As Baha’is we believe in Baha’u’llah’s explicit teaching of the equality of men and women, but believing in something and acting on it are two different things, and we each have to strive continually to ensure that Baha’u’llah’s teachings are translated into our everyday lives.
The reality is that we live in a male dominated world, and even though the landscape of the inequality of the sexes is currently changing to varying degrees and rates in many countries and societies, we’ve still got a long way to go as we’re products of our environment and there’s still a lot we can do as individuals to help change things.
Living in a male dominated world, as men especially, we have a lot of responsibility in regards to this inequality, so I’ve listed below seven things men can do to help undo the oppression of women – but before we get to that, it’s important to understand that we live in a materialistic society, and one definition of materialism is that it’s “a doctrine that the only or the highest values or objectives lie in material well-being and in the furtherance of material progress”. Given this definition, we clearly live in a materialistic society as success in our society is most often defined as an attainment of material advantage, whether it’s money, possessions, rank, competitiveness, or power. When people talk about what the greatest country in the world is, the greatest corporation, or the greatest sports team, these are invariably the criteria they use. This is clearly out of step with the teachings of the Baha’i Faith:
… consider how base a nature it reveals in man that, notwithstanding the favors showered upon him by God, he should lower himself into the animal sphere, be wholly occupied with material needs, attached to this mortal realm, imagining that the greatest happiness is to attain wealth in this world. How purposeless! … What an ignorance this is! What a blindness! (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p 185)
Women are viewed almost exclusively through this materialistic lens. Widespread unhealthy and unchaste images, pressure to spend time and money on appearance, and the distressingly high danger of harassment and rape are just some of the damaging effects. So here are a few ideas for how men, particularly Baha’i men can address this situation:
1. Recognise the oppression of women
The first big step is to recognise that this is oppression. Confining women to their physical nature inhibits them from making their appropriate contribution to the world, and this is holding humanity back. Abdu’l-Baha said,
As long as women are prevented from attaining their highest possibilities, so long will men be unable to achieve the greatness which might be theirs. (Paris Talks, p. 133)
Baha’u’llah illuminates the concept of oppression in the Kitab-i-Iqan:
What “oppression” is more grievous than that a soul seeking the truth, and wishing to attain unto the knowledge of God, should know not where to go for it and from whom to seek it?
He defines oppression as the inability to attain the knowledge of God because of the well-meaning but wrongly directed actions of a few. In light of this example, can we accept that being constantly treated as mere bodies is also oppression?
2. Stop ogling
That which distinguishes us from animals, plants, and inanimate objects is not physical, so if we judge women by their appearance, focus exclusively on their bodies, pressure them to stay thin, and encourage them to dress so they appeal sexually, we continually reinforce their physical/animal reality and erode their spiritual reality.
Much of the judgment, focus, pressure and encouragement is conveyed not through words, but by other means, such as through men’s ogling of women. Many men engage in “girl-watching” as entertainment, not considering the effect it has on those who are watched. But women come to understand that in order to appeal to men and to be valued, they have to make themselves as sexy as possible. They have to be thin, use makeup, wear sexualised clothing, and not be in any way masculine-like or threatening to men. Women who can do all of those things are rewarded by stares, attention, and flirting, and those that can’t or won’t have to deal with the consequences. We can work together to break this pattern and emphasise character over appearance.
3. Earn the right to call a woman “pretty”
When you compliment something, it means you have noticed and put some value on it. Compliments can have a strong reinforcing effect. The objectification of women is promoted in magazines, advertisements, music videos, television programs, movies, novels and the list goes on. Consequently, each comment on a woman’s appearance is added to a long list of other messages regarding her appearance.
To provide some balance, it is essential that every comment, positive or negative, that you make about a woman’s appearance is offset by many comments about other things, such as virtues or abilities. If you think that the soul and character is a million times as important as the body, how can you justify it if even one out of a hundred of your compliments is on appearance? And the ratio is often much higher.
4. Encourage modesty
Think of all the images that every woman and girl will see every day that tell them that exposing more and more skin will help them achieve their goals in life. The constant bombardment by media and advertising has been likened to a soundtrack for life that plays continually in one’s head. Consider how much strength it can take to overcome this powerful message being sent by society in order to instead dress and act with modesty. Encouragement from one’s trusted friends can work to help a woman make a difficult decision to cover up a bit more, to act with more chastity, or to project more soulfulness and less sexiness.
5. Change your selection criteria
Many men cite physical appearance as the most important attribute in selecting a mate. Here are some quotes gleaned from a quick search of the Internet:
- “…first and foremost, she’s got to be good looking.”
- “…the potential wife needs to be attractive and good looking.”
- “…tender, virtuous, 100% obedient, dedicated, and most importantly, she has to be beautiful.”
Hopefully, Baha’is are already working to inform themselves of any potential partner’s character, rather than focusing on physical appearance alone. Keep it up and double your efforts in that direction.
6. Watch your language
The words society uses for women reflect the way we diminish their humanity. We describe them as “sexy” or “hot”, we call them “broads” and “bimbos”. We use animal terms for them, calling women “foxes”, “birds”, “chicks”, and even the b-word, as if they are not human. Grown women are routinely called “girls” or “babes”, literally dismissing their maturity and adulthood.
Every word you speak has its effect. Knowing the cumulative effect of all the words spoken about women on every television show, in every movie, in every ad, in every newspaper or magazine article, and on each Facebook post, make sure each of your words is chosen carefully.
7. Speak out for women’s dignity
Female leaders who speak out about this topic have a very difficult time being heard. If they are not supermodels themselves, they are often mocked as trying to deflect criticism of their own nonconformity to traditional standards of physical beauty. If they are supermodels, they are criticised for playing both sides. In both cases, there is often relentless commentary on their choices related to dress, hairstyle, hygiene, makeup, etc. that distracts people from what they are saying.
It falls to men to champion the dignity of women and help people to take them seriously. Every word spoken by a man in this regard has its own positive effect and also helps validate the same message when heard from a woman. Know your strength and speak out!
These few steps are minimal, but each one will have an effect. Please add your own ideas to the list in the ‘comments’ section below, so instead of just seven actions, we’ll have thousands, to hasten the day when together we will achieve the greatness that Abdu’l-Baha envisioned for humanity.