7 Things Men Can Do to Help Undo the Oppression of Women

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.

About the Author

Alan and Lorraine Manifold

Alan and Lorraine Manifold are loving life in Australia. They have a Baha'i choir in Melbourne, 'Perfect Chord', and are actively involved in their local Baha'i community. They're planning their second Australian Baha'i Choral Festival in Sydney, hopefully to become an annual event. But they're also finding that women's issues are quite similar here to those in other Western countries and want to do what they can to improve things. Lorraine has suffered acutely from oppression and objectification growing up in Belgium, Canada and the US. Alan has been deeply involved for many years providing diversity education and training.

Share This Post With the World

Discussion 44 Comments

  1. In today’s Western society, women and girls also view men more and more as sex objects. I think boys and men should also be taught to dress modestly. Why is it okay for a boy or man to walk around topless on the street? Most men do not have the figure to carry it off, and I do not find it respectful to oneself or even modest, either. Or a young man showing his lower decolleté or a lot of his underpants… not appealing, and too much information often.

    If men would let go of their views and opinions about women and focus more on their own spiritual nature and the values that are truly respected by most people, this also would be a great help to women. Don’t focus too much on how she dresses because that will make her feel that she is the cause of when males see her as a piece of meat rather than a human being. First and foremost men should train themselves to think of women as other human beings, like themselves. And second, fathers should train their sons to focus on spiritual values rather than material ones, to focus on who they are as a person rather than buy into what is expected of them by the media on how to behave. Cause the media glorify laddish behaviour, irresponsible behaviour, womanizing, cutting yourself off from your emotions. Women are not that much different from men,although they may express what they want or need different from how a man would express these things.

    I have found it helps me to think of people I tend to place in a certain frame as just people, like I am a person and to ask myself: how could I truly show them my respect and love? After years of training in this, and making numerous mistakes, I find that thinking about the values and attitudes I like most to receive from people when they interact with me, helps me a lot. I value when I am being treated with respect for me as a human being, with truthfulness, honesty and courtesy, when somebody truly listens to what I am trying to convey and a little less to the way or words I convey it with, I feel I am seen as equal. When someone tries to tell me what to do, is full of advice I haven’t asked for and focusses too much on whether I am dressed in what he or she thinks is modest, I find not being seen as an equal, not being listened to, not being valued for who I am but rather for being valued according to what another would like me to be.

    We are all letters love letters, from God. When we realise that we see ourselves and others with different eyes, experience ourselves and others totally different. We become milder, less judgemental, more accepting, more experiencing ourselves and others as work in progress. We develop more confidence, not so much in ourselves, but in ourselves as a mine full of precious stones. We know we do not need to follow the dictates of ‘the media, what is in fashion. We develop charisma because we have this inner confidence that we are created rich, created because God loved us, each one of us. No matter if we are born as a female or a male.

    1. Janine,
      Thanks so much for your comments! I can imagine using your technique myself: whenever I start to put someone in a box to think of them as a person like myself. We put people in boxes pretty often, whether the box is gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, ability, or even family. Another idea might be to think about whether your judgments, thoughts, or actions would be appropriate to someone in a different box. If you start to think of a poor person you don’t know as probably not very bright, consider if that would be an okay assumption for a rich person, based on no other factors. If you fear an Arab as a possible terrorist, would you also fear a Scandinavian or a Hmong? If your judgment, thought, or action doesn’t pass the “different box” test, perhaps it’s a prejudice.

    2. Your thoughts are very much my own and many others. “Mankind” needs to be “humankind” and “all men” needs to be “all humanity” and since God is beyond all names, why “He”? I prefer Baha’u’llahs use of “The Great Mystery Saith” in one of His later tablets. This constant use of the male pronoun in the translations should change with the times.

  2. I’m all for 95% of this, thanks for making up the list. I do wish to point out that calling adult women “girls” may or may NOT be a negative. How often have you heard women making plans for “Girls Night Out” for themselves? Or calling each other “girlfriend”. By the same token, I call men “boy” as a term of affection (yes, I’m southern, NO, I do not call any man with brown skin that unless he’s about 10 years old or younger).

    “The Boys” is a collective term for a group of males. “The Girls” is a collective term for a group of females. It is not pejorative, but a regional use of a pair of words.

    That said, I distinctly recall having some men call on my Mother at home for some sort of business pitch, back in the 1970’s. One guy kept calling my Mom “Little Girl”. It was his equivalent to “honey”, or maybe “doll”. I really think HE thought he was being charming. You have to understand… the women in my family are built like linebackers. My Mother in particular was very athletic, a golfer, very muscular. About 180lbs of solid muscle. The very idea of ANYONE calling her “Little Girl” was so freaking ludicrous… after we got those men out of the house she and I both about busted a GUT laughing over that!!!!!!

    Sexist? Oh YEAH. No doubt about it. Stupid too.

    1. I personally think it’s a mistake to get too comfortable with women being called girls (or men being called boys). I think using it for a brown-skinned person feels inappropriate because it has been used as a way to put people down, and I think it still works that way. When I think of boys or girls night out, it sounds like they don’t plan to act like adults. In other words, they are voluntarily giving up some aspects of their adulthood to have fun. When we call a woman a girl, it feels to me like the same thing, except involuntary. Endearment or not, it’s still removing (or at least chipping away at) their womanhood. If it’s okay to use with white friends but not with black friends, I think that should also give us pause, if only for the exclusiveness of a phrase where race matters.

  3. Here are nine things men can do to promote the equality of women from my pamphlet of the same name:
    Listen
    When we listen to women — without trying to control, seduce or patronize them — we discover that they have much to teach us. We can learn, not just from their words, but from the way they talk to us and to each other, the subjects they find interesting, and the feelings they express. Unless we listen, we may never understand why they care about the things they do, and we may miss out on some of the important things in life. Understanding what women value is a key step in learning to value women themselves.

    Invite Women to Join Your Team
    You are already good at what you are good at. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have teammates that are good at other things? Different perspectives and different experiences help build different skills. Women often have the skills your project needs in order to succeed. In return, you can provide the opportunity for women to develop the new skills they need — and that your project can teach them.
    Study the Art of Consultation
    Consultation is a decision-making process in which personalities and private agendas are set aside and everyone in a group is encouraged to offer input concerning a common goal. Letting go of ownership of an idea, and wholehearted support of the group’s decision are two key elements of the process. Women’s voices are more likely to be heard, and their ideas appreciated in this kind of setting.

    Rethink Your View of Motherhood
    Being a mother is not what women do when they have rich husbands or can’t find a better job. Nor is it the sappy idealized image on a Mother’s Day card. Just as the womb provides the physical nutrients needed for healthy development, a mother provides the physical, emotional and spiritual “food” for an awakening young soul. If the mother lacks food, education, serenity, self esteem or love of God, then how can these essential needs be passed down to her child?

    Value Children
    We will never value mothers until we value children and understand the critical importance of the first few years of our lives. For centuries we have pretended that children were “resilient” and would “get over” whatever pain, suffering and humiliation they might experience. Now we are discovering that what we have forgotten from our childhood may have a stronger influence on our habits and fears than those things we remember. The importance of healthy, happy, and empowered mothers is clear. Our future depends on them.

    Be a Good Father
    Support your daughter’s dreams. Make sure she receives the education and inspiration she needs to be a loving parent and a contributing member of society. In doing this, you will also be setting a good example for your sons, who need to see your respect for women demonstrated in action.

    Be a Supportive Husband
    Give your wife time for prayer, meditation and rejuvenation. This is a polite way of saying do your share of housework. Whether your wife works outside of the home or rears children, these are both full-time activities that are just as demanding as what you do. So set aside some time to cook, clean, do laundry, and grocery shop so that your wife will be able to recharge her batteries and be a fully empowered partner.

    Stand Up for Women
    This may be the most difficult act of all, because it forces us to step outside of our comfortable circle of friends, risk our own position of status, and support someone else. The process is even more challenging when we realize that we must do it with love. We are not taking sides in the battle of the sexes. We are trying to bring the sides together in greater understanding and cooperation. This is best accomplished when we focus on how much we have to gain rather than what we are giving up; how much we love unity rather than how disgusted we are by sexism.

    Listen Some More
    Not only to women, but also to comments by other men, advertisements, jokes, media portrayals, and (most importantly) your own soul. Become sensitive to the subtle ways in which both men and women are limited by habit, tradition, expectations and prejudice. Then practice thinking, acting and feeling differently than you have in the past.

    1. Justice,
      I just finished the third book of your Love, Lust and Longing for God trilogy and I am humbled by the depth and potency of your thoughts there about relationships. If people practised the kinds of things you discuss there, oppression of women would disappear. I doubt that everyone will read your books or take your advise (although they should!), but the more who do, the better society will be. Thanks for your contribution to this discussion and to the topic as a whole.

  4. These are all good points but I think that the changes need to be more radical than simply (even with the best of intentions) allowing women to join the ‘boys’ club’. We need to learn to be human beings first and foremost – the soul has no gender after all. Equality is not a gift that men can bestow on women, or indeed stop them from having – it already exists. To decide otherwise is like saying gravity exists only if we choose to believe in it.

    Equality of the sexes is a fact and while it is true that men need to change their attitude to women, women also need to change their own attitudes. All of these attitudes – both male and female – are forged by the social reality to which we all contribute – women as well as men. Mostly they are just a trick of nature to get us to procreate The most sexually attractive woman will have the best chance of finding a ‘good’ mate – this is good for the welfare of future children. The man with the highest ‘status’ will have the best chance of getting the most attractive woman as a mate – again this is good for children as physical attractiveness often equals health. We dress these instincts up and give them fancy names but they are simply adaptive instincts. These instincts are quite good in themselves but they become something completely different when we fail to apply our powers of reasoning and let them run the show. Then we have problems.

    It seems to me that women generally find themselves caught between two choices – be ‘liked by’ men (put all your energy into being sexually attractive because that’s where your power lies), or be ‘like’ men (put all your energy into competing with men as they compete – again a power quest). I wish we could all act like people. If we decided to learn to be fully functional human beings the pitch would be immediately levelled as men have no idea how to do this any more than women.

    However we proceed, though, one thing is certain sure – the equality of women and men is an immutable reality – it cannot be changed. This equality is a fact that even the lack of opportunity, the huge oppression of women and girls and the objectification of women doesn’t change. All of these things are part of our social reality and social reality is not immutable. We make it – all of us. We can change it. All of us. But it will take all of us.

    1. Trisha,
      Great stuff! Thanks for the comments.

      Our list is about reducing the oppression of women, rather than creating equality, and I think this is something that men can have a large role in. Part of that oppression, it seems to me, is determining the standards by which we judge people. Einstein allegedly said, “If you judge a fish by how well it can climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Equally, if we determine that the way to be “successful” or “attractive” or “good” is to achieve materialistic goals in a competitive arena, we’re setting up women, men, and the entire society for a long period of fruitless and frustrating effort. Better to have spiritual standards.

    2. Dear Trisha,

      Oh yes, I agree with you wholeheartedly. It is not in our spiritual reality that women need to try to become like men. Rather both men and women need to look towards God and focus on developing our God given virtues. That means that men can develop compassion, gentleness and being nurturing while women can develop being assertive, bold and courageous. As you said, the soul has no gender, so we are all souls advancing towards God. The fact that society sees women and men as almost two opposites is limiting our progress and growth. The solution truly is the knowledge and acceptance of our spiritual nature. A man who firmly believes he is on earth to know and love God, to increase his divine virtues and to be the cause of the advancement of society, a man who values women as spiritual equals with the same divine qualities, will not be able to denigrate women and to treat them with disrespect. Rather, ‘Abdu’l-Baha says that in the future, “the days shall come when the men addressing the women, shall say: ‘Blessed are ye! Blessed are ye! Verily ye are worthy of every gift. Verily ye deserve to adorn your heads with the crown of everlasting glory… “. May we all do our part to hasten that day!

  5. Thank you for a most insightful and pragmatic piece. “… 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…”

    And your definition of “oppression” is helpful to understanding what it looks like and the consequences of this form.

    “…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)…”

    “…… 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)”

    We are all learning, all the time. Thank you again.

  6. Let me be blunt. We men must first stop treating ourselves as mechanical thrill-generators — pleasure-machines of the dumbest order. We’re spiritual beings. And our souls have no sex according to ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Many things that are considered part and parcel of being a modern and assertive woman are in fact silly and harmful cultural practices invented and propagated by men. These may include binge-drinking, aggressive behaviour and ever-increasingly thrilling sexual adventures. Equality does not have to mean that women adopt, or indeed hanker after, all the stupid habits of men. Let’s start by deepening our common concept of humanness, and recognize that spiritually we’re one and the same.

    Overall, I think Janine has a very valid point. Many modern forms of “sexism” are in fact the offspring of a materialist culture that objectifies *everyone* indiscriminately. It is symptomatic of a deeper culture of thrill-seeking and hedonism that affects both boys and girls. Boys are reared to want an instant buzz and entertainment in all areas of life and girls are taught to get caught up with the thrill of being viewed beautiful, adorable, lovable and hot. Such a shallow value-base makes them extremely vulnerable to flattery, just as the same shallow value-base makes boys alarmingly insensitive to the needs and feelings (including non-verbal signals) of others. The general culture of thrill-seeking over-emphasizes entertainment, sexual pleasure and sexuality and treats instant pleasure, despite its fleeting nature, as a major cultural value that overrides other values such as kindness, tenderness, fairness, love, consideration and justice. It even mystifies bodily pleasure. Reducing our bodies into mere playthings to be used as toys by passing flings isn’t appreciative of their dignity.

    The solution is not that women become as deluded and pleasure-seeking as the men. But that men and women *both*, and *in companionship* learn to be more dignified and self-disciplined. In a word, spiritual. What men can do to help undo the oppression of women is to start treating themselves as spiritual beings that just happen to have been put in a male body. Their souls could’ve just as well been expressed through a female body.

    1. Thanks, Sam, for your very insightful comments. Yes, instant gratification and pleasure seeking is yet another manifestation of our materialistic society. As you said, both men and women need to become more spiritual in order to work on developing their inner divine virtues. It’s so wonderful that this spiritual awareness is growing. Thank you for your wise contribution to this interesting conversation! ~ Lorraine

  7. This is wonderful, a blog for discussion on equality.
    Being a child of the 40’s I have a hard time getting it clear as to what equality looks like or feels like.
    I grew up firmly indoctrinated in “pretty is good” “do pretty”. Clearly told and laughed at for being a lover of sports and riding horses.
    We did not have women’s sports, and those that did were seen as strange.

    I did however raise a daughter who loves sports. And is beautiful (there we go with the value of beauty).
    My granddaugher’s are different in that they see no line of beauty first. They are great sportswomen great students and have friends of all genders (which was not allowed when I grew up).

    I do find myself judging women first off when I see them as to dress and hair – mental approval. I then catch myself and adjust my thinking and remember who I am looking at – a spiritual being created by God, my fellow human being who has great potential to carry on Gods plan and I am just a servant to that Spirit.

    But I do suffer from that indoctronation that I had when growing up. I find my ego chastises very hard when I look in the mirror and see how my body has changed over the years. Heavier, grayer, loss of firmness, need a cane, cant wear beautiful shoes or clothing. A total waste of time and dwelling on the physical appearance. And then I stop myself and remember who I am. Just a servant of God. Nothing more nothing less and beautiful because of just that. It is a very difficult job we have to do as Spiritual Beings and one of those difficulties are just the battle in ourselves and trying to change the way we think and assist others to see things differently too.
    Thank you for letting me tell my challenge. Much love
    Ruth

    1. Ruth,
      In the workshop that Lorraine and I run, we talk about what is known as “internalised oppression”. The idea here is that an oppressed group comes to accept the message that is pounded into them to such an extent that they will continue to oppress themselves, even if the external oppression is removed. Women hear from men, from parents, from peers, from media – in short, from the entire society – that they are valued for their appearance. After a while, we start seeing women talk about empowering themselves by using their sexual powers to get what they want. To my mind, this is a clear manifestation of internalised oppression. It takes a lot of strength and effort to root this out, I think.

      1. That is so wonderful of you to respond to my comment. You are correct as to the internalizing this and over years of hearing or sensing it you become the one who thinks it as you see others and see yourself. It is a huge issue that I need to root out inorder to help elliminate this as a prejudice which keeps us from seeing our true selves and others.
        Thank you for your kind words and understanding that it is a huge issue to overcome.
        Thank you

  8. This was so thoughtfully written and right on. Particularly the part about how women are so frequently referred to as girls or other terms I experience are “dear” or “doll” or “sweetie”, and they really are used with an intention of denying a woman’s maturity or adulthood. I actually really struggle with this on a daily basis. Thank you for writing such a thought provoking piece that reflected so many truths. It has inspired me to do a fireside on the topic of equality of men and women. much love, lua

    1. Dear Lua,

      So glad you enjoyed our post! And yes, I see so many instances where women are called girls: a man in his 50s saying he got married to a wonderful “girl” (in here 40s), a man saying he loves a certain country for the booze, cars and girls….. My husband and I have been trying to change that language. When we hear someone mention the word girl to talk about a woman, we say something to the effect “oh you meant woman”. It’s fun to notice the puzzled look on people’s faces when we do that. I’m specially excited that it has motivated you towards action! Thanks for taking the time to comment and to share your thoughts.

  9. Part of my experience as a Baha’i back in the 1950s and 1960s, was listening to talks by Firuz Kazemzadeh(1924- ). He is now a professor emeritus of history at Yale University. Kazemzadeh received a Ph.D. in Russian history from Harvard University in 1950, taught at Harvard in 1954-1956, then moved to Yale where he was professor of history until his retirement as professor emeritus in 1992. From 1963 to 2000 he served as a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and was, for many years, its secretary.

    In one of his talks that I listened to on a casette tape-recorder in the mid-1960s, Kazemazdeh expressed the view that 99% of our attitudes and behaviour are a result of the wider culture in which we live, and 1 % of those attitudes and behaviours are the result of our beliefs as Baha’is, beliefs that we practice due to our reading of the writings and participation in the Baha’i community. Many Baha’is, if not most, in the West now immerse themselves in dozens of hours every week in the print and electronic media for every hour they spend with the Creative Word. We are all the product of how we spend our time from birth to death. We spend our time, to a significant extent, immersed in the wider culture which is our society. Even if Kazemzadeh is only partly right, he made a point to think about. I leave readers here to ponder this idea, this concept, of what determines our daily behaviour and the attitudes that underpin that behaviour.

    For readers who would like to read some of my thoughts about this wider, this popular culture, on our lives as Baha’is go to this sub-section of my website at: http://www.ronpriceepoch.com/POPULAR.html

  10. Did anyone else find this article patronising, sexist, and simplistic? An man who follows a religion created by a man writing an article about how women can be taken more seriously?? Oh the irony!

    1. Whilst apprehensive about action point 4 in the article (everyone is responsible only for their own modesty or the lack thereof, rather than encouraging other adults to be modest), I did not find the article otherwise sexist. It was written by a man-and-woman team, not by a man. And the Founder of their Faith declared:

      “Women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God.”

      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”. Even the foremost among the late 18th and 19th century feminists do not come even close in their certainty and confidence on the cosmic equality of men and women. At best, they petitioned for equal opportunities and rights under law.

      So I would say that the words of this bearded 19th century Middle Eastern “man” were pretty radical by all accounts.

      1. Dear Sam,

        Thanks again for your insights and knowledge. I understand your apprehensiveness about encouraging women to dress modestly. The world, until now it seems, has been lacking in mutual encouragement. It is something that does not come naturally to us. Shoghi Effendi says: “It is incumbent upon every one of us to encourage each other…” and “Each one should endeavor to develop and assist the other toward mutual advancement… ” This type of encouragement is also the basis of the Virtues Project (see http://www.virtuesproject.com) where encouraging each other’s virtues has been found to be the most profound and lasting way to help one another increase our capacities. In our marriage, Alan and I encourage one another a lot. It is such a great feeling to have one’s virtues recognised, acknowledged and encouraged. If I act patiently and Alan thanks me for it, it makes me want to be more patient next time. In today’s society, men are in fact encouraging women to dress more and more sexualised by commenting “you look hot, sexy, beautiful”. This form of encouragement has led women to focus on their appearance and sex-appeal as being one way to get men’s attention and praise. In our blog, we’re assuming that women wish to bring themselves more and more to Baha’u’llah’s standard of modesty, but that they find it difficult, given all the pressure to act otherwise. So, our suggestion to men is to help grow that desire on the part of women, not to choose for them. By acknowledging and applauding women who display the virtue of modesty instead, we believe it will help women to change their sense of worth from the materialistic value of sex-appeal to the spiritual reality of dignity and self-respect.

        1. Dear Alan and Lorraine,

          I completely understand where you are coming from, and I applaud both your wisdom and your focus on practical steps to promote the all-important social virtue of equality. Indeed Bahá’u’lláh asks us to be the “guiding light unto the feet of the erring”. But only in accordance with the receptivity of the hearer, with a sin-covering eye and in a manner that doesn’t magnify our own faults. Men are just as unchaste, and in fact their minds tend to be more dirty. That’s the first thing that men should do to help women, rather than focusing on what the women should do in terms of chastity. The focus on the other in this particular advice, unintentionally, rings too Taliban-like for many who do not understand where the Bahá’ís are coming from.

          Then there’s the question of what is appropriate and seemly. What might be suitable for a married couple, or within a family, may not be an appropriate communication between other adults. I’m sure you did not mean it this way either, but it is still good to clarify: It is not my place as an adult man to go and encourage a grown-up fellow Bahá’í woman who is not my wife nor my daughter or sister, much less a non-Bahá’í woman, to cover themselves a little better. Firstly, as I said, such behaviour focuses on other people’s “faults” instead of my own faults as one who lets his eyes wander. Secondly, Bahá’u’lláh did not define the specifics of female and male modesty in dressing, so it would be presumptuous for me to offer my opinion as the “right” one, despite the fact that the hearer may be made to agree with my view. Thirdly, certain issues are not to be directly broached by strangers, but only within a family. Sexuality (including the sexual signals we intentionally or unintentionally send through our clothing) is one of them. At best they can be discussed as general principles and solutions.

          Once more thanks for your thought-provoking article! It was only this little aspect I had a slight issue with, so please do not take it as criticism. I didn’t want to mention it at first but since I was kind of expecting a response like Natalie’s, I decided to elaborate on the point after the response was made.

          Sam

    2. Dear Natalie,

      I understand where you are coming from. It’s like the concept of the oneness of humankind, which is such a simple concept in itself. It is very easy to explain: all human beings are equal. Full stop. Done. And yet, look around the world and see the excruciatingly pain society is in because people do not believe in that principle and are not living by it. So, in order to counter racism, we try to use little steps, we learn that we have to stop saying racist jokes. In the United States, people had to start acknowledging African Americans, shaking their hand, saying hello, and later sitting next to them in a bus, and then later inviting them into their homes for coffee. Each step on its own can seem simple, but the actions will eventually help solidify the very deep and profound knowledge that all human beings are inherently equal. “Sexism, like racism, is insidious” (Sylvia Nablo de Vasquez). In our blog we are asking men to try to apply these seemingly small things in their lives, because actions can help change beliefs just as beliefs can help change behaviour. Each step might be small in itself, but it will be very difficult for people to put them into practice and it can take decades and generations for the symptoms of sexism to decrease. Little by little, step by step, we hope to make bring about long-lasting changes. Here is the concept that is the force behind our daily actions: “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.” (‘Abdu’l-Baha)
      ~ Lorraine

  11. I think we have to remember that Baha’u’llah came for the world. Not just those who grew up in the United States which to me helps me see things in a different light. The United States is not the Standard of which the World must muster up to, the Revelation of Baha’u’llah is the Standard of which we must muster up to.
    Sometimes we pride ourselves that we and we alone have the highest social interaction goals and those I believe are off.
    So when looking at the Writings I have to try to remember that my view may be off center and try to see above that. And that I might not see what true unity or freedom may look like.
    Thank you

  12. Love this post, and the ensuing discussion. While I was in university there were some very active student groups working hard to make the campus safe for women; every so often they held events, gave out flyers, buttons and stickers and the like. One of the stickers that stuck out for me (ha) was the one that said “Men can stop rape through knowledge”. Perhaps, as you’ve mentioned, the most crucial point of knowledge for men in their efforts to eliminate gender prejudice and the oppression of women is the realization that both women and men are spiritual beings in their essence, not merely material beings. The soul is that sacred entity possessed by every human being regardless of gender which belongs to, and will return unto, its Creator. From this knowledge of humanity’s spiritual reality, of course, must then come action—as men and as human beings, we have choice in what we do. We can choose to occupy ourselves with the promptings of our base, material desires, or with the promptings of our higher, spiritual nature. Thank you for articulating this so well and for sharing your thoughts on this important issue!

    1. Thanks for your valuable comments, Dan. I like your summary. This notion of equality is so simple and yet so complex. We hope we have given some insights as to how actions and behaviours will change once people truly integrate that knowledge.

  13. I thoroughly appreciated your article and the comments. I found it very timely given the extraordinary amount of gender prejudice that’s been in the public arena in Australia in recent weeks, which has made me really reflect on these issues lately.

    You didn’t mention the principle of gender equality within families, such as for the role of the mother, in your piece. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the Baha’i attitude toward this- as it seems like (in a Western context) women are expected to be mothers, have a career, do the housework and in a Baha’i context, be active members of their local community.

    To me, as a young woman, this seems manifestly unreasonable, not just to women, but to children especially and the family unit as a whole, and I wonder whether all these expectations are in some way related to the high rates of mental distress among women especially, in Western societies at the moment.

    1. Hello Sonia,

      Yes, you have touched a number of very important aspects of gender equality. It is very important that within a family, both the father and the mother contribute work towards the household, raising and taking care of children. It is especially important for children to have a loving and caring father who loves to spend time with his children. As you no doubt know, there is a beautiful analogy by ‘Abdu’l-Baha about gender equality: “The world of humanity is possessed of two wings: the male and the female. So long as these two wings are not equivalent in strength, the bird will not fly. Until womankind reaches the same degree as man, until she enjoys the same arena of activity, extraordinary attainment for humanity will not be realized; humanity cannot wing its way to heights of real attainment. When the two wings . . . become equivalent in strength, enjoying the same prerogatives, the flight of man will be exceedingly lofty and extraordinary.”

      While the points you raised are extremely important, we didn’t mention them just because the blog needed to be short and our focus was on 7 points, which of course do not cover the wide complexity of gender equality issues. A good book you might like to read is the “Advancement of Women: A Bahai Perspective” by Janet and Peter Khan.

      Best wishes and thanks for your comment.

  14. I would like to hear more about your class on Internalized Oppression.
    Is it offered online or something only offered on site?

    1. Ruth,
      Thanks for asking about our workshop. The workshop is not just about internalised oppression. It’s called “Embracing Our Spiritual Reality: Exposing the false standards of an immoral society”. We try to show, through quotations from the Baha’i Writings, research data, collected images, and group exercises, that society’s view of women is warped and oppressive, and flows from a materialistic perspective of humanity. We try to help both men and women recognise and feel the effects of treating women primarily as bodies, not as souls. Our hope is that from a heartfelt identification with the suffering of women, participants will feel moved to take action in their own lives to address the situation.

      The workshop has only ever been offered in person. It would be difficult to translate it into an online course, and we have no plans to do that at this point. We find it works best with a “critical mass” of participants, perhaps around 12-15 minimum. It needs to be a mixed gender audience, hopefully near half / half. It was originally presented at a conference in a 75 minute timeslot, but that was a bit rushed. However, 90 minutes is plenty. If desired, the content could be expanded to perhaps two hours. Having more time for discussion could be helpful, but since the workshop is more about experience than knowledge, this might be counterproductive. We’re currently located in the Melbourne, Australia area, but we travel from time to time, so it’s worth asking if you’re interested in having it somewhere near you.

  15. Your second paragraph was the beginning of my discontent with the contents of this article.

    The reality is that we DON’T live in a “male dominated world” . In almost all cultures women have been the civilizing force that has taught men how to live beyond their “nature” and has always known this to be the males weakness. Men act as though they are in charge but women know they are not.

    I agree with many points as to how males can evolve themselves to think outside of the outmoded stereotypes that are heaved upon us and that it is precisely some males easy acceptance of this illusionary “male right to sexist behavior” that has and continues to perpetuate the problem. I would suggest that men need to practice modesty in their own minds….but that requires a shift in attitude to which many of your points allude.

    We can take heart that there are and have been great female leaders. Women in the Middle East are showing tremendous courage equal to their brothers in the fight for democracy. Malala, a little girl shot by the Taliban survived miraculously to continue to be a leader for human rights and especially for girls education (a tenant of our faith as Baha’is)…our next President in the US could well be Hillary Clinton, who served admirably as Secretary of State these last couple years. The list goes on and on and includes Presidents, Chancellors, Queens, federal judges, Supreme Court judges, Chiefs of Police, Tribal Leaders, lawyers, doctors, scientists and teachers and athletes.

    I think your heart is in the right place, but some statements are really outdated and harmful.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts about women’s contributions to society, which I find very interesting. Thanks also for your thoughts about how men need to change their attitudes in order to practice modesty in their own minds.

      As we have acknowledged, the question of encouraging women’s modesty is a tricky one in this discussion. It is always difficult to make decisions that fly directly in the face of society’s imposed values. Don’t misunderstand me; strong women (and men) do this every day. But it takes strength and it can have a cost to those who do it. So, if women decide that they wish to reject the pressure to expose their bodies in a sexualised manner and dress modestly instead (however they interpret that), it takes a strong act of will on their part, and perhaps an even stronger one to face whatever criticism or reaction follows.

      Our suggestion in the article that men encourage women to dress modestly was in this context: a woman chooses to do so or wishes to do so, but could use some encouragement to make that big step. Offering this encouragement can be a significant step for a man. It implies that he looks around at the reality of women’s oppression, accepts that he is a part of it and shifts his attitude to value modesty in himself, in the women he cares about and in society as a whole.

      We did not mean to say that men should decide for women how women should dress, and then continue to use their power to force them to obey. I understand how it could sound like that, and I’m sorry if anyone took it that way. Instead, it was meant to be an act of en-courage-ment, i.e. helping women to find the necessary courage to reject the dictates of society and make their own independent choices about how they wish to dress.

  16. 1 word : Bravo for this article ! I’m a Baha’i and a blogger (in french), and, being harassed on social media every day, I just wrote an article, to ask these men to respect my dignity as a human being…Their responses : insults (I was called arrogant – among other things)…
    Yet, I wasn’t asking for a red carpet, or that anyone called me “her majesty” or something ; only that they comment (like or dislike) on my articles, and not always by sending texts like “Hello, gorgeous !” or “Hi ! Do you like sex ?” (these men never read 1 line of my work ; they only looked at the photos).
    I’d like the situation to change, but I’m afraid it’ll take time…

    1. Béatrice,
      I’m sorry to hear about your experience, which seems to be a very common one for women on the net. I read a post recently about ways women are attacked and shamed and made to feel unsafe on the internet, particularly when they challenge the basis of some bastion of young men, such as gaming. I admire your courage and hope you will be able to continue speaking with your authentic voice in the face of such oppression. And I hope the situation will change over time, but it seems there is a very long way yet to go.
      Alan

  17. Hola! he leído el artículo y todos los comentarios. Y en verdad me parece muy interesante que pongan este tema en la mesa de debate. En México la cultura del machismo ha logrado oprimir brutalmente a la mujer y tenemos casos verdaderamente tristes sobre este tema. Y sobresale el caso de las Muertas de Juárez que se ha hecho tan famoso por lo increible impunidad que ha habido a lo largo de tantos años. En México no solo hay desigualdad sino que la ignorancia y falta de una educación espiritual han llegado al extremo de tratar a las mujeres como cosas y de odiarlas tanto que no les importe torturarlas y después matarlas y arrojarlas como si fueran basura. En otros lugares como Oaxaca las niñas indígena son vendidas por unos cuantos pesos al novio quien la lleva a su casa y prácticamente la esclaviza en las labores del hogar y sexualmente y le prohíben salir de su casa. Esto lo escribo para que nos demos cuenta de lo lejos que estamos de llegar a un ambiente de igualdad, sobre todo en el ámbito rural.
    En el ámbito de las ciudades grandes y pequeñas aparentemente hay mas respeto a la mujer y se habla mucho de igualdad pero las actitudes aprendidas y perpetuadas por las mimas madres a sus hijos nos indican que estamos muy alejados de lograr el nivel que anhela ‘Abul-Bahá.
    Hay mucha presión de la sociedad en los temas que ustedes han tocado, en cuanto al lenguaje, la apariencia física y un contar con un carácter femenino (callada, obediente, dócil, etc) de tal forma que pueda ser manejada al antojo de la pareja.
    Con tristeza veo que las niñas, cada vez mas jóvenes, se ven presionadas a tener aventuras sexuales o involucrarse en juegos de ese tipo para ser aceptadas tanto por sus compañeros o compañeras. Lo que resulta en muchos embarazos prematuros.
    Un cambio en el lenguaje y actitudes, tanto de maestros, padres y madres también ayudaría a quitar la presión a que están sometidas las niñas y mujeres.
    Y aun para algunas personas que no están familiarizadas con las enseñanzas bahaís estás pueden lograr grandes cambios y un desarrollo mas igualitarios en todos los niveles.
    Un saludos y felicitaciones por su blog he aprendido mucho y trataré de promoverlo entre mis amigos.

    1. Thank you Gab for your comment and your encouragement. Here’s the Google Translation for anyone interested:

      “Hello! I read the article and all the comments. And indeed it seems very interesting to put this issue on the table for discussion. In Mexico the culture of machismo has made brutally oppress women and have truly sad cases on this subject . Y stands for the Dead of Juarez has become so famous for the incredible impunity that has existed throughout these years. In Mexico there are not only unequal but ignorance and lack of spiritual education have gone so far as to treat women as things and hate them so much you do not mind torture them and then kill them and throw them like garbage . In other places such as Oaxaca ‘s indigenous girls are sold for a few pesos boyfriend who takes her to his house and virtually enslaved in household chores and sexually prohibit leaving home . This is written so that we realize how far we are from achieving an environment of equality , especially in rural areas .
      In the field of large and small cities apparently no more respect for women and is much talk about equality but attitudes learned and perpetuated by mothers coddle their children indicate that we are very far from achieving the level you crave ‘ Abul- Bahá .
      There is much pressure from society on the issues that you have touched , in language , physical appearance and have a ( quiet , obedient , docile, etc. ) female character in a way that can be handled at the whim of the couple .
      Sadly I see girls younger and younger , is being pressured to have sex or engage in adventure games of that type to be accepted by both their partners . Resulting in many early pregnancies .
      A change in the language and attitudes of both teachers and parents also help take the pressure they are subjected girls and women.
      And even for some people who are not familiar with the Baha’i teachings you can make big changes , and a more egalitarian development at all levels .
      A greetings and congratulations on your blog I learned a lot and try to promote it among my friends.”

Leave a Reply

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