The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha'i Faith (1)

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From 1844, the year of the founding of the Babi religion, to the present day, women have played important roles in Baha'i history. Babi and Baha'i women have often acted as leaders in the community, holding its highest positions and participating in its most important decisions. In the first days of His Revelation, the Bab Himself appointed Qurratu'l-'Ayn, Tahirih, as one of His chief disciples - one of the nineteen Letters of the Living who were the first to believe in Him and were entrusted by Him with the mission of spreading His Faith and shepherding its believers. This remarkable woman would soon become one of the most radical and influential of the Bab's disciples and the leader of the Babis of Karbala. Her vision and achievement have become legend. [1] 


In later periods of Baha'i history, women have acted in central roles of leadership within the community. Bahiyyih Khanum, the Greatest Holy Leaf, the sister of 'Abdu'l-Baha, several times in her lifetime was called upon to act as the de facto head of the Baha'i Faith. When 'Abdu'l-Baha left the Holy Land to travel to the West, for example, He chose to leave the affairs of the Cause in the hands of His sister. Likewise, immediately after the ascension of 'Abdu'l-Baha - before Shoghi Effendi, the new Guardian, could arrive in Palestine to assume control of the Faith, the Greatest Holy Leaf assumed leadership. The Baha'is in the Holy Land instinctively turned to her as their guide and protector. And again, during the Guardian's absences from his duties during the early years of his ministry, he repeatedly entrusted the affairs of the Cause to the Greatest Holy Leaf. [2] 

After the passing of Shoghi Effendi, women were once more called upon to serve the Baha'i Faith at its highest levels. The international leadership of the religion fell to the Hands of the Cause, the chief stewards of the Faith who had been appointed by the Guardian during his lifetime. The women Hands served along with the men to guide the Baha'i community through the turbulent years preceding the election of the Universal House of Justice. Once again, Baha'i women demonstrated their capacity to administer the affairs of the Faith at its highest levels. 


The Baha'i Principle of Gradualism


Nonetheless, the service of women on the elected institutions of the Baha'i Faith has emerged only gradually. Although a few exceptional Baha'i women have always set the example for their sex, the role of women on Baha'i institutions in the community as a whole has not been comparable to that of men. Traditional notions of inequality, as well as the restrictions of a hostile environment, have caused the participation of women to lag behind. 
Even to the present day, the participation of women on National Spiritual Assemblies, Boards of Counsellors, and Auxiliary Boards is not equal to that of men, as the charts show. A long road has yet to be travelled. 


Participation of Women in Baha'i Institutions

"The equality of men and women is not, at the present time, universally applied. 
In those areas where traditional inequality still hampers its progress we must take the lead in practicing this Baha'i principle. Baha'i women and girls must be encouraged to take part in the social, spiritual and administrative activities of their communities." 

The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 1984. 

Numbers of women members on National Spiritual Assemblies

Country

1953

1963

1973

1979

1985

Africa

0

4

58

53

103

Americas

18

82

86

106

131

Asia

0

11

35

33

39

Australasia

5

8

26

24

33

Europe

11

44

40

44

48

World

34

149

245

260

354 


The following table shows, by continent, the numbers of National Assemblies with the corresponding numbers of women members indicated by the column headings. For example, column 1, line 1, there are 4 Assemblies inAfrica with no women members. 

Number of women on a National Spiritual Assembly

0

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

Africa

4

9

13

6

6

4

1

0

0

0

Americas

1

4

8

10

12

4

1

1

0

0

Asia

5

14

3

3

0

2

0

0

0

0

Australasia

2

6

4

2

2

1

0

0

0

0

Europe

1

4

6

7

1

0

0

1

0

0

World

13

37

34

28

21

11

2

2

0

 


(Information provided by the Department of Statistics at the Baha'i World Centre, and reprinted from dialogue, volume 1, no. 3  (Summer/Fall 1986), p 31.) 

The gradual emergence of women on the institutions of the Faith should not come as a surprise, however. Virtually all Baha'i laws and practices have gone through a gradual evolution in Baha'i history. The recognition of the principle of the equality of men and women, and its gradual application in the development of Baha'i Administration is no exception. 
The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha'i Faith (1)


The principle of progressive revelation, the concept of the gradual emergence of divine purpose, is a universal principle which applies within the dispensation of each Manifestation, as well as between dispensations. Baha'u'llah Himself has explained: 

Know of a certainty that in every Dispensation the light of Divine Revelation hath been vouchsafed to men in direct proportion to their spiritual capacity. Consider the sun. How feeble its rays the moment it appeareth above the horizon. How gradually its warmth and potency increase as it approacheth its zenith, enabling meanwhile all created things to adapt themselves to the growing intensity of its light. How steadily it declineth until it reacheth its setting point. Were it all of a sudden to manifest the energies latent within it, it would no doubt cause injury to all created things.... 

In like manner, if the Sun of Truth were suddenly to reveal, at the earliest stages of its manifestation, the full measure of the potencies which the providence of the Almighty hath bestowed upon it, the earth of human understanding would waste away and be consumed; for men's hearts would neither sustain the intensity of its revelation, nor be able to mirror forth the radiance of its light. Dismayed and overpowered, they would cease to exist. [3] 


The Universal House of Justice has demonstrated how this principle of progressive revelation has applied, and continues to apply, to the implementation of Baha'i law, particularly to the laws of the Kitab-i Aqdas. The Central Figures of the Faith have promulgated these laws only gradually as the condition of the Baha'i community would allow. [4] 

Similarly, 'Abdu'l-Baha recognised that women could not take their rightful place in the affairs of the world all at once. Throughout history women have been deprived of education and opportunity. Therefore, it was impossible that they would be able to immediately play an equal role in Baha'i life. But 'Abdu'l-Baha has insisted that all distinctions of sex will be erased once women attain proper education and experience. He says: 

Woman's lack of progress and proficiency has been due to her need for 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. [5] 


In a talk given in New York, 'Abdu'l-Baha again pinpoints education as the key to women's equality: 

...if woman be fully educated and granted her rights, she will attain the capacity for wonderful accomplishments and prove herself the equal of man. She is the coadjutor of man; his complement and helpmeet. Both are human, both are endowed with potentialities of intelligence and embody the virtues of humanity. In all human powers and functions they are partners and co-equals. At present in spheres of human activity woman does not manifest her natal prerogatives owing to lack of education and opportunity.[6] 


In Paris He said: 
...the female sex is treated as though inferior, and is not allowed equal rights and privileges. This condition is not due to nature, but to education. In the Divine Creation there is no such distinction. Neither sex is superior to the other in the sight of God. Why then should one sex assert the inferiority of the other...If women received the same educational advantages as those of men, the result would demonstrate the equality of capacity of both for scholarship. [7] 


On another occasion he made the same point: 
The only difference between them [ie: men and women] now is due to lack of education and training. If woman is given equal opportunity of education, distinction and estimate of inferiority will disappear. [8] 


And again: 
Therefore, woman must receive the same education as man and all inequality be adjusted. Thus, imbued with the same virtues as man, rising through all the degrees of human attainment, women will become the peers of men, and until this equality is established, true progress and attainment for the human race will not be facilitated. [9] 

It was clearly 'Abdu'l-Baha's position that lack of education and opportunity had relegated woman to an inferior position in society, and that through education and experience all inequalities of sex would be gradually removed. His own policies and actions concerning the service of women on the institutions of the Faith reflected this belief in gradualism. 


The First Baha'i Institutions

Any investigation of the history of the development of the Baha'i Administrative Order will reveal that Baha'i women only gradually took their place beside the men in this area of service - and not without struggle. This has been especially true in the East, where women were most heavily restricted. But lack of education and other cultural circumstances have affected the participation of women on Baha'i institutions all over the world. 

The first Hands of the Cause appointed by Baha'u'llah were, for example, all males. 'Abdu'l-Baha appointed no additional Hands, and it was only during the ministry of Shoghi Effendi that women were appointed to this rank. Even so, it has been only Western Baha'i women who have been found qualified for this distinction. 

At later times, when the first Auxiliary Boards to the Hands of the Cause were appointed, and then the first contingents of Boards of Counsellors, women were included. But circumstances dictated that it be mostly Western women who were appointed, and that their numbers were far fewer than those of men. As the above chart shows, that situation remains the same today. This is not due to any policy of discrimination on the part of the institutions of the Faith, but simply due to historical circumstances. As the position of women improves - especially in Asia andAfrica - with respect to education and experience, we can expect that the current situation will change in favour of more participation of women. 


The House of Justice of Tehran

The struggle for the equal participation of women in Baha'i Administration has been played out most dramatically, however, in the arena of the development of local institutions. The first of these bodies was formed in Tehran, Iran, at the initiative of individual believers. 
The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha'i Faith (1)
In 1873, Baha'u'llah revealed the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Most Holy Book, His book of laws. Here He established the institution of the House of Justice (bayt al-'adl). The Kitab-i-Aqdas states: 

The Lord hath ordained that in every city a House of Justice (bayt al-'adl) be established wherein shall gather counsellors to the number of Baha [i.e., nine], and should it exceed this number it does not matter ... It behoveth them to be the trusted ones of the Merciful among men and to regard themselves as the guardians appointed of God for all that dwell on earth. It is incumbent on them to take counsel together and to have regard for the interests of the servants of God, for His sake, even as they regard their own interests, and to choose that which is meet and seemly. [10] 


In the same book it is written: 

O ye Men of Justice! (rijal al-'adl) Be ye in the realm of God shepherds unto His sheep and guard them from the ravening wolves that have appeared in disguise, even as ye would guard your own sons. Thus exhorteth you the Counsellor, the Faithful. [11] 

There are other references in the Kitab-i-Aqdas to the House of Justice (bayt al-'adl) or the Place of Justice (maqarr al-'adl) which define its function and fix some of its revenues. In most cases, these references are not specific but refer to the general concept of a House of Justice rather than a particular institution. The Universal House of Justice has explained: 

In the Kitab-i-Aqdas Baha'u'llah ordains both the Universal House of Justice and the Local Houses of Justice. In many of His laws He refers simply to "the House of Justice" leaving open for later decision which level or levels of the whole institution each law would apply to. [12] 


Although the Kitab-i-Aqdas was revealed in 'Akka in 1873, it was withheld for some time by Baha'u'llah before it was distributed to the Baha'is of Iran. [13] 

It appears that it