Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, stated that, “Women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God,” and Baha’is believe this equality must be manifested as a social reality, indeed, as an essential element to the creation of a peaceful world. Thus, the Baha’i Faith categorically upholds the principle of the equality of men and women and equal participation of women in all areas of human endeavor.
Because religion plays such a significant role in shaping social values, it is in a unique position to actively speak out against the oppression and discrimination against women. It must be acknowledged that the perversion of religion has been a primary cause of social disintegration, intolerance, hatred, sexism, poverty, oppression and warfare down through the ages. Religion must be free of prejudice and discrimination if it is to be an agent of justice and a positive force towards social development.
In working to eradicate gender discrimination, Baha’is adopt an evolutionary view of the role religion has played in the emancipation of women. It’s clear that in the early years of their history, the world’s religious traditions have originally encouraged the advancement and participation of women in society. However, in low periods of their development, forces of extremism have worked to oppress women.
Baha’is apply the principle of equality to the manner in which they strive to foster the advancement of women in their communities. In their endeavors, they cling to the image in the Baha’i Writings of humanity as a bird in which one wing is woman and the other man. Unless both wings are strong and well-developed, the metaphor goes, the bird will not be able to fly.
“The development of women,” wrote Janet A. Khan in Religion as an Agent for Promoting the Advancement of Women at All Levels , “is considered vital to the full development of men and is seen as a prerequisite to peace. Hence, the members of the Baha’i community, male and female alike, and its democratically elected administrative councils share a strong commitment to the practice of the principle of equality in their personal lives, in their families, and in all aspects of social and civic life.”
The Baha’i faith has no clergy. The community’s affairs are organized by the full participation of its members and administered by democratically elected nine-member governing bodies at the local, national, regional and global levels. Women and men serve together at each administrative level, except for the Universal House of Justice, a body which oversees the Baha’i activities on a global level. Service on this institution is restricted by Baha’i scripture to men. Although the reason for this limitation is not provided, the Baha’i scriptures specify that it will become unmistakably clear in the future at a more advanced stage of social understanding, and that it will not contradict the reality of gender equality. This is confirmed by the host of women who were appointed to serve as Hands of the Cause of God, the highest spiritual rank attainable by Baha’i individuals. Furthermore, the daughter of Baha’u’llah, Bahiyyih Khanum, directed the affairs of the global Baha’i community from 1921 to 1924—the first time in recorded history that a woman was the acting head of a world religion.
Baha’is who champion gender equality look back to the inspiring example of Tahirih, an early follower of their faith. She was a highly educated and accomplished poet who broke the bonds that enslaved women in nineteenth century Persia. Tahirih was imprisoned for her religious beliefs and eventually strangled by her captors. Before her death, she told her executioners, “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.”
Gleibys L. Buchanan is representative for the Advancement of Women National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the U.S.