Advancement of Women: A Bahá'í Perspective
Authors: Janet and Peter Khan
Publisher: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, Illinois, 1998
Review by: Veronica Shoffstall
In recent years, the role of religion in promoting - or retarding - the
advancement of women has become a growing topic of discussion.
From the reactionary response of Islamic fundamentalists to questions among
Roman Catholics about whether females should be priests, and to household
arguments almost everywhere about whether the wife should pursue a career
or stay home with the children, the collision between religious traditions
and feminism has stirred heated debate.
In view of this critically important discourse (more than half the world's
population are women and four-fifths of the world's population identify
themselves as religious believers), a new book by Janet and Peter Khan on
Bahá'í views about the equality of women and men is especially welcome.
The Bahá'í Faith is the first major world religion to explicitly identify
the equality of women and men as a social principle, and as such its history
and teachings on the subject naturally assume significance.
Advancement of Women: A Bahá'í Perspective not only thoroughly and authoritatively
explores the Bahá'í position on this topic, it also examines how original
texts and teachings of other religions can be interpreted to support the
advancement of women's rights and prerogatives.
Of equal significance is the book's main theme: that the only adequate resolution
of this discourse lies in the concept of partnership. Partnership, of course,
has been emphasized at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women and in
meetings of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women by governmental
delegates and representatives of non-governmental organizations alike.
The Khans, two well-respected Bahá'ís who are also a married couple, are
well suited to undertake a book of this sort. Janet Khan has a Ph.D. in
education counseling and has held academic positions at the University of
Michigan and the University of Queensland. A former chairperson of the national
governing body of the Bahá'ís of Australia, she has served at the Research
Department of the Bahá'í World Center since 1983. Peter Khan, who holds
a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, has also occupied academic posts in Michigan
and Queensland. He, too, served as a member of the Australian Bahá'í national
governing body. Since 1987 he has been a member of the Universal House of
Justice, the elected world governing body of the Bahá'í community.
The Khans' book begins with an examination of how the status of women has
been defined in the authentic texts and teachings of other world religions,
with specific focus on Christianity and Islam. In both cases, the authors
conclude, the Founders of these religions have taught that "there is no
spiritual distinction between men and women."
The Qur'an, they write, actually did much to raise the status of women,
"forbidding female infanticide, providing a limitation on polygamy and extending
to women the right to initiate divorce proceedings," among other things.
The real problem, they suggest, has been that the "hierarchies of both religions
have consistently accorded women an inferior position that is not supported
by the authoritative statements of the Founders and have, at times, even
gone to the extreme length of denying the spiritual equality of men and
In contrast, the equality of women and men has been progressively championed
within the Bahá'í community since its founding about 150 years ago in Iran.
The Khans offer it as a model, suggesting also that the Bahá'í writings
can serve as a guideline for changing attitudes and practices that continue
to prevent both women and men from realizing their full potential.
In the course of this discussion, the reader learns much about the Bahá'í
Faith and its distinctive approach to social issues. The authors make clear,
for example, that Bahá'ís see progress on this and other issues as occurring
in an evolutionary fashion, through the social and spiritual transformation
of individuals and their relationships.
The Khans suggest, for example, that key to the genuine shift in attitudes
necessary for the bona fide advancement of women on a global level are changes
in the family. Transformation at this level, they argue, influences larger
processes and even determines the course of world peace.
At first glance, this emphasis on the family may seem conventional. And,
indeed, the Bahá'í teachings reaffirm that men have a central role as providers
and women an all-important role as mothers. However, say the Khans, the
Bahá'í vision of the family is far more advanced than the patriarchy of
the past, which categorized women as subordinate to men and bred attitudes
that limited both sexes.
"The Bahá'í teachings call for a new form of family dynamics, based on equality,
that provides a family structure appropriate to the present age and intrinsically
far stronger than that of ages past," the Khans write, "a family structure
that offers to all of its members - husband, wife, and children - a level
of fulfillment and satisfaction otherwise inaccessible."
Equality, as outlined in the Bahá'í writings, write the Khans, does not
imply identity of function. Motherhood is greatly valued in the Bahá'í Faith
because the mother is the first educator of the child, and education is
key to the advancement of civilization. The Bahá'í writings clearly specify
that "the 'training and culture of daughters is more necessary than that
The father's role is to support the family, and while this, too, may seem
conventional, it imposes upon the man a spiritual obligation that is neglected
in many societies. "The husband's responsibility to support the wife has
revolutionary implications in those cultures in which the women currently
do a disproportionate share of the work, including growing the food, collecting
water and fuel, and generally taking care of the survival needs of the family."
Vital as it is, motherhood is not the only valid role for women, and the
Bahá'í teachings call for the adoption of an identical program of education
for both sexes. This, the authors explain, would prevent males and females
from being channeled into different fields of endeavor without regard for
their true capacities.
In some instances, the father may be better suited to tend to domestic matters
while the mother may be better qualified for an outside career. Using the
tools of cooperation and consultation within an equal partnership, decision-making
on such family matters has a flexibility that is not possible within a patriarchal
The Bahá'í Faith also views the equal participation of women in all spheres
of activity as a prerequisite to peace, the Khans write. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, one
of the central figures of the Faith, wrote that "when women participate
fully and equally in the affairs of the world...war will cease."
The Khans argue that such transformations can be realistically achieved
"in an evolutionary manner" if "sustained by a commitment to fundamental
change and nurtured by educational programs designed to assist individuals
and communities to gradually bring attitudes and actions into conformity
with the spiritual principle."
The book covers numerous other aspects of this topic and constitutes a comprehensive
reference to the Bahá'í teachings on the equality of women and men, which
Bahá'ís see as an essential element of a mature civilization. The book also
makes an important contribution to the general literature on the subject,
offering the unique perspective of a non-patriarchal religious society that
focuses on logical reasons to strive for true equality in a way that advances
not only women but men - and consequently the whole of civilization.