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Annotated bibliography of Bahá'í perspectives on women and women's issues.

Unclipping the Wings:
A Survey of Secondary Literature in English on Bahá'í Perspectives on Women

by Trevor R. J. Finch

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 4:1
Association for Bahá'í Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1994


The secondary literature in English on the Bahá'í perspectives on women consists of a variety of articles and papers, some published in anthologies, others in journals or magazines, and yet others as stand- alones, written over the last twenty years or so. This is not an exhaustive survey and I apologise to anyone whose article has escaped my attention. There is also much material that eludes general circulation, partly because it is given as talks which are never formally published.

A reviewer is in the unenviable position of having to comment on the work of colleagues without being able to set out their own ideas in detail. A reviewer must shine the spotlight of criticism on the conceptual and emotional topography of the texts in question and express judgement upon their insights, ideas and perspectives. It is a partial and subjective exercise at best, but this may be ameliorated by a desire for seeking the truth in answering the following questions:

    a)   Does the text assist our understanding of the issues in the area of gender and equality?
    b)   Does the text offer us any profound insights or new perspectives which might change our way of looking at the issues involved?
    c)   Does the text make any practical suggestions as to how to tackle the issues involved in such a way as to promote harmony and equivalency of the sexes?

Many Bahá'ís are earnestly striving to shed light on this difficult subject. It is not the intention of this survey to attack anyone personally for any inadequacies in their work. It is, however, an honest attempt to take stock of what we have achieved so far and where we might next turn our attention.


There have been three major sources of Bahá'í scholarship on women's issues. The first and most important have been articles in the various Bahá'í studies journals. Among these, World Order (published by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the USA) and The Journal of Bahá'í Studies (Association for Bahá'í Studies) have published the most material. Next to these are two volumes of essays, of which I will make some general observations. Kalimat Press' "Equal Circles" (1987) is a collection of ten essays from personal perspectives.[1] These articles can be broadly sorted into two categories: academic, of which there are four, and experiential, six. The six that are generally experiential are so tied to personal perspectives that they are really beyond critical judgement in the usual sense. What is indisputable is the courage and honesty with which these six people, of diverse ethnic backgrounds, five women and one man, have shared their lives with their readership. It is through these very private and personal testimonies that we are able to glimpse the impact of broad historical, political and sociological trends on individuals and therefore to make sense of these trends on an emotional rather than an intellectual level. They are all worth reading for the universal truth of the human condition that they each uniquely mirror, but they are all the more pertinent to us because they are the experiences of fellow Bahá'ís. They may not say much that is new or surprising to those familiar with such literature, but they say it from a Bahá'í perspective.

Overall the anthology is well worth reading. The greatest lesson I feel I have drawn from the collection is that it is possible to have personal and experiential articles alongside academic papers, or even hybrid forms in one article. Androcentric academics may growl and protest about lack of rigour and precision, consistency or scholarly arguments. They may carp at the lack of evidence and logic. However, there is an equally vociferous lobby who demand ways of expressing their concerns, their insights and their feelings which are not to be strait-jacketed into scholarly dissertations. There are people who may have neither the time, the opportunity nor the inclination to conduct empirical or secondary research in order to come to tentative conclusions that their life experience, intuition and common sense can indicate more clearly and more certainly. It is a question of balancing masculine and feminine approaches to questions which concern the masculine and feminine in all of us.

The monograph, The Role of Women in an Advancing Civilization (1989),[2] based on papers presented at a conference of the Association for Bahá'í Studies - Australia, is also a sincere and courageous attempt to address a range of related issues. Much of the material is familiar enough and little of it threatens to force a radical revisioning of the issues involved. The papers seem fragmented and bitty, jumping from one aspect to another without clear linkages. Some try to cram too much in, thereby sacrificing clarity and focus. Once again, the articles in this collection were at the first level of coming to grips with what is familiar, or researching into our own history or experiences. This is a very necessary activity--to mark out our territory and establish our bearings, but we need to move on now towards exploring, explaining and proposing new strategies and new behavioural paradigms for a more equal, more balanced society.

A third source of material is the presentations made by the Bahá'í International Community. Four of these on women's issues have been made available to me, which are, naturally, for a different audience--the general public and those working for the agencies and non-governmental organisations of the United Nations. As such they are not speculative or deliberately contentious in nature, but simply state the Bahá'í viewpoint and/or explain Bahá'í participation in international ventures for improving the condition and status of women. My only question with regard to these four statements is, how well have they been distributed?

The rest of this review will focus on the major themes in the secondary Bahá'í literature on women's issues. Broadly speaking it is possible to analyse the various contributions in terms of six subjects. The first of these is what Bahá'ís have written about what the Bahá'í writings have to say on women's issues.

The Bahá'í Writings

Little has been written exploring the statements on gender issues in the Bahá'í texts. The first example of this is Constance Conrader's "Women - Attaining Their Birthright" (1972).[3] This is a stirring paper, written with feeling and fluency. From the opening paragraph Conrader sets a vigorous tone which stimulates as it instructs, steering a balanced course through the Bahá'í writings, making extensive use of Gleanings and The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Conrader elucidates 'Abdu'l-Bahá's teachings on women most eloquently and closes with a plea for women to be allowed to:

. . . share the vital task of helping to nurture humanity toward higher intellectual and spiritual development, furthering that divine civilization in which the full potential of the human mind and spirit can be manifested. (69)

"Feminine Forms of the Divine in Bahá'í Scripture" by Paula A. Drewek (1992) examines images of divinity in Bahá'í texts.[4] It opens with discussion of a recent process of the feminine revisioning of cultural images of divinity as a way of prefiguring equality in our social structures, i.e. if God or the Holy Spirit can be clearly shown to have a feminine aspect, then the status of women in society will be enhanced. One form of this has been a return to ancient images of female divinity. Drewek points out that the Bahá'í Faith satisfies this need without recourse to such ancient figures, and that the Bahá'í writings display an interaction of the masculine and feminine elements of the divine in a way that mirrors, in the metaphysical realm, a reality to be enacted in the physical one. Drewek goes on to discuss three forms: the Mother Word, the Queen of Carmel and the Maid of Heaven, showing how all these forms are interactive with masculine forms and how in their multiplicity they provide us with "a more comprehensive understanding of God and of our own growth potential than single-sex images could ever provide" (21). This is a fascinating and thought-provoking essay which contains original ideas worthy of further exploration.

In 1984, Linda and John Walbridge published an article in World Order entitled "Bahá'í Laws on the Status of Men."[5] It caused much controversy and received a great deal of criticism on nearly every aspect of its contents. The article attempts to argue that the Bahá'í Faith, through the laws of the Aqdas, favours men over women, or rather male-led societal structures over female-led. It gives a number of instances which it supports by reference to the laws of the Qur'an in relation to pre-Islamic Arabia and the laws of the Aqdas in relation to late Twentieth Century America. It all sounds very plausible and therein lies its danger. Critics were quick, if not zealous, in their responses, which appeared in Dialogue magazine (1987) under the title of "A Question of Gender: A Forum on the Status of Men in Bahá'í Law."[6]

One critic maintained that the Aqdas should have been related to Qajar Iran rather than Twentieth Century America, to keep the analogy with the Qur'an. Another, using a tone rather out of keeping with the Bahá'í spiritual principle of not giving offence, pointed out, among many other things, that the Aqdas has to be taken along with the whole corpus of Bahá'í scripture and commentary, not in isolation. A third response praised the Walbridges for their courage and carefully argued against their idea that fathers needed economic incentives to be closer to their families. Rather, Pascoe and Bartec suggested that the Bahá'í writings point to the necessity for men to develop their emotional lives. Several critics pointed out that the Walbridges had devoted too much space to the inequitable inheritance laws when these only operate in cases of intestacy. This "incident" served to illustrate the dangers of taking things out of context and attempting to find justification in Bahá'í scripture for one's own ideas, rather than allowing the spirit of the whole Bahá'í corpus to suffuse and drive one's work. It also raised the question of courtesy in responding to the work of fellow Bahá'ís.

In addition, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani has explored the reasons for the exclusion of women on the Universal House of Justice in a chapter in Asking Questions.[7]

There certainly appears to be an urgent need for a fuller and more careful exegesis of Bahá'í scripture on the subject of women, men and equality; for scripture provides the authority and rationale for all that Bahá'ís think and do in this area, as indeed it does for all aspects of life.

Historical Literature

The most extensive body of secondary literature studies the history of women in the Bahá'í community. Notwithstanding the biographies of the wives of the central figures (­siyih Khanum, Khadijeh Bagum, Munirih Khanum and Bahiyyih Khanum), there is biographical literature on Hands of the Cause (Martha Root and Dorothy Baker), and other outstanding Bahá'ís (Juliet Thompson, Lua Getsinger).

Tahirih has been a special focus of study. A recent article by Susan Stiles Maneck exposes some myths surrounding the depiction of her life by Bahá'ís.[8] This article proposes that each religion has its paradigm of the perfect woman and asserts that, for Bahá'ís, the most prominent woman in their Faith is Tahirih. The paper moves on to a fascinating, though brief, account of Tahirih's life, poetry and significance. The historical details in the paper, gleaned from Persian and non-Bahá'í sources, demonstrate that Tahirih is a more militant, wide-ranging and abrasive figure than many western Bahá'ís might have been led to believe. The question is raised by Stiles Maneck about what kind of paradigm Tahirih represents. Many, it appears, associate her with the women's suffrage movement. That she has inspired countless women, within and without the Faith, is undoubted, but she was no Emmeline Goulden Pankhurst nor Emily Davidson. In many ways Tahirih's goals and her impact on Middle Eastern society as a whole were vastly more far-reaching than the emancipation of women. There certainly is a need for a full and proper reappraisal of Tahirih's life and significance. Such a reappraisal may yet reveal her to be a far greater and more potent figure than we, in the west at least, have given her credit for. To confine Tahirih's role to that of feminist and suffragette, which Amin Banani--in his review of Abbas Amanat's "Resurrection and Renewal"[9]--might seem to imply, seems a very patriarchal thing to do, because it actually marginalises her. This article is a significant step in a worthy direction.

For me, the article also highlights what seems to be a tension between the exhortations in the Bahá'í Writings toward the promulgation of a unified and strong family life on the one hand, and the high profile given to Babi and Bahá'í heroines for whom family was either not a consideration, or certainly not what they were principally associated with. Should it therefore not be one of the tasks of Bahá'í historians, or hagiographers, to find us heroines who exemplify a paradigm that Bahá'í women who are devoted to their families may draw strength from? Or is it part of the old problem that the upbringing and education of children and the maintenance of a family life is not seen as heroic, even when combined with conspicuous service to the Cause? It is recognised that the problem is compounded by the fact that, in the early stages of a Faith's establishment, family life is not the primary focus, and that there is usually a significant time-lag between a figure's life and emergence as a heroic figure. Now that we have passed from the heroic phase into the formative phase of our Faith's development, we may have need of heroic figures who more closely fit our less mono-focused, more complex lives.

Three essays on North American Bahá'í history have been published.[10] R. Jackson Armstrong- Ingram's "Recovering a Lost Horizon: Women's Contributions to North American Bahá'í History" (1987) explores three areas of neglected historical study in American Bahá'í history. Most of it, I feel, despite the author's closing remarks, would be of greatest significance to those North American Bahá'ís who have an interest in their own history. It was the first large-scale national community outside of Iran and developed in a milieu where relatively little of the revelation was accessible. Consequently Bahá'í women utilised, within the Bahá'í community, the habits, customs and strategies they had previously employed in older, more developed social and organisational settings. The greater and wider availability of translated writings and the establishment and development of Bahá'í administrative institutions today means that the strategies and relationships Bahá'í women exercised in the earlier decades of this century in North America are not likely to be repeated or repeatable elsewhere. Perhaps the most telling point in the article was that, given the preponderance of women in the early years of the Faith's development in North America and their strong presence on committees and local assemblies, a woman has never been elected as secretary to the National Spiritual Assembly in the United States. Robert Stockman's essay on "Women in the American Bahá'í Community, 1900-1912" traces the fortunes of equality of the sexes in a culture that was not prepared for it, and illustrates the reluctance of women as well as men to accept a role of full equality. Of particularly interest is the description of the evolution of the administrative bodies of the early Chicago community, including the all-male House of Spirituality and the all-female Assembly of Teaching. Again, this is all very well, but of what application is this information? Somewhere in the article there should be what the author sees as the justification for writing it. Our time is very precious as Bahá'ís, and if something does not further the growth and development of the Cause in this day, should we be spending time on it now? On the other hand, if the work has some value then the author is protected from the criticism of the type just exemplified. Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis in her article "African American Women in the Bahá'í Faith 1899- 1919" does give justifications for her work, referring to the need for a collective memory of our history and for that memory to be a full and accurate picture of what took place.

Apart from America, there are two articles on Persian history.[11] Bahárieh Ma'ani looks at the impact that American Bahá'í women had on the Persian Bahá'í community in the first half of this century in her article "The Interdependence of Bahá'í Communities Services of North American Bahá'í Women in Iran" (1991). What is interesting are the novel methods used here-- co-operation between national Bahá'í communities, the power of example, the nature of pioneering are all explored. Bahárieh Ma'ani's article "Religion and the Myth of Male Superiority" (1987) also provides some refreshing new angles for me. One was the temporary restrictions placed on Persian Bahá'í women, in some cases until quite resently, in recognition of prevailing conditions, e.g. it was not until 1954 that Persian women were granted the right to serve on local and national spiritual assemblies. She makes the further point that the contribution of Babi and Bahá'í women in Iran who had to soldier on alone when their husbands were serving away from home, imprisoned or martyred, has been largely overlooked.

There is one article on Australian Bahá'í history. Graham Hassall's article on Hilda Brooks in The Role of Women in an Advancing Civilisation (1989)[12] is interesting as an account of one of the many early Bahá'í women in Australia who served the Faith with distinction, having come from an uneducated, lower socio-economic background. She was the first secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Australia and New Zealand. Again, the article's chief interest would probably be for Australians. If nothing else, it is a sobering and inspiring example of the outstanding contribution of women in the establishment of the Faith and its administration in the "Western" world.

In the mid 1970s, just before, during and immediately after International Women's Year (1975), "Bahá'í News" carried a series of articles on women, the first of which was a report on UN deliberations on "The Status of Women" (June 1974), the second of which discussed "International Women's Year: The Bahá'í Impact" (September 1975), and the third of which examined the lives of the great American teachers who travelled the world from 1919 to the end of the Guardian's Ministry: "A Love Which Does Not Wait" (April 1976).[13]

The first article highlighted the participation of the Bahá'í International Community at the 25th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women and the warm reception given to Bahá'í statements on women and equality. Constance Conrader's article had also been circulated and was well received. The second article described the impact that the Bahá'í delegation had on the International Women's Year Conference, the first major intergovernmental conference on the role of women in society, held in Mexico City. The Bahá'í women at the conference had a very high profile, were applauded warmly when they spoke, and were able to proclaim the teachings of the Faith on women and equality in a major way. Reading the CVs of the ten participants, it was gratifying to note how many "firsts" and how many great achievements these Bahá'í women had attained.

The third article stands as a tribute to the greater courage and fortitude of women in the teaching field. Of ten great teachers described therein, nine were women, the tenth being a husband of one of them! The import of these articles is that women have played a larger part in the establishment of the Bahá'í Faith than in any previous religion, and that, at an international level, the Bahá'ís have already played a major role in fora for the promotion of women and equality. In order to give the latter credibility, and to avoid dishonouring the memory of the former, we must strive to achieve a greater equality in our Bahá'í community at national, local and family levels.

The greatly disproportionate weighting of historical perspectives on Bahá'í women leads to speculation as to why such perspectives appear so attractive to Bahá'í writers. Is it an easier option--avoiding the less certain but more important ground of future direction-finding? Is it part of that direction-finding, a search for a firmer platform from which to move forward? If historical study remains merely descriptive, is it really of any use in a world so desperately needful of clear and practical guidance and leadership? Bahá'í historians should examine very carefully the rationale for what they do lest Bahá'ís be accused of "fiddling" with paper while the world "burns" with inequality. If historical Bahá'í studies act to debunk harmful or restrictive myths, in order to free us to move forward more swiftly and nimbly, then perhaps we may justify our seemingly overriding concern with historical studies. What might be of greater assistance than non-focused articles, relating to one country, would be cross-cultural, comparative historical studies which might throw up deeper and more incisive insights into our development and provide more accurate prognostications of future trends.

The Causes of Inequality

A number of important contributions have explored the sociological and psychological factors involved in creating and maintaining inequality between the sexes. "From Oppression to Equality" by Hoda Mahmoudi (1988)[14] was a well written, highly condensed article of a mainstream variety, analysing the problem of man's suppression of woman. It covered psychological, sociological, linguistic, philosophical, and intellectual explanations and in its encyclopždic treatment it left the reader rather breathless. Two points she makes are particularly noteworthy. Firstly, Mahmoudi observes that the Bahá'í Faith and the Feminist movement, which both began in the early 1800s, are the only two movements which advocate the full and absolute equality of the sexes. Secondly, when writing on patriarchy as one of the obstacles to change, she maintains that the Bahá'í remedy is that the Bahá'í writings compel men to "...own the equality of men with women" (34). The first point must give us cause for sober reflection on the need for a closer dialogue between the two movements, and the second point should be incorporated into the agenda for men's equality conferences. "Patriarchy - Dead or Alive? Where Do We Go from Here?" by Colleen Dawes and Morad Farshid (1989)(15) is an ambitious piece, but it still rehearses the familiar arguments and provides no clear way forward other than a prediction of greater egalitarianism.

"The Equality of Women - The Bahá'í Principle of Complementarity" by John S. Hatcher (1990),(16) starts by arguing that the purpose of religion is to raise human consciousness, and then mentions the process of unveiling eternal truths and applying these to evolving social structures. The article goes on to attribute our present global mess partly to our violation of the principle of equality and describes the need for a complementary balance between male and female aspects, within individuals and in society, and with distinctions preserved. These points are well taken, though two-thirds of the way through the article, after raising and somehow then side-stepping the issue of membership of the Universal House of Justice, Hatcher seems to lose his way. The point he makes in the closing paragraphs, that equality can only be pursued effectively when we have fashioned "...a just and healthy social context" is a disappointing one and, if taken too literally, may dampen our enthusiasm to work for equality. We take the House of Justice's point that no principle in the Faith can be established in isolation from the others, but this must not be allowed to encourage us to believe that we must wait rather than do anything now.

On the psychological front, two articles examine gender differences. Peggy Caton's article "Gender Relations: A Cross- Cultural Dilemma" (1987)(17) is a fascinating glimpse into the relationships between women and men and their differing styles of communication:

Many men and women do not really understand or like each other, although they depend on the other sex for the qualities and services they provide. Although each sex is conditioned to perform different roles and behaviours, often they both wish the other were more like themselves. . . Masculinity and femininity really spring from two different cultural or subcultural systems, each with its own values, goals, and styles of communication. (1)

The discussion of three models of equality in relation to the Bahá'í view is very interesting and reinforces the idea that the transformation of present-day society entails the acquiring, by both sexes, of traits traditionally associated with their opposites: "a balancing of male and female qualities within each person, providing for individual and gender differences, but not those based on inequality of power and privilege" (143). This is an article that bears much further discussion and development--how can we train or encourage men and women to achieve this balance?

"Perceiving Differences: A Look at Gender and Inequality" by Mark Brush and Betty Conow came from the Forum section of Dialogue (1988).(18) Mark Brush writes of the dangers of generalising about men and women from observable gender traits and gives a valuable warning of the mistake of allowing our understanding of issues to fossilise around late Twentieth Century thinking. I feel Betty Conow's article says similar things more effectively. In fact, her contribution is eminently quotable. She offers new insights and much food for thought:

The male psyche still remains an unexplored area that male scientists seem loath to probe too deeply. (47)

. . . although the sexes have the same inner powers, these powers are not necessarily realised in identical modes, but are expressed in different but complementary ways. (48)

. . . the male sex . . . also tend to intellectualise emotions and spirit. The female sex . . . tend to emotionalise intellect and spirit. (49)

Conow ends her article by writing, "The transformation of self is not a transformation of gender, but a spiritual maturation of the human sexless soul" (50).

There is obviously a need for a more thorough treatment of this aspect, for, if we understand the causes of inequality more clearly, we are better able to derive more effective solutions.

The Realisation of Women's Potential

"Educating Women for their Rights" by Mildred R. Mottahedeh (1972),(19) is a confident and cogently argued paper coming, as it did, at a time when the radical feminist movement was still in its genesis. Mottahedeh begins by stating that "women are still, in popular thought and custom, females first and human beings second" (11). She describes the parlous state of the world's women, whose task it is to be the first educators of the next generation. She refers to the almost simultaneous occurrence of the first Women's Rights Convention, at Seneca Falls New York, and Tahirih's unveiling at Badasht. She goes on to describe the value of educating women for their roles in the home and in society, government, industry, science and technology. She writes of the necessary concomitants, such as the right to vote, to own property and to have equal pay for equal work. Toward the end of her article she says of women that: "Without the contribution of her special talents and without her voice in world affairs, the human race will remain half slave and half free" (50).

Three papers by the Bahá'í International Community (BIC) discuss in a clear and concise manner aspects of the potential contribution of women if equality is realised. The pamphlet "Women and Men: Partnership for a Healthy Planet" (1991) is an excellent summary of developments in the UN Decade for Women (1975-85) and of the Bahá'í perspective on women and development. "Preparation for Life in Peace: The Contribution of Women" (1985) sets out the basic Bahá'í teachings about child education, the education of women, women's role in peace-making and the education of men in the principle of equality. The paper points out that a person's worth does not reside in their physical characteristics but in their accomplishments and their character. "Equality of Men and Women: A New Reality" (1993) was another pamphlet which covered the related Bahá'í teachings on equality, family, peace, development and education. It makes the point that in the Bahá'í Faith there is no division of life into religious and secular realms.

A final essay on this theme is Helen Perkins' "Women, Development and Peace" (1989),(20)which presents some interesting statistics to show women governing in times of crisis, with a higher number of women MPs during and immediately after the Second World War, in a number of countries, compared to now.

Certainly a great deal of work needs to be carried out on this aspect. The knowledge of what women have achieved and the awareness of what they could achieve is enormously liberating, for men as well as women. We owe it to the world to demonstrate the endless potential for development that the human race has if only it would recognise and make use of its more latent half.


Judy A. Maddox's "Two Career Couples" (1987)(21) deals with the recurring theme of women caught up in the two-shift scenario where, even with a career as demanding as their husbands', they are expected by husbands, and everyone else including themselves, to bear the brunt of the domestic load and the care of any children. The article explores the guilt of working mothers for "abandoning" their children during most of each working day and the guilt of some fathers who feel distanced from their children's upbringing anyway. The article then goes on to reassure working couples in a number of ways, quoting in some cases from research findings and in others from the Bahá'í writings, to offer helpful ways of thinking about and approaching this common situation. This kind of article is of real benefit because it deals directly with a problematic aspect of daily living. There should be a much greater effort on the part of those who have been blessed with academic opportunities to plough back their specialist knowledge and their best thinking into the Bahá'í communities by helping us to tackle, in a practical way, those things which impede our progress as individuals, families, communities and institutions.

"The Spiritual Basis of Equality" (1975) was prepared with International Women"s Year in mind and, although it is not the most polished of the BIC documents, it is, for me, the most direct and the most useful. Indeed, it does something which few of the other papers touched upon - it describes clearly what women should do and what men should do to help achieve equality.

It argues that women should:

a) accept responsibility for their development,
b) seek education and refinement of character,
c) demonstrate their latent potential,
d) participate in the world at large,
e) be involved as decision-makers, and
f) exert effort toward universal peace.

It says that men should:

a) recognise and own the equality of women,
b) abandon any vestiges of prejudice, and
c) actively encourage and foster the development of women.

In the final paragraph the pamphlet even outlines how the Bahá'í community is trying to establish equality. It is this aspect of the subject which needs much more exploration and serious study.

In 1988, the National Spiritual Assembly of Australia sent a letter to all Bahá'ís in their community.(22) This is a wonderfully brave and unequivocal summons to obey Bahá'u'lláh's injunctions concerning equality, from a divine institution to its community. Several passages deserve quoting in full, not just because they are well-written, but because they so clearly express one of the great imperatives of our age:

We are asking each individual, each family, each Institution and all Bahá'í communities to bring equality to a state of functioning reality.

Friends, when Bahá'u'lláh proclaimed His Revelation we entered into an era which would characterise love, knowledge, co-operation, unity, equality and peace. The era of dominance and aggression came to an end. This new era will only be realised when women equally participate in the whole spectrum of human affairs and men support them in their endeavours.

The National Spiritual Assembly appeals specially to Bahá'í men.

I sincerely hope that other National Assemblies will follow suit when they feel ready to call on their communities to rise to this great challenge. More communities may be ready to respond and obey than is currently assumed.

In contrast to the above papers, there is a booklet entitled: "The Equality of the Sexes: A Bahá'í Principle" by the National Bahá'í Women's Group Republic of Ireland (1989?).(23) This is of great value since it attempted, by matching quotations from Bahá'í writings to basic questions, to show how the principle of equality might be actualised in human terms at the individual level --an aspect usually missing from the more "scholarly" papers.

Dialogue with Feminists and Women's Groups

"A Look at Antifeminist Literature" by Gayle Morrison (1975)(24) is an excellent academic review of four books which attacked the feminist movement in the early to mid 1970s. They appeared to be a reaction, Morrison writes, to the threat of social instability occasioned by the onslaught of feminists on the traditional male-dominated, male-orientated structures of society. Criticisms of the feminists included attacks on their unwillingness to face up to the responsibilities of partnership, parenting and domestic duties; their fear of newly gained freedoms; their assumption that male aggression suppresses them instead of the limitations of their own physiology; and their denial of biological differences between the sexes as well as the superiority of men in the fields of mathematics, music, chess, science, literature and fine art.

The collective fault of the antifeminists, Morrison argued, was that they lack: "an evolutionary or historical perspective," and thus "fail to discern the challenge and potential of the movement for sexual equality" (56). In her closing remarks Morrison describes feminism as "one of the forces leading us toward a desperately needed new definition of what it means to be a human being in a united world order" (59). This paper deserves praise for its lucid exploration of the myths, stereotypes and prejudices which are perpetuated by women and men against both sexes and which retard the progress of humanity toward equality and harmony.

The other article covering this theme is Ann Schoonmaker's "Revisioning the Women's Movement" (1984).(25) In the opening paragraphs of this hurricane of an article, Schoonmaker exposes the plight of the women's movement in the United States in the mid 1980s--bitterly divided and lacking awareness of their purpose. She outlines, with startling clarity, the five forms of alienation in western male-dominated culture and sets out the four alternative lines of action for women, each of which is reactive and defined/confined by the male paradigm. Schoonmaker then goes on to explore four parameters of the Bahá'í revisioning of the position of women in society: theological, historical, sociological and psychological, using the Bahá'í writings to underscore her points. She reminds us of two tasks that 'Abdu'l-Bahá has set for the women's movement--to take up the cause of women in illiterate and inferior conditions, and the cause of world peace. This paper is the pick of the crop so far, combining as it does incisive analysis and clear direction for future action, both derived from the divine word. Prospective Bahá'í writers on women and equality would do well to examine Schoonmaker's thesis and develop its tightly-packed implications.

Fostering dialogue with feminists and women's groups and movements is an urgent priority which Bahá'í thinkers and writers should address themselves to with compassion, courage and enthusiasm. So much emotion, frustration and energy could be refocussed to constructive ends among the world's women, and so much Bahá'í complacency could be transmuted to an awareness of human need if dialogue were entered into on a wide-ranging and depth-plumbing basis.


Part of the problem, for this reviewer, in reviewing such literature as the above articles and papers, is in being familiar, over a twenty-year period, with the books and writings of feminists and women's movements generally. So much of what Bahá'ís write is not ground-breaking, but distinctly treading in others' footsteps. In many ways we, as Bahá'ís, are far behind in developing our thinking in the realm of equality and gender studies, much less enacting our newly-developed thought processes. Our timid explorations may well seem na´ve to the outside world, if not childish. We do have two advantages, however, over the plethora of feminist apologists and women's movements and the burgeoning men's movements. We have the mandate and the standard of the Bahá'í writings, and we have the guidance and protection of our divinely ordained institutions. The feminist, women's and men's movements usually lack any spiritual dimension or clear direction and are often confrontationalist. The Bahá'ís can offer spirituality, well-defined goals and non- confrontational lines of action for the promotion of equality. These must be developed in our secondary literature, taught to our fellow believers and shared with the world, as a matter of urgency. In the Bahá'í secondary literature I have read so far, I see precious little of these things with the exception of Schoonmaker's contribution. We must move rapidly beyond our initial exploratory excursions if we are to contribute anything significant or permanent to the gender and equality debates in the wider world. In encouraging Bahá'í men to own the equality of women with them we need to make great advances and these advances may, perhaps, be best promoted by the holding of a number of high-profile men's conferences on equality around the world, and by publishing their proceedings and distributing them widely.

In answer to the original three questions posed in the introduction, it can be said that the majority of the Bahá'í secondary literature on women and equality assists our understanding of the issues. There are, however, dangers of allowing personal perspectives to obscure the spirit of the teachings as enshrined in the Bahá'í writings, of allowing Twentieth Century ideas to distort our understanding of the Faith and its principles, and of cramming too much into our articles thus forcing us to treat many aspects of this issue in a superficial and somewhat glib manner.

It can be said that this literature occasionally offers new perspectives, though rarely does it provide profound insights. This situation will undoubtedly improve as we mature and develop in our understanding of the issues of women and equality.

It cannot be said that the literature contributes much by way of practical suggestions and guidance as to how to tackle the issues at the levels of the individual, the family, the community or world at large. Like the outside world, we are able to explain the problems eloquently, but the world will soon be looking to us to provide eloquent, workable answers as well.

As I have been at pains to point out, one glaring gap is in the aspect of developing men's understanding of, and support for, equality. Alongside this is the task of developing in them positive feminine characteristics. This I would like to see tackled with greater fervour.

Finally, a line of action that this survey inspired me to think of was that we should pursue, with great energy and much speed, an education programme for our youth everywhere, extended into all schools later, where possible: "Partnership, Parenting, Home-Making and Fulfilment in Equality, for Young Men and Women." It could alleviate a great deal of misery among the next generation of adults and promote the cause of equality in a way that would bring great credit to the Bahá'í community worldwide. Are our Bahá'í academics, scholars and educationalists up to these various challenges? We will see.

To summarise what I feel are the gaps in the secondary literature on the Bahá'í perspectives on women, I offer the following list of suggestions, as a basis, at least, for discussion:

a) We can and should have academic and experiential or creative responses to this perspective side by side, in recognition that humans are diverse and learn in diverse ways.

b) We need a fuller and more careful examination and discussion of the Bahá'í writings on women and equality.

c) If we are to continue to give the greatest attention to the historical aspects of the perspectives on women, then we must arm ourselves with unassailable justifications and broaden our approach through comparative, cross-cultural studies in order to derive universal insights.

d) We need to examine the causes of inequality more thoroughly in order to counter it more effectively within our own ranks and to offer workable solutions to the wider world.

e) We need to explore in greater depth the achievements of Bahá'í women and the potential transformative power of their contribution as it is enhanced by our more conscious efforts to improve the situation in the future.

f) We need to focus more of our research on the practicalities of this perspective than we have done so far, rather than deriving theories which will have little impact on present human suffering.

g) We need to focus more attention on developing the awareness and contribution of men in the arena of equality, otherwise the old imbalance will simply be replaced by a new imbalance. We have not yet moved beyond the base-line of exhortation in this area.

h) We need to initiate and develop dialogue with the leaders of feminist thought and the leaders of women's groups and movements, so that, from this engagement of minds and hearts, may come greater understanding for both them and us and more useful outcomes for the human race.

i) Totally missing, it seems, is the whole issue of educating the next and future generations in equality. How are we to ensure that succeeding generations will not perpetuate the harmful ways of thinking and being that we are trapped by?

A review article is an opportunity to survey the achievements of Bahá'í scholars in the field and to highlight gaps in the present literature. Perhaps Bahá'í publishers would do well, in the light of the vital importance of this subject, to seek out, or even commission, more of such articles, pamphlets and books. Compared to the energy expended by the rest of the English-speaking world, Bahá'ís have hardly touched on the issues of gender and equality, and yet we have so much to offer and a grave responsibility to provide leadership, direction and, above all, hope in this vital area of human endeavour.

  1. Peggy Caton (ed.), Equal Circles: Women and Men in Bahá'í Communities (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1987).
  2. Sitarih Ala'i and Colleen Dawes, ed. The Role of Women in an Advancing Civilization (Willetton, Western Australia: Australian A.B.S., 1989).
  3. Constance Conrader, "Women - Attaining Their Birthright," World Order 6 (1972): 43-59, reprinted in World Order 21.1/2 (1986-7): 53-69.
  4. Paula Drewek, "Feminine Forms of the Divine in Bahá'í Scriptures," The Journal of Bahá'í Studies 5.1 (1992): 13-14.
  5. Linda and John Walbridge, "Bahá'í Laws on the Status of Men," World Order 19.1/2 (Fall 1984/Winter 1984-85): 25-36.
  6. Dialogue (Summer/Fall 1987): 14-34.
  7. Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, Asking Questions: A Challenge to Fundamentalism (Oxford: George Ronald, 1989).
  8. Susan Stiles Maneck, "Tahirih: A Religious Paradigm of Womanhood," The Journal of Bahá'í Studies 2.2 (1989): 39-54.
  9. The Journal of Bahá'í Studies 2.2 (1989): 69-70.
  10. R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram, "Recovering a Lost Horizon: Women's Contributions to North American Bahá'í History," in Equal Circles 33-53; Robert Stockman, "Women in the American Bahá'í Community, 1900-1912," World Order 25.2 (1993/94): 17-34; Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis, "African American Women in the Bahá'í Faith 1899-1919," World Order 25.2 (1993/94): 41-57.
  11. Bahárieh Ma'ani, "The Interdependence of Bahá'í Communities Services of North American Bahá'í Women in Iran," The Journal of Bahá'í Studies 4.1 (1991): 19-46; "Religion and the Myth of Male Superiority," in Equal Circles 3-32.
  12. Graham Hassall, "Hilda Brooks," in The Role of Women: 73-97.
  13. Bahá'í International Community, "The Status of Women - A Progress Report on United Nations Deliberations," Bahá'í News (June 1974); Bahá'í International Community, "Women's Year - The Bahá'í Impact on the World Conference and the Tribune," Bahá'í News (September 1975); Janet Schoen, "A Love Which Does Not Wait," Bahá'í News (April 1976).
  14. Hoda Mahmoudi, "From Oppression to Equality: The Emergence of the Feminist Perspective," The Journal of Bahá'í Studies 1.3 (1988): 25-37.
  15. Colleen Dawes and Morad Farshid, "Patriarchy - Dead or Alive? Where Do We Go from Here?" in The Role of Women 51-75.
  16. John S. Hatcher, "The Equality of Women - The Bahá'í Principle of Complementarity," The Journal of Bahá'í Studies 2.3 (1990): 55-66.
  17. Peggy Caton, "Gender Relations: A Cross-Cultural Dilemma," in Equal Circles 123- 154.
  18. Mark Brush, Betty Conow, "Perceiving Differences: A Look at Gender and Inequality," Dialogue (1988): 42-45.
  19. Mildred R. Mottahedeh, "Educating Women for Their Rights," World Order 6 (1972): 45-60.
  20. Helen Perkins, "Women, Development and Peace," in The Role of Women 35-49.
  21. Judy A. Maddox's "Two Career Couples," in Equal Circles 55-74.
  22. Printed as "Equality between Men and Women," in World Order 25.2 (1993-94): 12-14.
  23. National Bahá'í Women's Group, The Equality of the Sexes: A Bahá'í Principle (Republic of Ireland: National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Ireland, n.d. [1989?]).
  24. Gayle Morrison, "A Look at Antifeminist Literature," World Order 9 (1975): 40-59.
  25. Ann Schoonmaker, "Revisioning the Women's Movement," in Circle of Unity: Bahá'í Approaches to Current Social Issues, edited by A. Lee (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1984) 135-154.
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