Ethics and Community

Gender and Sexuality

There have been a number of women in Baha'i history who have provided inspiration and become role models for Baha'i women today. The two most important have been Tahirih (1819-1850), the disciple of the Bab, and Bahiyyih Khanum (1846-1932), the daughter of Baha'u'llah, who played an important role during the periods of the leadership of Baha'u'llah, 'Abdu'l-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi. Also of importance have been such individuals as Martha Root (1872-1939), the foremost Baha'i travelling teacher of the period of Shoghi Effendi's leadership; Corrine True (1861-1961), who was the main driving force behind the construction of the first Baha'i House of Worship in the West (at Wilmette, near Chicago); and Ruhiyyih Khanum (Rabbani, 1910-2000), the wife of Shoghi Effendi, who traveled extensively teaching the Baha'i Faith. 

Promoting the social role of women is a central social teaching of the Baha'i Faith. Even as early as the late 19th century, the Baha'i community had distinguished itself to outsiders as being concerned to promote the equality of women and men. In his public addresses in North America and Europe in 1911-13, 'Abdu'l-Baha repeatedly returned to this theme and numbered it among the key teachings of Baha'u'llah.

There are, however, a number of aspects to this issue. The Baha'i teachings emphasize the spiritual equality of women and men and, in fact, state that God does not consider gender in looking at human beings. They state that as long as women are prevented from playing a full role in society, whether because of legal impediments or lack of education, men will also not make the progress that they could make. Furthermore, the promotion of the social role of women will advance the cause of world peace, since women are less likely to want to see their sons go to war.

There are, however, certain biological factors that mean that there cannot be complete identity of social roles. The Baha'i teachings assume that the mother is more likely to want to stay at home while her children are in infancy, while the father is more likely to work to support the family. If however, a particular family decides on different roles, that is also acceptable.

There are some sexual differences in the provisions of the Baha'i teachings and laws. For example, the female is favored in education—if a family only has the ability to educate one of their children, they should educate the girl in preference to the boy because the girl is generally the first educator of the next generation. Furthermore, 'Abdu'l-Baha stated that "The woman has greater moral courage than the man; she has also special gifts which enable her to govern in moments of danger and crisis." On the other hand, membership of the Universal House of Justice is confined to men. No explanation is given for this latter point—only the statement that the reason for it will become apparent in the future.

The changes to social structure and social functioning play a major role in advancing the social role of women since women have always tended to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy and do worse in the competitive and conflictive environment that that structure produces. The move within the Baha'i community to promote a more cooperative and consultative environment will result in a greater role for women since they have been shown to do better in such environments.

From the Writings of Baha'u'llah regarding the Equality of Women and Men

All should know, and in this regard attain the splendours of the sun of certitude, and be illumined thereby: Women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God. The Dawning-Place of the Light of God sheddeth its radiance upon all with the same effulgence. Verily God created women for men, and men for women. The most beloved of people before God are the most steadfast and those who have surpassed others in their love for God, exalted be His glory....

The friends of God must be adorned with the ornament of justice, equity, kindness and love. As they do not allow themselves to be the object of cruelty and transgression, in like manner they should not allow such tyranny to visit the handmaidens of God. He, verily, speaketh the truth and commandeth that which benefitteth His servants and handmaidens. He is the Protector of all in this world and the next.

Throughout the Baha'i world, there is a general awareness of the need to promote the role of women, and there have been a number of international Baha'i conferences to consider this issue. Many of the social and economic programs carried out by the Baha'i community have some aspect relating to improving the social status of women, such as literacy or health programs. Some have focused exclusively on women. The Barli Development Institute for Rural Women in Indore, India, for example, empowers mostly young rural and tribal women to become agents of social change through the acquisition of a wide range of skills and knowledge essential to improving their lives, the welfare of their families, and their village communities.

Since 1970, when the Baha'i International Community (BIC) obtained consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), it has cooperated officially with the United Nations in its work in improving the status of women throughout the world. Since that time, the Baha'i International Community has attended and made presentations at every women's conference sponsored by the United Nations: Mexico City 1975, Copenhagen 1980, Nairobi 1985, Beijing 1995, as well as participating in the annual meetings of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

One of the main concerns of the Baha'i participation in these conferences has been to promote the education of the female child in the declarations and programs of action emerging from these conferences and commissions. One of the effects of these conferences has been to prompt the Baha'i community to undergo periodic reviews of how well it is performing in advancing the role of women in Baha'i communities. Old understandings and customs are not changed overnight, but there has been a steady advance in the number of women taking part in Baha'i administrative bodies. The Baha'i community has also been involved in social action and campaigning over issues such as female genital mutilation, child brides, sex trafficking, sex tourism, HIV/AIDs, sexual violence, and domestic violence.

With regard to the question of sexuality, most Baha'is regard the concentration on this issue in present-day Western societies as an inevitable and unfortunate feature of their concentration on physical and material things. Baha'i teachings advocate modesty, chastity, and faithfulness in marriage and deplore adultery and promiscuity. Baha'is consider that people are free to adopt any lifestyle they want but that the style of life advocated in the Baha'i teachings is the one that will bring the greatest spiritual development and therefore the greatest human happiness. These teachings advocate that the greatest happiness for individuals and the best framework for society, and especially for the raising of children, is the traditional family group.

While sex is not condemned or considered evil, the Baha'i Faith advocates that sexual relations should be confined to heterosexual married couples. This has led to attacks on the Baha'i Faith as being homophobic, however Baha'is point out that what goes on behind closed doors is not within the purview of the Baha'i institutions as long as no one is being harmed. The only actions that are censured are public ones that bring the Baha'i community into disrepute, and this applies just as much to heterosexuals as to homosexuals. What actions might bring the Baha'i Faith into disrepute varies from one culture to another and over time. In the West at least, few actions nowadays are likely to cause public condemnation, and so few Baha'is are sanctioned for private, mutually consenting, adult sexual activity.

Study Questions:
     1.     Do Baha’is believe in the equality of women and men?
     2.     What hindrances to humanity’s progress are there as long as women are not given equality?
     3.     What differences between women and men do the Baha'i scriptures acknowledge?
     4.     What have Baha’is done to try to raise the social role of women?
     5.     What is the Baha'i attitude toward homosexuality?

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