Feature: ‘Rise Sister, Rise!’ – The rise of women’s circles & what we can learn from them…The FRANK Mag,’ May/June ed. 2019
Rise Sister Rise!
The Rise of Women’s Circles & what we can learn from them…
Sixteen women sit quietly smiling at each other in the hub of an urban wellbeing centre. We have just completed ritual greetings of holding hands, stating what feeling/quality we bring to the evening’s ‘circle’ and ‘hugging each other hello.’ One woman brings ‘tiredness,’ one ‘love,’ another ‘curiosity.’ We all bring laughter in a five-minute rush to give each other a warm squeeze! In the language of ‘Sistership Circles,’ our circle is ‘stitched.’ Now Sharlene, the Circle Facilitator, reads out some ethical housekeeping proposals, to which we raise hands, pow-wow style, in agreement. We agree to keeping what is said confidential. We agree to refrain from judging other women in the room. We agree to letting go of expectations as to what this meeting will deliver for us…In her words, ‘we remain open to the magic and medicine of circle.’
If the above plunges you into a handful of generic movie scenarios involving female sacrifice and hauntings you could be forgiven. We live in a society where ritual is largely the domain of religion, and in the UK more than half of us identify as having no faith. A family in which female members gather en-masse can often seem like the benchmark of another culture, or the exception to the rule. All-female gatherings (and certainly those involving ritual conventions) are foreign to many of us, outside of the Brownies, Women’s Institute and regrettable Hen-parties. So if this scene isn’t one of organised religion, a youth programme or 12-step therapy, what is it?
I caught up with Sharlene Belusevic, spearhead of ‘Sistership Circles’ in the UK, before attending April’s circle, aptly entitled ‘Bloom into Radiance.’ A naturally beautiful woman, she presents as both certain and vulnerable at the same time. Maybe this is what ‘being authentic,’ a phrase so popularised by self-development culture, really is. ‘All are welcome’ she says lightly, ‘the circles are accepting of all ways of life.’ She affirms that in the course of a circle, rituals, activities and archetypes from a rainbow of cultures are drawn on to explore a single theme.
This evening we will take it in turns to share a neat minute of what’s working and not working in our current lives. We will pick flower-themed oracle-cards and reflect on how we relate to their symbolism. We will pair-up with another ‘sister’ to share how each element: fire, water, earth, air, are present in our lives in the form of: passion, emotion, security and intellectual pursuit. Finally, we will dance before ‘unstitching’ the circle. One woman takes away ‘joy,’ another ‘friendship.’ I take away a Springtime feeling of renewal.
‘It’s about creating a sacred space, stepping out of the mundane so that women can get in touch with their inner-voice while feeling totally seen, safe and held…’
This point about safety and visibility (or safety in visibility) seems key. Considering the British sensibility of ‘stiff upper lip’ or ‘pull your socks up and get on with it,’ it’s no mystery why women, perhaps especially of the Baby-Boomer and war generations, find it challenging to identify and express their emotional and physical needs. Not to mention the effects of years spent occupying roles within patriarchal hierarchies. Among a landscape of questions, the circle experience seems to beg at least two – ‘why are my needs/truths/opinions important?’ and more poignantly, ‘why are my needs/truths/opinions not important?’ There is an urgency to how Sharlene speaks of her facilitation role –
“I want women to feel ‘it’s possible for me.’ Through leading circles, I’ve seen women get in touch with their voice and take positive, radical steps that have a ripple effect throughout their lives.”
I can relate to this. In attending a dozen circles throughout the last year, I have witnessed women’s confidence grow sufficiently to leave jobs and relationships that no longer support their happiness, as well as start brave ventures. My gain has been developing an emotional weathervane – in recognising emotions as they arise, identifying their cause and communicating ‘authentically’ what I need. Sharlene’s journey centres around the original starting point – Motherhood.
‘I first went to a circle in Bristol when I had my first child, Olivia. I felt so alone in the experience and it made me feel held, supported. So when I moved to Peterborough I started one using ‘Meetup’ groups…First I did Wild-Woman training, then I did the 12 week Sistership Circle course.’
…And this is a point worth mentioning…aside from the circle rituals of ancient civilisations and tribes, variations of women’s circles have been active in the UK for decades, with ‘Red Tent’ and ‘The Wild Woman Project’ perhaps providing the most well-known. Traditionally, circles occur around the times of the New and Full Moon as a way of observing the beginning and end of a cycle. However, this is a movement without, as yet, an official history. Type ‘Women’s Circle’ into Wikipedia and you will be met with no results. Sharlene’s model, ‘Sistership Circle,’ derives from a fast growing movement in the US, with a healthy online following. It would be safe to assume to that the growing popularity of these meetings has risen with the power of social-media and particularly that most photogenic of platforms, Instagram. Vibrant Images of circle cloths, candles, oracle-cards and the flora and incense of circles make tantalising lifestyle invitations.
The sensory richness of the circle experience is entwined with the concept of ‘The Divine Feminine’ – one I find as abstract as God. But the attention given to physical comfort and pleasure, ignites a desire to maintain this level of holistic contentment. Sharlene likens the body-mind awareness encouraged in circles to that of a yogic ‘Kundalini awakening.’ She also cheekily uses the term ‘Fanny-Fire’ to describe the sum of emotional/intellectual empowerment and respecting the needs of one’s body – a term forever burned into my brain! There is no doubt that the Sistership Circle celebrates traditional feminine qualities such as nurturing, compassion and sensual celebration of life. But how does this fit with vital efforts to break-down gender prejudice and stereotypes?
‘I think women often feel they have to be or act like men to succeed in the world. It’s about integrating the feminine and masculine aspects within us to find balance…and knowing that you can use compassion and flexibility to lead. The same works for those who identify as male too.’
I chat to Sharlene about the job market…about how millennials have been educated to see it as a highly competitive place where you achieve or fall victim to an overwhelmed system. We share experiences of office politics and stinging competition between women. ‘I’d call it sister wounding.’ She asserts: ‘A circle helps to heal those experiences where we’ve been pitted against each other and encouraged to compete, whether that’s for the approval of men or for professional power.’
I hazard ‘…and what would you say to the men or the partners of women…who are just beginning to find their voice and lead, who are attending circles?’ Sharlene grins with recognition – ‘I would say, you will feel the benefit…definitely!’ My mind flashes back to the ‘Aphrodite Awakening’ circle last June, which included discussion of orgasm and the nature of surrendering to joy. But I’m also reminded of the difficult but necessary conversations I have initiated, that without the support of such a group might never have taken place. In an era where much of our interaction is faceless and success can be measured by virtual Likes and Follows, talking in a circle of sixteen women at 9pm on a Sunday feels reassuringly real.