India. In India, it has been found that apart from male and female, there are more than 20 types of gender such as transmen, transwomen, androgynous, pangender etc. In ancient India, these are referred to as ‘Tritiya Prakriti’. On April 25, 2014 the Supreme Court in India recognised a third gender that is neither male nor female, stating that “Recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue.”

Now what might be a theosophical position on all this? I would suggest that every being, whether male or female or transgender, is first of all a human being and therefore has a human right which is gender equality. Every human being, irrespective of any gender, has an intrinsic value independent of extrinsic or utility values like profession, status, power, wealth, etc. Every human being is complete and needs to neither abuse nor dominate the other. No one is superior or inferior.

In the pursuit of gender equality, we are really making an effort to embrace all humanity irrespective of any gender. In fact, the issue of gender equality can be solved only with the understanding of spiritual equality. The soul has no gender. Outwardly we look different from each other as one wave of the ocean looks different from another wave. Essentially all are one, rooted to one source. The physical differences of name and form (namarupa) are due to our ignorance of the truth – Avidya or Maya in the advaitic terminology. “We are all atoms, obeying the law together. Our denying it does not disprove it. It simply . . . keeps us miserable, poor and selfish” says a great theosophist, William Quan Judge. The fundamental teaching of Theosophy is that all human beings, having the same spiritual and physical origin, are essentially of the same essence and that essence is one-infinite, the uncaused cause and eternal, whether we call it Pure Consciousness, God or Nature. Therefore, nothing can affect one nation or one human being without affecting all other nations and people. In the words of HPB, “This is as certain and as obvious as that a stone thrown into a pond will, sooner or later, set in motion every single drop of water therein.” She explains it further that: “Every physical action has its corresponding moral land everlasting effect. By hurting a man, you may think that his pain and suffering cannot spread by any means to his neighbours, least of all to men of other nations. We affirm that it will . . . Therefore we say that unless every man is brought to understand and accept as an axiomatic truth that by wrongdoing one man we wrong not only ourselves but the whole of humanity in the long run.”

While the changes so far have not all been pleasant, changes are a part of life. They can symbolise growth and development. But too often people are comfortable with their traditional mind-set, with narrow and biased ideas and when changes come their way, they resist them. As life is in a state of constant change, one can either learn to live in harmony with the flow of life or one can oppose it. But in the end the individual who obstructs the natural flow will simply suffer.

The time has come. Present day human beings are adequately intellectually equipped to understand the unity of all life and the universality of Brotherhood, but very few are prepared to carry out this intellectual recognition in daily life. Dr Annie Besant, a great theosophist, the founder of the Theosophical Order of Service and an acknowledged champion of gender equality, expressed her views as “. . .our social, religious and economic opinions may differ but on the cardinal fact that we are a nucleus of Universal Brotherhood, we must agree; we cannot honestly remain in the Society if we cease to believe in that Supreme fact.”

The Theosophical Order of Service is the right platform for putting into practice the principle of Universal Brotherhood by educating people on gender equality issues through workshops, seminars, billboards, signature drives, friendly competitions in the form of essay, captions, posters and so on.

In view of these changing times, I would like to suggest that the term ‘Universal Brotherhood’ may be appropriately replaced by the term ‘Universal Humanhood’ to convey explicitly the gender harmony we all so greatly need. I would like to mention here that the Theosophical Society in America under pressure from its female members changed to the non-gender-specific ‘Human Family’ in the late 1990s. There is a silver lining as far as the movement for gender equality is concerned. Dr Rupert Sheldrake, a scientist and a theosophist, advocates that if a critical mass of a particular species behaves in a particular way, through what is called morphic resonance others will behave in a similar way, even in the absence of any known means of connection or communication. If all TS and TOS members, the educated classes of society and the political leaders of the world try to understand the spiritual import of gender equality and promote gender equality in practice, then there will definitely be a change in the minds of people in general. There will be a change, a change in perception, from gender discrimination to gender inclusion, from differences to unity – the much needed paradigm shift. This will help give rise to a healthier civilisation where there will be balance and harmony between genders and a value system based on love, tolerance and compassion.
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