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Oh Women, Beware!

Doreen Cecilia Mendes

Why are women barred from serving on the top Baha'i Institution? In response to this question, many Baha'is insist that their Prophet has advocated far more rights for women than some of His predecessors (Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Zoroastra, Jesus Christ, Muhammad). For instance, women have the right to receive an education. Baha'is believe that if a mother is educated, then her children will be educated too. However, even though both sons and daughters are educated and prepared for the future, females cannot be elected to the top Administrative Body. What lies behind this decision?

In 1844, the Bab (meaning 'gate') heralded the arrival of a new Prophet, the Promised one of all ages. In 1863, the Baha'í Faith was established when the Shiite Muslim of Iran, Mirza Husayn-'Ali Nurí (later known as Baha'u'llah) proclaimed his mission as the Manifestation of God for this era.

In order to avoid divisions after his death (1892), Baha'u'llah named his son, Abdu'l-Baha, as the Interpreter of His teachings in His Will and Testament. Likewise, on his death (1921), Abdu'l-Baha designated his grandson, Shoghi Effendi, as the Guardian of this Faith. He was responsible for four areas: 1) the interpretation of the Holy Writings of Baha'u'llah; 2) the translations of these writings to English; 3) the construction and establishment of the Baha'i World Center in Haifa, Israel; and 4) the organization of the Baha'i Administrative Order (BAO) or superstructure designed by Baha'u'llah.

Baha'is consider this superstructure, made up of different governing bodies or institutions, to be the answer and solution to many problems of a complex world. First of all, in order to avoid factions and uprisings, the BAO strictly forbids its members from joining any political party. Then, voting is kept a secret, hence Baha'is never campaign in their elections. Moreover, the top infallible body, the Universal House of Justice (UHJ), elected every 5 years, is composed of nine men. This august body governs all the other Baha'i institutions from Haifa, Israel. (At some point in the future, members of the Baha'i Faith believe that this UHJ will be recognized as the "World Government"). Then, at the national and local levels around the world, assemblies are formed of nine people of both sexes. Elected every year, they are referred to as the National Spiritual Assembly and the Local Spiritual Assembly. Each country has several Local Spiritual Assemblies, which take orders from their National Spiritual Assembly. In turn, the National Spiritual Assemblies of all the different countries receive their instructions from the Universal House of Justice.

To aid them with their work, Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi appointed assistants of both sexes, referred to as 'Hands of the Cause' or Pillars of the Faith. As these Hands disappear, Councillors replace them. In addition, Auxiliary Board Members and their Assistants are named in order to lighten their burden and to help achieve the numerous objectives of the Baha'i Faith. Some of the most important ones are: protecting the faith and its interests; promoting and expanding the religion; deepening the believers; and raising funds which is the organization's life blood.

The Baha'i Faith is financed as follows: 1) donations given in the form of money, jewellery, property, or gifts; 2) sales of these items; 3) royalties received from books, records and other materials. Although contributions to the Baha'i fund is totally voluntary - funds are solicited at the numerous conferences and monthly gatherings. Furthermore, special workshops are given on the importance of the 'Fund' and constant reminders of money shortages (or debts) are announced in the Baha'i news. It must be stressed that only Baha'is contribute to the Baha'i Faith; non-Baha'is are not permitted to donate or contribute in any form to this religion. In other words, funds from non-Baha'is are never sought.

Considering itself to be an independent religion, the Baha'i Faith has extracted many ideas from Islam such as fasting, and praying several times a day. Moreover, the three mentioned leaders' cultural, political and social environments have greatly influenced the tenets and writings of the Baha'i Faith.

This, therefore, leads us to the conclusion that the reason why women have been excluded from the UHJ is an outcome of over 2,500 years or so of intellectual history which men have created and in so doing, designed women's role in society. In his book, The Superiority of Women, Ashley Montagu argues that in many cultures, due to the environmental and social conditions, the males acquire broad experiences and varied knowledge of the world than that which the females experience. Subsequently, women are made to fit in niches according to male experiences. Hence, when people in a male dominated society believe in the superiority of men, then the religion serves not to weaken but to uphold this conventional form of thinking.

No doubt, most feminists object to any organization composed only of men. They raise several issues: First, does God only acknowledge the great scientific, technological, political, social, economic and artistic achievement of men? This discrimination is challenged based on the fact that throughout history men have caused wars, violence, and other atrocities; women have merely served as appendages and/or pawns in their games.

Second, a great number of women work inside and outside the home; can the same be said of men? Often, the fallacious statement is made that women cannot withstand the stress and emotions of being a member of this top august body. It is known that several women leaders have occupied strenuous positions - Indira Ghandi, Golda Meyer, Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, Mary Robinson, Violeta Chamorra, Cory Aquino and others. These examples clearly demonstrate that women are capable of governing at the top Baha'i level while, on the one hand, they perform their duties as mothers, wives, grandmothers and, on the other, they function as doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists and so on.

Third, why do Baha'i women from developed countries accept this exclusion? One explanation given by some Baha'is is that when the next Manifestation of God appears, women's status will be different. Regardless of their sex, the majority of Baha'is accept this decision knowing that in the distant future, things will change for women. Meanwhile, it is a matter of obeying the Will of God. In order to avoid conflicts, liberal believers refrain from questioning the organization. When members openly disagree with the Baha'i Writings, they are admonished or reprimanded. If, and when, a follower openly challenges the Writings, a decision, or any institution to the extent that it questions their authority, then this individual is considered to be a 'Covenant Breaker', which means expulsion from the Faith.

Over the years, some female members secretly acknowledge that the course of history should change before the Universal House of Justice becomes the future "World Government". A few of these members have been born and raised in this religious environment, they find it difficult to openly express their feelings; others have converted to the Baha'i Faith at a weak moment in time, thus they are reluctant to speak their minds for fear of punishment. Those who disagree have left the fold with the argument that their God does not discriminate between men and women, especially in this century. They insist that it is not a question of what men have invented in the name of God, let no woman destroy. Rather, it a matter of creating new schemas that include 50% of both sexes at all levels of administration across the world. Until then, life continues as Ashley Montagu has stated, "Men project their unconscious wishes upon the screen of their society and make their institutions and gods in the image of their desires."

Child Nodes

Nine Wise Men - a poem critical of the Baha'i Leadership

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text by Doreen Cecilia Mendes 2003
page uploaded 8 October 2003