Two Wings: Women, Men, and the Bird of Humanity

One of the most important principles of the Baha’i Faith is the oneness of religion, or the belief that all of the major world faiths teach the same fundamental truths and are entirely in agreement. Being raised Baha’i, this principle seemed so intuitive that I never really questioned it when I was young. But during my time as an undergraduate in university I was surprised to encounter a number of people who disagreed with the teachings of the Baha’i Faith precisely because of our belief in the principle of the oneness of religion. Oftentimes people of a particular faith would take issue with this principle because they were raised to believe that religions other than their own were inherently wrong. While I disagreed with their perspective, this didn’t necessarily surprise me as such views are somewhat common. But other times I would meet someone who wasn’t particularly religious, who loved all of the other teachings of the Faith, but who disagreed with the principle of the oneness of religion because it implied our acceptance of the principles from older religions that they disagreed with.

“How can you say you accept other religions when their teachings are the complete opposite of yours?” they’d ask. “Could you give me an example?” I’d reply, “I’m not sure exactly what you mean.”

One person’s response was particularly interesting: “Just look at how women have been treated in so many other religions,” He said. “I thought Baha’is believe in the equality of men and women. Other religions obviously don’t, right? How can you believe that all religions are in agreement when the status of women differs so much between them?”

It is absolutely true that the Baha’i Faith professes the complete and absolute equality of men and women. As Abdu’l-Baha states:

The world of humanity has two wings – one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. 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.1

Yet it is also true that the equality of men and women is a particularly novel teaching in the Baha’i Faith compared to the religions of old. As Abdu’l-Baha stated, this principle “is peculiar to the teachings of Baha’u’llah. Former religious systems placed men above women.”2 Never before was the equality of men and women significantly promoted in older faiths, and in many instances previous Messengers of God seemed to describe men and women as occupying fundamentally distinct stations with dissimilar rights and responsibilities.

However, the ostensible conflict between the principle of the equality of men and women and the principle of the oneness of religion is easily reconciled when one considers these principles in light of another one of the Faith’s fundamental tenets: the principle of progressive revelation. Baha’u’llah taught that every religion consists of both spiritual teachings and social teachings. Spiritual teachings are eternal truths that are only reiterated, refreshed, and restated in each new religious dispensation. For example, every Manifestation of God has exhorted mankind to be kind, generous, sacrificial, just, detached from this world, and the like. These are considered to be the central spiritual teachings of all Faiths.

In contrast, the social teachings of religions are updated and modified during each new dispensation given the current state of humanity’s development. The Messenger of God reveals whatever truths and principles mankind has the capacity to understand at the time and reveals social laws that are appropriate to the needs and exigencies of that particular age.

The analogy that is often used likens the social and spiritual development of humanity to the physical development of a child. Messengers of God promote humanity’s spiritual development just as a medical doctor promotes the child’s physical health. Upon birth, most physicians would likely recommend that an infant is fed a diet consisting solely of milk given the child’s limited ability to digest other foods. But as the child grows and its capacities increase, the physician will likely recommend an increasingly complex diet suited to the child’s capacity. Additionally, at different times the child may also experience specific maladies, illnesses, and diseases that require treatments that are uniquely suited to its current condition. The medicine that is prescribed by a capable physician is likely to cure that malady. However, that same medicine might have no effect at all, or might even do the child harm, if taken at a different time. The social teachings of religions operate the same way – they are gradually unfolded as the needs and capacities of humanity evolve. This is precisely why Baha’is believe it is important for humanity to turn toward the latest Messenger of God in order to better understand the most current social teachings and apply them to the needs of this day.

Given my belief in this idea of progressive revelation, it is easier for me to understand why the principle of the equality of men and women was not emphasized in previous religions but is a central teaching of the Baha’i Faith. Only recently has the dramatic increase in literacy and the promulgation of universal education allowed the majority of humanity to develop and cultivate its social and mental faculties. Before that time, few individuals engaged in “intellectual” pursuits, and the majority of work consisted of manual labor. Given humanity’s lack of education and intellectual development, it was wrongly assumed that women had less capacity than men as physical strength was the primary expression of human capacity. Even if previous Messengers had proclaimed that men and women were fundamentally equal, humanity would not have possessed the social and scientific understanding needed to accept that principle.

What Equality Means in the Baha’i Faith

It is obviously extremely important that Baha’u’llah made the equality of men and women one of the fundamental principles of His Faith, but equally important is His vision for how this principle should be adopted and promoted in society. As Baha’u’llah stated, it is not sufficient for us to hold lofty ideals:

It is incumbent upon every man of insight and understanding to strive to translate that which hath been written into reality and action.3

So what does this principle look like in practice for Baha’is?

First and foremost, women have played a central role in the history of the Faith since its inception. In fact, women’s rise to prominence began even before Baha’u’llah declared His mission in the example of Tahiríh, who was one of the first individuals to recognize the Báb, whose title “The Pure One” was granted to her by Baha’u’llah, who became a leader of the Bábi community along with Quddus when the Bab was imprisoned, who gave her life for the Faith, and who eventually became a symbol of women’s liberation and gender equality in Iran even among non-Baha’is. Since that time women have been at the forefront of the teaching efforts of the Faith, were frequently named Hands of the Cause (individuals appointed by Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi to promote and protect the Faith), and have served and continue to serve on Local Spiritual Assemblies and National Spiritual Assemblies around the world. Abdu’l-Baha even stated that one of the miracles of the Baha’i Faith is that “women have evinced a greater boldness than men when enlisted in the ranks of the Faith.”4 This participation of women in the central affairs of the Faith is not only an end in and of itself, but also evidence of the capacity of women to enter into all important areas of human affairs:

In this Revelation of Baha’u’llah, the women go neck and neck with the men. In no movement will they be left behind. Their rights with men are equal in degree. They will enter all the administrative branches of politics. They will attain in all such a degree as well be considered the very highest station of the world of humanity and will take part in all affairs. Rest ye assured. Do ye not look upon the present condition; in the not far distant future the world of women will become all-refulgent and all-glorious. For His Holiness Baha’u’llah hath willed it so!5

Second, the Faith teaches that girls must receive the same education and training as boys in order to develop their potentialities and demonstrate their capacities. The Universal House of Justice has emphasized that “no nation can achieve success unless education is accorded all its citizens,” and that parents, communities, and decision-making agencies around the world “would do well to consider giving first priority to the education of women and girls.”6 Mothers are viewed as the “primary educators” of children, and by placing a priority on educating the girls of this generation, mothers will be able to more effectively educate their children in the future.

Finally, one thing that the principle of the equality of men and women does not imply is that men and women are exactly the same. The Faith teaches that men and women, in general, do have naturally different strengths and proclivities, and that the cultivation of both elements leads to a healthier and richer society. While positions of power and influence have often been associated with the more “masculine” characteristics, women do not need to demonstrate their equal capacity by possessing these characteristics historically associated with influence. Rather, the world is in need of the more “feminine” qualities at all levels of society. As Abdu’l-Baha explained:

The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated over women by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the balance is already shifting – force is losing its weight and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age, less masculine, and more permeated with the feminine ideals – or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more evenly balanced.7

Thoughts? Questions? What does the equality of men and women mean to you?

 


  1. Baha’i World Faith – Abdu’l-Baha Section, p. 288 []
  2. Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 27 []
  3. Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 249 []
  4. From a letter written by the Universal House of Justice to all National Spiritual Assemblies May 25, 1975 []
  5. Abdu’l-Baha: Paris Talks, 1961 U.K. edition, pp. 182-184 []
  6. The Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 616 []
  7. Abdu’l-Baha: “Baha’u’llah and the New Era”, 1976 U.S. edition, p. 156 []

About the Author

Matt Giani is a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on stratification and social mobility in education, with an emphasis on helping underprivileged students make successful transitions to college after high school. Matt draws his inspiration from his exuberant daughter Clara, his incredible wife Shadi, and the Baha'i teachings.

Share This Post With the World

Discussion 11 Comments

  1. As a senior citizen from Down Under dabbling in the art of writing I’m so glad to receive Baha’i Blog articles because they are really essays of quality. Possible improvements are offered in the true spirit of Baha’i Studies consultation in the hope that authors will publish. At the risk of grandpa teaching you how to suck eggs, some confusion might be avoided by using throughout the essay ‘the equality of rights between men and women’ rather than ‘the equality of men and women’; as you point out in one reference using the latter phrase we are not equal in some ways

    Consider too a global reach and the Master’s wisdom vis-à-vis his opening words on occasion citing for an eastern audience three references from the world of nature that help change the mindset of individuals living in patriarchal societies : (1) the female date palm (2) the lioness (3) the Arabian mare in the desert

    My perusal failed to notice reference to the realization of world peace when women are equally represented in the parliaments of the world – primarily because ‘motherly’ politicians will move heaven and earth rather than seeing their sons lost in combat; in the main despite some bellicose examples in recent history it’s women in government and their advisers who’ll end war.

    That masculine forms of speech appear in abundance in Bahá’í texts is attributable to deficiencies of language, not only in English, as used in the nineteenth century and earlier. The Guardian demonstrated the highest standards of translation and of course utilized norms of his era. When the principle of an auxiliary international language is adopted in conformance with the Master’s instructions vis-à-vis ‘gender, extra and silent letters’ etc the masculine bias evident in many languages will be so apparent that such usage will decline further, permanently

    For the want of true consultation in certain quarters my last point is so sensitive that I’d prefer to explain it at length vis-à-vis the challenging situation in which we found ourselves in relation to various hot potatoes : (a) cloning, (b) funding, (c) Farsi usage during consultation time at Feast in anglo countries and (d) a Universal House of Justice on which women may not serve, etc etc.

    Not a few Bahá’ís are puzzled by the large earmarking of resources for the construction of monumental Bahá’í edifices and by similar budgetary outlays for administration etc. vis-a-vis our relatively meagre expenditure in favour of the under-privileged. The beauty and power of consultation reveals to every one a rational basis for this policy at this time. Friend and foe alike will quiz us. Be prepared! Apparently too, not one Bahá’í knows yet why the Lord of the age has precluded women from serving on the seat of the Universal House of Justice. Nothing will satisfy certain people about this. Suffice it to say, we obey because Bahá’u’lláh, the Promised One of all the peoples of the world, has decreed so. Honesty and consultation reveal all that is known about this hard to accept instruction and also that His reasoning will in time become as clear as the sun at noontide. Though we may not like this unpopular situation or yet understand His rationale we obey because we acknowledge His wisdom and authority. Moreover, in no way do we conceal His teachings; rather we consult at length within and beyond the Bahá’í community though the consultation is difficult. We do not shy away for we know that from this clash of opinions the shining spark of truth comes forth. This difficult consultation leads true seekers to the Faith for ultimately our fundamental belief in the equality of rights for men and women is showcased. In brief, consultation is light upon light while its opposite leads into the unknown, to evasiveness and eventually to the death of religion – hypocrisy. True consultation rarely occurs in some back slapping club atmosphere in which every one acquiesces. The more challenging the consultation – within the bounds of politeness of course – the more magnetic the attraction for the public! The Bahá’í community’s advice at hand in the holy Writings together with the experience of its believers facilitates sensible discussion of any topic, no matter how sensitive.

  2. Thanks Matt for your lucid and logical recap on the Bahá’í understanding of equality. It is fascinating to look at the principle in light of progressive revelation. On one hand, it is indeed a social teaching and a rather novel one at that — at least as an explicit commandment. But on the other hand, Bahá’u’lláh writes:

    “Women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God…. Verily God created women for men, and men for women.” (A Compilation on Women, p. 21)

    Cosmically, then, there has never been a time when women have been inferior to men in the final analysis — in the analysis of God, if you will. 🙂 It has been an aberration only in the social reality down here on earth. Despite Sikhism teaching certain notions that come close to gender equality, I have yet to find anything similarly explicit on gender equality that precedes Bahá’u’lláh and yet is revealed from a religious perspective as a kind of an ‘ultimate truth’ in the “sight of God”. Bahá’u’lláh also wrote:

    “Exalted, immensely exalted is He Who hath removed differences and established harmony…. The Pen of the Most High hath lifted distinctions from between His servants and handmaidens and . . . hath conferred upon all a station and rank on the same plane.” (from a Tablet translated from Persian and Arabic)

    Since you clarified that equality doesn’t mean “sameness”, I think it’s not necessary to use a far more convoluted expression “equality of rights for men and women” as suggested by Paul.

    Paul, in the spirit of “more challenging consultation” 😉 , I would like to challenge the notion that a sexist agenda or patriarchal theology underlies a linguistic technicality. Language need not be gender-neutral in order to be “perfect”. The fact that some people mistake the consistent usage of the English gender-neutral masculine for chauvinistic condescension is not something I am willing to remedy by making God or the gender-neutral “man” (sorry!) sound even more gender-specific (“she”), as far as English grammar is concerned. Nor do I see the necessity of inventing a language in which a gender-neutral masculine is entirely absent.

    The English language, like some others, has standardized a gender-neutral masculine “he” or “man” as an acceptable short reference to any person or a human being. Why? Probably linguistic convention owing to the comparative pragmatic and poetic succinctness of the term. Did the emergence and consolidation of these usages involve sexism? Nobody really knows. Maybe, or maybe not. Such linguistic conventions and social institutions need not be eternal. But neither should we be too bothered about them if their commonplace usage is understandable, practical, eloquent and entails no prejudice.

    As Bahá’ís we regard it self-evident that God, that Unknowable Essence Who is beyond all attributes, is also beyond gender. Yet it is not unusual for some to get caught up with linguistics when the Bahá’ís, along with Christians, Jews and Muslims, frequently employ the English gender-neutral masculine (He), or when titles such as “Father” are employed by the Central Figures.

    Yet we know that a God that created motherhood and womanhood with such beauty and depth surely cannot be a guy! A guy understands neither! 🙂 I suppose it works the other way too.

    In one prayer Bahá’u’lláh writes:

    “My soul delighteth in its communion with Thee, as the suckling child delighteth itself in the breasts of Thy mercy.” (Prayers and Meditations, CXIV, p. 195)

    In another:

    “Out of the pure milk, drawn from the breasts of Thy loving-kindness, give me to drink, for my thirst hath utterly consumed me.” (Prayers and Meditations, CXLV, p. 234)

    I’ve never thought of a man (nor a woman for that matter) when reciting these prayers, albeit that it is evident that God’s mercy and love is explicitly likened to motherhood rather than fatherhood in these prayers. Bahá’u’lláh employs the same maternal analogy for God’s love in numerous other verses.

    It is therefore safe to say that for Bahá’u’lláh, theologically speaking, God is God the Mother just as much as He is God the Father. Therefore, let’s not get caught up with technicalities.

    1. Hi Sam

      (a) equality of men and women
      (b) equality of rights between men and women
      (c) equality of rights for men and women
      (d) equal rights between men and women
      (e) equal rights for men and women
      etc etc

      What I’ve seen in praise worthy articles published by Baha’is is many of these terms above and more.
      As a laconic Australian and as a member of the Baha’i Faith I support the conciseness of your suggestion of down sizing my (c) to (e) or to its ilk
      You’re right again in saying in your final statement : ‘let’s not get caught up in technicalities’

      It’s not primarily for Baha’is that I suggested ‘equality of rights for men and women’ but rather for seekers that they are clear vis-a-vis physical differences etc.without the need for Matt (if he chooses) to explain and expand on those relatively unimportant differences. Like you, I’m just making a suggestion which one can consider. Oddly enough, using (c) or better yet (e) in a sense is more concise i m o than (a) because writers needn’t then expand on physical differences etc – if they wish

      What I really hope my meagre pen conveyed yesterday is the preparedness of our writers to address difficult questions surrounding the principle of equal rights for men and women because I’ve had the undeserved honour of promoting this Baha’i principle in public forums attended by gay rights individuals who openly accused me and my religion of hypocrisy: ‘How can you Baha’is ramble on about equal rights for men and women when Iran is a basket case for all women and your so called Universal House of Justice consists of 9 MEN?’ ‘How can you Baha’is talk about human rights when you condemn gay marriage?’

      When I have more time I’m gonna analyse in more detail your well worded points about gender neutrality in language and English language pronominal usage vis-a-vis ‘He’ ‘She’ etc in reference to God.
      Briefly though, my intention is to address gender deficiencies in English over centuries in addition to the more easily solved i m o pronominal problems.
      Recent technological advances like the Internet have revealed how debased the beautiful English language has become in the wrong hands. It is almost impossible for our children to avoid daily obscenities on the Information Super Highway. The variety of derogatory words, whether in normal or coarse English, disparagingly describing women of all ages and having no male equivalent is a sexist abomination; e.g. crone, hag, harridan, shrew, termagant, virago etc. just to mention a few of the printable ones that man has invented.

      As to your statement: ‘Language need not be gender-neutral in order to be “perfect”,’ let me add here a gender comment penned by the Master in a statement about Esperanto about a century ago which has been demonstrably cited in error, big error, by generations of anglophiles, and by some Baha’is, to down play Esperanto:

      “The love and effort put into Esperanto will not be lost but no one person can construct a universal language. It must be made by a Council representing all countries, and must contain words from different languages. It will be governed by the simplest rules, and there will be no exceptions, neither will there be gender, nor extra and silent letters. Everything indicated will have but one name. In Arabic there are hundreds of names for the camel. In the schools of each nation the mother tongue will be taught as well as the revised universal language.”

      Baha’i love

      Paul

  3. Thanks Paul!

    You really know you’re stuff when it comes to the Bahá’í Faith and lingo! If ‘Abdu’l-Bahá indeed said that the future universal language will have no gender, then you are indeed right. It will have no gender! But neither will it be absolutely gender-neutral when a gender is definitely intended by Bahá’u’lláh, such as “Father”, “daughter”, “handmaiden”, etc.

    I fully agree on the need for Bahá’ís to be far more prepared to kindly, truthfully and intelligently respond to the allegation of being “hypocritical” when it comes to “tolerance”. The gay marriage issue is of course a case in point, and a hot potato. I think our response should be kind, compassionate yet uncompromising in the gentlest of ways. The gist of our message should be (in my opinion) that (1) the Bahá’ís do not believe homosexuals to be less moral, or more sinful, people than heteros by default. We are forbidden to look at the sins of anyone but ourselves. And (2), IF indeed marriage is defined as a right to a life partner, then the Bahá’í Faith discriminates not only gays but also heteroes that do not regard the rearing of a better race of men as the primary purpose of marriage. However, the Bahá’ís gently challenge this definition of marriage. We challenge heteros and gays equally on the matter. And yet, we don’t insist nor politically campaign for our understanding to prevail outside our own community.

    1. “No worries mate!” is our Aussie way of saying “You’re welcome”

      And we also like “She’ll be right” to indicate that one shouldn’t worry or get angry.

      I know, these expressions seem to be around the wrong way, but that’s English for you, what!

      I just thought you might like the balance between “mate” and “she’ll” as a means of keeping on theme vis-a-vis “the two wings” discussion.

      What we’re planning down here in the antipodes is a linguistic appropriation of the English language; first we take Old Blighty then we conquer New York.

      Perhaps the most important word in any language is “IF”; Italian “Magari” is right on the nail – “If only”
      The “if” in your opening gambit is quite valid as far as Baha’i scholarship is concerned at this early stage of the Faith’s entry to a viable review process of for example Baha’i Blog essays and also for making a distinction between “authoritative” and “authenticated” Texts

      You’ll notice the context of the Master’s response in “Abdu’l-Baha in London” p95 when you juxtappose the question put to him.
      It’s all about a universal language, not a universal auxiliary language. Ergo, down playing Esperanto, as has occurred over generations based on this extract, is completely untenable. That this undeniable explanation is hardly discussed raises serious questions:

      “In response to a friend who desired to know if Esperanto would be the chosen language mentioned in Bahá’u’lláh’s Words of Paradise about a universal language being formed, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said:
      ‘The love and effort put into Esperanto will not be lost but no one person can construct a universal language. It must be made by a Council representing all countries, and must contain words from different languages. It will be governed by the simplest rules, and there will be no exceptions, neither will there be gender, nor extra and silent letters. Everything indicated will have but one name. In Arabic there are hundreds of names for the camel. In the schools of each nation the mother tongue will be taught as well as the revised universal language’.”

      Baha’i love

      Paul

  4. Thanks for your contribution to this topic Matt.

    In principle I think what the Baha’i Faith shares on the equality of women and men is really beautiful. I think accepting this truth that women and men are equal is the easy part, then comes the hard part – translating it into reality. What does the equality of women and men look like? Today in Australia, 1 in 3 women will experience physical or sexual violence. I think this is a sad example of what equality of women and men does not look like. But I feel the practical application is challenging and requires a united understanding and effort from individuals, communities and institutions.

    I feel that a lot of the inequality stems from culture, attitudes and beliefs which means we need to address it at these levels. I believe that Baha’is have a few initiatives – the spiritual and moral education of children, the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program, and the Institute Process which not only contributes to shaping ones culture, attitudes and beliefs that are inline with Baha’u’llah’s principles of justice, oneness, equality but also helps us develop skills for service, putting into practice these principles in both the transformation of our individual lives and that of society.

    I do not think there is an easy and quick solution to achieving equality of women and men but I think it is great for us to start exploring together what it might look like. Thanks Matt for contributing to this discussion.

    There is an interesting document from the Institute for Studies In Global Prosperity titled ‘Advancing Toward the Equality of Women and Men’ which I feel also provides a great contribution to this discussion.

  5. Wonderful discussion. I would point out that when we are speaking to women, Baha’i or otherwise, it is not only kind and respectful, but also highly enlightened, to be sensitive to the inner significance women and men place on the traditional masculinization of God and the subtle implication that women, therefore, are less than men. Regardless of whether or not the word “He” as pertaining to God is used as a gender-neutral pronoun, it still perpetuates, to many minds, the traditional implication of God as a male entity. As such, it has contributed its share in the subjugation of women down the ages and rationalized men’s view of women as inferior. As such, many women are highly sensitive to that fact. Both men and women need to be cognizant of this and not toss it off as being petty or of no importance just because the convention is that “he” can be gender neutral. To women it is highly important, as it should be to men interested in helping women transition into their rightful status as fully equal. All I am saying is that it cannot be overemphasized, when we are questioned about this seeming problem in the Writings, to specifically state that we are aware that this is not the ideal and that in future this problem is meant to be resolved through the creation of a universal language.

  6. Naysan, thanks for keeping me posted on your blog. It has been a source of great motivation & information on Baha’i issues which I share with my teenage children here in PNG.

    Kuike

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *