The secondary literature in English on the Bahá'í perspectives on women
consists of a variety of articles and papers, some published in
anthologies, others in journals or magazines, and yet others as stand-
alones, written over the last twenty years or so. This is not an exhaustive
survey and I apologise to anyone whose article has escaped my attention.
There is also much material that eludes general circulation, partly
because it is given as talks which are never formally published.
A reviewer is in the unenviable position of having to comment on the work
of colleagues without being able to set out their own ideas in detail. A
reviewer must shine the spotlight of criticism on the conceptual and
emotional topography of the texts in question and express judgement upon
their insights, ideas and perspectives. It is a partial and subjective
exercise at best, but this may be ameliorated by a desire for seeking the
truth in answering the following questions:
Does the text assist our understanding of the issues in the
area of gender and equality?
- b) Does the text offer
us any profound insights or new perspectives which might change our way
of looking at the issues involved?
- c) Does the text
make any practical suggestions as to how to tackle the issues involved in
such a way as to promote harmony and equivalency of the sexes?
Many Bahá'ís are earnestly striving to shed light on this difficult subject.
It is not the intention of this survey to attack anyone personally for any
inadequacies in their work. It is, however, an honest attempt to take stock
of what we have achieved so far and where we might next turn our
There have been three major sources of Bahá'í
scholarship on women's issues. The first and most important have been
articles in the various Bahá'í studies journals. Among these, World
Order (published by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of
the USA) and The Journal of Bahá'í Studies (Association for Bahá'í
Studies) have published the most material. Next to these are two volumes
of essays, of which I will make some general observations. Kalimat Press'
"Equal Circles" (1987) is a collection of ten essays from
personal perspectives. These articles can
be broadly sorted into two categories: academic, of which there are four,
and experiential, six. The six that are generally experiential are so tied to
personal perspectives that they are really beyond critical judgement in
the usual sense. What is indisputable is the courage and honesty with
which these six people, of diverse ethnic backgrounds, five women and one
man, have shared their lives with their readership. It is through these very
private and personal testimonies that we are able to glimpse the impact
of broad historical, political and sociological trends on individuals and
therefore to make sense of these trends on an emotional rather than an
intellectual level. They are all worth reading for the universal truth of the
human condition that they each uniquely mirror, but they are all the more
pertinent to us because they are the experiences of fellow Bahá'ís. They
may not say much that is new or surprising to those familiar with such
literature, but they say it from a Bahá'í perspective.
Overall the anthology is well worth reading. The greatest lesson I feel I
have drawn from the collection is that it is possible to have personal and
experiential articles alongside academic papers, or even hybrid forms in
one article. Androcentric academics may growl and protest about lack of
rigour and precision, consistency or scholarly arguments. They may carp at
the lack of evidence and logic. However, there is an equally vociferous
lobby who demand ways of expressing their concerns, their insights and
their feelings which are not to be strait-jacketed into scholarly
dissertations. There are people who may have neither the time, the
opportunity nor the inclination to conduct empirical or secondary research
in order to come to tentative conclusions that their life experience,
intuition and common sense can indicate more clearly and more certainly.
It is a question of balancing masculine and feminine approaches to
questions which concern the masculine and feminine in all of us.
The monograph, The Role of Women in an Advancing
Civilization (1989), based on papers
presented at a conference of the Association for Bahá'í Studies -
Australia, is also a sincere and courageous attempt to address a range of
related issues. Much of the material is familiar enough and little of it
threatens to force a radical revisioning of the issues involved. The papers
seem fragmented and bitty, jumping from one aspect to another without
clear linkages. Some try to cram too much in, thereby sacrificing clarity
and focus. Once again, the articles in this collection were at the first
level of coming to grips with what is familiar, or researching into our
own history or experiences. This is a very necessary activity--to mark out
our territory and establish our bearings, but we need to move on now
towards exploring, explaining and proposing new strategies and new
behavioural paradigms for a more equal, more balanced society.
A third source of material is the presentations made by the Bahá'í
International Community. Four of these on women's issues have been made
available to me, which are, naturally, for a different audience--the
general public and those working for the agencies and non-governmental
organisations of the United Nations. As such they are not speculative or
deliberately contentious in nature, but simply state the Bahá'í viewpoint
and/or explain Bahá'í participation in international ventures for improving
the condition and status of women. My only question with regard to these
four statements is, how well have they been distributed?
The rest of this review will focus on the major themes in the secondary
Bahá'í literature on women's issues. Broadly speaking it is possible to
analyse the various contributions in terms of six subjects. The first of
these is what Bahá'ís have written about what the Bahá'í writings have to
say on women's issues.
Little has been written exploring the statements on gender issues in the
Bahá'í texts. The first example of this is Constance Conrader's
"Women - Attaining Their Birthright" (1972). This is a stirring paper, written with
feeling and fluency. From the opening paragraph Conrader sets a vigorous
tone which stimulates as it instructs, steering a balanced course through
the Bahá'í writings, making extensive use of Gleanings and The
Promulgation of Universal Peace. Conrader elucidates 'Abdu'l-Bahá's
teachings on women most eloquently and closes with a plea for women to
be allowed to:
. . . share the vital task of helping to nurture humanity
toward higher intellectual and spiritual development, furthering that
divine civilization in which the full potential of the human mind and spirit
can be manifested. (69)
"Feminine Forms of the Divine in Bahá'í
Scripture" by Paula A. Drewek (1992) examines images of divinity in
Bahá'í texts. It opens with discussion of a
recent process of the feminine revisioning of cultural images of divinity
as a way of prefiguring equality in our social structures, i.e. if God or the
Holy Spirit can be clearly shown to have a feminine aspect, then the
status of women in society will be enhanced. One form of this has been a
return to ancient images of female divinity. Drewek points out that the
Bahá'í Faith satisfies this need without recourse to such ancient figures,
and that the Bahá'í writings display an interaction of the masculine and
feminine elements of the divine in a way that mirrors, in the metaphysical
realm, a reality to be enacted in the physical one. Drewek goes on to
discuss three forms: the Mother Word, the Queen of Carmel and the Maid of
Heaven, showing how all these forms are interactive with masculine
forms and how in their multiplicity they provide us with "a more
comprehensive understanding of God and of our own growth potential than
single-sex images could ever provide" (21). This is a fascinating and
thought-provoking essay which contains original ideas worthy of further
In 1984, Linda and John Walbridge published an article
in World Order entitled "Bahá'í Laws on the Status of Men." It caused much controversy and received a
great deal of criticism on nearly every aspect of its contents. The article
attempts to argue that the Bahá'í Faith, through the laws of the Aqdas,
favours men over women, or rather male-led societal structures over
female-led. It gives a number of instances which it supports by reference
to the laws of the Qur'an in relation to pre-Islamic Arabia and the laws of
the Aqdas in relation to late Twentieth Century America. It all sounds
very plausible and therein lies its danger. Critics were quick, if not
zealous, in their responses, which appeared in Dialogue magazine (1987)
under the title of "A Question of Gender: A Forum on the Status of
Men in Bahá'í Law."
One critic maintained that the Aqdas should have been related to Qajar
Iran rather than Twentieth Century America, to keep the analogy with the
Qur'an. Another, using a tone rather out of keeping with the Bahá'í
spiritual principle of not giving offence, pointed out, among many other
things, that the Aqdas has to be taken along with the whole corpus of
Bahá'í scripture and commentary, not in isolation. A third response praised
the Walbridges for their courage and carefully argued against their idea
that fathers needed economic incentives to be closer to their families.
Rather, Pascoe and Bartec suggested that the Bahá'í writings point to the
necessity for men to develop their emotional lives. Several critics pointed
out that the Walbridges had devoted too much space to the inequitable
inheritance laws when these only operate in cases of intestacy. This
"incident" served to illustrate the dangers of taking things out
of context and attempting to find justification in Bahá'í scripture for
one's own ideas, rather than allowing the spirit of the whole Bahá'í corpus
to suffuse and drive one's work. It also raised the question of courtesy in
responding to the work of fellow Bahá'ís.
In addition, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani has explored the
reasons for the exclusion of women on the Universal House of Justice in a
chapter in Asking Questions.
There certainly appears to be an urgent need for a fuller and more careful
exegesis of Bahá'í scripture on the subject of women, men and equality;
for scripture provides the authority and rationale for all that Bahá'ís think
and do in this area, as indeed it does for all aspects of life.
The most extensive body of secondary literature studies the history of
women in the Bahá'í community. Notwithstanding the biographies of the
wives of the central figures (siyih Khanum, Khadijeh Bagum, Munirih
Khanum and Bahiyyih Khanum), there is biographical literature on Hands of
the Cause (Martha Root and Dorothy Baker), and other outstanding Bahá'ís
(Juliet Thompson, Lua Getsinger).
Tahirih has been a special focus of study. A recent
article by Susan Stiles Maneck exposes some myths surrounding the
depiction of her life by Bahá'ís. This
article proposes that each religion has its paradigm of the perfect woman
and asserts that, for Bahá'ís, the most prominent woman in their Faith is
Tahirih. The paper moves on to a fascinating, though brief, account of
Tahirih's life, poetry and significance. The historical details in the paper,
gleaned from Persian and non-Bahá'í sources, demonstrate that Tahirih is
a more militant, wide-ranging and abrasive figure than many western
Bahá'ís might have been led to believe. The question is raised by Stiles
Maneck about what kind of paradigm Tahirih represents. Many, it appears,
associate her with the women's suffrage movement. That she has inspired
countless women, within and without the Faith, is undoubted, but she was
no Emmeline Goulden Pankhurst nor Emily Davidson. In many ways Tahirih's
goals and her impact on Middle Eastern society as a whole were vastly
more far-reaching than the emancipation of women. There certainly is a
need for a full and proper reappraisal of Tahirih's life and significance.
Such a reappraisal may yet reveal her to be a far greater and more potent
figure than we, in the west at least, have given her credit for. To confine
Tahirih's role to that of feminist and suffragette, which Amin Banani--in
his review of Abbas Amanat's "Resurrection and Renewal"--might seem to imply, seems a very
patriarchal thing to do, because it actually marginalises her. This article
is a significant step in a worthy direction.
For me, the article also highlights what seems to be a tension between the
exhortations in the Bahá'í Writings toward the promulgation of a unified
and strong family life on the one hand, and the high profile given to Babi
and Bahá'í heroines for whom family was either not a consideration, or
certainly not what they were principally associated with. Should it
therefore not be one of the tasks of Bahá'í historians, or hagiographers, to
find us heroines who exemplify a paradigm that Bahá'í women who are
devoted to their families may draw strength from? Or is it part of the old
problem that the upbringing and education of children and the maintenance
of a family life is not seen as heroic, even when combined with
conspicuous service to the Cause? It is recognised that the problem is
compounded by the fact that, in the early stages of a Faith's
establishment, family life is not the primary focus, and that there is
usually a significant time-lag between a figure's life and emergence as a
heroic figure. Now that we have passed from the heroic phase into the
formative phase of our Faith's development, we may have need of heroic
figures who more closely fit our less mono-focused, more complex lives.
Three essays on North American Bahá'í history have
been published. R. Jackson Armstrong-
Ingram's "Recovering a Lost Horizon: Women's Contributions to North
American Bahá'í History" (1987) explores three areas of neglected
historical study in American Bahá'í history. Most of it, I feel, despite the
author's closing remarks, would be of greatest significance to those North
American Bahá'ís who have an interest in their own history. It was the
first large-scale national community outside of Iran and developed in a
milieu where relatively little of the revelation was accessible.
Consequently Bahá'í women utilised, within the Bahá'í community, the
habits, customs and strategies they had previously employed in older,
more developed social and organisational settings. The greater and wider
availability of translated writings and the establishment and development
of Bahá'í administrative institutions today means that the strategies and
relationships Bahá'í women exercised in the earlier decades of this
century in North America are not likely to be repeated or repeatable
elsewhere. Perhaps the most telling point in the article was that, given
the preponderance of women in the early years of the Faith's development
in North America and their strong presence on committees and local
assemblies, a woman has never been elected as secretary to the National
Spiritual Assembly in the United States. Robert Stockman's essay on
"Women in the American Bahá'í Community, 1900-1912" traces
the fortunes of equality of the sexes in a culture that was not prepared
for it, and illustrates the reluctance of women as well as men to accept a
role of full equality. Of particularly interest is the description of the
evolution of the administrative bodies of the early Chicago community,
including the all-male House of Spirituality and the all-female Assembly
of Teaching. Again, this is all very well, but of what application is this
information? Somewhere in the article there should be what the author
sees as the justification for writing it. Our time is very precious as
Bahá'ís, and if something does not further the growth and development of
the Cause in this day, should we be spending time on it now? On the other
hand, if the work has some value then the author is protected from the
criticism of the type just exemplified. Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis in her
article "African American Women in the Bahá'í Faith 1899-
1919" does give justifications for her work, referring to the need
for a collective memory of our history and for that memory to be a full
and accurate picture of what took place.
Apart from America, there are two articles on Persian
history. Bahárieh Ma'ani looks at the
impact that American Bahá'í women had on the Persian Bahá'í community
in the first half of this century in her article "The Interdependence
of Bahá'í Communities Services of North American Bahá'í Women in
Iran" (1991). What is interesting are the novel methods used here--
co-operation between national Bahá'í communities, the power of example,
the nature of pioneering are all explored. Bahárieh Ma'ani's article
"Religion and the Myth of Male Superiority" (1987) also
provides some refreshing new angles for me. One was the temporary
restrictions placed on Persian Bahá'í women, in some cases until quite
resently, in recognition of prevailing conditions, e.g. it was not until 1954
that Persian women were granted the right to serve on local and national
spiritual assemblies. She makes the further point that the contribution of
Babi and Bahá'í women in Iran who had to soldier on alone when their
husbands were serving away from home, imprisoned or martyred, has been
There is one article on Australian Bahá'í history.
Graham Hassall's article on Hilda Brooks in The Role of Women in an
Advancing Civilisation (1989) is
interesting as an account of one of the many early Bahá'í women in
Australia who served the Faith with distinction, having come from an
uneducated, lower socio-economic background. She was the first secretary
of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Australia and New
Zealand. Again, the article's chief interest would probably be for
Australians. If nothing else, it is a sobering and inspiring example of the
outstanding contribution of women in the establishment of the Faith and
its administration in the "Western" world.
In the mid 1970s, just before, during and immediately
after International Women's Year (1975), "Bahá'í News" carried
a series of articles on women, the first of which was a report on UN
deliberations on "The Status of Women" (June 1974), the second
of which discussed "International Women's Year: The Bahá'í
Impact" (September 1975), and the third of which examined the lives
of the great American teachers who travelled the world from 1919 to the
end of the Guardian's Ministry: "A Love Which Does Not Wait"
The first article highlighted the participation of the Bahá'í International
Community at the 25th session of the UN Commission on the Status of
Women and the warm reception given to Bahá'í statements on women and
equality. Constance Conrader's article had also been circulated and was
well received. The second article described the impact that the Bahá'í
delegation had on the International Women's Year Conference, the first
major intergovernmental conference on the role of women in society, held
in Mexico City. The Bahá'í women at the conference had a very high profile,
were applauded warmly when they spoke, and were able to proclaim the
teachings of the Faith on women and equality in a major way. Reading the
CVs of the ten participants, it was gratifying to note how many
"firsts" and how many great achievements these Bahá'í women
The third article stands as a tribute to the greater courage and fortitude
of women in the teaching field. Of ten great teachers described therein,
nine were women, the tenth being a husband of one of them! The import of
these articles is that women have played a larger part in the
establishment of the Bahá'í Faith than in any previous religion, and that,
at an international level, the Bahá'ís have already played a major role in
fora for the promotion of women and equality. In order to give the latter
credibility, and to avoid dishonouring the memory of the former, we must
strive to achieve a greater equality in our Bahá'í community at national,
local and family levels.
The greatly disproportionate weighting of historical perspectives on
Bahá'í women leads to speculation as to why such perspectives appear so
attractive to Bahá'í writers. Is it an easier option--avoiding the less
certain but more important ground of future direction-finding? Is it part
of that direction-finding, a search for a firmer platform from which to
move forward? If historical study remains merely descriptive, is it really
of any use in a world so desperately needful of clear and practical
guidance and leadership? Bahá'í historians should examine very carefully
the rationale for what they do lest Bahá'ís be accused of
"fiddling" with paper while the world "burns" with
inequality. If historical Bahá'í studies act to debunk harmful or restrictive
myths, in order to free us to move forward more swiftly and nimbly, then
perhaps we may justify our seemingly overriding concern with historical
studies. What might be of greater assistance than non-focused articles,
relating to one country, would be cross-cultural, comparative historical
studies which might throw up deeper and more incisive insights into our
development and provide more accurate prognostications of future trends.
The Causes of Inequality
A number of important contributions have explored the sociological and
psychological factors involved in creating and maintaining inequality
between the sexes. "From Oppression to Equality" by Hoda
Mahmoudi (1988) was a well written,
highly condensed article of a mainstream variety, analysing the problem
of man's suppression of woman. It covered psychological, sociological,
linguistic, philosophical, and intellectual explanations and in its
encyclopždic treatment it left the reader rather breathless. Two points
she makes are particularly noteworthy. Firstly, Mahmoudi observes that
the Bahá'í Faith and the Feminist movement, which both began in the early
1800s, are the only two movements which advocate the full and absolute
equality of the sexes. Secondly, when writing on patriarchy as one of the
obstacles to change, she maintains that the Bahá'í remedy is that the
Bahá'í writings compel men to "...own the equality of men with
women" (34). The first point must give us cause for sober reflection
on the need for a closer dialogue between the two movements, and the
second point should be incorporated into the agenda for men's equality
conferences. "Patriarchy - Dead or Alive? Where Do We Go from
Here?" by Colleen Dawes and Morad Farshid (1989)(15) is an ambitious piece, but it still
rehearses the familiar arguments and provides no clear way forward other
than a prediction of greater egalitarianism.
"The Equality of Women - The Bahá'í Principle of
Complementarity" by John S. Hatcher (1990),(16) starts by arguing that the purpose of
religion is to raise human consciousness, and then mentions the process of
unveiling eternal truths and applying these to evolving social structures.
The article goes on to attribute our present global mess partly to our
violation of the principle of equality and describes the need for a
complementary balance between male and female aspects, within
individuals and in society, and with distinctions preserved. These points
are well taken, though two-thirds of the way through the article, after
raising and somehow then side-stepping the issue of membership of the
Universal House of Justice, Hatcher seems to lose his way. The point he
makes in the closing paragraphs, that equality can only be pursued
effectively when we have fashioned "...a just and healthy social
context" is a disappointing one and, if taken too literally, may
dampen our enthusiasm to work for equality. We take the House of
Justice's point that no principle in the Faith can be established in
isolation from the others, but this must not be allowed to encourage us to
believe that we must wait rather than do anything now.
On the psychological front, two articles examine
gender differences. Peggy Caton's article "Gender Relations: A Cross-
Cultural Dilemma" (1987)(17) is a
fascinating glimpse into the relationships between women and men and
their differing styles of communication:
Many men and women do not really understand or like each
other, although they depend on the other sex for the qualities and services
they provide. Although each sex is conditioned to perform different roles
and behaviours, often they both wish the other were more like themselves.
. . Masculinity and femininity really spring from two different cultural or
subcultural systems, each with its own values, goals, and styles of
The discussion of three models of equality in relation to the Bahá'í view is
very interesting and reinforces the idea that the transformation of
present-day society entails the acquiring, by both sexes, of traits
traditionally associated with their opposites: "a balancing of male
and female qualities within each person, providing for individual and
gender differences, but not those based on inequality of power and
privilege" (143). This is an article that bears much further
discussion and development--how can we train or encourage men and
women to achieve this balance?
"Perceiving Differences: A Look at Gender and
Inequality" by Mark Brush and Betty Conow came from the Forum
section of Dialogue (1988).(18) Mark
Brush writes of the dangers of generalising about men and women from
observable gender traits and gives a valuable warning of the mistake of
allowing our understanding of issues to fossilise around late Twentieth
Century thinking. I feel Betty Conow's article says similar things more
effectively. In fact, her contribution is eminently quotable. She offers new
insights and much food for thought:
The male psyche still remains an unexplored area that male
scientists seem loath to probe too deeply. (47)
. . . although the sexes have the same inner powers, these
powers are not necessarily realised in identical modes, but are expressed
in different but complementary ways. (48)
. . . the male sex . . . also tend to intellectualise emotions
and spirit. The female sex . . . tend to emotionalise intellect and spirit.
Conow ends her article by writing, "The transformation of self is not
a transformation of gender, but a spiritual maturation of the human
sexless soul" (50).
There is obviously a need for a more thorough treatment of this aspect,
for, if we understand the causes of inequality more clearly, we are better
able to derive more effective solutions.
Realisation of Women's Potential
"Educating Women for their Rights" by Mildred R. Mottahedeh
(1972),(19) is a confident and cogently
argued paper coming, as it did, at a time when the radical feminist
movement was still in its genesis. Mottahedeh begins by stating that
"women are still, in popular thought and custom, females first and
human beings second" (11). She describes the parlous state of the
world's women, whose task it is to be the first educators of the next
generation. She refers to the almost simultaneous occurrence of the first
Women's Rights Convention, at Seneca Falls New York, and Tahirih's
unveiling at Badasht. She goes on to describe the value of educating
women for their roles in the home and in society, government, industry,
science and technology. She writes of the necessary concomitants, such as
the right to vote, to own property and to have equal pay for equal work.
Toward the end of her article she says of women that: "Without the
contribution of her special talents and without her voice in world affairs,
the human race will remain half slave and half free" (50).
Three papers by the Bahá'í International Community (BIC) discuss in a
clear and concise manner aspects of the potential contribution of women
if equality is realised. The pamphlet "Women and Men: Partnership
for a Healthy Planet" (1991) is an excellent summary of
developments in the UN Decade for Women (1975-85) and of the Bahá'í
perspective on women and development. "Preparation for Life in
Peace: The Contribution of Women" (1985) sets out the basic Bahá'í
teachings about child education, the education of women, women's role in
peace-making and the education of men in the principle of equality. The
paper points out that a person's worth does not reside in their physical
characteristics but in their accomplishments and their character.
"Equality of Men and Women: A New Reality" (1993) was another
pamphlet which covered the related Bahá'í teachings on equality, family,
peace, development and education. It makes the point that in the Bahá'í
Faith there is no division of life into religious and secular realms.
A final essay on this theme is Helen Perkins'
"Women, Development and Peace" (1989),(20)which presents some interesting
statistics to show women governing in times of crisis, with a higher
number of women MPs during and immediately after the Second World War,
in a number of countries, compared to now.
Certainly a great deal of work needs to be carried out on this aspect. The
knowledge of what women have achieved and the awareness of what they
could achieve is enormously liberating, for men as well as women. We owe
it to the world to demonstrate the endless potential for development that
the human race has if only it would recognise and make use of its more
Judy A. Maddox's "Two Career Couples" (1987)(21) deals with the recurring theme of women
caught up in the two-shift scenario where, even with a career as
demanding as their husbands', they are expected by husbands, and everyone
else including themselves, to bear the brunt of the domestic load and the
care of any children. The article explores the guilt of working mothers for
"abandoning" their children during most of each working day
and the guilt of some fathers who feel distanced from their children's
upbringing anyway. The article then goes on to reassure working couples in
a number of ways, quoting in some cases from research findings and in
others from the Bahá'í writings, to offer helpful ways of thinking about
and approaching this common situation. This kind of article is of real
benefit because it deals directly with a problematic aspect of daily living.
There should be a much greater effort on the part of those who have been
blessed with academic opportunities to plough back their specialist
knowledge and their best thinking into the Bahá'í communities by helping
us to tackle, in a practical way, those things which impede our progress
as individuals, families, communities and institutions.
"The Spiritual Basis of Equality" (1975) was prepared with
International Women"s Year in mind and, although it is not the most
polished of the BIC documents, it is, for me, the most direct and the most
useful. Indeed, it does something which few of the other papers touched
upon - it describes clearly what women should do and what men should do
to help achieve equality.
It argues that women should:
- a) accept
responsibility for their development,
- b) seek education and
refinement of character,
- c) demonstrate their latent potential,
- d) participate in the world at large,
- e) be involved as
- f) exert effort toward universal peace.
It says that men should:
- a) recognise and own
the equality of women,
- b) abandon any vestiges of prejudice, and
- c) actively encourage and foster the development of women.
In the final paragraph the pamphlet even outlines how the Bahá'í
community is trying to establish equality. It is this aspect of the subject
which needs much more exploration and serious study.
In 1988, the National Spiritual Assembly of Australia
sent a letter to all Bahá'ís in their community.(22) This is a wonderfully brave and
unequivocal summons to obey Bahá'u'lláh's injunctions concerning equality,
from a divine institution to its community. Several passages deserve
quoting in full, not just because they are well-written, but because they
so clearly express one of the great imperatives of our age:
We are asking each individual, each family, each Institution and all Bahá'í
communities to bring equality to a state of functioning reality.
Friends, when Bahá'u'lláh proclaimed His
Revelation we entered into an era which would characterise love,
knowledge, co-operation, unity, equality and peace. The era of dominance
and aggression came to an end. This new era will only be realised when
women equally participate in the whole spectrum of human affairs and
men support them in their endeavours.
The National Spiritual Assembly appeals specially to Bahá'í men.
I sincerely hope that other National Assemblies will follow suit when
they feel ready to call on their communities to rise to this great
challenge. More communities may be ready to respond and obey than is
In contrast to the above papers, there is a booklet
entitled: "The Equality of the Sexes: A Bahá'í Principle" by the
National Bahá'í Women's Group Republic of Ireland (1989?).(23) This is of great value since it attempted,
by matching quotations from Bahá'í writings to basic questions, to show
how the principle of equality might be actualised in human terms at the
individual level --an aspect usually missing from the more
Feminists and Women's Groups
"A Look at Antifeminist Literature" by Gayle Morrison (1975)(24) is an excellent academic review of four
books which attacked the feminist movement in the early to mid 1970s.
They appeared to be a reaction, Morrison writes, to the threat of social
instability occasioned by the onslaught of feminists on the traditional
male-dominated, male-orientated structures of society. Criticisms of the
feminists included attacks on their unwillingness to face up to the
responsibilities of partnership, parenting and domestic duties; their fear
of newly gained freedoms; their assumption that male aggression
suppresses them instead of the limitations of their own physiology; and
their denial of biological differences between the sexes as well as the
superiority of men in the fields of mathematics, music, chess, science,
literature and fine art.
The collective fault of the antifeminists, Morrison argued, was that they
lack: "an evolutionary or historical perspective," and thus
"fail to discern the challenge and potential of the movement for
sexual equality" (56). In her closing remarks Morrison describes
feminism as "one of the forces leading us toward a desperately
needed new definition of what it means to be a human being in a united
world order" (59). This paper deserves praise for its lucid
exploration of the myths, stereotypes and prejudices which are
perpetuated by women and men against both sexes and which retard the
progress of humanity toward equality and harmony.
The other article covering this theme is Ann
Schoonmaker's "Revisioning the Women's Movement" (1984).(25) In the opening paragraphs of this
hurricane of an article, Schoonmaker exposes the plight of the women's
movement in the United States in the mid 1980s--bitterly divided and
lacking awareness of their purpose. She outlines, with startling clarity,
the five forms of alienation in western male-dominated culture and sets
out the four alternative lines of action for women, each of which is
reactive and defined/confined by the male paradigm. Schoonmaker then
goes on to explore four parameters of the Bahá'í revisioning of the
position of women in society: theological, historical, sociological and
psychological, using the Bahá'í writings to underscore her points. She
reminds us of two tasks that 'Abdu'l-Bahá has set for the women's
movement--to take up the cause of women in illiterate and inferior
conditions, and the cause of world peace. This paper is the pick of the crop
so far, combining as it does incisive analysis and clear direction for
future action, both derived from the divine word. Prospective Bahá'í
writers on women and equality would do well to examine Schoonmaker's
thesis and develop its tightly-packed implications.
Fostering dialogue with feminists and women's groups and movements is
an urgent priority which Bahá'í thinkers and writers should address
themselves to with compassion, courage and enthusiasm. So much
emotion, frustration and energy could be refocussed to constructive ends
among the world's women, and so much Bahá'í complacency could be
transmuted to an awareness of human need if dialogue were entered into
on a wide-ranging and depth-plumbing basis.
Part of the problem, for this reviewer, in reviewing such literature as the
above articles and papers, is in being familiar, over a twenty-year period,
with the books and writings of feminists and women's movements
generally. So much of what Bahá'ís write is not ground-breaking, but
distinctly treading in others' footsteps. In many ways we, as Bahá'ís, are
far behind in developing our thinking in the realm of equality and gender
studies, much less enacting our newly-developed thought processes. Our
timid explorations may well seem na´ve to the outside world, if not
childish. We do have two advantages, however, over the plethora of
feminist apologists and women's movements and the burgeoning men's
movements. We have the mandate and the standard of the Bahá'í writings,
and we have the guidance and protection of our divinely ordained
institutions. The feminist, women's and men's movements usually lack any
spiritual dimension or clear direction and are often confrontationalist.
The Bahá'ís can offer spirituality, well-defined goals and non-
confrontational lines of action for the promotion of equality. These must
be developed in our secondary literature, taught to our fellow believers
and shared with the world, as a matter of urgency. In the Bahá'í secondary
literature I have read so far, I see precious little of these things with the
exception of Schoonmaker's contribution. We must move rapidly beyond our
initial exploratory excursions if we are to contribute anything significant
or permanent to the gender and equality debates in the wider world. In
encouraging Bahá'í men to own the equality of women with them we need
to make great advances and these advances may, perhaps, be best
promoted by the holding of a number of high-profile men's conferences on
equality around the world, and by publishing their proceedings and
distributing them widely.
In answer to the original three questions posed in the introduction, it can
be said that the majority of the Bahá'í secondary literature on women and
equality assists our understanding of the issues. There are, however,
dangers of allowing personal perspectives to obscure the spirit of the
teachings as enshrined in the Bahá'í writings, of allowing Twentieth
Century ideas to distort our understanding of the Faith and its principles,
and of cramming too much into our articles thus forcing us to treat many
aspects of this issue in a superficial and somewhat glib manner.
It can be said that this literature occasionally offers new perspectives,
though rarely does it provide profound insights. This situation will
undoubtedly improve as we mature and develop in our understanding of the
issues of women and equality.
It cannot be said that the literature contributes much by way of practical
suggestions and guidance as to how to tackle the issues at the levels of
the individual, the family, the community or world at large. Like the
outside world, we are able to explain the problems eloquently, but the
world will soon be looking to us to provide eloquent, workable answers as
As I have been at pains to point out, one glaring gap is in the aspect of
developing men's understanding of, and support for, equality. Alongside
this is the task of developing in them positive feminine characteristics.
This I would like to see tackled with greater fervour.
Finally, a line of action that this survey inspired me to think of was that
we should pursue, with great energy and much speed, an education
programme for our youth everywhere, extended into all schools later,
where possible: "Partnership, Parenting, Home-Making and Fulfilment
in Equality, for Young Men and Women." It could alleviate a great deal
of misery among the next generation of adults and promote the cause of
equality in a way that would bring great credit to the Bahá'í community
worldwide. Are our Bahá'í academics, scholars and educationalists up to
these various challenges? We will see.
To summarise what I feel are the gaps in the secondary literature on the
Bahá'í perspectives on women, I offer the following list of suggestions, as
a basis, at least, for discussion:
a) We can and should have academic and experiential or creative responses
to this perspective side by side, in recognition that humans are diverse
and learn in diverse ways.
b) We need a fuller and more careful examination and discussion of the
Bahá'í writings on women and equality.
c) If we are to continue to give the greatest attention to the historical
aspects of the perspectives on women, then we must arm ourselves with
unassailable justifications and broaden our approach through comparative,
cross-cultural studies in order to derive universal insights.
d) We need to examine the causes of inequality more thoroughly in order to
counter it more effectively within our own ranks and to offer workable
solutions to the wider world.
e) We need to explore in greater depth the achievements of Bahá'í women
and the potential transformative power of their contribution as it is
enhanced by our more conscious efforts to improve the situation in the
f) We need to focus more of our research on the practicalities of this
perspective than we have done so far, rather than deriving theories which
will have little impact on present human suffering.
g) We need to focus more attention on developing the awareness and
contribution of men in the arena of equality, otherwise the old imbalance
will simply be replaced by a new imbalance. We have not yet moved beyond
the base-line of exhortation in this area.
h) We need to initiate and develop dialogue with the leaders of feminist
thought and the leaders of women's groups and movements, so that, from
this engagement of minds and hearts, may come greater understanding for
both them and us and more useful outcomes for the human race.
i) Totally missing, it seems, is the whole issue of educating the next and
future generations in equality. How are we to ensure that succeeding
generations will not perpetuate the harmful ways of thinking and being
that we are trapped by?
A review article is an opportunity to survey the achievements of Bahá'í
scholars in the field and to highlight gaps in the present literature.
Perhaps Bahá'í publishers would do well, in the light of the vital
importance of this subject, to seek out, or even commission, more of such
articles, pamphlets and books. Compared to the energy expended by the
rest of the English-speaking world, Bahá'ís have hardly touched on the
issues of gender and equality, and yet we have so much to offer and a
grave responsibility to provide leadership, direction and, above all, hope in
this vital area of human endeavour.
Caton (ed.), Equal Circles: Women and Men in Bahá'í Communities
(Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1987).
- Sitarih Ala'i and Colleen
Dawes, ed. The Role of Women in an Advancing Civilization
(Willetton, Western Australia: Australian A.B.S., 1989).
- Constance Conrader, "Women - Attaining Their
Birthright," World Order 6 (1972): 43-59, reprinted in
World Order 21.1/2 (1986-7): 53-69.
Drewek, "Feminine Forms of the Divine in Bahá'í Scriptures,"
The Journal of Bahá'í Studies 5.1 (1992): 13-14.
- Linda and
John Walbridge, "Bahá'í Laws on the Status of Men," World
Order 19.1/2 (Fall 1984/Winter 1984-85): 25-36.
- Dialogue (Summer/Fall 1987): 14-34.
- Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, Asking Questions: A Challenge to
Fundamentalism (Oxford: George Ronald, 1989).
Stiles Maneck, "Tahirih: A Religious Paradigm of Womanhood,"
The Journal of Bahá'í Studies 2.2 (1989): 39-54.
Journal of Bahá'í Studies 2.2 (1989): 69-70.
- R. Jackson
Armstrong-Ingram, "Recovering a Lost Horizon: Women's
Contributions to North American Bahá'í History," in Equal
Circles 33-53; Robert Stockman, "Women in the American Bahá'í
Community, 1900-1912," World Order 25.2 (1993/94): 17-34;
Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis, "African American Women in the Bahá'í Faith
1899-1919," World Order 25.2 (1993/94): 41-57.
- Bahárieh Ma'ani, "The Interdependence of Bahá'í
Communities Services of North American Bahá'í Women in Iran,"
The Journal of Bahá'í Studies 4.1 (1991): 19-46; "Religion and
the Myth of Male Superiority," in Equal Circles 3-32.
- Graham Hassall, "Hilda Brooks," in The Role
of Women: 73-97.
- Bahá'í International
Community, "The Status of Women - A Progress Report on United
Nations Deliberations," Bahá'í News (June 1974); Bahá'í
International Community, "Women's Year - The Bahá'í Impact on the
World Conference and the Tribune," Bahá'í News (September
1975); Janet Schoen, "A Love Which Does Not Wait," Bahá'í
News (April 1976).
- Hoda Mahmoudi, "From
Oppression to Equality: The Emergence of the Feminist Perspective,"
The Journal of Bahá'í Studies 1.3 (1988): 25-37.
- Colleen Dawes and Morad Farshid, "Patriarchy - Dead
or Alive? Where Do We Go from Here?" in The Role of Women
- John S. Hatcher, "The Equality of Women - The
Bahá'í Principle of Complementarity," The Journal of Bahá'í
Studies 2.3 (1990): 55-66.
- Peggy Caton, "Gender
Relations: A Cross-Cultural Dilemma," in Equal Circles 123-
- Mark Brush, Betty Conow, "Perceiving Differences: A
Look at Gender and Inequality," Dialogue (1988): 42-45.
- Mildred R. Mottahedeh, "Educating Women for Their
Rights," World Order 6 (1972): 45-60.
Perkins, "Women, Development and Peace," in The Role of
- Judy A. Maddox's "Two
Career Couples," in Equal Circles 55-74.
- Printed as
"Equality between Men and Women," in World Order 25.2
- National Bahá'í Women's
Group, The Equality of the Sexes: A Bahá'í Principle (Republic
of Ireland: National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Ireland, n.d.
- Gayle Morrison, "A Look at Antifeminist
Literature," World Order 9 (1975): 40-59.
- Ann Schoonmaker, "Revisioning the Women's
Movement," in Circle of Unity: Bahá'í Approaches to Current Social
Issues, edited by A. Lee (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1984) 135-154.