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Towards the Goal of Full Partnership: One Hundred and Fifty Years of the Advancement of Women

A Bahá’í approach to gender equality requires the application of spiritual principles to all sectors of global society—education, health care, media, government and international fora.

Ann Boyles surveys the Bahá’í community’s past and present efforts to understand and practice the principle of the equality between men and women. This article first appeared in the 1993-94 edition of The Bahá’í World.

Between 4 and 15 September 1995, some twenty thousand participants from all parts of the world will converge in Beijing for the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women. They will focus on a number of critical areas of concern: the sharing of power and decision-making; mechanisms to promote the advancement of women; awareness of and commitment to women’s rights; poverty; women’s access to and participation in the definition of economic structures and policies and the productive process; access to education, health, and employment; violence against women; and the effects on women of continuing national and international armed or other kinds of conflict. The Bahá’í community will be represented by an official delegation at the conference itself, while a large representation of Bahá’ís from all regions of the world will participate in the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) Forum on Women, which is open to everyone and will be held immediately preceding and overlapping the first four days of the conference.

Bahá’ís have participated in the previous three world conferences on women in 1975, 1980, and 1985, and, indeed, the community’s delegations are uniquely well-equipped to consult on issues pertaining to the advancement of women. The Bahá’í world community has a distinctive approach to the subject, clearly delineated in its sacred writings; it has a century and a half of practical experience in promoting equality of the sexes; and it has a willingness to share its teachings and experience with others struggling to overcome inequality around the world.

Principles Distinctive to the Bahá’í Approach to Equality

Perhaps the most distinctive element of the Bahá’í approach to the issue of equality is the conviction that change must be a unifying force, leading towards full partnership of men and women—and beyond this toward the unity of the human family. Bahá’í activities focusing on the advancement of women take their direction from passages such as the following: “The world of humanity has two wings – one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly.”‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Haifa: World Centre Publications, 1978), 302; cited in Women: A Compilation, in The Compilation of Compilations, vol. 2 (Australia: Bahá’í Publications Australia, 1991), 362. Bahá’ís see the need to involve men in recognizing and promoting the issue of equality. What benefits will accrue either to men or to women if only women see the need for equality in their lives? How can the sexes advance harmoniously and unitedly unless both become aware of this essential principle? For example, in many development projects focusing solely on women the results are not enduring for a number of reasons: women, by themselves, cannot effectively make cultural changes; the attitudes of women (and men) have not been fundamentally altered even where the projects themselves have been successful; women’s concerns and women’s projects are seen to be unimportant to the society as a whole; or projects have tended to put women in the roles of “consumers” rather than training them to continue effecting change in their communities once the project ends. Often, gender-focused activities for women only have resulted in conflict between men and women and have therefore been seen as detrimental to community life rather than beneficial, since they may polarize the sexes rather than improve relationships between them. Conscious of this, the Bahá’í community has increasingly sought to involve both women and men in discussion and activities pertaining to the equality issue. Obviously the process of change is one that spans years and perhaps generations before effects are readily noticeable, but the Bahá’í community knows it is essential to lay the foundation now for future progress – for the flight of the bird of humanity.

If the first distinctive element of the Bahá’í approach to the advancement of women is the insistence that the process be a unifying force, it is no surprise that the second is its emphasis on equilibrium and harmony, as evidenced by this recorded utterance of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:

The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the balance is already shifting; force is losing its dominance, and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age less masculine and more permeated with the feminine ideals, or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more evenly balanced.‘Abdu’l-Bahá, quoted in John Esslemont, Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era, 5th rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1987), 149.

Such pronouncements are far from being utopian visions or expressions of pious hope. Laws and ordinances, woven into the fabric of the Bahá’í social order, facilitate the integration of women into all aspects of social life, and the Bahá’í administrative system promotes practical steps leading to a society where equality will be the norm. For example, while universal education is desirable, if the parents do not have the funds to send all their children to school, they must be guided by the Bahá’í teaching that the education of girls takes precedence over the education of boys, because the mother is the first educator of the child and society will not progress as long as mothers remain in a state of ignorance. Within the school system, “daughters and sons must follow the same curriculum of study, thereby promoting unity of the sexes.”‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 2nd ed. (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), 175.It is obvious that realizing this goal, of unity rather than hegemony in male-female relations, will radically alter the social life of the human family.

The vision of a future society in which women and men enter into a full and equal partnership is, then, set unequivocally before the Bahá’í community. While employing the means to achieve the goal demands perseverance, audacity, imagination, and development of consultative skills, the ultimate objective remains clear. And this view of change leading to unity appears to be catching on in circles far wider than the Bahá’í community itself, judging from recent statements made at the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, held in New York in March 1994. The planning committee for the NGO Forum ‘95 described the upcoming event in Beijing as a place “to bring together women and men to challenge, create and transform global structures and processes at all levels through the empowerment and celebration of women.”Cited in One Country: Newsletter of the Bahá’í International Community 6.1 (April-June 1994), 9.

Principle of Equality: an Historical Overview

The power of the Bahá’í teachings to reshape radically the attitudes and lives of the approximately five million men and women around the world who call themselves Bahá’ís is firmly and uniquely rooted in what they consider to be divine revelation: the Bahá’í Faith is the only major religion in recorded history whose Founder has unequivocally stated the principle of the equality of women and men. Over one hundred years ago, Bahá’u’lláh wrote: “In this Day the Hand of divine grace hath removed all distinctions. The servants of God and His handmaidens are regarded on the same plane.”Bahá’u’lláh, extract from a previously untranslated tablet; cited in Women, 358. The revolutionary and revolutionizing power of this statement may be lost on many readers in the late twentieth century, but set in the context of nineteenth century Persia, where women were treated as chattel or as mere reproductive vessels, were held virtually as domestic prisoners, and were not deemed worthy of any formal education that would equip them for any role in greater society – or, indeed, that would adequately prepare them to be educators of their own children – this fundamental spiritual principle enunciated by Bahá’u’lláh presented an electrifying challenge to all who heard it.

One small incident suffices to illustrate the difficulty posed to Persian society by the idea of equality. The veil was held to be the symbol of a woman’s purity; according to the dictates of Persian Islamic society, a man simply did not look at the face of a respectable woman who was not a family member. Thus, when one of the heroines of the Bábi FaithThe Báb Faith, proclaimed in Persia in 1844 by Siyyid ʿAlí Muḥammad, entitled “The Báb” or “The Gate,” was the revelation immediately preceding the Bahá’í dispensation and was intimately linked to it. The Báb Himself stated that He had come to prepare the way for “Him Whom God Shall Make Manifest,” the Promised One of all the religions who would bring unity to the entire world—Bahá’u’lláh. appeared unveiled in a gathering of fellow believers, the men were greatly distressed, one so much that he ran off and slit his throat. In Persian society at large, reactions were even more extreme, violent, and abusive. But such limited human responses could not thwart divine revelation: Bahá’u’lláh proclaimed women to be equal, and so humanity began its slow and often painful journey towards the realization of this ideal.

To foster a deeper understanding of the principle both within the Bahá’í community and in the general public, Bahá’u’lláh’s son ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, authorized interpreter of His Father’s writings and appointed by Him as Center of His Covenant and the one to whom all Bahá’ís should turn as the source of authority, expounded this theme of equality. In a tablet (letter) to an individual woman He wrote,

Know thou, O handmaid, that in the sight of Bahá, women are accounted the same as men, and God hath created all humankind in His own image, and after His own likeness. That is, men and women alike are the revealers of His names and attributes, and from the spiritual viewpoint there is no difference between them.‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, 79-80; cited in Women, 362.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá also elaborated upon this theme in many public talks He gave in Europe and America, where He travelled from 1911 to 1913 after His release from imprisonment in Palestine. Speaking in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, He said,

Woman’s lack of progress and proficiency has been due to her need of equal education and opportunity. Had she been allowed this equality, there is no doubt she would be the counterpart of man in ability and capacity. The happiness of mankind will be realized when women and men coordinate and advance equally, for each is the complement and helpmeet of the other.‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 182; cited in Women, 365-366.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá made a crucial distinction in these elucidations of His Father’s teachings. In asserting that women will be the “counterparts” of men in ability and capacity when they are offered equal opportunities for education, He did not assert that women are or will be identical to men. Thus, Bahá’ís understand that equality does not mean identity of function; rather complementarity is its hallmark, according to the Bahá’í teachings.

During the period 1921-1957, Shoghi Effendi, who was chosen by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to be His appointed successor as interpreter of Bahá’í scripture and named Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith in His Will and Testament, encouraged Bahá’í communities to grow further into the notion of equality of the sexes, particularly in their service to Bahá’í administrative institutions. In a letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of India and Burma, written in 1923, he urged the women of those countries to endeavour to the best of their ability to acquire a better and more profound knowledge of the Cause, to take a more active and systematic part in the general affairs of the Movement, and prove themselves in every way enlightened, responsible and efficient co-workers to their fellow-men in their common task for the advancement of the Cause throughout their country.Shoghi Effendi, from a letter dated 27 December 1923 to the National Spiritual Assembly of India and Burma; cited in Women, 402.

During the period of his leadership, he actively encouraged women as well as men to arise and assist in efforts to establish the Bahá’í Faith widely throughout the globe by resettling in foreign countries.

Since its establishment in 1963, the supreme governing body of the Bahá’í world community, the Universal House of Justice, has further educated the Bahá’í community on the principle of equality, writing of the “mutual and complementary duties” of men and women within the context of the family as well as the “much wider sphere of relationships between men and women” that should be considered “in the context of Bahá’í society, not in that of past or present social norms.”From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, dated 28 December 1980, to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of New Zealand; cited in Family Life, in The Compilation of Compilations, vol. 1, 414-415. The Bahá’í writings clearly give the mother the role of her children’s first educator, but the Universal House of Justice also points out:

...this does not by any means imply that the place of woman is confined to the home.

On the contrary, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has stated:

In the Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh, women are advancing side by side with the men. There is no area or instance where they will lag behind: they have equal rights with men, and will enter, in the future, into all branches of the administration of society. Such will be their elevation that, in every area of endeavour, they will occupy the highest levels in the human world.

and again:

So it will come to pass that when women participate fully and equally in the affairs of the world, when they enter confidently and capably the great arena of laws and politics, war will cease....From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, dated 28 December 1980, to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of New Zealand; cited in Women, 392-393. The first cited passage is a revised translation of part of a talk by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá from Paris Talks, 11th ed. (London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1972), 182; the second is from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 135.

There are no universal, compulsory rules governing how women balance their responsibilities both as mothers and as active members of society outside the home. The Universal House of Justice has stated that this decision must be made by the individual, saying: “It is for every woman, if and when she becomes a mother, to determine how best she can discharge on the one hand her chief responsibility as a mother and on the other, to the extent possible, to participate in other aspects of the activities of the society of which she forms a part....”From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, dated 22 April 1981 to an individual believer; cited in Women, 393. Thus, for the first time in religious history, women have been recognized and are treated as mature, responsible human beings, capable of arranging their lives individually to meet the demands placed upon them.

To assist women and men to understand their evolving roles within the family and in the world at large, the Universal House of Justice has, over the past number of years, released compilations of Bahá’í writings which group together passages on various subjects. The publication in January 1986 of a compilation of extracts dedicated solely to the subject of women, taken from the writings of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi, and the Universal House of Justice, constitutes a direct invitation to Bahá’ís around the world to deepen their knowledge on this subject, to discuss what they learn with others, and to apply it in their daily lives.

It is an indication of humanity’s spiritual development that we are capable of recognizing equality as a complex and profound spiritual principle with ramifications in all areas of life, and undoubtedly society will continue to evolve to accommodate such a shift in consciousness. Consider, for example, the effects that heeding the following passage of Bahá’u’lláh will have on humanity:

Women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God....

The friends of God must be adorned with the ornament of justice, equity, kindness and love. As they do not allow themselves to be the object of cruelty and transgression, in like manner they should not allow such tyranny to visit the handmaidens of God.Bahá’u’lláh, from a previously untranslated tablet; cited in Women, 379.

From the level of the family, the realm of domestic violence, to that of society, where, for example, sexual harassment, pornography, and forced prostitution plague women in all corners of the world, the effects of acting upon this directive will be dramatic and far-reaching.

Women as Peacemakers

Even more dramatic, far-reaching, and profound ramifications of equality are evident when one considers the role of women in establishing world peace. As mothers, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has said, women will reach a stage when they are no longer willing to send their sons to war:

In past ages humanity has been defective and inefficient because it has been incomplete. War and its ravages have blighted the world; the education of woman will be a mighty step toward its abolition and ending, for she will use her whole influence against war. Woman rears the child and educates the youth to maturity. She will refuse to give her sons for sacrifice upon the field of battle. In truth, she will be the greatest factor in establishing universal peace and international arbitration. Assuredly, woman will abolish warfare among mankind....‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 108.

Furthermore, as participants in “the great arena of laws and politics” women will have effective means to enact laws to ensure they will not be forced to send their children to wage war. But the importance of the emancipation of women goes far beyond the laying down of arms, as the Universal House of Justice points out in a message written to the peoples of the world on the occasion of the United Nations International Year of Peace, saying: “Only as women are welcomed into full partnership in all fields of human endeavour will the moral and psychological climate be created in which international peace can emerge.”The Universal House of Justice, The Promise of World Peace (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1985), 12. The abandonment of weapons is certainly necessary and important in the achievement of peace, but without the proper “moral and psychological climate” such an action is ultimately fruitless.

Outstanding Women

The Bahá’í writings offer a dynamic vision of the potentialities of women and the changes they can effect in the world, and the history of the Bahá’í Faith offers many examples of outstanding women who serve as models or paradigms of this “new womanhood.” Two women in particular stand out, one associated with qualities of strength and audacity and the other with tenderness and servitude. The first is Tahirih, the Persian poet and fearless defender of the Bábi Faith, for which she eventually suffered a martyr’s death, and the second is Bahiyyih Khanum, the daughter of Bahá’u’lláh who served her Father selflessly throughout His life, forgoing marriage and the establishment of a family of her own in order to care for Him.

Tahirih was an exceptional woman for her time and place, breaking the bonds that normally enslaved women in nineteenth century Persia. She attained a level of education unusual for women; she composed poems still widely regarded as masterpieces of literature; as one of the original nineteen followers of the Báb, she became a leader of the Bábi community and taught her faith fearlessly; she had the temerity to refuse a proposal of the Shah, who was greatly attracted by her beauty, that she become one of his wives; she is reported to have said, shortly before her death, “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.”Cited by Shoghi Effendi in God Passes By, 3rd ed. (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974), 75.

Shoghi Effendi referred to her as “the first woman suffrage martyr.”Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 75. Intrepid and outspoken, she did not allow the social dictates of her society to hold her back from reaching her potential. Yet she paid a terrible price for her courageous acts; she was imprisoned for some time by her husband, and when she escaped she was forced to leave her children behind, never to see them again. Brief years later, she was again imprisoned, this time by government officials who were disturbed by her success in winning converts to the Faith of the Báb, which they saw as heretical to Islam and a threat to the stability of Persian government and society. A group of soldiers was sent to end her life by strangulation, and her body was thrown down a well. Yet her final words proved prophetic; they express a certainty about the future – a vision evoking both hope and strength.

Tahirih, “the Great Announcement,” ranks as the foremost woman of the Bábi revelation, and in the Bahá’í dispensation another female figure has been accorded a similar distinction. Bahiyyih Khanum, the saintly daughter of Bahá’u’lláh who was given the title “the Greatest Holy Leaf,” was addressed by her Father in the following words: “Verily, We have elevated thee to the rank of one of the most distinguished among thy sex, and granted thee, in My court, a station such as none other woman hath surpassed.”Bahyyih Khnum: The Greatest Holy Leaf, A Compilation (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1982), 3. Shoghi Effendi, her great-nephew, extolled her as “the outstanding heroine of the Bahá’í Dispensation.”Bahyyih Khnum: The Greatest Holy Leaf, A Compilation (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1982), 62. The qualities of her character that led to this distinction are summed up in the following passage, also written by him:

Whether in the management of the affairs of His Household in which she excelled, or in the social relationships which she so assiduously cultivated in order to shield both Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, whether in the unfailing attention she paid to the everyday needs of her Father, or in the traits of generosity, of affability and kindness, which she manifested, the Greatest Holy Leaf had by that time abundantly demonstrated her worthiness to rank as one of the noblest figures intimately associated with the life-long work of Bahá’u’lláh.Bahyyih Khnum: The Greatest Holy Leaf, A Compilation (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1982), 34-35.

Shoghi Effendi remarked upon her serenity in the face of the terrible deprivations and degradations of exile and imprisonment, through which she accompanied her Father from the time she was six years old. He pointed to her care for all the members of the holy family and of the pilgrims who came from both East and West. Her physical frailty belied her spiritual strength, which was fully demonstrated at the time of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s passing: Shoghi Effendi, then a young student at Oxford University, was first devastated by the news of his Grandfather’s death and was subsequently overwhelmed at the prospect of assuming the leadership of the Bahá’í world community, as set forth in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Will and Testament. While the young Guardian secluded himself and prepared to take up the burden and responsibility that had been bequeathed to him, his elderly aunt, at that time over seventy years of age, took the reins of the Bahá’í community in her hands and directed its affairs until his return. Years later, in an eloquent tribute written at the time of her death, Shoghi Effendi described her as his “chief sustainer,” his “most affectionate comforter,” “the joy and inspiration of [his] life.”Bahyyih Khnum: The Greatest Holy Leaf, A Compilation (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1982), 31.

In Bahiyyih Khanum’s own writings, letters written to Bahá’ís all over the world, her strength of character and of expression is evident. The treacherous actions of some members of her own family taught her all too well the difficulties posed by disloyalty and disunity; thus the following passage, written just after the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá at a time of crisis in the Bahá’í world, takes on great significance:

All the virtues of humankind are summed up in the one word ‘steadfastness’, if we but act according to its laws. It draws to us by a magnet the blessings and bestowals of Heaven, if we but rise up according to the obligations it implies.Bahyyih Khnum: The Greatest Holy Leaf, A Compilation (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1982), 148.

Similarly, her writings on service show the focus of her life:

In this Day nothing is so important as service. Did not ‘Abdu’l-Bahá voluntarily call Himself the ‘Servant’ of Baha, manifesting also in His life the perfections of servitude to God and man?
We, wishing to follow the commands left by Bahá’u’lláh, spread and lived by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, we can take no greater step toward the Heavenly Kingdom – can give no greater joy to the present beloved Guardian of the Cause, Shoghi Effendi – than that of loving service to all mankind.Bahyyih Khnum: The Greatest Holy Leaf, A Compilation (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1982), 224.

The examples of Tahirih and Bahiyyih Khanum show vividly how both strength and audacity as well as “the spiritual qualities of love and service” are part of the paradigm of Bahá’í womanhood.‘Abdu’l-Bahá, cited in Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era, 149; Women, 369. Since their time, numerous Bahá’í women from many different cultural backgrounds have arisen to demonstrate through their actions how these qualities can be combined. One such woman who served the cause of international peace was Laura Dreyfus-Barney, an American who became a member of the first Bahá’í community in Europe around 1900. A leader in promoting the advancement of women in the early years of this century, she focused her attention on mobilizing women for peace and represented the International Council of Women (ICW) in the League of Nations when it was established following World War I. In 1937 she was elected president of ICW’s Peace and Arbitration Commission, and following World War II she played an important role in the development of the relationship between the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and non-governmental organizations. These are only a few highlights of Mme Dreyfus-Barney’s many humanitarian activities, undertaken over the entire span of her adult life and motivated by her deep love for humankind and her vision of the earth as one home for all peoples.

While women are called upon to enter the great arena of laws and politics, they should not sacrifice their qualities of love and service in order to advance. By their actions, and by the actions of a society which supports them, they must change the world so that man no longer dominates and “the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more evenly balanced.”‘Abdu’l-Bahá, cited in Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era, 149; Women, 369. When that balance is attained – when feminine qualities are valued and respected, when women’s traditional activities such as mothering are seen as a valuable, meritorious contribution to society, when women speak confidently and are accorded respect for their contributions in public life, and when society changes to recognize women’s diverse roles and capacities – then peace will be a real possibility in the world. That is the goal towards which Bahá’í women and men look with eager anticipation; that is the reason for the long history of Bahá’í efforts to advance the cause of women; that is the lesson learned from the examples of Tahirih and Bahiyyih Khanum, as well as Laura Dreyfus-Barney.

Bahá’í Efforts to Advance the Cause of Women

As we have seen, the impetus for Bahá’í efforts to advance the cause of women comes directly from the spiritual teachings of the Faith’s Founder, and thence from the succession of leadership, first appointed and later elected, throughout the Faith’s 150-year history. The Bahá’í community’s commitment to the issue is well-grounded in divine scripture, and history provides examples of women who embody the ideals outlined in the Faith’s sacred writings, but, one may well ask, how has the Bahá’í commitment been translated into action on a wider scale, and have activities been carried out in all parts of the world?

In arriving at a clear, broad understanding of the term “advancement of women,” it is necessary to consider the many ways this term can be understood in different parts of the world. For example, what does the advancement of women mean in societies where women must still haul water or firewood long distances each day for their households, as they must in rural communities of Cameroon or Bolivia, compared to societies where women executives must deal with the “glass ceiling” that bars promotion to top positions, as seen predominantly in the more “developed” countries? Although these two manifestations of inequality are undeniably different in degree of oppression, with the former condemning women to a life of virtual slavery, the net result in both cases is the same: women are denied the opportunity to “progress” and become “proficient” outside traditionally accepted spheres of activity. Similarly, the effects on men, on families, and ultimately on society, are the same. As the Universal House of Justice pointed out in its message on peace:

The denial of such equality perpetrates an injustice against one half of the world’s population and promotes in men harmful attitudes and habits that are carried from the family to the workplace, to political life, and ultimately to international relations. There are no grounds, moral, practical, or biological, upon which such denial can be justified.The Promise of World Peace, 11-12.
Thus, although promotion of the advancement of women may manifest itself at many different levels, serve many different needs, and involve many different activities, the end goal is the same. Through a diversity of approaches, commensurate with the requirements of the societies in which they operate, the Bahá’ís seek one ultimate goal: the unity of humanity, of which the equality of women is an integral part. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stated: “As long as women are prevented from attaining their highest possibilities, so long will men be unable to achieve the greatness which might be theirs.”‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, 133; Women, 366.

To hasten the achievement of this “greatness,” since the time of Bahá’u’lláh and of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Bahá’í community around the world has striven to put these teachings and principles into action. As one might expect in the context of an evolving community, its efforts to promote the advancement of women have likewise evolved. Through the years, one can see an increase in the number of activities as well as an increasing diversity in approaches. Some of these projects include efforts to improve the basic literacy of women through establishment of schools, whether simple tutorial schools or more formal educational institutions; training in income-generating skills; education about health care and hygiene; skill-building in community development; conferences on women’s issues; environmental involvement; administrative training; publications for and by women; and international collaboration between women in the Bahá’í community. A brief survey of some of these efforts follows.

Literacy Training and the Education of Women

Perhaps the first concrete expression of the Bahá’í community’s commitment to the advancement of women was the establishment of a number of girls’ schools in Persia (now Iran) at the turn of the century. Writing to one group which had asked for advice concerning the establishment of schools for children of both sexes in their community, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said:

The school for girls taketh precedence over the school for boys, for it is incumbent upon the girls of this glorious era to be fully versed in the various branches of knowledge, in sciences and the arts and all the wonders of this pre-eminent time, that they may then educate their children and train them from their earliest days in the ways of perfection. If, as she ought, the mother possesseth the learning and accomplishments of humankind, her children, like unto angels, will be fostered in all excellence, in right conduct and beauty. Therefore the School for Girls that hath been established in that place must be made the object of the deep concern and high endeavours of the friends.Abdu’l-Bahá, cited in A Compilation on Baha’i Education, in The Compilation of Compilations, vol. 1, 284

The pre-eminent girls’ school established in Persia at this time was the Tarbiyat School in Tehran. Funded through the cooperation of members of the Persian and American Bahá’í communities, the Tarbiyat Girls’ School began operating in 1911. The involvement of American Bahá’ís in the endeavor meant that the methods used and subjects taught were considered progressive – even radical – by traditional Persian standards. Girls at Tarbiyat had recess and gymnastics more than fifteen years before government schools allowed physical education for girls, as Holly Hanson Vick points out in her article about early Bahá’í social and economic development projects in Iran.Holly Hanson Vick, “Shining Example in Cradle of Faith,” U.S. Baha'i News 675 (June 1987), 9. Furthermore, in the Tarbiyat School girls were allowed to dance, sing, and pray aloud, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá repeatedly stressed in tablets to the school’s organizers that there should be no difference between the curriculum offered to boys and that offered to girls. To support the mothers of the children in the school, monthly conferences were held for women, where different topics designed to interest and inform them were covered in plays, talks, and demonstrations. Between three and four hundred women attended these events.Genevieve L. Coy, “Educating the Women of Persia,” Star of the West 17:2 (May 1926), 50-55; cited in Hanson Vick, 9-10. The result of all this activity was a remarkable degree of progress among the Persian Bahá’í women. As Hanson Vick points out, the girls’ schools established throughout Persia in these very early years of the development of the Bahá’í community trained “the first generation of professional women in Iranian society, and the example set by Bahá’í women had an impact on the whole society.”Hanson Vick, 10. These early Bahá’í efforts also had a dramatic effect on the literacy rate among Persian Bahá’í women. Hanson Vick states, “In 1973 it was announced that the Bahá’ís had achieved a literacy rate of 100 percent among women under the age of 40, despite the national literacy rate of 15 percent.”Hanson Vick, 10. See also “A Current Survey of Baha'i Activities,” The Baha'i World, vol. 15 (1969-1973) (Haifa: World Centre Publications, 1976), 248.

From their early beginnings in Persia, Bahá’í projects designed to foster the development of women have set a high standard that the community has striven to surpass as it gains experience and expertise. And indeed, there has been consistent progress, both quantitative and qualitative, in the efforts it has undertaken on behalf of women.

Since those first efforts, numerous Bahá’í schools have begun to operate around the world. Most of them are co-educational, but the particular need to educate girls, as outlined in the writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, has not been neglected. A case in point is the recent establishment of a girls’ school in Africa. In January 1993, seeing a need for educational opportunities among the young women of Zambia, Bahá’ís opened the Banani International Secondary School for Girls. Only 20 percent of girls in Zambia receive basic education, and to correct this situation the Banani School, built entirely by the Bahá’í community, accepts only girls. Currently consisting of six classrooms, a 120-bed dormitory, and a dining hall, the school concentrates on providing practical training in science and agriculture. Upon graduation, students receive the International General Certificate of Secondary Education.See The Baha'i World 1992-93: An International Record (Haifa: World Centre Publications, 1993), 141.

The Bahá’í Vocational Institute for Rural Women in Indore is another educational facility addressing the particular needs of a population – this time the women of rural India. The institute offers programs relating to literacy, health care, hygiene, and income-generating skills, with the overall focus of improving the education and status of women, the poorest members of society, in rural India. Inaugurated on 24 February 1983, its development was swift; within two years it had developed resources and programs and was functioning regularly, offering one three-week course per month. Originally funded entirely by Bahá’ís, the institute’s success has prompted the Indian government, the Canadian High Commission, and numerous individuals to offer their assistance with grants and donations of various materials. The institute has also begun to reach out to the wider community: in June 1986, for example, the Government of India’s Madhya Pradesh Council of Science and Technology asked the institute to conduct a workshop on socio-economic development of tribal women and appropriate technology. Such requests are becoming more frequent as the fame and prestige of the institute grows throughout the region.

In a society where females are generally considered valuable only for reproduction and manual work, where there is a 90 percent illiteracy rate among women, and where the mortality rate for females is very high due to the neglect of girl babies and grown women, there is a great need to change established attitudes. The institute’s explicit goal is to improve the lives of rural Indian women by training them in crafts, literacy, health, and hygiene. In keeping with Bahá’í principles, the program integrates the spiritual and the practical, with the object not only of making an immediate material difference in the women’s lives but also of changing attitudes about women among participants and their families. The spiritual component of education is seen as central to the process, for only through a transformation of heart and mind can meaningful change take place.

The program, accommodating up to thirty women for each residential course, fosters independence and raises consciousness about the current and historical role of women in Indian society. Programs focus on Bahá’í principles, encouraging participants, whether Bahá’ís or not, to develop their spiritual identities and encourage similar development in their children once they return home.

Through the years, the institute has evolved and become more diversified, with sub-centres opening in nearby villages. In each of these locations fifteen women who have already gone through the program at Indore receive a further six months of training in literacy and weaving. Their training is paid for by the government during the program, following which the government also provides, at 75 percent subsidy, handlooms for the women to use in their homes. The institute has received large orders for clothing produced by its students and graduates, and the government has agreed to supply worksheds for the women’s training.

The institute is becoming well-known as a center for the concrete application of Bahá’í principles in service to humanity. A telling example of the changes in attitudes it has effected involves women from two untouchable tribes that normally never eat together, intermarry, or even meet. Members from both tribes were chosen to participate in the institute and thus were expected to live and work together during their stay at Indore. Initially prejudiced against each other through years of social conditioning, at the institute they overcame the taboos of the caste system to live and work together once they understood the Bahá’í principle of the oneness of humanity.

Numerous other educational programs operate for women around the world, including literacy classes in locations as diverse as Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Guinea Bissau, India, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Zaire, and Zambia. In France, the Bahá’í community has sponsored literacy classes for Turkish-speaking women, in cooperation with non-government agencies, and the United States has also offered literacy classes for new immigrants. In many cases, Bahá’ís do not view the acquiring of literacy skills as an end in itself. The Guaymi Cultural Center in Panama, for example, has placed the advancement of women at the forefront of its activities and has redesigned literacy materials around this and similarly progressive moral principles, rather than focusing solely on topics such as food production and land ownership. The idea behind this approach is that such elements of moral education, which form the foundation for cooperation among individuals and unity in the community, will ultimately have a far more lasting effect on the quality of life in participants’ communities than the simple acquisition of skills.

Often literacy classes are combined with skills training, as in the Gabon project, where women are also taught sewing, cooking, and child care. Sometimes focus rests more on the acquisition of income-generating skills; some Indian projects teach participants to sew and to make a variety of crafts, and also promote topics such as appropriate technology and sustainable agriculture. Such skill-intensive training can result in unexpected benefits; for example, a sewing, home crafts, and food-making project in Papua New Guinea has blossomed into a catering project that has garnered much praise from government officials. “Skills training” may also deal with the basic concepts of preparing young women for adult life, and so in several countries, the Bahá’í community is sponsoring development courses specifically for teenage girls. Projects can also aim at empowering women through validating the skills they already possess: in Finland a project has been organized to encourage local Same women to appreciate and preserve the handicrafts of their culture.

Health Care

In addition to promoting the advancement of women through basic education and skills training, the Bahá’í community has been active from the early years of the twentieth century in the field of health care, when the pioneering efforts of a number of American Bahá’í women who settled in Tehran resulted in a primary health care project and the holding of classes for mothers. Although they were unable to establish the nursing school they had envisioned, their years of selfless service to the community in Iran provided the Bahá’ís in that country with a potent example of the capacity of women.See Hanson Vick, 11.

Health care has been a central component of many different undertakings throughout the Bahá’í world ever since that time. In India, students at the Bahá’í Vocational Institute for Rural Women at Indore are taught how to establish and maintain a simple kitchen garden to improve their families’ nutrition. They are also educated about hygiene and trained to generate awareness in their communities concerning personal and home hygiene, sanitation, child care, immunization, nutrition, and first aid. As a result of its services to women, and in particular its contribution to the eradication of guinea worm caused by contaminated water in 302 villages in central India, the institute was given a “Global 500 Award” in 1992 by the United Nations Environment Program for outstanding environmental achievement.

In Africa, the Bahá’í women have also addressed the issue of nutrition. In Imo State, Nigeria, women have introduced a social and economic development project promoting the use of soya bean products to provide much-needed proteins for families who cannot afford to include animal milk, eggs, or meat in their daily diet. An institute to teach the method of making soya milk was organized in November 1990 for men and women in the area and was attended by over one hundred people. Primary health education training programs in countries such as Zambia have also met with success.

The national Bahá’í Women’s Committee in Malaysia has launched a five-year program to assist women, especially those in squatter camps and rural areas, to become more self-reliant and to develop more of their potential. Here again, an important feature in the program is two health projects, resulting in improved cleanliness and personal hygiene of the communities involved. In the more remote and conservative villages, project facilitators have found that once the women overcome their initial reticence they begin to question the validity of many local myths, fallacies, and superstitions concerning health in light of what they have learned in the project.

Environmental issues bear no small relation to those of health, and in Uganda, the Bahá’í women in the Mbale district have become involved in the Ugandan tree planting movement and have subsequently been given a plot of five hectares in the Namanve forest to grow trees. Commended for their activities by the Regional Forest Officer, they are showing their commitment to environmental preservation, not only for themselves but for their children and generations to come.

“Traditional Media as Change Agent” Project

In keeping with both the broad base of Bahá’í efforts to advance the status of women and the evolutionary nature of activities undertaken throughout the past years, in October 1991 the Bahá’í community embarked upon an imaginative and ambitious development project on three far-flung sites: Cameroon, Bolivia, and Malaysia. Entitled “Traditional Media as Change Agent” and funded through the Bahá’í International Community by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the project has sought to use traditional media of song, dance, and drama to promote social and economic well-being by uplifting the status of women.

Many development projects focus on implementing new technology or teaching project-specific skills to a particular population, but the Bahá’í-UNIFEM endeavor adopts a different approach, emphasizing communication itself. Since messages presented through traditional media are taken very seriously in the target communities, project originators felt that such effective channels could be used to generate discussion about the roles of women and men.

The underlying assumption of the project is that change in the status of women will not occur until attitudes change, and attitudes change only when hearts are transformed. Such an approach recognizes the importance of the spiritual dimension to the partnership between men and women, raising the issue to a level of principle far beyond that of many gender-based discussions.

To promote an atmosphere of trust, where meaningful, constructive dialogue between the sexes can occur without alienating confrontations, the project trains people in the art of “consultation,” the non-adversarial, non-threatening method of discussion and decision-making used in Bahá’í communities around the world. Following from this, the basic method of the project is simple, often using the membership of already-existing, functioning Bahá’í administrative bodies, called Local Spiritual Assemblies, as core groups of volunteers trained to facilitate consultation, conduct participatory surveys, and lead focus groups, with the object of identifying community needs, assessing them, keeping records, and organizing further activities.

The consultative process, a fundamental Bahá’í approach to problem-solving, forms the basis for fostering community change in a positive atmosphere. In one exercise designed to help project participants analyze gender roles in their village, men and women are asked to list daily tasks; invariably, men’s lists are scarcely half as long as women’s. From here, the group makes use of Bahá’í consultation with the understanding that the moral principle of equality is to be the basis for discussion; this enables the group to undertake an informed and enlightened grassroots-level analysis of the situation, draw its own conclusions from its own findings, and translate those conclusions into non-threatening, locally appropriate media presentations, which are then presented to the larger community at gatherings. And what conclusions have been drawn in the different locations? Not surprisingly, in all three project sites, consultation and analysis have revealed a commonality of concerns: women’s illiteracy, men’s mismanagement of family money, and the unfair burden of work on women. Participants, feeling a sense of “ownership” of the issues because they have been involved in the process of identification and examination, have responded positively to the challenge of raising the status of women.

In Eastern Province, Cameroon, for example, where the project has operated in seven villages, the results by the end of the first two-year phase were heartening: men were joining the women to work in the fields, consulting more about family finances, and allowing women to take a greater part in community decision-making. A 1992 survey indicated that men were making all financial decisions alone, while a 1993 survey showed that more than 80 percent of such decisions were being made after consultation between husbands and wives. The survey also indicated that the number of girls being sent to school in one of the villages increased by 82 percent since the start of the project. Project participants themselves testify to the effect their experience has had on them. One female farmer and mother of six put it this way:

At the beginning, the project did not mean anything to me. Later on I discovered the advantages of the project. Now I see that my husband, who was not helping me before the project, has now changed. We work together at home and in the field. My husband helps me more now with the housework that before he thought was the sole duty of woman. He carries the baby, cleans the dishes and clothes. I also learned the importance of children’s education and that it is first my responsibility and now I try to take better care of them. I got those ideas through songs because through the songs I listened carefully to what was being said.Cited in One Country 5:3 (October-December 1993), 9.

A male participant also testified to the change occurring in his community as a result of the UNIFEM project:

Here in the village men and women were not used to working together but through the project I was surprised to see that they are working hand in hand. I personally have witnessed a change in my way of life. Concerning the equality of man and woman I see also that there is a change in the attitude of men. Now they consult with their wives. And I do the same. Before the project it was very difficult to know what women do with their money, but now my wife consults with me. I also work with my wife in the same farm, and I help with cleaning the house, for example; things I have never done before.Cited in One Country 5:3 (October-December 1993), 9.

Similarly, in the eight participating villages of the southern central province of Chuquisaca, Bolivia, women say they are now participating more in community decision-making, are more willing to express desire for education, and are receiving more help from men with daily chores. The first woman ever elected to the local political council was recently voted into office, and shortly after her election the council passed a resolution urging greater attention to the concerns of women. Finally, in Malaysia, where the project has included two villages and an urban area, reports indicate that in one of the remote villages community decision-making has resulted in a new vegetable garden, new latrines, and adult literacy classes designed for women but open to men.

While the projects have been organized by Bahá’í communities, the Bahá’í population ranges from less than 1 percent to about 10 percent in project locations; thus, in order to make any real difference in attitude, projects must seek to effect change within the entire population of areas involved. In bringing about such transformation, the traditional media have been instrumental.

Within the Bahá’í community itself there have been some noticeable effects. For example, in all three project sites, more women are being elected to Bahá’í Local Spiritual Assemblies since the beginning of the project. And the project has inspired other Bahá’í communities: at the national level, Nigeria and Brazil have launched their own projects, while other local Malaysian Bahá’í communities, impressed by what they have seen in the project areas, have also started similar programs. With this kind of response, the Bahá’í International Community hopes to continue the project and expand the number of sites.

Conferences, Seminars, and Workshops

While the UNIFEM-funded project and numerous other Bahá’í efforts to promote women’s well-being and advancement have focused directly on basic grassroots issues, a wide variety of activities exists around the world. In many cases, the Bahá’í community has encouraged women to move beyond the sphere of their homes and to address the larger concerns of the society in which they live. Conferences, seminars, and workshops furthering discussion of the equality of the sexes are useful means for accomplishing this goal.

All over the world, from Chad to New Zealand to Alaska to the Netherlands, conferences and meetings of various sizes seem to be the forums most widely used by Bahá’ís for exploring the issue of equality. Organized at local, regional, and national levels, such gatherings have resulted in the establishment of broad networks of groups, often crossing international boundaries around the globe. Their focus has been wide-ranging, dealing with issues such as sexual abuse, family violence, aboriginal women’s concerns, mothering, careers, and other topics, but always turning to the Bahá’í teachings as their point of reference.

One of the largest Bahá’í-sponsored conferences held to highlight the equality of women occurred in September 1989 when the North American Association for Bahá’í Studies’ fourteenth annual conference, held in Irvine, California, was entitled “Full Partnership” and focused on the equality of the sexes. For three days over eight hundred conference attendees took part in sessions on “Universals of Equality,” “Women and Equality,” and “Men and Equality”; they heard papers in plenary sessions, took part in small-group workshops, and were treated to a variety of artistic presentations, including drama, music, and dance. Several noted scholars in women’s studies were invited to present papers at the conference, and a lively exchange of views took place.

A Pacific women’s conference, entitled “Empowering Women to Achieve” took place at the University of Hawaii in 1992. Sponsored by national and local Bahá’í governing bodies, it attracted the participation of 140 women from nineteen islands and countries bordering the Pacific basin. The purpose was to offer them information, education, and new technologies that would strengthen their leadership skills and educational foundations.

In recent years New Zealand has organized a number of national “huis” (conferences, in Maori) focusing on the encouragement of women. Additionally, both the New Zealand and the Australian National Spiritual Assemblies have taken an important step to empower women by establishing Offices for the Advancement of Women to liaise with government and non-governmental organizations concerned with the rights, status, and well-being of women. Australia has also appointed a national committee for the advancement of women, the terms of reference for which “focus on the need to develop the skills of women so that they are more actively engaged in teaching [the Bahá’í Faith] and the need to promote greater understanding and support of the equality of men and women within the community.”Australian Baha'i Bulletin, July 1994, 1. It plans to develop systematic training programs and will establish regional groups to assess particular needs and carry out various activities.

A large women’s conference for European Bahá’í women was held in 1989 in the Netherlands, followed some two years later by another women’s conference in Barcelona. From these two events a number of significant developments have occurred. The first is the establishment in 1992 of the European Task Force for Women, which has taken the lead in promoting small conferences for women throughout Europe on the themes of encouragement, transformation, and service. In a statement of its vision for women, the task force, in collaboration with the Continental Board of Counsellors in Europe, an appointed arm of the Bahá’í administration, urged the European Bahá’í women to “become a source of inspiration for all who are in their company” by becoming, among other things, distinguished examples of Bahá’í life and leaders in all fields of service in the Bahá’í community, confident teachers of the Bahá’í Faith, nourishers of growth and development in the Bahá’í community, a force for change in society, and establishers of universal peace.”

To achieve this vision in practical terms, the task force’s goal is to train a number of women from each country in the continent, who will then return home and train others to conduct discussion groups at the local level. In this way, the Bahá’í women throughout the entire continent will be united in their focus on the issue. To encourage the development of the next generation, they are also sponsoring young women’s weekends where girls come together to study the Bahá’í teachings regarding women, to learn about the lives of Bahá’í heroines, to talk about issues of concern to them, and to socialize with other Bahá’í girls their own age.

On an international level, different Bahá’í professional associations have focused on the issue of equality in their activities. For example, in 1993-94 the Bahá’í Justice Society chose to highlight the advancement of women as a particular principle of justice and encouraged members to initiate projects, write papers, and attend conferences which would particularly further the cause of women’s advancement. The information highway has also facilitated an international exchange of ideas among women and men on the issue of equality, and in the spring of 1994, a Bahá’í women’s discussion group was formed at the instigation of a number of women who wished to have a special forum on the Internet.

Bahá’í women have founded international organizations to study women’s issues, to establish cooperative and collaborative relationships, and to promote an exchange of ideas, scholars, and research. Research on the status of women in society is one of the topics proposed for study by the Bahá’í Chair at Indore University in India. At the Bahá’í Vocational Institute for Rural Women, Indore, research work on women’s issues has been carried out side by side with the running of the institute. Bahá’í women in Japan have begun publishing a scholarly periodical entitled Fujin Journal, for and about women in support of their efforts to promote the advancement of their sex. In Singapore, the Bahá’í Women’s Committee collaborated with the Singapore Council of Women’s Organizations to produce a comprehensive survey of the women’s movement, released in 1993 and entitled Voices and Choices: The Women’s Movement in Singapore. One of the two most prominently featured women in the publication is Shirin Fozdar, a Bahá’í who founded the Singapore Council of Women in 1952, was a spokesperson for the Singapore Women’s Committee in the 1950s and 1960s, and is regarded as a pioneering proponent of women’s rights in Asia.

Women as Leaders and Administrators

The encouragement of women was a topic of consultation at the 1993 Bahá’í International Convention, where delegates reiterated the importance of women’s leadership roles within the Bahá’í community and urged that this issue be addressed. Subsequently, an evening session of the Counsellors’ conference following the Convention focused on women and involved members of the senior elected and appointed institutions that serve the Faith throughout the world.

Such events are a strong indication that within the Bahá’í community’s administrative order, action is being taken with regard to women’s development as administrators. A further indication of the encouragement of women in this area is the fact that, at the specific direction of the institutions of the Faith, more and more women are assuming greater roles in the Bahá’í administrative system. This is, in large part, due to the particular encouragement of the Universal House of Justice. In 1975, for example, the Universal House of Justice called upon eighty National Spiritual Assemblies to organize Bahá’í activities for women “which will stimulate and promote the full and equal participation of women in all aspects of Bahá’í community life, so that through their accomplishments the friends will demonstrate the distinction of the Cause of God in this field of human endeavour.”From a letter written by the Universal House of Justice to all National Spiritual Assemblies, dated 15 May 1975; in Women, 403. The degree to which this guidance has been put into practice to this point varies according to the development of the social milieu in which the Bahá’í community is operating, but nevertheless strides are being made. In Australia, for example, the Australian National Women’s Committee stated in its annual report for 1993-94 that throughout the country female membership on Local Spiritual Assemblies was 48.5 percent nationally, and 20 percent of the chairpersons’ roles were occupied by women.See the Australian Baha'i Bulletin, June 1994. Similar figures exist for most developed countries, but in many developing countries the percentages are much lower, and these demand attention. Overall, while the percentage of women serving as national administrators in Bahá’í communities around the world is respectable, with some 28 percent female participation on National Spiritual Assemblies,Figure for 1992-93, compiled 13 October 1993 by the Statistics Department, Baha'i World Centre. there is a strong impetus, originating from the Universal House of Justice, for the principle of equality to imbue life in the Bahá’í community so thoroughly that more capable women will be trained and then recognized for their capacity to serve on elected and appointed bodies.