Tahirih and Women's Suffrage
by / on behalf of Universal House of Justicepublished in Bahá'í Studies Bulletin, 4:2
first written or published 1988
1. Letter and Memorandum #1
1a. Letter #1Department of the Secretariat
10 January 1988
Mr. Hari Docherty
Dear Bahá’í Friend,
The Universal House of Justice referred to the Research Department your letter of 1 December 1987 concerning a letter in which you understood that Shoghi Effendi had stated that women's suffrage was not part of Táhirih's concept. We are now directed to send you the enclosed copy of a memorandum, prepared by that Department in response.
The House of Justice hopes that a study of this comprehensive memorandum will enhance your understanding of the exalted station of Táhirih and the extent of her influence on the emancipation of women and the ultimate achievement of peace.
For Department of the Secretariat
1b. Memorandum accompanying letter #1
Date: 10 January 1988
From: The Research Department
The Research Department has studied the questions raised by Mr. Hari Docherty in his letter of 1 December 1987 to the Universal House of Justice. Mr. Docherty refers to a letter of the Guardian which states that woman's suffrage was not part of the concept of Táhirih. He requests a copy of this letter and expresses the view that the association of woman's suffrage with Táhirih appears to originate with a book about her life by a Western woman, the idea later being picked up and given credence in "God Passes By". Mr. Docherty also expresses concern that many Bahá’í women put Táhirih before the Greatest Holy Leaf. We provide the following comment.
1. Letter about Táhirih
While the Research Department has been unable to locate a letter in which Shoghi Effendi stated that "women's suffrage was not part of her [Táhirih's] concept", the following extract from a letter dated 5 November 1949 written on behalf of the Guardian to a group of believers involved in arranging radio broadcasts in Latin America, may well be the one that Mr. Docherty had in mind. The relevant section of this letter states:
He feels that the projected radio broadcasts are of the utmost importance as they afford you an opportunity of bringing to many listeners a sense of the greatness of the Cause. In this connection he has some advice to give you: You should stick carefully to facts and beware of putting any interpretations of facts into it. Your best sources are Nabil's Narrative and Martha Root's book on Tahirih, as far as she is concerned, and, of course the general literature of our Faith. The Guardian advises you not to introduce into a series for public consumption anything obscure or mystical. By all means avoid the scene in the Presence of Bahá'u'lláh between Tahirih and Quddus. Her separation from her husband and children, her teaching in Baghdad, her imprisonment and death, and her poems, sake a beautiful and moving tale. He would not call her the first suffragette, for this certainly was strictly speaking no part of her concept.
It is interesting to note that it is not correct to regard Táhirih as "the first suffragette". Indeed, the term "suffragette", meaning one who militantly agitates for the extension of the right to vote to women, would appear to be a misnomer when applied to Táhirih. A review of the outstanding accomplishments of her life of service to the Cause, contained in "God Passes By" (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974), pp. 72-77, clearly indicates that the direct advocacy of suffrage for her sex was "strictly speaking no part of her concept".
While Táhirih cannot be regarded as the "first suffragette", she is described by the Guardian as the "first woman suffrage martyr" in "God Passes By", p. 75. From the context, it appears that though Táhirih was not actively and directly involved in advocating woman's suffrage, by proclaiming the advent of the New Day with its values of peace and unity, by transcending cultural constraints, by active involvement in the dramatic Conference at Badasht. She was participating in the initiation of a process that was to bring about a revolutionary transformation in human society, a transformation which, given further impetus by the Teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, would, among other things, lead to the emancipation of women and include the right of women to vote and to participate in social decision-making. Her martyrdom served to underline the importance of the new Revelation and to stimulate interest in the situation of women.
2. Woman's suffrage
Mr. Docherty hazards the guess that the connection between Táhirih and woman's suffrage may have been introduced into the Faith by a Western woman and then amplified by Shoghi Effendi in "God passes By". While it is possible that a Western author helped to popularize the contribution of Táhirih to the cause of women, as mentioned in (1.) above, the link between Tahirih and woman's suffrage derives from her espousal of spiritual values which initiated a process of fundamental social change.
With regard to the concept of woman's suffrage, it is the view of the Research Department that woman's suffrage must be considered within the framework of the practice of the principle of the equality of men and women. The principle of equality is clearly articulated in the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá. (See the Compilation on Women.) Furthermore, there are numerous Tablets dealing with this subject which were revealed by the Master prior to His travels in the West.
With regard to the rights of women, 'Abdu'l-Bahá stated:
Women have equal rights with men upon earth; in religion and society they are a very important element.
The Master characterized woman's suffrage as one of these "rights". For example, He indicated:
At the time of elections the right to vote is the inalienable right of women...
'Abdu'l-Bahá also makes woman's suffrage a prerequisite to the attainment of universal peace. He stated:
Another fact of equal importance in bringing about international peace is woman's suffrage. That is to say, when perfect equality shall be established between men and women, peace may be realized for the simple reason that womankind in general will never favor warfare. Women will not be willing to allow those whom they have so tenderly cared for to go to the battlefield. When they shall have a vote, they will oppose any cause of warfare.
The Universal House of Justice in its Peace Statement reaffirmed the importance of the full emancipation of women to the achievement of peace.
3. The station of Táhirih
Mr. Docherty expresses concern that some of the friends give greater importance to Táhirih than to the Greatest Holy Leaf. In "God Passes By", p. 33, Táhirih is described as "the noblest of her sex in that [Babi] Dispensation".
In "Messages to the Bahá'í World" (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1971), p. 74, the Guardian describes the Greatest Holy Leaf as "ranking as foremost among the members of her sex in the Bahá'í Dispensation". And, in "God Passes By", he states that she is:
...comparable in rank to those immortal heroines such as Sarah, Asiyih, the Virgin Mary, Fatimih and Tahirih, each of whom has outshone every member of her sex in previous Dispensations.
Thus Táhirih and the Greatest Holy Leaf are each described as being pre-eminent in her particular Dispensation. It is therefore apparent that both are worthy of the high regard of the believers.
2. Letter and Memorandum #2
2a. Letter #2Department of the Secretariat
16 March 1988
Mr. Hari Docherty
Dear Bahá’í Friend,
Your letter of 12 February 1988, in which you clarify the points raised in your letter of 1 December 1987, a copy of which is enclosed as you have requested, has been received by the Universal House of Justice and referred to the Research Department. The House of Justice warmly commends your insistence on accuracy in presenting any aspect of the teachings or history of the Faith, and applauds your obvious commitment to the cause of the advancement of women.
In sending for your study the enclosed copy of the further memorandum, and its attachments, on the topic of Táhirih, prepared by the Research Department, the House of Justice trusts that the issues that remained unanswered earlier will be satisfactorily addressed.
2b. Memorandum accompanying letter #2
Date: 16 March 1988
From: The Research Department
The Research Department has considered the issues raised by Mr. Hari Docherty in his letter dated 12 February 1988 to the Universal House of Justice. Mr. Docherty explains that Dr. Denis MacEoin stated in a talk he gave some years ago at a Summer School, that Táhirih's association with women's suffrage originated with a book by a Western woman, and that, while the words of Táhirih to the effect that: "You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women", might have the right ring in English, they were not credible within the context of 19th century Persian culture. We provide the following comment.
1. Táhirih and Woman's Suffrage
The Research Department has not been able to locate conclusive evidence which supports the idea that Táhirih's association with woman's suffrage originated with a book by a Western woman. It is our view, as was stated in our memorandum of 10 January 1988, that Táhirih, by proclaiming the advent of the New Day with its values of peace and unity, by transcending cultural constraints, by active involvement in the dramatic Conference at Badasht, was participating in the initiation of a process that was to bring about a revolutionary transformation in human society, a transformation which, given further impetus by the Teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, would, among other things, lead to the emancipation of women. The link between Táhirih and woman's suffrage derives, then, in the first instance, from her espousal of spiritual values which initiated a process of fundamental social change.
In “God Passes By" (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974), Shoghi Effendi stresses the impact of Táhirih's life in the West. He wrote:
...the fame of this immortal woman was noised abroad, and traveling with remarkable swiftness as far as the capitals of Western Europe, aroused the enthusiastic admiration and evoked the ardent praise of men and women of divers nationalities, callings and cultures....
Western authors, inspired by the "wondrous story of her life", no doubt helped to popularize the contribution of Táhirih to the cause of women. The tributes to Táhirih from some of these writers are recorded in "God Passes By", on pp. 76-77.
2. Words of Táhirih
With regard to the authenticity of the words of Táhirih to the effect that "You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women", Mr. Docherty draws attention to an extract from a Tablet of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, quoted in Martha Root's book, “Táhirih the Pure", rev. ed. (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1981), p. 98, which cites these same words. He requests a copy of this Tablet.
We enclose extracts from a talk delivered by ‘Abdu'l-Bahá at a meeting of the Women's Freedom League in London in January 1913. The extracts are published in "Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era", rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1976), pp. 154-56. The words of Táhirih are cited on page 155. The transcript of the complete talk is not available in the Bahá’í International Archives.
It is interesting to note that "Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era" by J.E. Esslemont was first published in 1923. It is, therefore, likely that when Shoghi Effendi was writing "God Passes By" in 1944, he was well aware of the existence of the Master's talk and he may well have drawn on it for his description of Táhirih's death.
Martha Root quotes from the same talk of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in "Táhirih the Pure". In the 1981 revision of Miss Root's book the wording of the Master's talk has been very slightly modified, and therefore does not accord exactly with the wording in "Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era".
Extracts from a talk of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, cited in "Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era", rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1976), pp. 154-56, "Equality of Men and Women" [online at reference.bahai.org/en/t/o/BNE/bne-121.html]:
One of the social principles to which Bahá’u’lláh attaches great importance is that women should be regarded as the equals of men and should enjoy equal rights and privileges, equal education, and equal opportunities.