Baha'i elders drew energy from their faith
Thursday, May 18, 2000
By PAT KINNEY
Not one, but two irreplaceable women died within the opening weeks of the new century: Ruhiyyih Rabbani, the American-born widow of Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, was the last link with the family of Baha'u'llah, founder of the Baha'i faith; and Mildred R. Mottahedeh, who debated long and hard to persuade the nascent United Nations to grant non-governmental consultative status to a faith that was then relatively obscure.
Mrs. Rabbani was 89; Mrs. Mottahedeh, 91. Their lives were full, long, and fruitful. The deaths of these two formidable women left members of the faith with a profound sense of loss -- and then joy -- in recalling how they lived out their lives, working to build acceptance for the ideals of their faith.
People of all faiths can only marvel at the unceasing travels of the increasingly frail Pope John Paul II in the pursuit of world peace and Cardinal John O'Connor, before his death, struggling with cancer and still attempting to say Mass. Still, the extraordinary stamina drawn from their faith is limited to the span of human life. The faithful of whatever religion must draw strength by reflecting upon the lives of these extraordinary human beings.
Mrs. Rabbani and Mrs. Mottahedeh were born in the United States a decade before the 21st Amendment gave women the right to vote. Through their acceptance of Baha'i teachings, both worked for decades to establish not only women's rights, but human rights and the rights of children to health and universal education throughout the world, proving by example the strong position of the Baha'i teachings on the positive changes women can exert in the world, once society allows them to reach their potential:
"Women must go on advancing; they must extend their knowledge of science, literature, history, for the perfection of humanity. Ere long they will receive their rights. Men will see women in earnest, bearing themselves with dignity, improving the civil and political life, opposed to warfare, demanding suffrage and equal opportunities."
Ruhiyyih Rabbani's mother, May Bolles, was born in Englewood and was one of the first Americans to embrace the Baha'i faith. Her father, William Sutherland Maxwell, was a noted Canadian architect and a designer of the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec. The wealthy couple doted upon their only child, whose given name was Mary. With her marriage to Shoghi Effendi, grandson of 'Abdu'l-Baha, she was given the name Ruhiyyih. The marriage united the Baha'i communities of East and West and changed her life considerably.
When she lived at the Baha'i World Centre in Haifa, Israel, through the years of World War II and Israel's war for independence, food was scarce and danger was constant.
When Shoghi Effendi Rabbani died suddenly in 1957 at age 60, the childless widow mourned, then -- her mettle tested -- spent four decades "on wheels and canoes." Determined to set an example to the Baha'is of the urgency to convey the precepts of the Baha'i faith throughout the world, she covered 55,000 miles through India, crossed Africa by Land Rover three times, and visited every country in South America. At the age of 65, she spent six months in the far reaches of the Amazon.
Because her late husband was leader of the Baha'i faith, Mrs. Rabbani met with dignitaries and royalty throughout the world to discuss the basic human rights, which are fundamental Baha'i principles. She was gracious on those occasions, but she spent as little time as possible in cities, preferring to spend her time in the company of villagers. Only in the year before her death did she cease her relentless travels.
Mildred R. Mottahedeh embraced the Baha'i faith in 1929. That year she married Rafi Y. Mottahedeh, an Iranian-born Baha'i. The newlyweds lived in Bergenfield and struggled at first. Then, Mottahedeh & Co., which blended her design talent and his business acumen, became renowned in the field of decorative arts. The company made reproductions for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art gift shops and received commissions for commemorative pieces from U.S. presidents and the State Department.
Mindful of the Baha'i teachings on the ethics of wealth, the Mottahedehs used their profits to serve humanity. In Africa and in India, they founded and maintained primary and secondary schools and were involved in training in agricultural techniques, public health services, and development of local handcrafts. In 1958 they created Mottahedeh Development Services, a foundation to assist with social and economic projects in the Third World.
Mrs. Mottahedeh received numerous awards, including the United Nations Woman of Honor (1993).
In memorials held for each woman in Baha'i communities throughout the world, Baha'is took stock of their contributions to the faith and paused to pay respects. The women had much in common: each balanced an outspoken, strong-minded, no-nonsense sensibility with compassion and warmth; each continued humanitarian endeavors long after her husband had passed away -- commitments that continued until their final days.
And Baha'is paused in recognition of their legacy, nurtured through commitment to their faith through most of the last century and sure to continue long into the future:
"Humanity is like a bird with its two wings -- the one is male, the other female. Unless both wings are strong and impelled by some common force, the bird cannot fly heavenwards."
Pat Kinney is a representative of the Baha'i faith on the Interfaith Brotherhood-Sisterhood Committee.
©Copyright 2000, Bergen Record Corp.