The Universal House of Justice
The National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of New Zealand
The Universal House of Justice has received your letter of 16 October 1980 enclosing a letter from the Spiritual Assembly of … posing questions which have arisen as a result of reading the book When We Grow Up by Bahíyyih Nakhjavání, and it has instructed us to convey the following.
The House of Justice suggests that all statements in the Holy Writings concerning specific areas of the relationship between men and women should be considered in the light of the general principle of equality between the sexes that has been authoritatively and repeatedly enunciated in the Sacred Texts. In one of His Tablets ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá asserts: “In this divine age the bounties of God have encompassed the world of women. Equality of men and women, except in some negligible instances, has been fully and categorically announced. Distinctions have been utterly removed.” That men and women differ from one another in certain characteristics and functions is an inescapable fact of nature; the important thing is that ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá regards such inequalities as remain between the sexes as being “negligible.”
The relationship between husband and wife must be viewed in the context of the Bahá’í ideal of family life. Bahá’u’lláh came to bring unity to the world, and a fundamental unity is that of the family. Therefore, one must believe that the Faith is intended to strengthen the family, not weaken it, and one of the keys to the strengthening of unity is loving consultation. The atmosphere within a Bahá’í family as within the community as a whole should express “the keynote of the Cause of God” which, the beloved Guardian has stated, “is not dictatorial authority, but humble fellowship, not arbitrary power, but the spirit of frank and loving consultation.”
A family, however, is a very special kind of “community.” The Research Department has not come across any statements which specifically name the father as responsible for the “security, progress and unity of the family” as is stated in Bahíyyih Nakhjavání’s book, but it can be inferred from a number of the responsibilities placed upon him, that the father can be regarded as the “head” of the family. The members of a family all have duties and responsibilities towards one another and to the family as a whole, and these duties and responsibilities vary from member to member because of their natural relationships. The parents have the inescapable duty to educate their children—but not vice versa; the children have the duty to obey their parents—the parents do not obey the children; the mother—not the father—bears the children, nurses them in babyhood, and is thus their first educator; hence daughters have a prior right to education over sons and, as the Guardian’s secretary has written on his behalf, “The task of bringing up a Bahá’í child, as emphasized time and again in Bahá’í Writings, is the chief responsibility of the mother, whose unique privilege is indeed to create in her home such conditions as would be most conducive to both his material and spiritual welfare and advancement. The training which a child first receives through his mother constitutes the strongest foundation for his future development …” A corollary of this responsibility of the mother is her right to be supported by her husband—a husband has no explicit right to be supported by his wife. This principle of the husband’s responsibility to provide for and protect the family can be seen applied also in the law of intestacy which provides that the family’s dwelling place passes, on the father’s death, not to his widow, but to his eldest son; the son at the same time has the responsibility to care for his mother.
It is in this context of mutual and complementary duties, and responsibilities that one should read the Tablet in which ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá gives the following exhortation:
O Handmaids of the All-Sufficing God!
Exert yourselves, that haply ye may be enabled to acquire such virtues as shall honor and distinguish you amongst all women. Of a surety, there is no greater pride and glory for a woman than to be a handmaid in God’s Court of Grandeur; and the qualities that shall merit her this station are an alert and wakeful heart; a firm conviction of the unity of God, the Peerless; a heartfelt love for all His maidservants; spotless purity and chastity; obedience to and consideration for her husband; attention to the education and nurturing of her children; composure, calmness, dignity and self-possession; diligence in praising God, and worshiping Him both night and day; constancy and firmness in His holy Covenant; and the utmost ardor, enthusiasm, and attachment to His Cause.…
This exhortation to the utmost degree of spirituality and self-abnegation should not be read as a legal definition giving the husband absolute authority over his wife, for, in a letter written to an individual believer on 22 July 1943, the beloved Guardian’s secretary wrote on his behalf:
The Guardian, in his remarks … about parents’ and children’s, wives’ and husbands’ relations in America, meant that there is a tendency in that country for children to be too independent of the wishes of their parents and lacking in the respect due to them. Also wives, in some cases, have a tendency to exert an unjust degree of domination over their husbands, which, of course, is not right, any more than that the husband should unjustly dominate his wife.
In any group, however loving the consultation, there are nevertheless points on which, from time to time, agreement cannot be reached. In a Spiritual Assembly this dilemma is resolved by a majority vote. There can, however, be no majority where only two parties are involved, as in the case of a husband and wife. There are, therefore, 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. In short, the relationship between husband and wife should be as held forth in the prayer revealed by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá which is often read at Bahá’í weddings: “Verily, they are married in obedience to Thy command. Cause them to become the signs of harmony and unity until the end of time.”
These are all relationships within the family, but there is a much wider sphere of relationships between men and women than in the home, and this too we should consider in the context of Bahá’í society, not in that of past or present social norms. For example, although the mother is the first educator of the child, and the most important formative influence in his development, the father also has the responsibility of educating his children, and this responsibility is so weighty that Bahá’u’lláh has stated that a father who fails to exercise it forfeits his rights of fatherhood. Similarly, although the primary responsibility for supporting the family financially is placed upon the husband, 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 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 endeavor, they will occupy the highest levels in the human world.…
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; …
(The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 135)
In the Tablet of the World, Bahá’u’lláh Himself has envisaged that women as well as men would be breadwinners in stating:
Everyone, whether man or woman, should hand over to a trusted person a portion of what he or she earneth through trade, agriculture or other occupation, for the training and education of children, to be spent for this purpose with the knowledge of the Trustees of the House of Justice.
(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p. 90)
A very important element in the attainment of such equality is Bahá’u’lláh’s provision that boys and girls must follow essentially the same curriculum in schools.
It is hoped that the above explanations and comments will help the Local Spiritual Assembly of … to resolve the questions set forth in its letter.