Vipassana 3 by amina wadud

Amina Wadud 2 I am Muslim, by choice, practice and vocationI really learned a lot from my Vipassana experience.  I embraced the challenge to meditate for 10 hours a day and to keep noble silence in between.  These were par for the course.  However, in this last blog, I will bring attention to some of the negative consequences of choosing my Vipassana in India at a small, out of the way place in the state of Rajastan.

You should know I make no bones about my American (of African descent) baby boomer status.  I am a child of the universe.  Yep, the 70’s marked my character and all of my life pursuits from then on.  I still wear blue jeans at 60 and over weight.  I still decorate my hair (in dreadlocks!) People who know me appreciate the hippy-gypsy personality.  I appreciate it.

So let me be honest, I went to find enlightenment in India.  That I also went to find it in Indonesia between 2008 and 2010 or Malaysia in 1989 is no less so than my efforts to find it also in my own America for the days in between traveling the world over.  I want to KNOW the meaning of life and to SEE the purpose of my existence.

Let me also make no bones about this: I hated India; some days actively so. Meanwhile, some days were experiences of sheer awe and wonder in being there.  Thus, most days were a kind of love-hate emotional roller coaster. India was the dirtiest place I have ever been (and that is approximately 55 countries).  Most importantly India has the worst gender dynamics I have ever experienced (and YES, I have been to Saudi Arabia; I’ve been to Afghanistan; I have lived in parts of the Middle East and Africa).  So my conclusions are based on extensive personal experience.

There are also many, many good things about India, hence my love-hate relationship.  In this blog it is my hate of India that feeds into my let down at Vipassana.  What I describe here is NOT an intentional part of the Vipassana experience as organized by its founder and his students.  Mr. Goenka never said anything even subtly misogynistic in our daily lessons—and trust me, I listen as intently as I observe other dimensions of gender inequality.

One of the features of the ten day retreat was gender separation.  No problem. I have lived and traveled extensively in Muslim circles where this is par for the course. Nothing new, nothing exceptional and nothing I could not abide with.  What I could not handle was the ways in which the conditions FOR the women, as separate from the men, also slipped into that under-stated gender disparity with no means to alleviate it.  None of these are gross or abusive, but they had an impact on my experience which is why I mention them.

Our dormitory did not have a hot water heater (and the temperatures were cool to cold, as opposed to hot summers when tepid water is more than comfortable, it is preferred.) The rooms were cold too.   To remedy this problem (supposedly) they gave us access to an empty room in the dormitory across from us that had a hardly-working hot water heater.  By “hardly” I mean of 11 days I bathed there, for only one of them was the water actually hot.  Hot enough that when we hauled it to our own bathrooms we had to add cold water to take a warm ladle-bath. Otherwise, we would haul tepid water daily, because it was slightly better than the cold water that ran from our own taps.  Every day we would line up to “test” if the water was more than tepid.  This meant that we had to communicate to the other women.  By far the most frequent occasion for breaking noble silence was in our indications about the water temperature in that spare room.

The women’s dining hall could only be accessed by walking off the pavement into the dirt, dog-do and cow dung around over-grown bushes to get to the back of the main building.  Once we arrived at the door, we had to climb stairs with no first step but rather two flat bricks precariously laid out.  Then we came through a door that was sometimes locked from the inside.  We were like beggars seeking permission to do what the men walked up freely to do in the same building through a broad lighted stairway and double doors.  On one occasion a few additional women joined our ranks but no effort was made to add to the number of eating utensils causing the need for someone(me) to walk up to the kitchen door (through the men’s section) and solicit, silently, for additional plates so everyone could eat.

The men entered the meditation hall through an outer room in which they left their shoes.  The women entered from the other side and were told to put our shoes on the porch.  From there, the dogs hauled off the shoes.  My sandals happened to be leather, so they were chewed on and bitten.  In the end, I left them in the trash in India.  I am NOT a shoe person. I wear only flat practical shoes.  I only own a few pair at time, which I keep for years.

Now, here’s the thing.  I’ve worked my entire adult life to distinguish between gender oppressions that are manifest because of patriarchal perspectives and practices and the fundamentals and values or principles of my faith system.  I also note that religions often use the double talk of “piety” to condition women’s acquiescence to their own oppressions.  As the days of Vipassana unfolded, I became more aware of my own anger regarding a life time of working to end gender inequities.  Meanwhile, I was continually bombarded with them at this center.  In the end, I felt that if I let my guard down, by fully buying into the discourse about love, compassion, peace and liberation I would also have to ignore these violations.  I didn’t wish anyone harm, but I was so leery that a request for benevolence would camouflage my need for resilience against gender oppressions that were being condoned under the guise of religious transcendence.

In the end resistance to manifest forms of oppression interfered with my ability to surrender to the demands for benevolence.  A simple sharing of both benevolent and adverse conditions by both women and men could have gone a long way to change what was so inequitable about a practice that demanded equanimity.

amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking  answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives.  Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.

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16 replies

  1. How awful. I wouldn’t have stayed beyond 2 days, and told the organiser what I thought about it. Did you get your money back?!

    Thanks for blogging about it, Amina. I could never do the retreat thing, much prefer talking to others, wherever I travel :)


    • There is no money required to attend. It is possible to make a voluntary donation, so others can share the experience after you, when the ten days are over. I plan to do Vipassana again in about a year, but. not in an out of the way small center in India. There are some here in the US.

      But here’s the thing, my travel experiences have taught me to suspend judgment that is only based on my personal comfort and my American sense of entitlement. If I had any other attitude, I would not have been able to LIVE in India.

      Every place has good and bad. Getting a chance to experience the good sometimes also means getting through the bad. What I learned at Vipassana was worth it, but I did not feel like I could make that voluntary payment with benevolence, only out of duty.


  2. Interested to hear that your objection to Vipassana was shall we say more physical than metaphysical. As I also believe that bodies matter and that the spirit cannot be separated from bodies (at least on this plane), the answer that your complaints are trivial just doesn’t hold water. How many women and how many men were at the retreat? Is there any reason they can’t give one set of rooms to men one month and then to women the next? Flowers can always be placed in the urinals.


    • I have no objections to Vipassana, but to the way the conditions were uneven at this particular center. What I learned about my anger was an invaluable lesson. It had NOTHING to do with the conditions even. I have deluded myself that because I love my work, I love justice, I love the Creator, that the work I have done on the gender jihad was only out of love. Nope. I’m very pissed off. However, I can do the same work out of benevolence, if I get to the root of my own anger (which was what the method of Vipassana was all about).

      I am so grateful for this and everyday, I revisit my own body for the signs of my location relative to my life work. I believe I can do more work, that is for a longer period in this life and better work, that is discovering ways to reconstruct how human communities interact with each other and with the divine IF I STOP BEING SO ANGRY.

      Meanwhile, I accept my anger UNCONDITIONALLY as part of who I AM– even as it is something I hope to improve in my own being, for my own equanimity and happiness. So, even if there were not these subtle manifestations of cultural gender inequality, what I learned about me would have been the same.

      The paradox of encountering those inequalities though is funny to me, now. In my religious-speak, I say: Thank you Allah for showing me myself so clearly!

      Now I know what work I have to do with myself, which is consider a life project anyway, working with oneself… Until I am the next self, manifest in this world, or the next. Thus, Vipassana was one of the best things I’ve done for my spiritual growth in a long time.

      Wish I could tell you about the urinals… Suffice it to say, that when the noble silence was over, I learned that half the dorm rooms had western toilets but I alone was in the half with Indian urinals! Everyone of the women were in the other half. How that happened again, is divine comedy, cause I made it, and hated every late night trek to use it!


  3. I’ve heard other people (men and women) report the same kinds of gender discrimination in India’s so-called holy places. (I’ve never been there.) I would find it extremely hard to meditate and maintain “noble silence” under such conditions. Thanks for writing this blog, all three parts of it. It’s been a real eye-opener.


  4. Thanks me Pakistan is culturally the same. So look out for signs of it in your editorial project.

    I hope all 3 parts show that there were good and bad moments. And although this last one was focused on the bad, really the good outweighed the bad.

    There was one Israeli young woman who gave up after 4 days and I know the conditions had something to do with it, although we did not get to speak about it. In a way, the day she left, I set my determination to hang in there although for 3 days I kept saying, I’m not gonna make it, I’m not gonna make it.

    Then when some one left, I said, oh that’s what happens when you don’t make it..nothing. I opted for the hoped for “something” and I got it. So the lessons learned far far outweigh the challenges of doing it in India, which I chose to live in of my own volition.


  5. Amina —

    These three blogs were very interesting. Thank you for your report of the Vipassana retreat and of your personal experiences during it!

    I think anger is a very important spiritual issue for women under patriarchy. And personally, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy in my life dealing with it. As opposed to fear and sadness, anger and joy were well-modeled in my family. So anger was always an emotion that I had access to. And then I discovered my righteous indignation when I became a feminist. After venting my anger in inappropriate ways for years, I learned how to channel it, so that it would be useful to the movement.

    What I’ve learned in a nutshell is that anger, like fear, is a message. Anger is a message that something is wrong and has to be changed. Unfortunately for you, you were in a situation where you couldn’t even SPEAK about what was wrong with your accommodations from a gender perspective, let alone what needed to change. Anger that doesn’t have some sort of an outlet builds to even more anger, in my experience, and then it often explodes. I’m not sure that I would have gotten anything out of the retreat you attended as a result. Hurray to you that you were able to somehow deal internally enough with your anger to have the Vipassana experience.


  6. Love that “anger is a message that something is wrong”! So true from what I gave experienced and it is also true that I have channeled the energy of my anger to doing positive reconstruction.

    I just saw that I could access greater energy and creativity of I could break the chains of my anger. I see that as my future and feel greater hope in my life work.

    So again the good outweighed the bad for me.


  7. Oh wow you illustrate that Catch 22 perfectly! Since we worship in humility and to cultivate further humility, to complain about unequal access and facilities is named a desire of our lower soul. We either buy in and create the cognitive dissonance ourselves or others do it and impose it on us.


    • Laury, really interesting points! I think it’s encouraging that many NGOs are targetting women in their work, providing seed corn funding for a variety of start-up businesses, not just agriculture. I researched some of the work WaterAid did in Ethiopia, and many of the local project managers in urban and rural areas were women. WaterAid provided them with the necessary training, which built on the community networks and trust that the women already had.

      Men respect skills and competence, and their views often change from disrespect and abuse to a grudging respect when women bring in money to the home.


  8. Amina, I enjoyed your post so much. It reminded me of the two years that I spent in Somalia, a very staunchly Muslim country where women were still bought and sold, and treated miserably in the process. The thing is, I was treated like royalty. I came bearing gifts, one gift in particular: the gift of knowledge. Somalis were hungry for it, for with knowledge they could join the modern world, and that is what they wanted more than anything else in the world. There is a lesson there.

    I don’t think we can improve the condition of women by asking for, or even demanding, equality, for we simply don’t come to the table with the same skills/influence/importance in most underdeveloped countries. What we need to do is discover what it is that these countries want more than anything else, and train their women to provide it. Do they want investment? Let’s train their women to go after international investment (and include women’s education in the mix.) Do they want oil wells? Let’s train their women to be engineers who can search out the oil spots. Do they want to be taken seriously as religious or economic centers? What is it that each country wants, more than anything else in the world? We need to discover that, and address those particular needs/wants/wishes. Then women can be treated as royalty throughout the world.

    I note the experience of the Jewish community in America. They came here penniless. Paupers. But they trained in law, in economics, in retail. While Jews comprise only about two percent of the US population, their influence is staggering. That is what we need to do for women in underdeveloped nations. And it can be done.

    This is a project worthy of one of the major philanthropic organizations. The more we can aid women in taking positions of leadership, the more all women will be helped. May we pray that 2014 is a turning point for women throughout the world.


    • From my reading the organizations that are moving in that direction are microcredit that loan money to women, who then increase their productivity for their families and their communities. I support Finca, the Gameen Bank, etc., with my contributions, because then it’s the individual women who are making the needed changes in their communities.


  9. Amen to that prayer ! I would also add to your observation and excellent recommendations about international work on about and for women is to learn from the resources women already have and invite their input on what is most needed. I like your vision


  10. This post (and comments)provoked much reflection in me on justice/injustice and anger and civility…..

    —looking back, I can see myself reacting in anger because someone had “it” more or better. Is this greed or injustice? ….around the globe, wealthy nations have better food, living conditions and “luxuries” than poor nations. So, should justice require that the poor nations demand equality in food resources, living conditions and luxuries?…and from whom?, the wealthy nations?…the U.N.?…….or?…..To remain passive in the face of injustice is harmful to humanity as a whole as well as the individual, but how does one pursue justice without falling into greed?… want what the other has simply because we or someone else has “valued” it as better?…….

    —Injustice often provokes anger and in this context anger is good for it wakes us up to a wrong and energizes us to take action. Yet, to take action under the influence of anger can create harm rather than justice. The Quran advocates for the pursuit of justice, yet it also advocates for civility in many of our interactions. Civility creates restraints on our runaway emotions perhaps leading to better judgments and solutions for justice….

    —I wonder if this particular experience (of the above post) reflects the state of affairs of humanity in a larger context?….The vippassana session was to be about compassion and mercy—yet the group that had more were blind to the needs of those who had less….how can such an experience be transformative in any way—when the participants were unable to express compassion or generosity to those closely around them who were in need? Am I like this too?…I wonder?……..In our contemplation of the ideal (principle/theory) do we sometimes forget to look closely around us an do small acts of kindness…?….

    —what would be the vision for a comfortable vipassana experience for women…not in terms of what the men had that the women did not—rather, as whole experience, what would ideally and uniquely bring compassion and comfort to the women practitioners? Likewise, what kind of socio-community structures and systems would bring comfort, care and compassion to women’s experiences as human beings, daughters, wives, mothers, earners…rather than simply wanting/emulating what the man has that the woman does not?—but as a wholistic system of privileges and rights that meet the unique needs and experiences of women… well as maintaining/advocating the needs and rights of all others…..


  11. Assalam aleikum sister Amina,
    I stumbled upon your post after googling the words ‘muslim’ and ‘vipassana’ together. I practiced Vipassana several years at the start of my spiritual journey. I then ‘converted’ to Islam. I don’t want to get into details in this public site, but I am very interested in communicating with you, as I feel you might have some wise answers to some of my questions in my confusion in trying to redefine my path with my past and present practice, understanding ‘belief’, etc… How can I contact you? I understand you probably wish to keep your contacts private, so would you be willing to contact me directly at my email:


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