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Abstract:
The Bahá'í goal of achieving sexual equality cannot be achieved merely by trying to advance the position of women in society, but rather society itself must be "feminized."

In All the Ways that Matter, Women Don't Count

by Moojan Momen

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 4:1
London: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1994
Abstract: This paper argues that the Bahá'í goal of achieving the equality of women and men cannot be achieved merely by trying to advance the position of women in society. Rather, a much more radical change is needed to produce a more "feminine" society. At present power is perhaps the highest social value. It is therefore the basis for judgments about an individual's worth and status. The Bahá'í Faith teaches that we must work towards a society with different values in which service and co-operation are more highly regarded. This has implications for understanding some of the other Bahá'í teachings such as refraining from partisan politics.

The title of this paper may summarise the experience of women in almost every society in recorded history. Why is it that women continually have been pushed aside? How can we construct a society in which women play more equal roles? Since Bahá'ís claim to work towards such a world, what are the features that will bring it about? The history of the past eighty years in the West shows that merely good intentions are insufficient in bringing about a transformation in women's position in society.


Patriarchy and Power

A useful starting point is to determine what are "the ways that matter" in our society. Our social structure is one which anthropologists call a patriarchy. This literally means a society in which men rule. But it is not just a question of the gender of those in positions of power and authority. There are a set of values that are typical of patriarchy. These values continue to exist even when, as occurred in Britain during the 1980s, a female monarch and a female prime minister ruled. These two women did not transform the country from a patriarchy into a matriarchy. It was still a patriarchy and had its old values. These women simply were made into "honorary males" within the patriarchy's structure.

Patriarchy determines the values of our society. It helps construct our vision of reality.(1) This construct may then become reality. We take on board all of its assumptions and values without a second thought. What are the values of the patriarchal society in which we live? In patriarchy, the supreme value is power. Those who have power are important: they are noticed; their deeds are recorded in newspapers and in history books. Those who do not have power are ignored: they do not count; they are not even "seen" in the social structure in the sense that no account is taken of them when decisions are made; they do not appear in history books.

A good example of this was Greece in the fifth and fourth millennium B.C.E. This was a time when Greek civilisation peaked, when Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle lived in Athens, and Alexander the Great conquered most of the civilised world. It is recorded in history books as the "great and glorious age" of Greece. But it looked that way only to those who were in power. What about the women of Athens who were considered intellectually and physically defective, who were married at an early age and confined to their husbands' houses thereafter with no rights or freedoms? What about the numerous slaves in Athens? Was it a "great and glorious" age for them? One suspects not—but we will never know because they were unseen. No historian bothered to record their thoughts and feelings.

The same analysis applies to all groups without power—history has ignored women, the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, slaves, peasants, and the working class. One of the reasons that patriarchy has proved so enduring, despite numerous revolutionary attempts to overthrow the prevailing order, is that power is a subversive value. If there are two groups, A and B, the first of which holds power as its supreme value and the second of which does not, then Group B loses whatever it does. If it sticks to its values and refuses to compete for power with Group A, it is subjugated and A's values are imposed upon it. If B does compete with A, then this can only be through striving for power. In this case, B also adopts power as a value and, therefore, loses its own values. Either way, A succeeds in asserting its values upon B.

The second subversive feature of power is that groups that cherish it tend to subjugate those that do not. The group in power tends to construct society's social reality and is able to impose this on the rest of society, through its control of, say, education, information, and religion. And, of course, it tends to be groups that regard power as a supreme value that rule.

Many people think that the equality of men and women will be achieved once women comprise, say, 50% of managers, top government officials, professionals and, in the Bahá'í community, half the membership of National Spiritual Assemblies. But this would only mean that women (or some women, to be more accurate) will have climbed the power structure of society and, consequently, some other group—a racial or religious minority, the poorer classes, or the rural population—will have fallen into the gap in the power structure left by ascending women. The structure itself will have remained intact with all its injustices. Only its composition will have been re-arranged.

Indeed, we may take the argument further: to strive for, and achieve, a goal of 50% female composition in the highest power structures would represent a false sense of achievement and a hollow victory. Any particular group that unites, organises itself, and is determined enough can succeed in gaining power; conceivably, women might be able to achieve this even within a few decades.

Most revolutions begin as attempts to overthrow the power structure and introduce a more equal society. Revolutionaries argue that once in power, they will use their authority to produce a more co-operative society. This was the aim of the proponents of, say, the French and Bolshevik Revolutions. Many other movements have invoked the same justification. But if the revolutionaries come to power, what occurs? Instead of promoting their egalitarian principles, revolutionaries often become corrupted by the power game which they have played and which has helped them to seize control. Instead of creating a more egalitarian society, they create institutions and propaganda to keep themselves in power, while trying to persuade their followers that the goals of the revolution have been achieved. George Orwell's Animal Farm depicts how "revolutions" often simply exchange one set of despots for another.

A More Feminine Society

What are the alternatives to patriarchy? There has probably never been a true matriarchy (rule by women). As indicated above, where women have ruled, it has been as honorary males. There have been, however, societies that were matrifocal (where the women are the focus of the social group) and matrilineal (where descent is traced through the female line rather than the male line) and these still exist among some remote tribal peoples. In such societies, it is not that women dominate or have greater power, but rather that power itself is not an important value. Men and women exist side by side in co-operation rather than competition in such societies.

Many, perhaps even most, societies were matrifocal in the remote past.(2) The reason that this has ceased might be related to the level of interaction between groups of humans. As long as people were sufficiently thinly spread so that there were few interactions between neighbouring groups, then these groups could remain matrifocal. The situation would have been similar to the matrifocal societies found among most primate groups. But as the pressure of population built up, groups began to interact more extensively with each other and, inevitably, power relations developed, with one group subjugating another.

We may characterise the patriarchal society as giving the greatest value to power, authority, control, victory, ownership, law, courage, strength. The main interactions are power struggles and competition. The ends justify the means. Results are expressed in terms of victory or defeat. There are only points for the winners in such a society, none for the also-rans. It is epitomised by tradition, institutions, civilisation, and control over the natural world. There is a tendency towards centralisation of authority because that is one way of achieving greater and greater power.

In the matrifocal society, by contrast, the highest values are nurturing, life-giving, compassion, sensitivity, spontaneity, creativity, working with nature and giving support to others. The principle interactions are mutual and co-operative. The means are as important as the ends. Victory and success and judged by the degree to which the condition of all is bettered. It is epitomised by the natural world. The mutuality and consultative decision-making that it favours best occurs in small autonomous communities.

What then does the Bahá'í principle of the equality of men and women mean in connection with this? Many people have assumed that it means that women should be given equal power with men in our society—the concept of "empowerment" has become a catch-phrase. But 'Abdu'l-Bahá has called for a feminisation of society itself—for a society in which power is less important.

The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated 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 weight 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 in civilisation will be more evenly balanced.(3)

Indeed, 'Abdu'l-Bahá insists upon a redefinition of certain words that have long been associated with the masculine values of the patriarchy. Regarding the word "victory," for example, he writes that for the Bahá'í Cause, "its victory is to submit and yield,"(4) and quotes Bahá'u'lláh as stating, "Therefore, today, 'victory' neither hath been, nor will be opposition to anyone, nor strife with any person; but rather what is well-pleasing—this is, that the cities of men's hearts, which are under the dominion of the hosts of selfishness and lust, should be subdued by the sword of the Word of Wisdom, and of Exhortation."(5) Similarly, 'Abdu'l-Bahá subverts the concept of competition from its usual role in a masculine society, that of gaining power, and instead promotes it as an approach in the arena of service, "Vie ye with each other in the service of God and of His Cause. This is indeed what profiteth you in this world, and in that which is to come."(6) The apex of personal ambition and the source of greatest glory do not belong, in 'Abdu'l-Bahá's estimation, to the person who seizes power but to the person who excels in service to "human uplift and betterment"(7) and to "the cause of the Most Great Peace."(8)

Therefore, I would submit that what the Bahá'í Faith is seeking to bring about is not so much a society in which women have more power, but rather a society in which power itself, as a value, is greatly diminished in importance. In such a society women will be able to become equal to men—not through competing with men in a power structure but expressing their own virtues. 'Abdu'l-Bahá has commented on some of these feminine virtues:

If women received the same educational advantages as those of men, the result would demonstrate the equality of capacity of both for scholarshipƒIn some respects woman is superior to man. She is more tender-hearted, more receptive, her intuition is more intense.(9)

The woman has the greater moral courage than the man; she also has special gifts which enable her to govern in moments of danger and crisisƒTaken in general, women today have a stronger sense of religion than men. The woman's intuition is more correct; she is more receptive and her intelligence is quicker.(10)

Implications for Bahá'í Teachings and Activities

The meaning of the Bahá'í principle of the equality of men and women, as argued in this paper, throws light on a number of other Bahá'í teachings and principles. First, we can see immediately the importance of the decentralised power structure and the non-personal nature of the authority in the Bahá'í administration. As we noted above, probably the main reason for the decline in the matrifocal society was the increasing pressure of population that led to an increasing ability of one group to have power over others. Greater and greater degrees of centralised power characterises the patriarchal society. Thus, in order to achieve a more feminine society, we must have a greater degree of decentralisation than exists in most of our societies. The Bahá'í administrative order with its insistence on the rights of the local assembly to jurisdiction over its local area; the statements of Shoghi Effendi warning against "the evils of excessive centralization;"(11) the decision of the Universal House of Justice to devolve decisions about the formulation of global plans to a national level; the January 2nd, 1986, letter of the Universal House of Justice that it was this devolution of responsibility that marked the progress of the Bahá'í Faith and the dawn of a new epoch—all these serve to indicate the importance of decentralisation as a feature of the Bahá'í administrative order.

The personalised power that is characteristic of the patriarchy is also negated in the Bahá'í Faith as all power and authority rests with elected institutions rather than individuals. The Bahá'í method of elections to these institutions avoids the highly competitive electioneering of most modern political systems. The procedures of these institutions involve deliberation with the whole community and consultative decision-making. The whole ethos of this administrative machinery is radically different from much of modern administration. Shoghi Effendi sums up this difference in his words of caution to those elected to Bahá'í administrative office: "Let us also bear in mind that the keynote of the Cause of God is not dictatorial authority but humble fellowship, not arbitrary power, but the spirit of frank and loving consultation."(12) Although there are institutions such as the Continental Boards of Counsellors and the Auxiliary Board where the appointment is individual, these institutions do not have any power or authority but rather their roles are to advise and encourage.

Second, the Bahá'í principle of non-involvement in politics can be seen in the light of this analysis of power. Bahá'ís are trying to construct a society that is more feminine in its nature and qualities. If it allows itself to be sucked into the power politics of the patriarchy, it stands in danger of being diverted from its ultimate goal. To enter into partisan politics means accepting power as the supreme value. This is the subversive effect of power as a value. This would be to follow other revolutions down a path that compromises the ultimate goal.

Many people have criticised the Bahá'í community for abstaining from partisan politics and thus foregoing the one apparently effective way of getting society to adopt its principles. But in the light of the analysis above, we can see that to enter into politics would ensure failure in the ultimate goal. Indeed, it is difficult to see what other way there can be to the Bahá'í approach. How else can the subversive effect of power be combatted? We have already seen that it cannot be combatted directly without subverting its opponent to its own values. The only path is for Bahá'ís to proceed quietly, building an alternative, more feminine society while the ravages of power politics continue to pull down the old order.

The third area on which this analysis throws light is the long time frame which will be needed for the changes which Bahá'ís envisage. Shoghi Effendi, for example, writes of such achievements as "the emergence of a world community, the consciousness of world citizenship, the founding of a world civilization and culture"—all achievements which seem to us to be far off at present—as synchronizing with only "the initial stages in the unfoldment of the Golden Age of the Bahá'í Era."(13) For what we are concerned with here is not a mere intellectual assent to the equal position of men and women; nor just the movement of women into all areas of society; but rather, a far more fundamental change to the foundations and values of society, the evolution of a new reality.

The reason that this will take a long time lies in the subversive nature of power. Progress along the path towards lessening power as a value in society is necessarily slow and tortuous. All it takes is a few people who are still motivated by considerations of power to ruin the efforts of large numbers of others. Power does not require a critical mass of people in order to seize control of a society. But to ensure more feminine values does require the support of the masses. If just a few decide to act on the basis of power, they can hold a whole society to ransom, either subjugating the majority or causing the majority to forego their values in order to bring the few to heel. It will not, therefore, be sufficient for a simple majority of the population to be agreeable to a more feminine, less power-based society. That may be the "initial stages in the unfoldment" but the ultimate goal would appear to be still a long way off even at that stage.

The sort of society that Bahá'ís envisage, however, is not one that has gone over completely to a matrifocal society. What 'Abdu'l-Bahá is calling for is a balance between these two value systems. The Bahá'í system, the world order of Bahá'u'lláh, does have structures of authority and power. But these do not devolve upon the individual. Power and authority are resident in society as a whole as expressed in elected institutions, which because of their constitution, manner of election, and functioning are less likely to tyrannise individuals or minorities. Thus society will continue to have the instruments of power, including courts, prisons, etc., but these will not be controlled by, or become the weapons of, any particular individual or group.

Finally, there is the vexed issue of why there are no women on the Universal House of Justice. This, in the context of present-day society, is a question of the location of power. The above analysis would tend to indicate that the very fact that this question of power is such a burning issue is an indication of the extent to which the values of this society are distant from those which the Bahá'í Faith envisages. It is the assumption that membership of this body is a powerful, high status position, that makes the exclusion of women from membership of this institution such a problem. And the extent to which this is perceived as a problem is thus a benchmark of our success in transforming society. We will truly have achieved a more feminine society when the question of who wields power is no longer important.

In the light of this analysis of the role of power, an altered strategy for the achievement of the Bahá'í goal of a more feminine society seems indicated. While there is no reason why we should not try to make progress in the number of women elected to Bahá'í Assemblies, this sort of emphasis is, in reality, trying to persuade women to accept the masculine nature of our society and to compete with men on these patriarchal terms—it is playing into the hands of the subversive nature of power. Rather, we should be looking at our Bahá'í communities and seeing in what ways we can make them a better arena for a genuine "feminine" contribution, by both males and females. We can look at our communal activities and see which of them are the more masculine in nature and which are more feminine. I would suggest that those activities that are to do with expansion, for example, administration and proclamation, the goals of Bahá'í communal life which are easily enumerated such as numbers of Local Spiritual Assemblies and new localities, are the masculine activities. Those activities which involve nurturing the community, for example, deepening and children's classes, as well as the less easily enumerated qualitative goals of improving Bahá'í community life, are the feminine activities. Giving talks is masculine; consultative processes are feminine. Of course both males and females should be involved in both the masculine and feminine activities.

Up to the present, the more masculine activities have predominated in the Bahá'í community. Consider, for example, the number of teaching and proclamation activities and conferences that are held compared with the number of programmes dedicated to developing consultation skills or promoting Bahá'í marriage and family life. But, fortunately, the balance is already shifting. The Six Year Plan and, more recently, the Three Year Plan of the Universal House of Justice give much more emphasis to the qualitative goals than was previously the case and this is being reflected in the Bahá'í community.

Returning to the title of this article—"In all the ways that matter, women don't count"—most people and many feminists (and many Bahá'ís, I suspect) imagine that the goal of the advancement of women should be to change things so that women do "count" in society. What this analysis points to, however, is that what we should be aiming for is to change "the ways that matter" in our society.

End Notes

  1. See P. Berger and T. Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971).
  2. This conclusion has been reached on the basis of observations of primate social grouping, anthropological research among remote tribal groups, the study of myths, and archaeological evidence. For a survey of this whole question, see Marilyn French, Beyond Power: on women, men and morals (London: Jonathan Cape, 1985) 25-122.
  3. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, quoted in J. Esslemont, Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era (London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 4th ed.) 141.
  4. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá. (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1978) 256.
  5. Bahá'u'lláh, quoted by 'Abdu'l-Bahá in A Traveller's Narrative, vol. 2, trans. E.G. Browne, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1891) 114.
  6. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, quoted by Shoghi Effendi in Advent of Divine Justice (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1990) 83.
  7. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1982) 353.
  8. Ibid, 123.
  9. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks (London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1969, repr. 1979) 161.
  10. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 'Abdu'l-Bahá in London (London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1982) 103, 104-5.
  11. Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974) 41. See also ibid, 42.
  12. Shoghi Effendi, Bahá'í Administration (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1968) 63.
  13. Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh 163 (italics added).
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