Rewriting the Script:
Some thoughts on gender roles and the Bahá'í Teachings
'Abdu'l-Bahá said that "Woman's lack of progress and proficiency has been due to her
need for equal education and opportunity. Had she been allowed this equality,
there is no doubt she would be the counterpart of man in ability and capacity." 1
Although women now comprise more than 50% of the students in tertiary education in some western countries, it is evident that 'equal opportunity' requires something more than this.
Access to education, and creating female identities that encourage girls to develop careers, have been important steps. What is needed now is that male identities, and men, should change. In particular, child rearing needs
to become a part of a father's identity.
This photo-essay will elaborate on how I deal with this and other issues related to gender in my own art.
In 1994 I was one of a panel of 4 artists for a discussion in connection with the exhibition "Prima Donna," held in the feminist 'Amazone' gallery in Amsterdam. I argued that fathers taking full responsibilty for parenting
is important for the development of society, and that until they do, we can't develop gender equality. 2
During the panel discussion, someone commented that my work in the exhibition wasn't really about the Madonna but about the man holding the baby. That was my point and why the piece was called 'Mutability'. Its depiction of a man holding a baby in the foreground (with a real shadow under his feet) and the Madonna and child on a high pedestal behind him was about taking motherhood from the pedestal and putting it into the hands of men. Making the idea of motherhood -parenthood mutable.
by Sonja van Kerkhoff.
In the piece Mutability (1993/4), I took a snapshot I made in the Louvre of
my husband and son and presented it in such a way that the physical image
'mutates' in its visibility as the light source changes. It is about resistance
to the idea that motherhood (or anything)
is set in stone.
View more about the work: Mutability.
Wrapping for a marginal citizen, 1994 is a 12 metre long cloth with 24 identical images of my 6 month old son staring directly at the camera. The various texts underneath each image 'read' as a sort of monologue-come-dialogue.
They reflect comments made to me when I had a baby with me on a train, in a gallery, in a video festival, or on the street. It is also a piece about how I feel as a foreigner in The Netherlands some days. The video
of the same name is quasi-biographical in that I use my own art objects to tell stories, just as the children tell stories in their playing. Two voices: a cynical one and an optimistic one 'converse' as images of eggs being played with, being forced into transparent egg-cups, being eaten and being broken merge between images of my art objects being played with by the children.
Before we have women in all walks of life we need a society where the norm is that women can develop careers. Currently the whole of society operates around women taking time out from them and men not. But women are not under any less obligation to develop their personal - and God-given - potential through a career, since Bahá'u'lláh commands:
It is incumbent upon each one of you to engage in some occupation -such
as a craft, a trade or the like. 3
In the light of the other Bahá´í principles (such as equality, work as worship, etc) I interpret having a trade as meaning having a career, for both men and women.
Still from the video,
Wrapping for a marginal citizen, 1994.
This need not mean working for money, although I am not belittling financial independence. The point is that such work is a means for spiritual development, and a right and duty for all. 4
I am currently active as an artist, meaning that I regularly develop and exhibit new work, (for the past 6 months I also work 3 days a week as a website designer, but did freelance work before that), as well as co-parenting two children. The 'co' in co-parenting is crucial.
When I go away for a few weeks for an art project I don't have to think about filling the freezer nor do anything extra about the well-being of the children.
More importantly, while the children were young I slept through the night and so was able continue developing my work or myself. I didn't have to stop my career, a career where there is never a guarantee of regular income. My partner didn't complain that I was being selfish for pursuing my career and not taking sole responsibility for the babies. I didn't complain that he was being selfish for pursuing his career and not taking sole responsibility, either.
Subject, 1992, has the text:
silkscreened onto a mirror that fits inside a white shoe. The shoe rests
on a piece of transparent perspex. The surface of the perspex is rippled and holds the shoe at an angle so that, as the viewer looks down to read the text, they encounter their own face in the mirror.
First Lessons in Relativity, 1992, silkscreened cardboard dolls in gradual shades from pink to blue. Each doll is 50 cm long. Sexuality like identity does not have a rigid border.
Most people have children and most women either take time out from a career to raise them or struggle to do both. Is this how it has to be? Are parenting roles a given?
"To the mothers must be given the divine Teachings and effective counsel, and they must be encouraged and made eager to train their children, for the mother is the first educator of the child. It is she who must, at the very beginning, suckle the newborn at the breast of God's Faith and God's Law, that divine love may enter into him even with his mother's
milk." `Abdu'l-Bahá 5
"Unto every father hath been enjoined the instruction of his son and daughter in the art of reading and writing and in all that hath been laid down in the Holy Tablet." Bahá'u'lláh 6
Some Bahá´ís interpret these quotations as meaning that the woman must do the 20 or 24-hour daily care and that the father's role is to help with the homework!
But both quotations seem to be saying much the same thing. My view here is that both should be read as examples of the principle of 'mutatis mutandis':
" the laws of the Kitab-i-Aqdas are stated succinctly. An example
of this conciseness can be seen in the fact that many are expressed only as they apply to a man, but it is apparent from the Guardian's writings that, where Bahá'u'lláh has given a law as between a man and a woman, it applies mutatis mutandis between a woman and a man unless the context makes this impossible. This understanding of the implications of the Law has
far-reaching effects in light of the fundamental Bahá´í principle of the equality of the sexes, and should be borne in mind when the sacred Text is studied. " 7
First Lessons in Relativity, 1992,
silkscreened cardboard dolls in gradual shades from pink to blue. Each doll is 50 cm long. Our viewpoint of the dolls is similar how a newborn could view the toys -items of the world- strung across the bassinet.
The passage from 'Abdu'l-Bahá insists that women (also) should be educated and motivated, and justifies their inclusion by saying that they are the first educators of the child. It goes without saying that if in the modern world they are also to be doctors, presidents and artists there is even more reason for educating girls and developing the careers of women.
I am sure it was not meant to be read as saying that women can only be the first educator or that only women can be the first educators.
Wild animal feeds her young, 1992.
lithograph inside a perpex form, 50 x 40 x 10cm.
'Abdu'l-Bahá uses breastfeeding as a metaphor: someone who develops the spiritual potential of a child is like a breastfeeding mother. There is no reason for reading the metaphor backwards, and concluding that only breastfeeding mothers are first educators. The identity of a father can also embrace the metaphor of a 'breastfeeding mother'. Biology does not determine roles: I do not have to have the main responsibly for a baby because I have breasts, just as the fact that a man is muscular does not mean that physical work is his main calling.
Most societies seem to have believed that there are essential differences between men and women - which happen to correspond to the male-female division of
labour in that society. In different times and places women have been the frail sex, or responsible for the heaviest work, paragons of virtue and causes of sin.
Essentialism is rather silly, but this way of thinking is a serious problem and permeates many aspects of our lives. If we believe that there are essential differences between men and women, we will not look for our own alternatives to the way society has constructed roles for mothers and fathers.
If the roles are not regarded as given, practical solutions can be found. A couple needs to look for an approach to parenting suited to them, that allows both to develop their potentials. For example, my partner fed the baby at night with expressed milk, while I continued full-time study at art school. Because I could sleep and feel human I was able to breastfeed
for 13 months.
Some couples have told me this would be impossible for them: a father who is working full-time can't feed the baby at night. What I read between the lines is that they don't realise how much energy is involved in producing
milk and that they consider the man's work more important.
There are diverse ways of co-parenting. The main issue is shared involvement and responsibility, the number of hours spent is secondary.
Eva was hier (Eve was here) 1992,
30 x 40 x 10 cm. A piece of cord painted in gradual shades of red to pink to white hangs from a pink pin, on a soft board, also painted in gradual shades of green. The words, ´Eva was hier´, are pencilled in at the bottom of the board. This work was a response to discovering the work of Eva Hesse and the realisation that there was art, a lot of it, being made now, not only by women, but art that went beyond the dictates of modernism. Eve had been and had left her mark in the garden.
Rewriting the script, 1990 lithograph, 30 x 50 cm.
Edition of 13. The texts -legible in part- tell of an imaginary world where men invite women to work with them on a play, and then the women demand to write their own characters. When granted this, they discover that the whole structure of the play must change, and change so much that the women don't have any idea of what sort of setting, theme or even how the play itself will evolve.
Likewise, the opportunity to continue in a career is important for development and identity, the number of hours available for it is secondary. Yet "involvement" and "development" cannot happen without a regular committment of time.
Imagine what sort of society we would have, if men and women from all walks of life (working-class as well as those who can afford to work part-time) were to share child-rearing.
I am inspired by Bahá'ulláh's announcement that "Today the handmaidens of God are regarded as gentlemen (rijal)." 8
This makes it impossible to claim that gender-role stereotypes continue to be valid today. It may be more of a challenge for the 'gentlemen' to regard themselves as 'handmaidens.'
'Abdu'l-Bahá has said:"Know thou, O handmaid, that in the sight of Bahá, women are accounted the same as men, and God hath created all humankind in His own image, and after His own likeness. That is, men and women alike are the revealers of His names and attributes, and from the spiritual viewpoint there is no difference between them. Whosoever draweth nearer to God, that one is the most favoured, whether man or woman." 9
This keeps me going when around me - and as much in the Bahá´í community as outside it - I see women struggling and sometimes succeeding to raise children and be involved in the workforce. The writings speak of the high value of parenthood but it will not have real value until the majority of men are actively involved in it. I know that there are many obstacles, but the goal must be taken seriously. Women will never be equals in a world where they have to be the responsible parent and work at their careers.
The idea of motherhood is a construct, built by generations of conditioning.
I meet few women with children engaged in the art world. Most female artists opt not to have children and I don't blame them. I honestly do not know what would have happened if my partner had not - naturally - taken on the night duty while I was breastfeeding, or the washing while I was working on a new print. Equally important, I had and have space ('a room of my own') to develop.
Eve's Apple 1992,
Litho and silkscreen print on paper.
25 cm in diameter.
The snake forms the boundary -the world- or history. But the fluid lines look as if they could move at any moment. The women are and seem contained while one steps on the boundary.
of the Rose, 1993.
Here I was examining the associations between what we call an 'ideal' and what we call a 'characteristic', and in particular
I used the names of the Bahá'í months, such as ' Loftiness', 'Splendour', 'Questions', 'Words', etc, as starting points.
Our months, each nineteen days long, are also attributes for the divine. I took these words, changed some, added some others and placed them over the image of an open rose.
The rose is a symbol of ideal love and for me, a fitting symbol for the divine, because in the Bahá'í writings, 'love' is repeatedly stated as the source of all things. It is 'love' that attracts, and 'love' that inspires.
Bahá'u'lláh wrote that his first counsel for us is to "Possess a pure kindly and radiant heart".
I engraved the text "Virtue of the rose" into the deep frame to literally imbed it in the frame. The word, virtue, comes from the old English, 'virtu' which meant an inner character or strength, while today it means a 'good' quality (with the association of passivity).
Currently the socially ascribed identity of a mother, whether this is consciously expressed or not, centers on being a mother. The socially ascribed identity of a father is that he has a job or career.
The development of an identity can't be imposed. Just as forcing women to work outside of the home will not create for them an identity that includes developing a career, if men are or feel forced to do certain chores with children it will not work.
These concepts and identity constructs must be developed, and since identities are socially constructed, we must start by talking about them and finding ways to make them visible.
We start by not assuming that we know what equality means, which then gives us the freedom to explore diverse ways. For me, it is a matter of the Bahá´í community
showing that it is serious about exploring the issues of gender equality.
Computer print, 10 x 15 cm.
Ones, 1998, installed in The Other Gallery,
Banff Centre for the Arts, Canada.
It consists of two larger than life-size translucent photo-images
of children who could be posing or playing. Their gestures are ambiguous.
One stands on one leg holding his head in his arms and the other is bent
over, feet wide apart, about to roll a rock over the sand. The title refers
not just to size, but also to telling 'big ones' - stories.
It is a dangerous thing to believe that we as a Bahá´í community already have gender equality yet I often encounter that attitude. When I encounter this, I don't feel I belong. My world view is so different.
On the other hand diversity means encountering the other. I feel I can do more about working towards gender equality by working on my career as an artist and 'telling stories' through this medium. I also write articles on the arts. I curate exhibitions and coordinate arts projects, aiming and sometimes succeeding to develop a spirit of cooperaton and collaboration in these.
co-editor of a Bahá´í-run
on the Arts, I try my very best to have a 50/50 representation of female artists, dancers, writers, etc. I never manage to achieve that. But I have not given up trying.
I make sure we use gender neutral language where possible.
All these little things, I believe, help us to work towards a culture where it will matter less whether we are female or male, and one in which expressions of the divine have many shades of gender.
Cover of the June 2000, Arts Dialogue
Memorials, (1996-8) the viewer first encounters a plaque with the text of a story about
a feminine spirit's encounter with a garden. The spirit leaves clothing behind, as a sign of mercy (memory). Near the plaque was a dress form of ceramic tiles imbedded in the ground.The fairytale-like story helps to emphasise the process aspect of this art in a language familiar to the visitors so that they would be inclined to consider the art as part of a process rather
than an independent art object (laid to rest). The art experience here is a combination of the story, the garden and the tile memorial.
You can view more of my art at: bahai-library.com/bafa/v/kerkhoff.htm or http://www.sonjavank.com
1. 'Abdu'l-Bahá,The Promulgation of Universal Peace, Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1922-25 (1982), pp 136-37. >> Back to the essay
2. In this Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, the women go neck and neck with the men. In no movement will they be left behind. Their rights with men are equal in degree. They will enter all the administrative branches of politics. They will attain in all such a degree as will be considered the very highest station of the world of humanity and will take part in all affairs. Rest ye assured. Do ye not look upon the present conditions; in the not far distant future the world of women will become all-refulgent and all-glorious, for His Holiness Bahá'u'lláh hath willed it so!
'Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks (London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1912) pp 182-83.) >> Back
3. Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, paragraph 33. >> Back
4. In this great dispensation, art (or a profession) is identical with an act of worship and this is a clear text of the Blessed Perfection. Therefore, extreme effort should be made in art and this will not prevent the teaching of the people in that region. Nay, rather, each should assist the other in art and guidance.
'Abdu'l-Bahá, in Bahá'í World Faith, page 377. >> Back
5. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá, section 113. >> Back
6. Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, paragraph 48. >> Back
7. Introduction in The Kitab-i-Aqdas, 1992, page 7. >> Back
8. Unauthorized translation from Ahmad Yazdani, Mabadiy-i Ruhani, Tehran: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 104 Badi', p 109. >> Back
9. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'í World Centre, 1978, pp 79-80.