Transforming the roles of women and men
"Advancement of Women: A Baha'i Perspective"
By Janet and Peter Khan
Baha'i Publishing Trust Wilmette, Illinois, USA
In recent years, the role of religion in promoting - or retarding - the advancement of women has become a growing topic of discussion.
From the reactionary response of Islamic fundamentalists to questions among Roman Catholics about whether females should be priests, and to household arguments almost everywhere about whether the wife should pursue a career or stay home with the children, the collision between religious traditions and feminism has stirred heated debate.
In view of this critically important discourse (more than half the world's population are women and four-fifths of the world's population identify themselves as religious believers), a new book by Janet and Peter Khan on Baha'i views about the equality of women and men is especially welcome.
The Baha'i Faith is the first major world religion to explicitly identify the equality of women and men as a social principle, and as such its history and teachings on the subject naturally assume significance.
Advancement of Women: A Baha'i Perspective not only thoroughly and authoritatively explores the Baha'i position on this topic, it also examines how original texts and teachings of other religions can be interpreted to support the advancement of women's rights and prerogatives.
Of equal significance is the book's main theme: that the only adequate resolution of this discourse lies in the concept of partnership. Partnership, of course, has been emphasized at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women and in meetings of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women by governmental delegates and representatives of non-governmental organizations alike.
The Khans, two well-respected Baha'is who are also a married couple, are well suited to undertake a book of this sort. Janet Khan has a Ph.D. in education counseling and has held academic positions at the University of Michigan and the University of Queensland. A former chairperson of the national governing body of the Baha'is of Australia, she has served at the Research Department of the Baha'i World Center since 1983. Peter Khan, who holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, has also occupied academic posts in Michigan and Queensland. He, too, served as a member of the Australian Baha'i national governing body. Since 1987 he has been a member of the Universal House of Justice, the elected world governing body of the Baha'i community.
The Khans' book begins with an examination of how the status of women has been defined in the authentic texts and teachings of other world religions, with specific focus on Christianity and Islam. In both cases, the authors conclude, the Founders of these religions have taught that "there is no spiritual distinction between men and women."
The Qur'an, they write, actually did much to raise the status of women, "forbidding female infanticide, providing a limitation on polygamy and extending to women the right to initiate divorce proceedings," among other things. The real problem, they suggest, has been that the "hierarchies of both religions have consistently accorded women an inferior position that is not supported by the authoritative statements of the Founders and have, at times, even gone to the extreme length of denying the spiritual equality of men and women."
In contrast, the equality of women and men has been progressively championed within the Baha'i community since its founding about 150 years ago in Iran. The Khans offer it as a model, suggesting also that the Baha'i writings can serve as a guideline for changing attitudes and practices that continue to prevent both women and men from realizing their full potential.
In the course of this discussion, the reader learns much about the Baha'i Faith and its distinctive approach to social issues. The authors make clear, for example, that Baha'is see progress on this and other issues as occurring in an evolutionary fashion, through the social and spiritual transformation of individuals and their relationships.
The Khans suggest, for example, that key to the genuine shift in attitudes necessary for the bona fide advancement of women on a global level are changes in the family. Transformation at this level, they argue, influences larger processes and even determines the course of world peace.
At first glance, this emphasis on the family may seem conventional. And, indeed, the Baha'i teachings reaffirm that men have a central role as providers and women an all-important role as mothers. However, say the Khans, the Baha'i vision of the family is far more advanced than the patriarchy of the past, which categorized women as subordinate to men and bred attitudes that limited both sexes.
"The Baha'i teachings call for a new form of family dynamics, based on equality, that provides a family structure appropriate to the present age and intrinsically far stronger than that of ages past," the Khans write, "a family structure that offers to all of its members - husband, wife, and children - a level of fulfillment and satisfaction otherwise inaccessible."
Equality, as outlined in the Baha'i writings, write the Khans, does not imply identity of function. Motherhood is greatly valued in the Baha'i Faith because the mother is the first educator of the child, and education is key to the advancement of civilization. The Baha'i writings clearly specify that "the 'training and culture of daughters is more necessary than that of sons.'"
The father's role is to support the family, and while this, too, may seem conventional, it imposes upon the man a spiritual obligation that is neglected in many societies. "The husband's responsibility to support the wife has revolutionary implications in those cultures in which the women currently do a disproportionate share of the work, including growing the food, collecting water and fuel, and generally taking care of the survival needs of the family."
Vital as it is, motherhood is not the only valid role for women, and the Baha'i teachings call for the adoption of an identical program of education for both sexes. This, the authors explain, would prevent males and females from being channeled into different fields of endeavor without regard for their true capacities.
In some instances, the father may be better suited to tend to domestic matters while the mother may be better qualified for an outside career. Using the tools of cooperation and consultation within an equal partnership, decision-making on such family matters has a flexibility that is not possible within a patriarchal structure.
The Baha'i Faith also views the equal participation of women in all spheres of activity as a prerequisite to peace, the Khans write. 'Abdu'l-Baha, one of the central figures of the Faith, wrote that "when women participate fully and equally in the affairs of the world...war will cease."
The Khans argue that such transformations can be realistically achieved "in an evolutionary manner" if "sustained by a commitment to fundamental change and nurtured by educational programs designed to assist individuals and communities to gradually bring attitudes and actions into conformity with the spiritual principle."
The book covers numerous other aspects of this topic and constitutes a comprehensive reference to the Baha'i teachings on the equality of women and men, which Baha'is see as an essential element of a mature civilization. The book also makes an important contribution to the general literature on the subject, offering the unique perspective of a non-patriarchal religious society that focuses on logical reasons to strive for true equality in a way that advances not only women but men - and consequently the whole of civilization.
- by Veronica Shoffstall