Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1139, 14 - 20 March 2013
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1139, 14 - 20 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

Women in the world

Can love be found in a world of violence and disagreement? Ameera Fouad attends the Women’s Wisdom Circles in Alexandria

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Open your arms worldwide as if you are hugging the world

Close your eyes while keeping your arms outstretched

Don’t sneak, for I am watching you.” — Rumi


Can you feel love? Can you sense compassion? Can you experience wisdom? Only women were allowed to attend the Women’s Wisdom Circles held in Alexandria recently, the aim being to help them experience exactly these things.

The idea of the Circles is to help women from a variety of backgrounds sharpen their senses and reconnect with their bodies, minds and souls. Empowered by internal peace and determined to rediscover their selves, the women came together to explore the sacred energy of love and compassion and to find out how these things could be integrated into their daily lives.

With stress and sometimes violence against women being part of our everyday lives today, multiple campaigns have been conducted in Egypt and across the world to discuss violence against women, gender and peace building, conflict resolution, sexual harassment and other issues that touch women’s lives.

Particularly since the 25 January Revolution in Egypt, the sexual harassment of women has become a major challenge for many women, in addition to the ordinary stresses of their lives. It was against this background that the Women’s Wisdom Circles were set up in order to encourage women to use their minds and to explore their potentials. In the materialistic world we live in today, the idea was to help women explore their spiritual energies together in specially convened groups.

Shahinaz Al-Hennawi, founder of Shams Women, one such group, and the coordinator of the Alexandria Circles, said that she had been encouraged to organise the Circles by the prevailing atmosphere of conflict and clashes in the country. An expert on women and peace in the Middle East, Al-Hennawi starts the meetings with a period of meditation in which all the women present are given the chance to introduce themselves and to think deeply. According to Al-Hennawi, meditation requires paying attention to the senses, as well as asking important questions. What would you like to get out of the session? What do you expect to contribute to it? How can we integrate love and compassion into our daily lives?

“What one needs in such a circle is not only to be physically present, but also to be present in terms of the mind and soul. In other words, women need to be fully present in terms of their whole self and soul,” Al-Hennawi said. She explained that the Circles include physical activity, meditation, sharing and reflection, working in groups, and active listening, as well as “the opening and closing of the Circles,” shared agreement, evaluation, homework and future actions.

“Although the stages that women in the Circles go through are almost too many to count, each woman will find that she is asked to pass through them with her mind and her body together. Sometimes, people use either their minds or their bodies alone. The Circles encourage them to get in touch with both,” Al-Hennawi said.

In the Circles themselves, a red candle stands in the middle of the room surrounded by red flowers. Eight women are invited to gather round in a circle. Women from different backgrounds and from different parts of Alexandria are invited, all of them united by a common search and a common need, looking for something they lack or for some non-tangible something they are missing in their daily lives.

The session starts with Al-Hennawi reminding participants of the regulations to be followed, things like not judging others, not interrupting while someone else is talking and actively listening. Other rules that she puts forward include keeping inside what should be kept inside, not revealing what goes on in the Circles to the outside world, and trying to live according to what one learns in the Circles outside of them.

After this introduction, a period of meditation follows, this being intended to revive a recent moment of happiness felt by the participants. Eyes are kept closed, and hands are folded together. Al-Hennawi asks the members of the circle to remember some recent time of happiness. “Recall a moment you once felt. Try to think of a time when you found yourself smiling. Think back to remember a cherished moment stored somewhere at the back of your mind.”

Such moments of happiness can take us out of ourselves and our daily concerns, she says. “Smile and you will be happy. A smile is a gift. A touch is a gift, helping you to imagine what love means to you. Share such moments of happiness with others. Helping others is a gift and one should cherish a gift,” Al-Hennawi says. After this introduction, participants are invited to work in groups on a work of art, using colour to express some moment of love they have experienced.

The idea of the artwork is to help the participants visualise what love or happiness has meant to them. How have they seen love with their own eyes? Then comes a period of active listening in which all present are invited to share stories and experiences, perhaps highlighting problems they have faced. The rules of the Circles say that one must never interrupt somebody else while she is talking and one must never judge somebody else on what she says. The participants are invited to listen and not just to hear.

Al-Hennawi says that many people suffer from exactly this problem of hearing but not listening, and her idea is to help people both tell their stories to someone they trust as well as to help that other person really listen to them. This is what compassion means, she says — thinking about what others say and not with the intention of judging him or her, but rather of having something constructive to say.

Later, the women present at the circle were invited to play with cards marked with quotations from thinkers such as Gandhi and Mother Teresa. Profoundly stimulated by the words on the cards, they then started to think of words of their own, jogging their memories and beginning the process of what Al-Hennawi calls “mind-blogging”. Finally, there is the evaluation session, in which participants give each other a gift and a symbol. The gift is usually a flower, and the symbol is usually a poem to be read the following day.

Yasmine, 31, a Shams member and coordinator of the One Thousand Peace Women across the Globe group in Egypt, says that the Circles have been learning experiences for her. “They are like a school of love and the sharing of wisdom,” she says. “We read a lot and conduct research so that we can reach out to the maximum number of participants and have an impact on them. We work on ourselves so that we can work on others.”

“The basic rule, yet sometimes also the most difficult, that we observe in our sessions is simply not to judge others. This basic rule can be hard to implement, since people very often tend to judge others, even without knowing it, like passing judgements on clothes, hair styles, way of walking, education, etc.”

Yasmine said that women in Egypt had been empowered by the 25 January Revolution, such that “they have become as powerful and beautiful as the ancient queens Cleopatra VII, Hatshepsut and Nefertari. Every Egyptian woman is queen of her own self. She must bear this in mind and then miracles will happen.”

Lubna, a 45-year-old graphic designer and also a participant, said that ways should be found to combat the present rise in violence against women. “There was the case of the woman stripped naked by the security forces in the street and subjected to abuse, this act being broadcast around the world. How can such an act ever be justified? How can such a crime be forgiven? Such things lead us into circles where values have disappeared and morals have perished.”

“Instead of despairing about such things, however, we should accept one another and listen to others. We should accept that other people may have faults, but we should forgive them and ourselves in an effort to become closer to God. If we are satisfied with ourselves and happy about our attitude, we will be good towards others. Beautiful things bring beautiful meaning to the world, while ugliness brings nothing apart from ugliness,” Lubna said.

Al-Hennawi does not impose any criteria when choosing the women to take part, and there are no social or educational barriers. No judgements are made. The Circles do not look at niqabs or hijabs, or whether a participant is Muslim, Christian or Jewish. There are no class barriers. Instead, efforts are made to hold the meetings in poorer neighbourhoods as well as in richer ones. Any woman is welcome to join.

“Believe in yourself, and you will work miracles for yourself, your family, your neighbourhood and the whole country,” Al-Hennawi adds. “Women give birth to men. Both become future leaders. With love, wisdom and compassion, goodness can be the melody of the world.”

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