Bahá’u’lláh came to bring unity to the world, and a fundamental unity is that of the family. Therefore, we must believe that the Faith is intended to strengthen the family, not weaken it. For example, service to the Cause should not produce neglect of the family. It is important for you to arrange your time so that your family life is harmonious and your household receives the attention it requires.
Bahá’u’lláh also stressed the importance of consultation. We should not think this worthwhile method of seeking solutions is confined to the administrative institutions of the Cause. Family consultation employing full and frank discussion, and animated by awareness of the need for moderation and balance, can be the panacea for domestic conflict. Wives should not attempt to dominate their husbands, nor husbands their wives.
The Tablet of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá … which you refer to in the first paragraph of your letter is only an exhortation, not an injunction.1 Moreover, it was revealed in honour of some Bahá’í women in Iran who must have written to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá seeking guidance with regard to a specific situation. Unfortunately, the circumstances attending the revelation of the Tablet are not known, because the incoming letter or request has not come to light. The quotation should, therefore, be regarded as an exhortation which was revealed to address a specific situation. This quotation, like many others, has been included in the compilation to provide the friends with the available Writings on different aspects of family life.
As you say, the principle of the equality of men and women is unequivocal. The Writings on the subject are clear and unambiguous. The House of Justice has specified time and again that there are times when the husband and the wife should defer to the wishes of the other. Exactly under what circumstances such deference should take place, is a matter for each couple to determine. If, God forbid, they fail to agree, and their disagreement leads to estrangement, they should seek counsel from those they trust and in whose sincerity and sound judgement they have confidence, in order to preserve and strengthen their ties as a united family.
It is the hope of the House of Justice that the above explanation will help in alleviating your perplexities with regard to the rights of the husband and the wife in a family. However, you may wish to refer to the recently released compilation on women for further insights.
As you know, the principle of the oneness of mankind is described in the Bahá’í Writings as the pivot round which all the Teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve. It has widespread implications which affect and remould all dimensions of human activity. It calls for a fundamental change in the manner in which people relate to each other, and the eradication of those age-old practices which deny the intrinsic human right of every individual to be treated with consideration and respect.
The integrity of the family bond must be constantly considered and the rights of the individual members must not be transgressed. The rights of the son, the father, the mother—none of them must be transgressed, none of them must be arbitrary. Just as the son has certain obligations to his father, the father, likewise, has certain obligations to his son. The mother, the sister and other members of the household have their certain prerogatives. All these rights and prerogatives must be conserved….
The use of force by the physically strong against the weak, as a means of imposing one’s will and fulfilling one’s desires, is a flagrant transgression of the Bahá’í Teachings. There can be no justification for anyone compelling another, through the use of force or through the threat of violence, to do that to which the other person is not inclined. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has written, “O ye lovers of God! In this, the cycle of Almighty God, violence and force, constraint and oppression, are one and all condemned.” Let those who, driven by their passions or by their inability to exercise discipline in the control of their anger, might be tempted to inflict violence on another human being be mindful of the condemnation of such disgraceful behaviour by the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh.
Among the signs of moral downfall in the declining social order are the high incidence of violence within the family, the increase in degrading and cruel treatment of spouses and children, and the spread of sexual abuse. It is essential that the members of the community of the Greatest Name take utmost care not to be drawn into acceptance of such practices because of their prevalence. They must be ever mindful of their obligation to exemplify a new way of life distinguished by its respect for the dignity and rights of all people, by its exalted moral tone, and by its freedom from oppression and from all forms of abuse.
Consultation has been ordained by Bahá’u’lláh as the means by which agreement is to be reached and a collective course of action defined. It is applicable to the marriage partners and within the family, and indeed, in all areas where believers participate in mutual decision making. It requires all participants to express their opinions with absolute freedom and without apprehension that they will be censured or their views belittled; these prerequisites for success are unattainable if the fear of violence or abuse is present.
A number of your questions pertain to the treatment of women, and are best considered in light of the principle of the equality of the sexes which is set forth in the Bahá’í Teachings. This principle is far more than the enunciation of admirable ideals; it has profound implications in all aspects of human relations and must be an integral element of Bahá’í domestic and community life. The application of this principle gives rise to changes in habits and practices which have prevailed for many centuries. An example of this is found in the response provided on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to a question whether the traditional practice whereby the man proposes marriage to the woman is altered by the Bahá’í Teachings to permit the woman to issue a marriage proposal to the man; the response is, “The Guardian wishes to state that there is absolute equality between the two, and that no distinction or preference is permitted….” With the passage of time, during which Bahá’í men and women endeavour to apply more fully the principle of the equality of the sexes, will come a deeper understanding of the far-reaching ramifications of this vital principle. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has stated, “Until the reality of equality between man and woman is fully established and attained, the highest social development of mankind is not possible.”
The Universal House of Justice has in recent years urged that encouragement be given to Bahá’í women and girls to participate in greater measure in the social, spiritual and administrative activities of their communities, and has appealed to Bahá’í women to arise and demonstrate the importance of their role in all fields of service to the Faith.
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.
Bahá’í men have the opportunity to demonstrate to the world around them a new approach to the relationship between the sexes, where aggression and the use of force are eliminated and replaced by cooperation and consultation. The Universal House of Justice has pointed out in response to questions addressed to it that, in a marriage relationship, neither husband nor wife should ever unjustly dominate the other, and that there are times when the husband and the wife should defer to the wishes of the other, if agreement cannot be reached through consultation; each couple should determine exactly under what circumstances such deference is to take place.
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. He, verily, speaketh the truth and commandeth that which benefiteth His servants and handmaidens. He is the Protector of all in this world and the next.
No Bahá’í husband should ever beat his wife, or subject her to any form of cruel treatment; to do so would be an unacceptable abuse of the marriage relationship and contrary to the Teachings of Bahá’u’lláh.
The lack of spiritual values in society leads to a debasement of the attitudes which should govern the relationship between the sexes, with women being treated as no more than objects for sexual gratification and being denied the respect and courtesy to which all human beings are entitled. Bahá’u’lláh has warned: “They that follow their lusts and corrupt inclinations have erred and dissipated their efforts. They, indeed, are of the lost.” Believers might well ponder the exalted standard of conduct to which they are encouraged to aspire in the statement of Bahá’u’lláh concerning His “true follower”, that: “And if he met the fairest and most comely of women, he would not feel his heart seduced by the least shadow of desire for her beauty. Such an one, indeed, is the creation of spotless chastity. Thus instructeth you the Pen of the Ancient of Days, as bidden by your Lord, the Almighty, the All-Bountiful.”
One of the most heinous of sexual offences is the crime of rape. When a believer is a victim, she is entitled to the loving aid and support of the members of her community, and she is free to initiate action against the perpetrator under the law of the land should she wish to do so. If she becomes pregnant as a consequence of this assault, no pressure should be brought upon her by the Bahá’í institutions to marry. As to whether she should continue or terminate the pregnancy, it is for her to decide on the course of action she should follow, taking into consideration medical and other relevant factors, and in the light of the Bahá’í Teachings. If she gives birth to a child as a result of the rape, it is left to her discretion whether to seek financial support for the maintenance of the child from the father; however, his claim to any parental rights would, under Bahá’í law, be called into question, in view of the circumstances.
The Guardian has clarified, in letters written on his behalf, that “The Bahá’í Faith recognizes the value of the sex impulse,” and that “The proper use of the sex instinct is the natural right of every individual, and it is precisely for this very purpose that the institution of marriage has been established.” In this aspect of the marital relationship, as in all others, mutual consideration and respect should apply. If a Bahá’í woman suffers abuse or is subjected to rape by her husband, she has the right to turn to the Spiritual Assembly for assistance and counsel, or to seek legal protection. Such abuse would gravely jeopardize the continuation of the marriage, and could well lead to a condition of irreconcilable antipathy.
As you point out in your letter, the Universal House of Justice has stated that, by inference from a number of responsibilities placed upon him, the father can be regarded as the “head” of the family. However, this term does not have the same meaning as that used generally. Rather, a new meaning should be sought in the light of the principle of the equality between men and women, and of statements of the Universal House of Justice that neither husband nor wife should ever unjustly dominate the other. The House of Justice has stated previously, in response to a question from a believer, that use of the term “head” “does not confer superiority upon the husband, nor does it give him special rights to undermine the rights of the other members of the family”. It has also stated that if agreement cannot be reached following loving consultation, “there are times … when a wife should defer to her husband, and times when a husband should defer to his wife, but neither should ever unjustly dominate the other”; this is in marked contrast to the conventional usage of the term “head” with which is associated, frequently, the unfettered right of making decisions when agreement cannot be reached between husband and wife.
In other words, whatever path you choose should be one that both serves the interests of the Faith and at the same time facilitates the strengthening of your marital union. You will note from the following excerpt from a letter written on behalf of the beloved Guardian that the friends are never encouraged to use serving the Faith as a reason to neglect their families:
Surely Shoghi Effendi would like to see you and the other friends give their whole time and energy to the Cause, for we are in great need for competent workers, but the home is an institution that Bahá’u’lláh has come to strengthen and not to weaken. Many unfortunate things have happened in Bahá’í homes just for neglecting this point. Serve the Cause but also remember your duties towards your home. It is for you to find the balance and see that neither makes you neglect the other.
…It is useful to note that the marital relationship is one that requires in many instances a profound adjustment in behaviour on the part of each partner. Because the intimacy of the relationship exposes the best and the worst in their characters, both partners are engaged in a balancing act, so to speak. Some couples are able to achieve at the outset and to maintain a high degree of harmony throughout their marriage. Many others find they must struggle for some time to attain such harmony. While it is true that the personal rights of each party to a marriage must be upheld by the other, the relationship of one to the other, it must be borne in mind, is not based solely on a legalistic premise. Love is its very foundation. This being the case, a purely litigious reaction to the misdeeds of a partner is not appropriate.
The issue you have raised is of vital importance to Bahá’í couples striving to address the various needs and opportunities with which they are confronted in present-day society.2 As in so many other aspects of daily life, the resolution of this issue must be sought through the comprehension and application of the Teachings of the Faith. The believers should clearly understand and remain untroubled by the fact that the resulting solutions may well not be regarded as adequate by those not blessed with the bounty of acceptance of the Promised One and who are enmeshed in patterns of thought which are alien to the Bahá’í Teachings despite widespread acceptance of such patterns by the generality of humankind.
Central to the consideration of this matter must be the purpose in life of all faithful followers of Bahá’u’lláh: to know and worship God. This involves service to one’s fellow human beings and in the advancement of the Cause of God. In pursuing this purpose, they should strive to develop their talents and faculties to whatever extent is possible by exploring the avenues before them.
It is inevitable, because of the limitations of this earthly plane, that believers will, in many instances, find themselves deprived of the opportunity to develop their talents to the fullest. This may be due to lack of economic resources or educational facilities, or to the necessity of meeting other obligations and fulfilling other duties, such as the freely chosen responsibilities associated with marriage and parenthood. In some circumstances it may be the result of a conscious decision to make sacrifices for the sake of the Cause, as when a pioneer undertakes to serve in a post which lacks the facilities for the development of his or her special skills and talents. However, such deprivations and limitations do not carry with them the implication that the Bahá’ís concerned are unable to fulfil their fundamental, divinely ordained purpose; they are simply elements of the universal challenge to evaluate and balance the many calls on one’s time and effort in this life.
There is no one universally applicable response to the questions you have raised about the decisions to be made by marriage partners when both husband and wife are pursuing career opportunities which appear to be leading them along divergent paths, since circumstances vary so widely. Each couple should rely on the process of Bahá’í consultation to determine what is the best course of action. In so doing they might well consider the following factors, among others:
The Universal House of Justice has stated previously, in response to questions, that loving consultation should be the keynote of the marriage relationship. If agreement cannot be reached, there are times when either the husband or the wife should defer to the wishes of the other; exactly under what circumstances such deference should take place is a matter for each couple to decide.
various special circumstances which might arise, such as job prospects during a period of widespread unemployment, unusual opportunities or abilities which one marriage partner may have, or pressing needs of the Cause which a sacrificial response may be called for.
The success of such consultation will doubtless be influenced by the prayerful attitude with which it is approached, the mutual respect of the parties for each other, their earnest desire to devise a solution which will preserve unity and harmony for themselves and the other members of their family, and their willingness to make compromises and adjustments within the context of equality.
As society evolves in the decades and centuries ahead under the transforming influence of the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, it will surely experience fundamental changes which will facilitate the social application of the Bahá’í Teachings, and will ease the difficulties faced by couples seeking to fulfil their ardent desire to serve the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh through their professional activities.
A passage from a Tablet of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá … stated “Hold thy husband dear and always show forth an amiable temper towards him, no matter how ill-tempered he may be….”3
It is clear that no husband should subject his wife to abuse of any kind, whether emotional, mental or physical. Such a reprehensible action would be the very antithesis of the relationship of mutual respect and equality enjoined by the Bahá’í writings—a relationship governed by the principles of consultation and devoid of the use of any form of abuse, including force, to compel obedience to one’s will. When a Bahá’í wife finds herself in such a situation and feels it cannot be resolved through consultation with her husband, she could well turn to the Local Spiritual Assembly for advice and guidance, and might also find it highly advantageous to seek the assistance of competent professional counsellors. If the husband is also a Bahá’í, the Local Spiritual Assembly can bring to his attention the need to avoid abusive behaviour and can, if necessary, take firmer measures to compel him to conform to the admonitions of the teachings.