A Question of Gender:
Editor's Note: In the Fall/Winter 1984-85 issue of World Order magazine, Linda and John Walbridge published a thought-provoking and controversial article, "Bahá'í Laws on the Status of Men." The Walbridges examined the complex and often confusing laws of inheritance in Bahá'u'lláh's Kitáb-i-Aqdas. The Walbridges' interpretation of Bahá'í law has generated substantial discussion and debate in various Bahá'í circles. This debate is hardly surprising as the question of gender roles in the family and society remain of vital and central concern to all family members. In the following forum, six Bahá'ís examine the Walbridges' arguments, terminology, and methodology from various perspectives. Susan Stiles-Maneck and Maharieh Ma'ani approach the topic from a theological position; R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram addresses anthropological dimensions of the Walbridges' essay; Julie Pascoe and Jim Bartee utilize a feminist viewpoint; and Anthony Lee provides historical perspective. The Walbridges were invited to participate in the forum, but declined. We invite readers with differing viewpoints to share their ideas and provide space in future issues for extended discussion of family issues.
Western Bahá'ís are sometimes shocked to learn that the laws of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas do not treat men and women identically. Some distinctions are based on common sense: pregnant or nursing women need not fast, for example. Others might be misunderstood as implying that women are inferior, as there are significant differences in the laws of marriage, inheritance, and individual status. For instance, the law makes "the father (not the parents) responsible for educating both sons and daughters.
In many ways, the Aqdas treats men and women the same. Both reach maturity at age 15 and are equally subject to Bahá'í laws. Both are required to work and "the Arabic text implies useful activity, not necessarily paid employment" and each should acquire a profession. Both genders are to be fully educated, and, according to 'Abdu'l-Bahá, girls' education should be given the higher priority if a choice must be made. While menstruating women are not required to fast or perform obligatory prayers, there is no suggestion that this has anything to do with ritual impurity.
At the time of marriage, the husband must pay his wife a dowry, though this is limited to reasonable amounts. Either husband or wife may initiate divorce, but a marriage contract that was conditioned on the virginity of the bride may be annulled immediately if she is discovered not to be a virgin. Bahá'u'lláh strongly urges the husband to conceal the matter, however. The husband has certain specific obligations to his wife to keep her informed of his whereabouts and to pay her expenses for a period in case of divorce. The punishment for adultery ordained in the Aqdas is the same for both men and women.
The complex Bahá'í laws of inheritance favor men over women, but this is with a purpose. In most cases, male heirs receive more of the estate than do female heirs. The eldest son receives the father's house and clothing as part of his inheritance, plus a share of the estate that is divided equally among all the children (43 percent). Daughters receive their mother's clothing. A deceased son's inheritance from his parent is passed to the son's children, but that of a deceased daughter is divided among other heirs. Widows inherit relatively little of their husband's estates (15 percent); a man's children—especially his eldest son—are the main beneficiaries. It appears that the intent of the laws of the Aqdas was to provide for the widow by making her a part of the household of the eldest son.
The Walbridges state: "It should be noted, of course, that the provisions for dividing an estate apply only in the case of intestacy and that all Bahá'ís are obligated to make wills adapted to their circumstances. Nevertheless, one can assume that the provisions Bahá'u'lláh made for intestacy do represent what He considered to be a normal and equitable division of an estate, all other things being equal."
The purpose of these laws is to establish family responsibility as a male obligation. The family is traced through the male line, as is inheritance. The biological father retains social and economic responsibility for the family; widows, step-children, and orphans are the responsibility of their male blood relatives. Women have the role of providing crucial early care and training of children. However, women as well as men are explicitly envisaged as breadwinners.
Bahá'u'lláh's purpose in providing such differences in Bahá'í law, according to the Walbridges, is to ordain a "Mildly patrilineal family." Parallels are drawn with the laws of the Qur'an, revealed in medieval Arabia, where drastic improvements in the status of women were accompanied by the Islamic restoration of the patrilineal family.
A similar matrilineal family model is found in the contemporary North American family. In this model the children are tied to their mother, while the father—"if his identity is known at all"—has a peripheral role. A generation ago the American family was "unquestionably patrilineal," but since then matrilineal practices have gained currency. Women keep their own name after marriage to signal their independence; there is a vast increase in divorce and remarriage; children follow their mothers after divorce, and fathers have only limited contact with these children; a divorced woman must support herself, and often her children as well, while a man is expected to treat any step-children as his own. These practices are to the detriment of divorced women and their children. The Walbridges maintain: "As in pre-Islamic Arabia, the weakness of the family and its degeneration into matrilineal forms have given men a high degree of irresponsible sexual freedom and left women and children exploited and without any means to compel men to provide for their needs."
To redress this imbalance, the laws of the Aqdas take several approaches. First, they emancipate women and insist that they be educated and have professions. Second, the book assumes that women will be mainly responsible for the care of young children. Third, Bahá'u'lláh skews the structure of the family slightly to favor males in order to ensure that fathers have a place and a responsibility within the family.
According to a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, "it can be inferred from a number of the responsibilities placed upon him, that the father can be regarded as the "head" of the family. The members of the family all have duties and responsibilities towards one another and to the family as a whole, and these duties and responsibilities vary from member to member because of their natural relationships. The parents have the inescapable duty to educate their children—but not vice verse; the children have the duty to obey their parents—the parents do not obey the children; the mother—not the father—bears the children, nurses them from babyhood, and is thus their first educator….A corollary of this responsibility of the mother is her right to be supported by her husband—a husband has no explicit right to be supported by his wife. This principle of the husband's responsibility to provide for and protect the family can be seen applied also in the law of intestacy, which provides that the family's dwelling place passes, on the father's death, not to his widow, but to his eldest son; the son at the same time has the responsibility to care for his mother.
This slight male preeminence should not be mistaken for an approval of a patrilineal society, and nothing in this study should be taken as an excuse for the oppression of women within the family. Bahá'u'lláh does not prescribe rigid family roles. The Bahá'í family is based on love, unity, and consultation—not a woman's submission to her husband. "But, if men are to be a real part of the family, they must have an essential role in it," the Walbridges conclude.
Although the article does not make this explicit, the primary inequalities that would remain in the Bahá'í system (if the Walbridges' thesis were to be accepted) are economic ones. This is an important issue, for the basis of the social inequality of women has always rested on economic grounds. Every religion, it could be claimed, proclaims the spiritual equality of women, but socially they all insist that women must have different roles. The authors themselves point this up when they quote the Qur'an 33:35 (p. 29). The economic inequality of women always has had a profound impact on their social status. As the Qur'an states in Sura 4, verse 34:
Men are the protectors and maintainers of women. Because God has given the one more than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in absence what God would have them guard.The justification for women's subordination in the Qur'an, then, rests upon an economic basis. If the Bahá'í teachings are shown to support the continuation of such economic inferiority, then any Bahá'í claim to have made progress in the field of women's rights over past religions becomes problematic.
Since the crux of the argument made by the Walbridges rests upon the use of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, particularly as it relates to laws and inheritance, I wish to address my remarks to that specific issue. I will ignore, for the time being, both the issue of women's rights and of the merits or demerits of patrilineal society. The key issue here, as I see it, revolves around the manner in which Bahá'ís make use of scripture and the possible ways it can be misused.
The law of inheritance, as specifically stated in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, requires each believer to write a will disposing of his or her property in whatever manner each individual may wish. This is nearly the opposite to the Islamic law of inheritance, which gives the individual believer limited say over the disposal of his estate. In cases of intestacy, Bahá'u'lláh outlines a complicated system for dividing the property of the deceased, which gives male heirs a considerably larger share than others. The Walbridges argue from this fact that "one can assume that the provisions Bahá'u'lláh made for intestacy do represent what He considered normal and equitable division of an estate, all other things being equal." It is precisely this statement with which I take issue.
No statement in scripture can be properly understood outside of the context in which it was revealed. The Walbridges recognize this fact when they carefully illustrate the circumstances of pre-Islamic Arabia in which certain laws in the Qur'an were revealed. This is not to say that I agree with their analysis of that situation. However, the correct correlate to this illustration would have been to attempt to understand the laws of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas against the background of nineteenth-century Iranian Islam. In this way, not only can the law of intestacy be properly understood, but other laws confusing to the western mind (such as hair length and burial laws) can be placed in their true context and applied properly in Bahá'í life.
Instead of seeking to understand the social conditions in Qajar Iran, however, the Walbridges make a jump to the contemporary American family. This is not the situation that Bahá'u'lláh addressed in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, nor are the conditions and difficulties of the present day North American family applicable to the bulk of the world.
The most fruitful way to understand the full implications of Bahá'u'lláh's laws is to examine their Islamic counterparts and note where Bahá'u'lláh departs from those. For instance, while it is optional in Bahá'í law for women during their menses to perform their obligatory prayers, women in Islam are not permitted to perform such prayer, as they are regarded as unclean during that period. Unlike Islam, Bahá'í law allows women to initiate divorce. And so forth. As far as economic and property rights go, the Aqdas addresses a situation in which economic equality between the sexes is presumed not to exist. Hence the requirement of a dowry is maintained for the economic protection of the woman. In addition, the period a man is required to support his wife during a separation leading to divorce is extended from the four months given in Islamic law to a full year.
The norm in regard to wills in the Bahá'í Faith is for each individual to write one, as is prescribed in the Aqdas. The exception, intestacy, is what is addressed by the formula for the division of property laid out by Bahá'u'lláh. This would have been appropriate, in most cases, to the situation in which Bahá'u'lláh lived, and in which most of the world still lives, and is likely to live for some time. The Bahá'í principle of sexual equality, like its other principles, has always been applied gradually and in accordance with the maturity and needs of the time. When and where education and economic improvement have raised women to a higher position, the cases of estates left intestate should diminish accordingly.
In conclusion, it might be useful to observe that while some of the legislation found in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas may appear to support a patrilineal society, and also an economically superior position for men, it must be recognized that such laws were written in circumstances in which such a situation already existed. The attempt, therefore, is made to protect women's rights within that system. The optional character of those laws might indeed mean that they were never meant to be normative. The Bahá'í ideal is to raise the educational level of women in order that they may attain equality in all areas: spiritual, social, and economic. But this goal is not viewed in utopian terms: the process of women will necessarily be a gradual process, and while complete equality is not attainable, women require the special safeguards accorded them in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas.
Susan Stiles-Maneck is a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona in religious studies. Her M.A. thesis examined Jewish and Zoroastrian conversions to the Bahá'í Faith in nineteenth century Iran. She is currently completing her dissertation, which examines religious conversion in India.
The theoretical fantasy of two oppositional family types that the article presents becomes simply outlandish. The repeated assumption that following descent through the female line must almost automatically result in sexual anarchy and that it represents a sort of original sin into which the insufficiently vigilant society can "slip" is not only absurd but an insult to that part of humanity which so traces descent. To assert that sexual relations outside marriage, "casual divorce and remarriage, carelessness about paternity, single women choosing to bear children, and so on" are matrilineal correlates and that "early marriage, arranged marriage and betrothal of children" are "patrilineal practices" is both extraordinary and untenable. (It is of interest to note in this context that all the practices the Walbridges associate with either "type of family" in this paragraph, with the exception of early marriage, are explicitly forbidden in the Bahá'í writings.)
Part of the confusion in the article in the use of these two terms seems to be the lack of a clear understanding that the institution of marriage is concerned with not one, but two separable social functions: the marital relationship itself, and the production and socialization of children (the latter aspect includes the issue of how descent is traced). Irrespective of how a society traces descent, it may or may not deal with the rights and obligations in these two areas separately. This topic is usually discussed in relation to the women and centers around the holding of rights in uxorem and/or in genetricem to her services. In uxorem rights are those that confer on the holder access to those services usually supplied by a wife (however these may be defined within the society) and may, or may not, include the right to sexual services. Any right to sexual services may also be nonexclusive, (e.g., certain kin of the husband may have a right of access, and this may be with or without the husband's consent). In genetricem rights are those that confer a claim to a woman's children, and these may or may not be transferred with in uxorem rights.
It should also be borne in mind that, although this seems to be implied in the article, there is no equivalence between matrilineality and matriarchy. That descent is traced through the female line does not mean that social control of children, or anything else, is necessarily in the hands of women.
One implication of the terms they use that the Walbridges also seem unaware of is that in a patrilineal system a women is not related to her children. The article pays considerable attention to the importance of the mother's role, but in a strictly patrilineal system the mother has no actual legal relation to her children and no rights to them. Indeed, in the mid-nineteenth century United States, women had no legal claim to custody of their children; what relationship they had with them was at the discretion of their husband in whom lay all parental rights. Obviously, in the vast majority of cases, women did exercise a maternal role in relation to their children. But at divorce, or even at the husband's whim, they could be cut off from their children without recourse. The actual expression of parental roles is dependent on many factors, including how descent is reckoned, and we may repeat that no one pattern correlates automatically with any method of tracing descent.
The example in the last paragraph brings us to the basic crux of the use of the two terms: that they refer to social concepts that are not necessarily diametrically opposed, but may be integrated in various ways in actual practice. Obviously, nineteenth-century Americans thought that children were related to their mothers and that their place was generally with her, although they choose to place legal control over them (as over their mother) in the hands of the father. The United States in the nineteenth century was not a patrilineal society, but a patriarchal society that determined descent bilaterally. Descent was traced through both lines, but power was invested in the male line. This led to an emphasis on the male line, but not a denial of the relationships through the female one. Indeed, in those cases where relationships in the female line were more socially useful, these were stressed. I would presume that what the Walbridges are actually trying to argue for in their discussion is a bilateral system of tracing kinship in which there is a balance of power between the male and female lines. Or, if they are not, I would suggest that this is what the Bahá'í Faith argues for.
] The methodological flaw in the argument is the way in which the Walbridges approach the text of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas itself. At the time the Kitáb-i-Aqdas was written, Bahá'í communities were being established in the Middle East that were in need of answers to questions regarding Bahá'í social regulation and individual observance. The Kitáb-i-Aqdas addresses itself to what must have been the specific concerns of Muslims and Bábís who had become Bahá'ís, as well as forming the general basis of Bahá'í law (see, Synopsis and Codification of the Laws and Ordinances of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, pp. 3-4). To discuss the contents of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas cogently, it is necessary to deal with this compositional context of nineteenth-century Middle Eastern Bahá'ís as part of establishing a base from which to generalize. Equally, the Aqdas cannot be divorced from the corpus of Bahá'u'lláh's other writings (nor, indeed, from the comments of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi) if we wish to understand its import. The answers contained in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas generated further questions, which were answered by Bahá'u'lláh in "Questions and Answers." This latter work, and other parts of Bahá'u'lláh's later writings, are one with the Kitáb-i-Aqdas and it cannot be adequately understood without taking them into account.
The Walbridges' article does not take into account the compositional context of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, in sharp contrast to its lengthy discussion of the social context of certain aspects of Quranic law. (I do not propose to go into the inadequacies of that discussion here as they are beside the main point.) Neither does it take into account other relevant parts of the corpus of Bahá'u'lláh's writings. It would seem from certain comments that the authors are familiar with "Questions and Answers," but their use of that text is highly selective. Equally, they present conclusions that they draw from the text of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas that are contrary to statements made by Bahá'u'lláh in other works. These lapses in exegetical method seriously undermine any claim the article may lay to being scholarship rather than polemic. To turn now to the arguments of the article, the first thing that leaps to one's attention is what is left out. The article purports to be about Bahá'í laws on the status of men, and yet it contains no mention of the apparent permission found in the Aqdas for men to have two concurrent wives. Given the lack of contextual method used in the rest of the article to discuss the implications of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, it would be difficult to present this as anything other than actual permission for men to commit bigamy. That it may not be so interpreted, however, is based on material from other Bahá'í writings, as well as on the application to the text of the same argument that was developed during the late nineteenth century in progressive Islamic scholarship to apply to the similar apparent sanction of multiple wives in the Qur'an. This held that, as the permission was given in the context of an impossible condition (i.e., observing justice between the wives), it was in effect a prohibition—and whether it was seen as such or not was a test of the sincere wish of the believer to understand the holy text and carry out its injunctions. To establish, then, that the Kitáb-i-Aqdas requires monogamy necessitates going well beyond its bald text, something the authors are generally disinclined to do in respect of the aspects of that work which they do discuss.
A glaring example of the acontextual treatment of the provisions of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas is the authors' failure to see the implications of the specific references to women that they mention in passing. In Islamic practice, women are prohibited from performing ablutions or obligatory prayers, fasting, entering a mosque, reciting a single verse from the Qur'an, or even touching a Qur'an during menstruation (or after childbirth). The discharges associated with women's biological functions are considered the most ritually impure of bodily fluids, and while women are polluted by them they must be segregated from the central practices of Islam.
There is a substantial body of work demonstrating that change of religious adherence does not automatically annul learned cultural taboos. It is a commonplace observation that individuals whose cultural environment deems pork unclean cannot usually eat pork without discomfort, even if they have always belonged to a minority community that does not theoretically abhor pork. A similar result is found if you feed Americans boned chicken and then persuade them it was dog, few will keep it down. And conversely, if you feed them dog and they believe it to be chicken, there will be no digestive problems. The response is culturally mediated, whether by religious or secular ideology, and not a simple function of the nature of food.
For Eastern Bahá'ís of Muslim background, the idea of women observing the central practices of their faith during menstruation would have been repulsive, including to women themselves. That it is not made obligatory for women to observe these requirements during menstruation in the Bahá'í writings—though it is certainly not prohibited—provides the leeway needed for those attempting to move from an Islamic cultural heritage into Bahá'í patterns of religious observance. And the provision of the optional alternative, in some cases, of ablutions and the repetition of a sacred verse provides both a denial of menstrual pollution and a first step that may have been quite hard enough in itself for women to do and men to accept.
Similarly, that women are not obligated to perform pilgrimage as men are should be seen in the contemporary context. It is specifically stated in the Aqdas that this exemption is a mercy from God, and there are a number of places in the Bahá'í writings where it is explained that something would be obligatory but as a mercy from God it is not, because of the difficulty this would impose on some people due to the circumstances. (One might consider that this does not really make it less obligatory to the sincere unless they can claim the circumstantial difficulties in good conscience.) The hazards facing women on Islamic pilgrimage, especially poor women, were notorious. Any travel in the nineteenth-century Middle East was difficult, but pilgrim routes were especially preyed on by brigands. Women who were not able to travel with the substantial protection provided by wealthy families were particularly vulnerable to robbery, murder, and rape. The socio-cultural circumstances provided them with no remedy for being raped. Such victims could be rejected (or even murdered) by their own families.
In the view of Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures, women are possessed by a potent sexual force. They are in a constant state of sexual receptivity and are constitutionally incapable of refusing sexual advances from any man. The sexuality of women is a threat to men, especially to men devoted to religious ends. It is a snare that must be avoided. Thus, maintenance of the social fabric and the honor of the family require that women be under the control of men and the degree of seclusion that men can impose on their women is a measure of their social status. Sexual relations with an unmarried woman, even when accomplished by violent means, are primarily an insult against the capacity of her male relatives to control her sexuality. The accepted response to such an insult has been to demonstrate the total control over the woman by killing her, preferably publicly and even in front of her molester's house if possible. Even if no further action were taken against the man in the case, the honor of the family would be restored by this reassertion of control over their woman. Sexual relations with a married woman are considered more serious on the part of the man, of course, but again the woman cannot be an innocent party, by definition. Indeed, in any situation of illicit sexual relations, she is automatically more at fault because it is her sexual emanations which always provoke the man to action.
Obviously, such attitudes place a high value on the virginity of an unmarried girl, both as a testimony to her family's control and so that her husband and his family can be assured of the subsequent control of her intact and entire sexual potency. Thus, the virginity of the bride was often a condition in marriage contracts, and an expert's certificate attesting to that fact might be required before the marriage could take place. Although such attitudes are often characterized by writers on the Middle East as Islamic (and, indeed, so seen by many Muslims), this is inaccurate. They both predate Islam and have been as current in non-Muslim communities in the area as in Muslim ones.
As in the relationship between menstruation and devotions, so in its provisions in relation to illicit sexuality, the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (and Bahá'u'lláh's subsequent writings) take account of the cultural environment of contemporary Bahá'ís, but goes considerably beyond their presuppositions. Thus, that people have a strong predisposition to make virginity a condition in marriage contracts is recognized, but the use of the breach of this condition to repudiate the marriage is strongly discouraged.
In the case of adultery, Bahá'u'lláh's treatment is startling. In Islam, (as in various other traditions) adultery is a capital crime. The Aqdas by no means repudiates the concept of a death penalty, listing arson and murder as cause for such, although approving commutation to imprisonment. However, at the material level, (as opposed to spiritual consequences) it treats adultery in what can only be described as a trivial fashion by comparison with established cultural views. Adulterers are to be fined rather than killed, and the treatment is exactly the same for the man and the woman. Also, although adultery may be used as grounds for divorce, it is considered preferable to forgive the adulterous spouse and maintain the marriage. It is worth noting that the initial fine for adultery (the fine is doubled, and if necessary redoubled, for any subsequent offences) is less than half the fine for cohabitation between husband and wife during separation for an established year of patience while awaiting divorce.
The Aqdas, then, treats sexual transgression primarily as a spiritual lapse that should be repented, but recognizes the frailty of human intentions. Such transgression is acknowledged to affect the rights of other parties, but they are strongly encouraged not to stand on those rights and to be forgiving and supportive of the transgressor.
In all, the treatment of sexuality, particularly women's sexuality, in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas is astonishing in comparison with the cultural attitudes of the Middle East, or of nineteenth-century Europe or America for that matter. In the Middle East, women were a sexual trap; in the West, "good" women, at least, were asexual beings afflicted by bodily functions that defiled their true nature. In the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, sexuality is part of being human and to be dealt with in practical and unhysterical terms that emphasize the continuity of established social relations, and not passing lapses from the ideal. Furthermore, this standard is to be applied to both men and woman on equal terms: the expectations for both sexes' behavior are the same and the response to transgression is to be the same.
The foundation for social interaction is socialization and education. The Kitáb-i-Aqdas (as do Bahá'í writings generally) stresses the importance of education for individual and social development. This is done in terms of a father's responsibility to his children. But the Walbridges' contention that this implies that it should be his responsibility alone, as opposed to both parents, and that is because he should have "the financial resources to pay the teacher," is spurious. It is not necessary to turn to the many places in which 'Abdu'l-Bahá asserts that education is the responsibility of both the mother and the father, as Bahá'u'lláh explicitly stated later in the Aqdas that both men and women must place part of what they earn in trust for the education of their children.
The assumption that fathers are responsible for the "education" of children and mothers for their early "training" and "care" presented in this article reveals much about the authors' presuppositions. It suggests that "education" is something done to children by experts who are paid by fathers, while the duty of mothers is to turn over healthy and "trained" children to these experts. Fathers acquit themselves of responsibilities by paying to have them done for them; mothers must personally carry out their duties. It is a truism of gender studies that one of the foundations of sexism is a belief that women should perform instrumentally and directly, but the "best" men achieve through delegation and organization. This is why women are naturally fitted to be housewives and secretaries, and men can be corporation presidents. The differentiation of social possibilities for women and men is reinforced not only by such a belief in itself, but also by the resultant different emphases in the socialization and education of boys and girls.
The Bahá'í position is that boys and girls should follow the same curriculum, with at least equal access to education for girls. After their initial education, both should have equal access to all fields of positive human endeavor (industry, agriculture, education, law, politics, etc.) and equal possibilities to progress to the highest levels in these fields. Given that such a situation is to come about, it would be extraordinary to expect men and women, as agglomerates, to exhibit differential responses to such education and access. Indeed, we could only suppose such a differentiation on the basis of assuming inherent distinctions in the mental functioning of men and women per se. Individual men and women would respond to such a system of equal socialization and education as individuals, not as class members, and there would be a full range of responses exhibited within each gender.
Of course, there is the biological given that only women can bear children, but the necessary life-time concomitants of that on women's social role, as opposed to men's, are trivial (less, for example, than those arising from the current tendency of executive class men to have heart conditions). If boys and girls follow the same curriculum, both are equally trained for parenthood. The Walbridges' contention that there is an instantaneous "bond" between a baby and its mother is merely a psychologistic fantasy. There is no maternal (or paternal) instinct. Parenting is a socio-cultural variable and is entirely learned behavior. Nor does the vaunted issue of breast-feeding (or not) affect this, as that a woman feeds a child in no way necessitates that she be its principle caretaker (or even mother).
The article presumes that fathers fulfill their educational responsibilities by delegation, but that mothers must actually care for their children personally. Given the context of equal socialization and choice, which parent provided for what needs of a child would be a matter decided by individual inclination and circumstances. That a mother fulfills her responsibilities toward her children by delegating their care to another whom she considers competent—is as complete an adherence to duty as for her to do everything herself. Indeed, it may be more so if she feels personally less competent than those she could choose. To fulfill responsibilities toward children means to do what is best for them. An illiterate father cannot personally fulfill his obligation to ensure his children's literacy, but he can do so by engaging a competent person. Most literate fathers choose to do the same. For a mother to rationally assess her competence, availability, and desire to personally give her child what it needs in the total context of family life, and to decide how its care will be managed on that basis, is the highest form of observing her responsibilities.
Obviously, when the Kitáb-i-Aqdas was written, when 'Abdu'l-Bahá was giving his talks in the West, and today, the care of children was, and is, undertaken by women (although not necessarily their mothers) most of the time. This was the social reality being addressed, but we must be careful not to read back the need to address an existing situation as mandating its ethical necessity. We must deal with current social facts, of course, and also attempt to undo the denigration of child care, seeing it as a valid and valuable individual and social endeavor, but this in the context of validating parenting, not reconstituting a myth of "motherhood." We must deal with the issues of mothering and fathering in the context of the goals the Bahá'í writings give to all individuals, irrespective of gender, and recognize that the giving of these goals on an equal basis in itself indicates that their fulfillment is not limited of necessity by the biological aspects of sex. If there is apparent limitation, it is because of social and ideological circumstances, not any essential incompatibility between parenting and the achieving of other goals.
A major thread in the article is a discussion of the law of providing for the division of an intestate's estate. It is suggested that in this law Bahá'u'lláh sets forth a "normative" division of an estate. This is not the case. Bahá'u'lláh was asked if the intestacy law represented the distribution Bahá'ís should use, and He answered that, as long as the estate is large enough to cover the Ḥuqúqu'lláh and any debts, the residue may be left in any way the individual wishes, as God gave us jurisdiction over the goods He has bestowed on us.
As the Walbridges do not consider the intestacy provisions in the context of the needs of late nineteenth-century Middle Eastern Bahá'ís, but seek to extrapolate general principles from them, in the interest of brevity, I will not deal with that context in detail here but go on to the abstract implications. First, there is a general assumption in the discussion of intestacy (as generally in the article) that women are and should be financially dependent on men. This is, of course, untenable in an abstract exposition of Bahá'í principles. If women are to have followed the same curriculum as men and have had the same career opportunities, why would they be financially dependent on men? The intestacy law applies to a woman's estate as well as a man's, but the Walbridges seem to presume that women do not have resources or substantial estates. Indeed, the article's use of the right of daughters to inherit their mother's used clothes as parallel to that of the eldest son to inherit the father's principal residence seems to suggest that this would be all she had to leave.
To turn to the actual provisions of the law of inheritance, the main point they make clear is that the principal heirs to an estate are the children. But the way in which they are coheirs is interesting. Sons and daughters inherit alike with the exception that the eldest son inherits the principal residence owned by the deceased. Thus, the provisions may be seen as adhering to the principle of primogeniture, but on examination they will be seen to be doing so in a very diluted way. Strictly speaking, the operation of primogeniture gives not only the principal residence and usually other residences, but the bulk, if not the entirety, of the estate to the eldest surviving son. The basis for this is that the rest of the estate is needed to maintain the residence and its associated style of living. In effect, this makes all the subsidiary heirs dependents of the principal heir, unless the estate is so large as to provide for the independence of the other heirs. In the case of the intestacy law of the Aqdas, the main heir is left the residence without a guarantee of the resources to maintain it. This is commensurate with the principle of limiting the undue accumulation of financial resources in the hands of a limited number of individuals. In cases where the main heir is not an only child or the estate is not extremely large, to maintain the residence he has inherited, the main heir would have to have sufficient other resources of his own, or reach an accommodation with the other heirs. Rather than the spouse or younger children of the deceased being necessarily dependent on the principal heir, he may be dependent on them to hold on to the residence. Indeed, the division underlines the interdependence and necessity of cooperation in families.
The provision for whether or not articles bought for the use of the spouse are part of the estate are the same as the current civil law of most Western countries. If transference of ownership cannot be proved, such articles form part of the estate of the legal owner no matter who actually used them. (For example, if a man buys his wife a car but the title is in his name, on his death—intestate or not—the car would form a part of his estate for purposes of taxation and distribution.) Again, the way in which the Walbridges discuss this provision suggests that it confirms the dependency of women on their male relatives. They presume that women do not provide any needed household goods and have no ownership rights in the appurtenances of the household by their own purchase (or inheritance) but are dependent on gifts. Such a presumption is both abstractly and sociologically untenable.
As a final point on the content of the paper, I would note the failure of the authors to take into account the established Bahá'í principle that whatever is presented in the Bahá'í writings as required between a man and a women is (on the operation of the principle of sexual equality) required between a woman and a man without the need for this to be specifically stated, the only exception being if this is impossible. Based on this principle, we may maintain that however outlandish it might have seemed to late nineteenth-century Bahá'ís (or many modern ones), such laws as the right to condition a marriage on virginity, or the requirement of a payment to the prospective spouse to validate a marriage apply to both sexes.
Therefore, any implications of such laws cannot differentially affect men and women. Preceding socio-cultural arrangements in both the East and West have been predicated upon double standards between men and women of various kinds. One of the greatest challenges of the Bahá'í Faith is that it postulates human goals and human standards that gender does not prevent or excuse any individual from aiming at or adhering to.
While this discussion of the Walbridges' article may have seemed lengthy, and even harsh, it merely deals with the main problems in the article and attempts to present a little of the context necessary to do this. To discuss it in detail would take considerably more space.
(Note: In an informal presentation of this type, I have not included footnotes. I would suggest that the reader interested in further pursuing the issues discussed become familiar with the works in Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas in particular, as these contain numerous comments on the contents of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. The Canadian compilation Women is also valuable, but it should be borne in mind that it is no more than it purports to be, "Extracts from the Writings…," and is not a comprehensive collection of source material.)
R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram, Ph.D., is an independent researcher and writer. His new book, Music, Devotions, and the Mashriqu'l-Adhkár, has just been published by Kalimat Press.
We would like to begin by applauding the Walbridges for trying to make sense of the puzzling appearance of the intestacy laws that appear in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. These laws do come as a shock to many North American women and men who are not familiar with similar provisions found in Islamic law and in the Qur'an: they deserve our careful consideration. We must be careful, however, not to make too much of the practices of pre-Islamic Arabian society which the Walbridges cite as a way of illuminating the laws of Bahá'u'lláh. The authors quite rightly point out that Bahá'u'lláh has created a New World Order, and we must judge His laws and ordinances solely on their own merits, not by comparison with any other standard. The Walbridges seem to imply that the degenerate condition of pre-Islamic society was based on a lapse into matrilineality.
They argue that our current impoverished family system is due to a similar lapse, and that is why Bahá'u'lláh revealed the laws as they appear in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. We shall have more to say on matrilineality and patrilineality later. But we err if we try to discover the rationale for Bahá'í law in the history of Arabia before the advent of Islam. The conditions that existed in Arabia 1,300 years ago do not sufficiently correspond to those in late twentieth century North America to compel us toward a better understanding of contemporary life or a Bahá'í perspective of it.
The Walbridges spend a good deal of time discussing the idea that women have somehow disenfranchised men from family life. They suggest that only strong legal constraints and economic incentives can compel men to remain involved with their wives and children. We agree that men need to find motivation for staying involved with their families, but we believe the incentives are not to be found in legalism. Rather, the Bahá'í Faith envisions fundamental changes in the hearts of men and women, changes that encourage men to develop their emotional lives and to become responsive to that tenderness which connects families in bonds of love, not only to the demands of Bahá'u'lláh's Book of Laws. Is it not true that we obey out of love, as well as fear of punishment?
Regarding inheritance, it is true that women and children are often left without adequate support in today's world and certainly some responsibility for this tragedy rests with those men who feel no compulsion to support their offspring. However, the language used in the article suggests that some force (women, it would seem) has pushed men away from the family. Pascoe has worked with many poor women and their children. It was not her experience that these women were unwilling to make a place in their lives and families for the men who fathered their children. Rather these women tolerated countless abuses against themselves and their children in an attempt to keep the fathers involved in family life. They lost contact with those men only after prolonged struggle for power over control of the children, or when the physical safety of the women and children was placed in jeopardy by these men. (Even the most casual perusal of current statistics on spouse and child abuse will readily bear out this assertion.)
Furthermore, to assume that the intestacy laws of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas imply the normal "preferred" order of affairs may not be warranted. Because Bahá'ís are obligated to make wills, as the authors correctly point out, intestacy should become a rare event in the future. When a will is recorded, the individual is completely free to distribute his or her wealth as he or she sees fit (after the Ḥuqúqu'lláh has been paid). The formula for the division of estates indicated by Bahá'u'lláh might just as easily be seen as a deterrent to failure to leave a will as a recommendation of how to divide one's property. Clearly, we cannot hope to completely unravel the mind of the Founder of a New World Order in this or any other instance. We can merely offer humble attempts to understand His intent. At this time, by definition, these attempts must inevitably fall woefully short of realizing His true purpose in revealing the laws and ordinances recorded in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas.
We cannot help but comment on the Walbridges' assertion that "women keep their own names after marriage as an explicit signal of their independence of their husbands." (p. 34) This they see as yet another example of the theory that "matrilineal family structures have gained greatly at its [the ideal families] expense." (p. 34).
Julie kept her family name after marrying. She did so as a means of honoring her own family of origin, not as an affront to her husband. Surely in a time in this country's history when births, deaths, and marriages are recorded via computers, there is little reason to abide by a social custom for tracing families through the male line. We know of no Bahá'í law, or any suggestion from the Universal House of Justice, that indicates a woman should change her name upon marriage. We suggest, rather, that children bear both names until the age of maturity, and then they might choose their own last name—one that might express their unique gifts, rather than their father's lineage. We have the ability to trace family histories readily, so there is no danger of losing them. This is only one of the many creative ways to approach changing the outmoded customs of our patriarchal system—one that treats a wife as her husband's property and regards her accordingly.
In the same vein, we wish to examine more closely the use of the terms "matrilineal" and "patrilineal" which figure so prominently in the Walbridge article. It is deeply troubling to find the assertion that a matrilineal system is a degenerate form that must be corrected by the (re)creation of the patrilineal family. First of all, we are not convinced that a patriarchal world could recognize a true matrilineal system if it indeed existed. If divorce in North America led to a state in which a women kept a family home, changed the children's names to her own previous name (which, ironically came from a patrilineal family), and had any sizeable property to leave to her children, then one might be able to claim that we were operating under a matrilineal system. Rather, what we have is a system legally constructed by a patriarchy to seldom allow women any control of name, property, or wealth, and in which men choose to be responsible only for the children who live in their current households.
We believe that it is patrilineal and patriarchal oppression that we see today, not the ad hoc operation of a matrilineal system. The Walbridges have used two words that appear to be equal in implication to describe two quite different states of social order. They assume that matrilineality as construed by an oppressive patriarchy in an inherently degenerate social system. One need only examine the example of orthodox Judaism, in which the female line determines family continuity, yet which also severely limits female participation in community life, to see how a patriarchy uses conceptual structures such as matrilineality to further its own atavistic ends.
We believe our time as Bahá'ís can be better spent concentrating on the true meaning of a marriage between equals than the application of outmoded concepts of matrilineal or patrilineal descent which, despite claims of objectivity, are inherently biased due to the lack of balance in all sciences to date. The history of scholarship is predominantly the history of male scholarship. These areas of learning developed in an unbalanced way leaving, for the most part, the voices of women completely silent. To use the concepts generated by male attempts to make sense of creation in the absence of female contributions does an injustice to the study of the Bahá'í Faith. Emerging female scholarship addresses issues of descent, roles, property and lineage in quite different ways. We suggest that a balance of male/female scholarship that can engender a science encompassing the universal principles of the Bahá'í Faith will be a long time coming.
Given the injustice of our current system, the alarming rise of women and children living at or below the poverty line, and the concurrent amassing of male wealth, it is tempting to try to hold men accountable for the financial and social welfare of women and children. Pursuing this, the Walbridges mention several times that the importance of chastity is to establish paternity, and they imply that the chief reason that paternity is important is to hold men responsible for the economic security of families. We believe men should bear responsibility to their families. However, we are uneasy with the assertion that they will do so only if mandated by law (human or divine). Do we believe that men are not capable of conscience, care, or love?
The authors cite the rise of divorce, remarriage, and the welfare system as reasons men have felt uninvolved in, and even expelled from, their families. Thus, having been removed from the legal obligations to care for their rightful offspring, the Walbridges assert that "there is little need for [men] to insist on chastity in women." (p. 34) It is this sort of language that we feel carries an unexpressed assumption. Chastity is an obligation imposed on both sexes by God, not by men on women. Underlying the Walbridge argument appears to be yet another patriarchal assumption: women are morally inferior and need men to insist they be chaste. Otherwise their natural inclinations to immoral behavior will undercut the foundations of law, social order, and family. This is consistent with the current American attitude that we need to arrest and punish prostitutes, who are responsible for undermining the moral status of men (who appear only to be trying to take an evening stroll and who are accosted by forces beyond their powers to resist, and then fall into an abyss). We believe this predication is specious and merely reflects the present patriarchy in one of its most evil manifestations: the presumptive control of women's sexual and procreative powers. We might cite the punitive approach to birth control and abortion that is presently in vogue as a further example.
Instead, we should perhaps begin to discuss the need to balance economics with the physical and emotional nurturing of the newborn: the contribution each of these makes to the spiritual development of a child, and hence to our world community. We could turn our thoughts to the development of new concepts and language to describe the various responsibilities of each member of a family unity. To do this, we must look beyond our current work structure in North America and begin to look at global patterns of work in order to address economic injustices. Is it really necessary to have a 40-hour-plus work week? Have we really begun to see the implications of comparable worth? Is it possible for women to work and receive wages while devoting their attention to infants and young children? (And we do not mean working in a factory or office while the children are placed in day care or with other non-parent family members.) If we are able to stem the rising tide of materialism that these questions imply and produce only in moderation, what new forms of work will replace our current excesses? If women are "welcomed" into all areas of thought and policy making, what impact will their capacities have for nurturance on the development of the economic and social order.
If we believe in the balance of male and female qualities in the world, wouldn't it be better to avoid phrases that indicate men are somehow favored in family roles? For instance, the Walbridges state: "In most cases, although not all, male heirs receive better treatment than female heirs." Perhaps we should look for unmentioned factors that balance the equation. This may have nothing to do with economics and is of value in ways we do not currently recognize.
Another useful perspective on the economic and social issues surrounding rising divorce rates could be gained by looking at where our wealth is expended in North America. It goes to the care and feeding of a military system that robs the poor of adequate food, shelter and services; keeps the middle class struggling to maintain their standard of living, and encourages the rich to become part of the process that fuels such military madness. If we spend our wealth as a society on people first, the tension between women who are now surviving on welfare and men who feel inadequate to meet the financial responsibilities of family life would be lessened. In the absence of this kind of social change, the restoration of a patrilineal family seems woefully inadequate to meet the needs that have led to our current crisis.
This is not, however, to suggest that we shouldn't try to examine and analyze the implications of Bahá'í law, but it rather serves as a cautionary note. We must constantly strive to root out all sex-related bias, as well as any other prejudiced thoughts, from our scholarly attempts. The prejudice and oppression that exists within all institutions, including academic ones, is carried with us in layer upon layer of veils to our true understanding of this new world vision.
Julie Pascoe and husband Jim Bartee live in Forest Grove, Oregon. Julie has an M.Ed. in counseling and has worked primarily with women around issues of domestic violence. Jim is a professor in Counseling Psychology at Pacific University. Together they conduct family life and couples workshops.
The hazards of using interpretations of scripture to reintroduce the practices of a "discredited and abrogated past" should be clear. The prescription of a patrilineal family structure, which the authors claim Bahá'u'lláh has advocated on the basis of their interpretation of the laws of the Aqdas, could be the beginning of similar interpretations by others in favor of a preferred patriarchal social pattern. This is made possible by quoting the Writings out of context and interpreting them to suit a certain viewpoint. It is important that Bahá'ís examine the effects of this so that we will not become prey to the temptations that have engaged the minds and resources of the followers of other religions.
Divine Educators appear from time to time to lead humanity towards an ever-advancing civilization. To educate the people to become better human beings, every Manifestation of God has emphasized basic spiritual principles, introduced new ideals in accordance with the level of maturity attained by society, and brought fresh social principles and laws to facilitate the realization of the ultimate goal of the religion, which is to lead humanity to new heights along the path of perfection.
The medium for communication of religious principles and laws is the language of the people among whom the Manifestation of God appears. Language has always played a decisive role in the manner in which divine laws have been applied. As a religion spreads and takes hold among the people, the use of language in interpreting the Words of God, especially His social principles, become more important. Differing interpretations of scripture has been one of the main causes of division among the followers of religions. The effects of this practice have been particularly significant in lowering the status of women in religion. The use of words "man" and "men" as generic and specific terms in religious texts have given men the opportunity to exclude women from certain functions whenever they found it in their interest to do so. One function from which women were excluded was the right to interpret the scriptures.
It is in the nature of man to capitalize on whatever pretext he can find in the Divine Revelation to prove that God has favored one gender over another. In the past, men assumed responsibility for interpreting the Words of God and through their interpretations they introduced a double standard for dealing with the affairs of men and women. They divided the members of the human race into two distinct and unequal parts: the male superior half, and the female inferior half, a distinction which, according to 'Abdu'l-Bahá, "God has not intended in creation." (The Promulgation of World Peace, 1982, p. 77)
To prove the validity of this division, men used the very Revelations that had been sent down to prepare them for equality. They often ignored or played down the clear statements made by the Authors of religions pointing forcefully to the spiritual and pivotal principle of unity and denied women the rights of decision-making, ownership, and self-reliance. (For specific examples see my essay "Religion and the Myth of Male Superiority" in Equal Circles, Kalimat Press, 1987). The manner in which women are discriminated against in countries where religious fundamentalists and tradition-minded men are in power provides further proof of the truth of these assertions. As mentioned before, interpretation of the language of Revelation has been a decisive factor in drawing erroneous conclusions with regard to the application of religious laws to women.
Bahá'u'lláh lived in a Persian and Arabic culture. Consequently, these became the languages of His Revelation. Persian does not distinguish between male and female and the Writings revealed in Persian address humanity as one entity. There are many statements made by Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá, in both Arabic and Persian, that unequivocally attest to the equality of the rights of men and women. The Kitáb-i-Aqdas was revealed in Arabic and some of its provisions apply differently to women, whose crucial role in the bearing and rearing of children has been fully acknowledged and provided for. Some of the laws are incomplete and call for supplementary legislation by the Universal House of Justice. Some are unclear and require elucidation by that same institution. The Universal House of Justice has been vested by Bahá'u'lláh with the responsibility to enact laws not explicitly revealed by Him. (On the incomplete nature of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, see Synopsis, p. 3.) It also has the duty of preserving the unity of the Bahá'í community and of safeguarding the Faith against rigidity.
Despite provisions made by Bahá'u'lláh for the equality of the sexes, the danger of interpretation with a view of reintroducing unwarranted distinctions of sex exists in the Bahá'í Faith. The tendency to look for differences and to capitalize on them in order to prove that men have been favored by God, even in this Dispensation, will take a long time to elucidate. The Walbridges' paper, although containing some useful information previously unavailable in English, reflects, to some extent, the viewpoints of those who favor male superiority in the Bahá'í Faith. If some of its inaccurate assumptions are not questioned and clarified, the danger exists that they may become the basis for further misinterpretations.
It must be pointed out that individual interpretation is allowed in the Bahá'í Faith in accordance with Bahá'u'lláh's statement that the meaning of the Word of God can never be exhausted. This enables scholars and others to freely put forth their views on a given subject. However, published materials containing individual interpretations should have public scrutiny prior to their acceptance as accurate statements. Otherwise, the risk that they will be accepted as unquestioned truth by readers will be great. This, in turn, will mobilize people to think in a certain fashion. Herein lies the danger: that people who do not have critical and discriminating minds may accept one individual interpretation as the one that is right and will expect supplementary legislation to make possible the realization of their expectations.
In the past this was possible because women did not have the right or the educational training to challenge the assumptions made concerning them. But in this Cause the right to education, and indeed the prior right to education, has provided women the most effective means to understand the divine laws, and to withstand attempts to introduce interpretations prejudicial to their rights and suggestive of their inferiority to men.
The Walbridges state: "There are, however, significant differences in the laws of marriage, inheritance and individual status that could be interpreted as implying a socially inferior status for women." They also refer to the "sexual experimentation of the last two decades" as being "virtually all in the direction of matrilineal family structures" and attribute "the weakness of the family" in the pre-Islamic Arabia to "its degeneration into matrilineal forms." The purpose of these statements seems to demonstrate the advantages of patrilineal family structure over the "drawbacks" of a matrilineal family pattern, which the writers claim Bahá'u'lláh came to eliminate.
The article cites the laws of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas concerning chastity, marriage and divorce to support the supposition that the continuity of the family in the Bahá'í Faith is to be channeled through the male line. The following statement by the Universal House of Justice makes such laws equally applicable in most cases to both men and women:
It is apparent from the Guardian's writings that where Bahá'u'lláh has expressed a law as between a man and a woman it applies, mutatis mutandis, between a woman and a man unless the context should make it impossible.The Universal House of Justice has specified that this principle applies to the laws of chastity. It has also confirmed, in another letter, that a marriage can be annulled by either husband or wife if virginity has been made a condition of the marriage and the spouse is discovered not to be such after the wedding. The Walbridges' statement contradicts this.
The provisions of the Aqdas for dividing an estate in case of intestacy is made a focal point of emphasis by the Walbridges to press the point about the patrilineal nature of the Bahá'í family, according to the Universal House of Justice, in the introduction to its Synopsis and Codification of the Laws and Ordinances of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas:
Notwithstanding the volume of His writings on His laws and ordinances, Bahá'u'lláh has, as Shoghi Effendi points out, deliberately left gaps to be filled subsequently by the Universal House of Justice.The Walbridges are fully cognizant of the fact "that provisions for dividing an estate apply only in the case of intestacy and that all Bahá'ís are obligated to make wills adapted to their circumstances." However, they add: "Nevertheless, one can assume that the provisions Bahá'u'lláh made for intestacy do represent what He [Bahá'u'lláh] considered to be a normal and equitable division of an estate, all other things being equal." They have made this assumption without any consideration of the fact that the question of ownership of property by women is not fully covered in the laws of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. They have made a similar assumption concerning widows by saying: "Given the concern about the well-being of widows and orphans expressed in other provisions in the Aqdas, it seems likely that the mother would normally be expected to remain part of the household of the eldest son, particularly since her home is now his property." What a humiliating way to treat a widow; as a part of someone's household, albeit her own son. Will she lose the home even if it was her very own? What will happen to widows who do not have sons? Are they saying that women no longer hold the right to own property?
Moreover, their interpretation that Bahá'í "law [makes] the father [not the parents] responsible for educating both sons and daughters" (p. 26) and that "the Kitáb-i-Aqdas does make the assumption that women will be mainly responsible for the care of young children" (p. 35) does not hold true in light of other statements made by 'Abdu'l-Bahá.
[I]n this New Cycle, education and training are recorded in the Book of God as obligatory and not voluntary. That is, it is enjoined upon the father and mother, as a duty, to strive with all effort to train the daughter and the son, to nurse them from the breast of knowledge and to rear them in the bosom of the sciences and arts. Should they neglect this matter, they shall be held responsible and worthy of reproach in the presence of the stern Lord (Bahá'í Education, p. 25).And:
among the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh is the promotion of education. Every child must be instructed in sciences as much as is necessary. If the parents are able to provide the expenses of this education, it is all right, otherwise the community must provide the means for the teaching of that child (ibid).Women should therefore be properly regarded as the first educators of young children, and their co-educators thereafter. Furthermore, although fathers have the responsibility to provide the finances for the education of their children, Bahá'u'lláh had ordained that:
Everyone, whether man or woman, should hand over to a trusted person a portion of what he or she earneth through trade, agriculture or other occupation, for the training and education of children, to be spent for this purpose with the knowledge of the Trustees of the House of Justice (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 90).This makes it clear that women will indeed have a share in providing financial means for the education of the children who are either orphaned or whose fathers are unable or unwilling to provide the necessary finances for the purpose.
The Walbridges' article makes the curious assumption that a father is not ordinarily an integral part of the family and that he is made a part of it only through legislation of religious laws. This statement is both inaccurate and demeaning to men, whose impulse to be a part of a family and to want to nurture it is the most natural thing. Men are as much an integral part of a family as women are, and they bear equal responsibility in the process of procreation. If they do not feel so, there is something wrong with a social system that allows them to think differently, which results in their behaving irresponsibly. The introduction of rewards and incentives intended to make men feel the way that they should naturally and ordinarily feel has the disadvantage of providing some with a perfect excuse to act irresponsible and to point to the lack of rewards and incentives as the reason.
When discussing "Matrilineality in Modern Society," the writers discuss the "contemporary relevance of the legislation of Bahá'u'lláh's Kitáb-i-Aqdas" by looking "at the structure of the family in modern society" and see "parallels between the matrilineal family of pre-Islamic Arabia and the contemporary North American family." The purpose of the comparison is to emphasize the virtue of their interpretation that Bahá'u'lláh has indeed prescribed a patrilineal family structure and that there are good reasons for doing so.
The problems in North American families arise mainly from complex social and psychological factors that owe their existence to the patrilineal structure of the past, and to the unrighteous domination of families by men. The rising consciousness of the women in recent decades is an indirect consequence of the revolutionary principle of sexual equality enunciated by the Author of the Bahá'í Dispensation. The true solution to these problems lies in both men and women recognizing their high station as equal human beings with the same rights, opportunities, and privileges, and in men and women working together in unity to produce a better world for the offspring they jointly bring forth and for whose well-being they bear equal responsibility. Elevating one sex above the other will only perpetuate the problems that Bahá'u'lláh came to obliterate. It will also encourage the continued oppression of women. This is in contradiction to the rule of justice that He came to establish. It seems so pitiful for Bahá'ís, who have been given such high standards and ideals, to set aside the fundamental principles of their Faith in order to become embroiled in the trivial and irrelevant issue of whether a Bahá'í family should be a patrilineal or a matrilineal one. If the husband and the wife are to be like one soul in two bodies, as 'Abdu'l-Bahá says they should be, what difference does it make whether the children carry the name of the father or the mother? Suggestions to the effect that God has sanctioned that they should carry the name of the father, and attempts at interpreting the laws of Bahá'u'lláh to provide room for making such a suggestion, will only divert the Bahá'ís from establishing a society freed from the prejudice of sex—so central to the theme of the unity of mankind—to that of creating a patrilineal family. This can only upset the desired balance in society, because it places one sex in a more advantageous position.
As names belong to the kingdom of limitation and are of the contingent realm, Bahá'í women and men would do well to become so deepened in the Faith as to devote their time and energy to passing to their children spiritual attributes and human perfections, rather than their names and their material possessions.
Baharieh Ma'ani is a member of the Bahá'í World Centre staff in Haifa, Israel. She studied philosophy and religion at Pahlavi University in Iran and at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.
The article arrives at these conclusions in a rather round-about way based on a series of assumptions made upon an examination of those few laws of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas that appear to treat men and women differently. Particular weight and attention is given to the laws of inheritance revealed by Bahá'u'lláh that are to be applied to the estate of a believer who dies intestate (that is, without a will). The article assumes that the division of property mandated by this law (which favors the male line rather substantially) is intended by Bahá'u'lláh to be normative for all mankind.
Nowhere do the authors of the article explain why Bahá'u'lláh would choose such an obscure method to mandate a patrilineal family for His followers. One would ordinarily assume that if Bahá'u'lláh had wanted to ordain that Bahá'ís should trace their families through the male line He would have said so plainly. The fact that He did not—and the fact that the Kitáb-i-Aqdas is completely silent in this issue—would, at least, indicate that He did not regard the matter as very important. It is generally understood that the believers are free to follow the dictates of their own consciences on matters that are not discussed in the Bahá'í Writings, unless and until the Universal House of Justice makes a general ruling. The article does not address the question of why Bahá'u'lláh would have revealed His views on patrilineality in such an esoteric fashion that they have gone unnoticed until now.
More important, however, is the assumption that the inheritance laws of the Aqdas are to be regarded as normative. This is clearly incorrect. Bahá'u'lláh Himself has stated that every Bahá'í is obliged to leave a will, and that he (or she) is free to divide his possessions in any way he sees fit. No where does Bahá'u'lláh suggest or advise that the intestacy pattern should be used as a model for wills.
Moreover, Shoghi Effendi has specifically stated that this pattern should not be used as a model for one's will. One of the laws of inheritance found in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, which for some reason the article fails to mention, is that non-Bahá'ís do not inherit when a Bahá'í dies intestate. A non-Bahá'í wife, a non-Bahá'í child, grandchild, teacher, or any other non-Bahá'í who would normally be a beneficiary of the estate receives nothing. (One wonders here if Linda and John Walbridge would take this to indicate—as a corollary to their other arguments—that Bahá'u'lláh intended to ordain a family that is not only patrilineal, but also excludes non-Bahá'ís. Can we expect another article outlining the many benefits that will accrue to society if Bahá'ís all disinherit their non-Bahá'í relatives in accordance with the "norms" of the intestacy law?)
However, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith has addressed this issue specifically:
Although in the "Questions and Answers" Bahá'u'lláh has specifically stated that non-Bahá'ís have no right to inherit from their Bahá'í parents or relatives, yet this restriction applies only to such cases when a Bahá'í dies without leaving a will and when, therefore, his property will have to be divided in accordance with the rules set in the Aqdas. Otherwise a Bahá'í is free to bequeath his property to any person, irrespective of religion, provided, however, he leaves a will, specifying his wishes. As you see, therefore, it is always possible for a Bahá'í to provide for his non-Bahá'í wife, children or relatives by leaving a will. And it is only fair that he should do so. (Dawn of a New Day, p. 77)Stating that "it is only fair" that Bahá'ís provide for their non-Bahá'í relatives in their wills, the Guardian demonstrates clearly that the inheritance laws of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas are not normative. Rather, as is clear from the Aqdas itself, the law was intended to address a specific situation—what to do when a Bahá'í dies without a will.
This specific situation may also be regarded as a limited and temporary one. All Bahá'ís are required by the Aqdas to write a will. We might easily assume that in the future this law will be fully observed within the Bahá'í community: the rise of levels of education and literacy, the increased knowledge of Bahá'í law, the strengthening of those Bahá'í institutions which will be in a position to assist every believer to observe the law—these and other factors should eventually mean that the Bahá'í law related to intestacy will be used less and less often. There is no need to comment extensively on the long description of pre-Islamic Arabian society and the reforms to that society which the article claims to have been brought about by the restoration of the patrilineal family that resulted from the laws of the Qur'an. Though this analysis takes up fully five pages of the eleven-page article, it seems wholly irrelevant to the main thesis of the piece. Whether or not Bahá'u'lláh intended to ordain a patrilineal society has nothing to do with pre-Islamic Arabia or the Qur'an.
It might be noted in passing, however, that the Walbridges' attempts to demonstrate that early Arabian society was matrilineal are most unconvincing. It is curious to read in the article a summary of four types of marriage practiced before Islam, all of which are uncompromisingly patrilineal (that is, all children are permanently attached to their fathers and become part of their fathers' families—even in the case of a prostitute and her customers!). To read such a description and to have the authors conclude that the society is still somehow matrilineal is odd.
The article's account of the current tribulations of the North American family is similarly irrelevant. Again, it might be noted in passing that the North American family has never been patrilineal. Americans have always traced their family ties through both mother and father. In the 1940s Talcott-Parsons proposed the term multilineal to describe this phenomenon.
In any case, the Walbridges present no sound evidence that suggests that the North American family has become matrilineal. Certainly, the fact that some women today choose to keep their own names after marriage has nothing to do with this issue. The Walbridges seem annoyed with this practice, but where in the Bahá'í writings are women required, or even encouraged—where is the suggestion even made—that they should change their name after marriage? If this is a matrilineal practice, (and it is not) it is one that the Bahá'í Faith will not save us from.
However, it should be obvious that this is not the context in which the Kitáb-i-Aqdas was revealed. It is well known that the Aqdas was revealed in 1873 by Bahá'u'lláh in response to repeated requests received from Iranian Bahá'ís as to how to arrange their affairs (see Synopsis, p. 3). These early believers found themselves in the position of no longer being Bábís or Muslims—and, in many cases, being cast out of their families on account of their new religion—but still being forced to live by Muslim laws, for lack of an alternative.
Under these conditions, when a believer died in intestate (which would have been the normal situation) the surviving Bahá'í family would perforce have applied Muslim laws of inheritance, or—at best—Bábí law. The need for a Bahá'í law to address this temporary situation was both extreme and immediate. The laws of inheritance in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas were needed to fill this gap. There were, of course, no civil laws that would apply.
The law of inheritance was given to address a specific need of believers living in Muslim countries at the time, and it should not be remarkable that it takes into account the patrilineal patterns of those societies. But Bahá'u'lláh deliberately and specifically added provisions to this law that must eventually result in its abandonment.
Anthony Lee is managing editor of Kalimat Press and author/editor of numerous articles and books on Bahá'í history and teachings.
First, it is unfortunate that the forum did not represent a wider spectrum of viewpoints. We think it is fair to characterize all the writers as representing an American liberal feminist point of view. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, but it is not an ideology widely held in the rest of the world or even a majority viewpoint in America. The forum would have profited from more traditional and non-American viewpoints.
Second, we are quite aware of the “compositional context” of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas—its cultural background. However, our argument is not historical or scientific but theological. We assume that the point of its laws is not primarily the circumstances of the time but the circumstances of the Bahá'í community during the centuries when the laws of the Aqdas were intended to be in force. It is certainly legitimate to argue otherwise—any nonbeliever would, to start with—but that is not what we have done. To argue that the purpose of the laws of the Aqdas is to address the problems of nineteenth-century Iran makes the Aqdas not the basic law of the Bahá'í community but only the best example for Bahá'í lawmakers to follow. In any case, a “compositional context” interpretation of the Aqdas has historical problems: for one thing, Bahá'u'lláh discouraged the application of Bahá'í law in his time.
Third, it seems to us that in their rush to stamp out our heresy of reviving “the perspective of 10,000 years of patriarchy,” the forum authors have not bothered to give their own answers to the questions we asked ourselves: What is the role of men in the family? Why are men and women treated differently in Bahá'í law? Why are so many women divorced and living in poverty? Our answer is that while the woman’s role in the family is in large part determined by biology, the man’s role is not, though the presence of the father is critical to the social and economic viability of the family. Therefore, the man’s role must be created and maintained by constraints and rewards of society. Bahá'u'lláh’s legislation, we think, recognizes this by giving the father a degree of status in recognition of the responsibilities he is obliged to undertake.
Finally, when we “declined to participate” in the forum (mainly out of a sense that we had had our say and that it was undignified for authors to rebut their critics), we urged the editors of dialogue to publish a letter written by the Universal House of Justice on the structure of the family. Minus our anthropological historical pedantry, it uses much the same texts to draw a portrait of the Bahá'í family closely resembling ours—even drawing some conclusions that we avoided, such as calling the father “the head of the family” and granting the mother absolute right to the financial support of her husband. This letter is a considerably more important contribution to the debate on the nature of the Bahá'í family than our modest article. Those interested in the subject can find this letter in Bahá'í Marriage and Family Life, sect. 183, or Lights of Guidance, pp. 523-27. Although we quoted this letter in our article, none of the forum authors mention it. We are quite happy to defer to the Universal House of Justice’s formulation of the structure of the Bahá'í family. We hope that hereafter the debate on these issues will proceed, not on the basis of our article, but on the basis of the Universal House of Justice’s letter.
The Walbridges, no doubt due to their busy schedule, seem to have overlooked the obvious, namely, that the letter from the Universal House of Justice which they urged me to reprint did appear in the dialogue abstract of their article (p. 17). Granted, the full letter was not reprinted, but then neither was it reprinted in full in their original article. However, the heart of the letter, as the Walbridges cited it, was published, as they requested. It is interesting to note that in their letter the Universal House of Justice observed that the Research Department at the Bahá World Centre found no text from Bahá'u'lláh, ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, or Shoghi Effendi referring to either sex as “head of the household.” This is a significant observation since it limits the scope of authority of the House of Justice’s interpretation of gender roles in the Bahá'í family. That is to say, since there are no sacred texts addressing this issue and the subject lies outside of the sphere of legislation of Bahá'í law, the Universal House of Justice cannot infallibly interpret on the issue. Their sphere of authoritative interpretation is limited to legislation of laws not clearly defined in Bahá'u'lláh’s writings or the interpretation of Bahá'í law given to us by ‘Abdu'l-Bahá or Shoghi Effendi. The House of Justice’s commentary should, obviously, be given thoughtful consideration, but it is not binding on Bahá'í to regard the husband as the “head of the household.”
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