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Mirrored with permission from www.markfoster.net/jccc/rs/patfem.html.

The Father and the Maiden:
The Abrahamic Patriarchate and the Divine Feminine

by Mark A. Foster

1999

The headship of the Bahá'í Faith is, like all the Abrahamic religions, patriarchal or androcentric. In other words, at this level of authority and governance, the leadership of the Bahá'í community is, and has been, male. The Bahá'í patriarchate might include the Báb, Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, the Guardianship (Shoghi Effendi), and the men of Bahá on the Universal House of Justice. With respect to the Universal House of Justice and its head, the Guardian, 'Abdu'l-Bahá wrote:

According to the ordinances of the Faith of God, women are the equals of men in all rights save only that of membership on the Universal House of Justice, for as hath been stated in the text of the Book, both the head and the members of the House of Justice are men. However, in all other bodies, such as the Temple Construction Committee, the Teaching Committee, the Spiritual Assembly, and in charitable and scientific associations, women share equally in all rights with men.
(Revised translation from the Persian, authorized 1987)

Outwardly, Bahá'í gender differentiation can be only partially distinguished from previous faith traditions. Patriarchate, or institutionalized patriarchy, remains intact and has not been transformed into egalitarianism. One finds the same essential patriarchal framework which was present in the previous Abrahamic religious systems of Judaism, Christianity, and Islám.

To my understanding, the association of headship and "theocracy" (perhaps a term used by Shoghi Effendi to describe the House of Justice itself) with patriarchy (or patriarchalism) is common to all the Abrahamic religions, e.g., the Abrahamic Prophets, the Hebrew patriarchs, Paul's views on male headship in the NT, the twelve Imams, the Guardianship, and the men of Bahá.

I don't think that the Bahá'i system is theocratic as a whole. On the one hand, the Guardian's secretary referred to the "Bahá'í theocracy" (Directives from the Guardian 78-79):

What the Guardian was referring to was the Theocratic systems, such as the Catholic Church and the Caliphate, which are not divinely given as systems, but man-made and yet, having partly derived from the teachings of Christ and Muhammad are, in a sense, theocracies. The Bahá'í theocracy, on the contrary, is both divinely ordained as a system and, of course, based on the teachings of the Prophet Himself... Theophany is used in the sense of Dispensation...

On the other hand, Shoghi Effendi said that the theocratic element was only one aspect of the Bahá'í system (God Passes By 326). It appears as though the Bahá'í theocracy is the Universal House of Justice, not the entire World Order of Bahá'u'lláh: when the Guardian's secretary referred to the "Bahá'i theocracy," she or he, presumably with the Guardian's authority, meant the Universal House of Justice. To break it down, here is how I see it (All from the following quotations are taken from God Passes By 326.):

  1. aristocratic element: the Guardianship and primogeniture ("The hereditary authority which the Guardian of the Administrative Order is called upon to exercise, and the right of the interpretation of the Holy Writ solely conferred upon him")
  2. theocratic (patriarchal) element: the Universal House of Justice ("the powers and prerogatives of the Universal House of Justice, possessing the exclusive right to legislate on matters not explicitly revealed in the Most Holy Book")
  3. democratic element: free elections ("the specific provisions requiring the free and democratic election by the mass of the faithful of the Body that constitutes the sole legislative organ in the world-wide Bahá'í community")
  4. autocratic element: not a representative democracy ("the ordinance exempting its members from any responsibility to those whom they represent, and from the obligation to conform to their views, convictions or sentiments")

Therefore, to call the Bahá'i system a theocracy, in toto, would probably be misleading. The theocratic aspect is one holon, or structure, within the entire system, albeit a very important one, especially with the absence of a living Guardian.

I would speculate (perhaps a psychological projection!) that, since the Bahá'i Dispensation represents the cyclic fulfillment of the Abrahamic tradition and of patriarchy (as well as of all previously revealed and inspired knowledge in general), the patriarchal principle may not be necessary after the present Dispensation.

For instance, when the meaning of baptism was understood, the symbolic rite was abrogated. Likewise, 'Abdu'l-Bahá said that the hikmat for the male-gendered nature of the House of Justice (and perhaps for patriarchy in general?) will be known in the future. Perhaps, in the next Dispensation, it, too, will be abrogated.

The principle of the equality of the sexes is spiritual and, presumably, has been an element of all the religions of God. What changes, from age to age, are the social teachings, which are the means by which the Prophet orders human affairs in the manner He believes best for the duration of His Dispensation. It is with respect to the social, or non-essential, aspects of religon that gender equality is expressed more directly than in previous Abrahamic religions. Patriarchy, while remaining a social teaching, has been significantly limited in scope in the Bahá'í Faith.

Significantly, however, patriarchy is restricted to the Headship of the Bahá'í system. In earlier Abrahamic religions, whereas patriarchy included the patriarchate (Headship), it was much more encompassing. In other words, the principle of gender equality antidotes what might otherwise be a male-dominated moral community. Moreover, this patriarchal explanation of the continuity of male headship within the Bahá'í community, is historical and teleological and, as such, avoids focusing on the supposed gender incompetence of women to function on that level.

Patriarchy, in this case, does not refer exclusively to a system of kinship. Its broader meaning of is given in the unabridged Random House Dictionary:

a society, community, or country based on this social organization.

The American Heritage Dictionary is even clearer:

A family, community, or society ... governed by men. Also called patriarchy.

Finally, Jonathan Z. Smith, in The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion (New York: HarperCollins, 1995 833), wrote:

patriarchal, a descriptive term for any aspect of religion that is male dominated.

It is in the above sense that the Bahá'í Faith may be seen as containing certain patriarchal elements. As such, the Bahá'í approach to patriarchy is a continuation of the globalization of ancient forms of patriarchy based on kinship and, in particular, of the biblical accounts of Abrahamic patrilineage. This process began as the authority of the patriarch, within a kinship system, became extended to other forms of social organization and governance through exogamous marriage and the development of civilization (living in cities)

It is within the context of the overall patriarchal structure of the Bahá'í leadership and administration that the opportunity structure for women has been expanded considerably from earlier Abrahamic traditions. In the Bahá'í Dispensation, patriarchate may also be instrumental in bringing about a greater degree of unity in diversity between women and men than had been accomplished in the past.

For instance, although Bahiyyih Khánum was, in principle, acting as the viceregent of the Guardian and was never, technically, the head of the Bahá'í Faith, her status during the early period of Shoghi Effendi's ministry could, nonetheless, be regarded as a coup for women's rights. It might also be pointed out that other high-level institutions, such as the Hands of the Cause and the Counsellors, have included women.

Perhaps it is because the Bahá'í Faith may, in a sense, be viewed as the fulfillment of the patriarchal Abrahamic Covenant that it, too, is patriarchal. Indeed, one might speculate that this pattern of male headship, which is also evident in what the House of Justice said about the family, will be further reduced, or even eliminated, in future Dispensations.

While the outward structure is patriarchal, the Spirit of the Age is, figuratively, the Maiden. For possibly the first time in recorded religious history, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, as it has appeared to the Prophet, has explicitly taken form as the divine feminine. Thus, we have God, symbolized as a Maiden, in mystic intercourse with Bahá'u'lláh and the dominant male structure of headship which represents Him. The divine feminine has become the transformative agent of patriarchy. This institutional synthesis, embodying the new archetype of gender equality, may be required to promote the sorts of planetary changes which are predicted for this age.

While aboard the S.S. Cedric, 'Abdu'l-Bahá was reported to have said (Star of the West, 8, No. 3, p. 4; cited: Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era 149):

The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the balance is already shifting; force is losing its dominance, and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age less masculine and more permeated with the feminine ideals, or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more evenly balanced.

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