“Family a seedbed for change”: Fostering a new culture of equality in India

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“Family a seedbed for change”: Fostering a new culture of equality in IndiaNEW DELHI — Justice necessitates that women should have equal rights as men. However, achieving true equality is difficult and will require the removal of obstacles that block women’s participation as equals of men in all areas of human endeavor. One sphere of action in which all people can apply the universal principle of the equality of women and men is the family, says the Bahá’í Office of Public Affairs of India.

“Strengthening family life is essential to the progress of society,” says Nilakshi Rajkhowa of the Office of Public Affairs in an interview with the News Service about insights and experiences the Office sees as relevant to the discourse on the equality of women and men.

Mrs. Rajkhowa explains that a thread of conversation in this discourse that has become more prominent in recent years is on the role of men as promoters of gender equality.

“These conversations have frequently revolved around the family as a fundamental social institution where conceptions of the role of women and men are learned and practiced,” she says.

Carmel Tripathi, another member of the Office of Public Affairs who spoke with the News Service, says that the institution of the family, like many others in the world, is in a state of crisis. “Inherited notions of what a family must be are increasingly being buffeted and rendered obsolete by the forces of social, cultural, and economic change,” she says.

Mrs. Rajkhowa adds that enduring transformation will require not only changes in the perceptions and behaviors promoted within the family, but also systematic and sustained efforts to transform the structures of society that inhibit women’s full and meaningful participation in public life.

“Changes in the family and in other arenas of life need to be grounded in the conviction that the equality of women and men is not only a goal to be achieved, but a truth about human nature to be acknowledged and embraced.

“The soul has no gender. The very essence of what makes us human is neither ‘male’ nor ‘female,’” she says.

Strengthening the moral foundations of children through education

Insights from experiences in Bahá’í community-building activities in India suggest that the family environment holds the greatest potential for strengthening the moral foundations of children.

“The family is the most powerful setting where children can develop spiritual qualities such as truthfulness, kindness, compassion, selflessness, and justice,” says Mrs. Rajkhowa. “But at the same time, it is also in the family where children can learn harmful attitudes and habits that influence their social interactions later on in life as youth and adults.”

Mrs. Rajkhowa explains that in children is the promise of the future, and that is why Bahá’í educational programs for children emphasize the acquisition of such spiritual qualities.

She says that these educational programs also develop capacities in children to apply principles such as the essential oneness of humanity, service to society, equality of women and men, and consultation in all their interactions with the members of their immediate and extended families, as well as other people with whom they socialize in their neighborhoods and schools.

In her comments, Mrs. Rajkhowa emphasizes the pivotal role of moral education within the whole of the family, and not just the children, in fostering a culture of equality. She refers to comments made by a participant at a recent symposium held by the Office of Public Affairs. Anshul Tewari—founder of Youth ki Awaaz, a civil society organization that promotes social justice—described the digital divide in the education of girls that came to light when classes moved online during periods of lockdown since the start of the pandemic.

Mr. Tewari explained that in many households where only a single digital device was available, use of the device by girls was rationed, whereas male siblings were not restricted in their access. “We carried out a survey of 10,000 young people between the ages of 12 to 15 from across the country,” he said. The results were consistent across those surveyed, who came from diverse backgrounds: 70% of the young women reported unequal access to phones and computers in relation to their brothers.

Establishing equitable relationships through consultation

Another insight drawn from efforts of the Bahá’ís of India at the grassroots to promote social progress, say the members of the Bahá’í Office of Public Affairs, is that the more a family applies the principle of consultation, the more the relationships within the family become equitable.

“If decision making in the family is not to be the outcome of arbitrary and dictatorial authority,” says Mrs. Rajkhowa, “then the members of the family will need to learn to consult in a loving, considerate, and frank manner in order to arrive at collective decisions.”

Mrs. Tripathi recalls a discussion forum held by the Office of Public Affairs in which cultural norms of male domination were identified as the biggest obstacle to consultation.

Mrs. Tripathi adds that members of the family must learn to communicate with respect and openness toward one another, drawing on a whole range of spiritual qualities required for consultation, such as love and harmony, humility, courtesy, patience, and moderation, and a desire to seek the truth regardless.

Peace depends on equality

The members of the Bahá’í Office of Public Affairs in India say that what is abundantly clear is that a family characterized by equality will not come about from borrowing age-old models that reinforce domination and inequality.

Mrs. Rajkhowa says that a pivotal idea in their efforts to promote social justice is that peace in the world depends on the realization of the spiritual principle of the equality of women and men.

On this point, she quotes from a message written in 1919 by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’ to the Central Organization for a Durable Peace in The Hague that likens men and women to the two wings of a bird: “Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly,” writes ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. “Should one wing remain weak, flight is impossible. Not until the world of women becomes equal to the world of men in the acquisition of virtues and perfections, can success and prosperity be attained as they ought to be.”