Is My Baha’i Faith Compatible with Feminism? by Saba Farbodkia

I am a Ph.D student of Neuroscience at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. I was born in Iran into a Baha'i family, adopted the Baha'i Faith at 15, and did my B.Sc in biology and M.Sc in Neuroscience in Iran, at the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), an institute founded by Baha'is after the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) stopped Baha'i students to higher education at the formal universities of the country.  My interest in feminism started as a response to the influence of a woman-suppressive culture that I was surrounded by, even before I knew the word existed. Before I move to Canada and get to know progressive readings of Islam that begged to differ from how IRI reads Islam, I mostly blamed Islam for the sexist environment that I suffered from, and my questions about the Baha'i Faith and feminism started to rise in response to such thoughts: I kept asking myself, if one day the Baha'i Faith finds majority, or if it gets an opportunity to influence the culture as widely as Islam has in Iran, will it become a source of sexism, as well?As a Baha’i woman, I often ask myself if feminism is compatible with religion. And most of the times, I tend to answer no. Feminism is defined as a movement to end sexism, which is further defined as prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex. Any such movement should attempt to eradicate the social norms and religious and cultural values that pressure people into adopting certain roles, attributes or duties, or limit their rights and responsibilities, based on their sex.  Religions, on the other hand, very often do assign roles, duties and rights to people based on their sex. A religion can be compatible with feminism only if it is silent on the subject of people’s sex, unless it asserts that sex is not a factor in determining people’s roles or lifestyles.

The Baha’i Faith is definitely not so. Born around 170 years ago in Iran, the Baha’i faith is a somewhat new religion, supposedly meant for the current time. Still, there are particular cases of assignment of different roles to women and men at the level of individual life, family, and society. Men are, for example, required to do a pilgrimage if they are financially capable of it, and women have the right to choose it, though are not required. Women can choose between fasting or not, and saying obligatory prayers or an alternative prayer, during menstruation. Women are deprived the right to be elected as members of the Universal House of Justice. Mothers have a right for financial support from their husbands, but not the opposite, while they still retain their other rights. A dowry is required to be given from man to woman for a marriage. In cases where there is no ‘last will and testament’ of a deceased person (which is not supposed to happen very often, since Baha’is are required by Bahaullah to write a will to determine how to dispose their property as they wish), some of their female relatives receive an inheritance slightly less than the male relatives. Girls get the priority in education if the opportunities for educating all children are limited.

The Baha’i Faith, like many other religions, is not quite compatible with feminism’s goal to end “discrimination on the basis of sex.” However, it is definitely compatible with the goal of ending prejudices and stereotypes based on gender. Indeed, the principle of “equality of men and women” is one of a few main principles of the faith, all of which are centered among the final goal of unity among humankind. As Abdul-Baha, the son of founder of the Baha’i Faith and his appointed successor as the head of the Baha’i Faith, describes, men and women are “equal in the sight of God”, and have been endowed with “perfections and intelligence […] without differentiation or distinction as to superiority,[i]” and considering women as inferior is not according to God’s plan. He also explains that the only reason that the women are behind is the “lack of education and training, [… and] equal opportunity[ii]”.  This viewpoint is not the only promising one that we can find in the Baha’i Faith about women.

The Baha’i Faith even has the potential to improve the current opinion of the world with regard to issues that are still a problem, even in the west. For example, Abdul-Baha recognizes that inequality between men and women is not only a women’s issue: he describes the world of humanity as a bird, with one of its wings being women and the other being men, and asserts the bird cannot fly unless both wings are strong enough. Therefore the current inequality is an issue that everybody suffers from, regardless of their sex, and which delays the progress that our civilization can make in this world.

Another example is the implied recognition of Abdul-Baha of the so-called “girl effect”. In describing why the girls should be given the priority for education when opportunities are limited, Abdul-Baha says it is because they are going to be mothers and the first educators of the children. The “girl effect” refers to a recent finding in socio-economic development on how targeting girls as the first priority in education in the poor areas makes the development programs more sustainable, by avoiding girls from early pregnancies and having children while in poverty, and enabling them to raise empowered children that don’t need as much charity help when they grow as the next generation.

Another example is victim-blaming. Bahaullah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith implies that no woman deserves to be assaulted, irrespective of how she looks or where she goes:
“’My purpose in coming to this corrupt world […] is to establish, through the power of God and His might, the forces of justice, trust, security and faith. For instance should a woman […] who is unsurpassed in her beauty and adorned with the most exquisite and priceless jewels, travel unveiled and alone, from the east of the world to the west thereof, passing through every land and journeying in all countries, there would be such a standard of justice, trustworthiness and faith on the one hand, and lack of treachery and degradation on the other, that no one would be found who would wish to rob her of her possessions or to cast a treacherous and lustful eye upon her beauteous chastity![iii]
Putting this in the context where Bahaullah was coming from, where all women used to wear burqa, and travelling without a male guardian would be almost considered an impossibility, this was quite revolutionary, although the Baha’i Faith claims that its instructions are God-given for the current times for at least a couple of centuries, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise, and even more could have been expected!

Given all its concepts and ordinances on its positive side, and all the discriminations that it makes based on sex on the other side, I still have no clear answer to this question: Is the Baha’i Faith, as it is, and without any cherry-picking, compatible with feminism?


[i] The Promulgation of Universal Peace; p.174
[ii] Ibid
[iii] Adib Taherzadeh’s The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh v 2, p. 141

Saba Farbodkia is a Ph.D student of Neuroscience at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. Born in Iran into a Baha’i family, she adopted the Baha’i Faith at 15, and did her B.Sc in biology and M.Sc in Neuroscience in Iran, at the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE). Her interest in feminism started as a response to the influence of a woman-suppressive culture that she was surrounded by.Encountering progressive readings of Islam helped her raise questions about the Baha’i Faith and feminism. One questions she keeps in mind is: if the Baha’i Faith is ever the majority, or if it gets the opportunity to influence culture as widely as Islam has in Iran, will it also become a source of sexism?


Categories: Feminism, Gender, General, Sexism

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40 replies

  1. I accidentally happened to read your interesting article. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I believe that your own personal faith is absolutely compatible with your conception of feminism: the question you deal with seems to me more related to the “official” statements of an “externally” imposed belief. Personally, I have a great respect for Baha’I faith, especially if compared to other fundamentalist religious expressions coming from same cultural background. Faith which grows up “from within” is a personal process, built and rebuilt day by day, in a constant dialogue with evidences of life-experiences: that is for sure the belief which comes out from your sensitive words. Your faith is probably wiser than the religious tradition you come from. Yet, it belongs to it, in the extent it has the power of shaping it. Your questions open ways to make better this world!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Gabrielegoria!
      What you said on the question being related to official statements of an externally imposed belief, is very true. I should have written “The Baha’i Faith”, in the title, rather than “My” Baha’i Faith!

      Thanks for your encouragement!

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  2. Feminism is a welcome companion of many paths, for instance eco-feminism and feminist-spirituality. The idea of the wings of the bird, however, is sexist, suggesting that women are grounded without a husband. Humorously, Gloria Steinem once said that a woman without a man is “like a fish without a bicycle.” The point is that we each have to think through our liberation on our own terms. So why not cherry-picking? Why can’t there be a new path called Baha’i-feminism?

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    • Thank you Sarah for the input. It is one way of looking at that example, that I hadn’t seen before. You are right, and the analogy promotes the interdependence of the two sexes on each other, albeit at a societal level, not an the individual level, since the example is given about “the world of humanity”.

      I agree that women are probably more independent of men, than men are from women, at least potentially (for example, we can clone ourselves and make women only kids, with no male sperm, while men cannot) and this analogy doesn’t recognize that. So in that sense it is not a perfect analogy. I still think it is a good one for promoting the concept of feminism being a “men and women” issue (as opposed to just women’s issue), though.

      The second issue that you rise, is a complex one, for me. I will explain how I see the situation, and how I think it should be, in a separate comment.

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      • before I start my answer, I need to say that the Baha’i community might actually be doing some sort of cherry-picking in practice, except for exclusion of women from the membership of Universal House of Justice. Baha’is emphasize the principle of equality much more than the ordinances that seem to be an exception to that.

        My concern is a bit deeper, though: why do such ordinances exist at all? If these scriptures are really God-given, why aren’t they flawless with regard to the principle of equality?

        Baha’is believe that there is no last religion in the world. God keeps sending its messengers to renew its teachings, and add to their scope, as the world of humanity grows, pretty much as a growing kid will go through different grades at school, as they grow.
        This view helps me to justify why in older scriptures there were misogynist verses, here and there. My answer to that, is always “that has been the requirement for that time, people could not understand or demand any better.” This might be wrong according to historical context, but it helps me to put aside the possibility that the idea of a fair and just God is a fairy tale.

        While I can rescue the older scripts, by the help of this Baha’i view, I cannot do the same for the Baha’i scripts. The Baha’i Faith claims that although there will be other messengers after Bahaullah, this will not happen until a few centuries. This means that the Baha’i scripts are meant to be for this time. This means while I understand cherry-picking from the older scriptures, I cannot excuse the Baha’i scriptures, the smae way. Why there is still at least 6-7 rules where there are differences between men and women, based on biological sex only? The fact that some of these differences are to the benefit of women, doesn’t help me feel better. I was hoping more for strict equality.

        Do I make any sense?

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  3. before I start my answer, I need to say that the Baha’i community might actually be doing some sort of cherry-picking in practice, except for exclusion of women from the membership of Universal House of Justice. Baha’is emphasize the principle of equality much more than the ordinances that seem to be an exception to that.

    My concern is a bit deeper, though: why do such ordinances exist at all? If these scriptures are really God-given, why aren’t they flawless with regard to the principle of equality?

    Baha’is believe that there is no last religion in the world. God keeps sending its messengers to renew its teachings, and add to their scope, as the world of humanity grows, pretty much as a growing kid will go through different grades at school, as they grow.
    This view helps me to justify why in older scriptures there were misogynist verses, here and there. My answer to that, is always “that has been the requirement for that time, people could not understand or demand any better.” This might be wrong according to historical context, but it helps me to put aside the possibility that the idea of a fair and just God is a fairy tale.

    While I can rescue the older scripts, by the help of this Baha’i view, I cannot do the same for the Baha’i scripts. The Baha’i Faith claims that although there will be other messengers after Bahaullah, this will not happen until a few centuries. This means that the Baha’i scripts are meant to be for this time. This means while I understand cherry-picking from the older scriptures, I cannot excuse the Baha’i scriptures, the smae way. Why there is still at least 6-7 rules where there are differences between men and women, based on biological sex only? The fact that some of these differences are to the benefit of women, doesn’t help me feel better. I was hoping more for strict equality.

    Do I make any sense?

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    • That’s interesting that the Baha’i Faith provides for the possibility of renewing its teaching. The religious who never challenge their faith, what can they learn, how can they truly grow? Women who never challenge patriarchy are in the same boat. I have given up on many an ancient text, so I do understand your disappointment and your struggle to find affirmation in the wording of some of your scriptures. Patriarchy has been in place for a very long time. The question you ask, about whether there is a just God, is famous and referred to in religious philosophy as the “problem of evil.” The best answer I’ve ever read says that a God who controls the outcome of everything would not be a blessing either.

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      • I think, perhaps, rather than focusing on what is lacking or cherry picking from the Baha’i Writings it may be helpful to consider it from the perspective of the imperfection and complicated nature of the human beings the Writings are intended for. As an anthropologist and a Baha’i, what I see in the Writings you are discussing are cultural and social bridges. Human beings are rooted in culture and social habits. If the Baha’i Writings were too far advanced for us we would not be able to find points of articulation to connect with. While you are perhaps able to see beyond the limits, for some who are new to the Teachings and coming from a, let’s say, conservative background, the Teachings are revolutionary and require some growth and stretching to reach the standards within them. If we accept that each book that God reveals is meant to be the next chapter of an endless book of Revelation, then if the human beings for whom the books are intended were unable to find something familiar, some point of entry, they would not be able to access it. From this perspective, the flaw lies in humanity not in the Books or the Revelations of God. God has tailored His Revelations to be challenging on the one hand and to foster growth but also to be engaging for the people they are intended for.

        I think an educator knows that complex subjects are learned step by step and if a step is missed the students will not understand or see the connection. One cannot jump from basic math to algebra without some learning in between. For me, this is how I see it, that God has revealed the next lesson for us based on our level of understanding. Is it compatible with feminism? I think perhaps feminism is limiting in many ways too. Perhaps better to ask what is lacking in feminism. I have struggled with feminism because it too frequently leaves men out of the equation and leaves women’s responsibility for enabling and perpetuating sexist systems (for a variety of reasons including power imbalances) out as well. It also disparages women (Western feminism) who choose to stay home and raise children rather than pursuing a career or other culturally (again Western) accepted standards of ‘success’. As a PhD student who has raised two children and who loves, and has loved, every moment of being a mother I find this a bit troubling.

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        • Like most of the women and men who interact on this site, I am a feminist. For me, feminism is simply the belief that women are equal to men, but that society does not treat them that way (yet). For me, both women and men are responsible for perpetuating sexist systems IF they have bought into them. For me, raising the next generation to be loving, ethical, and productive people as well as to believe that men and women are equals is just as important as work in the so-called “work world.” In fact, I think raising my daughter was by far the most difficult work I’ve ever done. And I certainly don’t believe that we can leave men out of the equation even if only because we won’t have equality unless they’re a part of the changes that need to happen. I believe that if you read most if not all of the posts here, you will find similar understandings. I don’t know whose feminism you have been reading or listening to. If it is feminism as reported in the media, please realize that the media is biased against feminism and often show it in the worst light possible.

          I also believe that it is Western culture that disparages women who stay at home as well as Western businesses that forces them to pay a penalty in wages earned (one standard by which worth is evaluated) by doing so. If some women (and men) buy into that concept, it’s because they want to “succeed” by the standards of our society. That’s not how I define success, nor do most feminists, but then I’m a Ph.D. with a great need to think through almost everything that is supposedly a “given” in my world. Some of the first feminist campaigns were for access to birth control so women could decide when to have children, good child care so that women had options for working outside the home as well as within, for maternity leave so women could tend to their newborns, etc. Already in the 1970s many feminists were speaking to the importance of motherhood and that has continued to this day. In fact, I wrote my (feminist) dissertation — which I finished in 1981 — on issues surrounding motherhood.

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  4. One trend in feminist theology has been to explore a shift from Scriptures as strictly prescriptive to looking at Scriptures as revelations of root experiences and social struggles. That is, the Scriptures are reflective of the experience of the divine, but paying attention to women’s experiences of the divine shifts the meaning, even the centrality of the text. It’s a method that also clarifies how one goes about selecting what’s has priority – or to put it more crudely, “cherry picking” – in the text (something that is inevitable, if undesirable). I don’t know the Baha’i religion well enough to know if/how this would work in practice. With the Bible, there are so many competing and contradictory voices in the text, it’s impossible not to do a certain amount of cherry picking, and it’s relatively easy to expose the faultlines of where men had to make up a structure that made a subordinate place for women. This line of thought has been pursued by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza & Rosemary Ruether in Christianity, Judith Plaskow in Judaism, and Fatima Mernissi in Islam. You might find some methods there that are applicable to Baha’i (or maybe not).

    I think a deeper question might be “why is faith giving a text authority?” And if yes, what kind of authority does the text give? Is there a way you can see your Baha’i faith as a deep engagement, conversation, even argument, with your Scriptures instead of an expectation that you have a “master” who will give you answers?

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    • I need to more about this approach of considering scriptures as revelations of a experience, as opposed to prescriptive, before I can give a proper answer.

      The contradictions that exist in Baha’i Faith with regard to gender equality, I think, are more considered cases of exceptions to a general rule. So the contradiction is not of the form of, say, “you can marry two people”, at one verse, and “you cannot marry more than one spouse” at other.
      It is more of the form of “there is this general principal of equality”, but “there are some exceptions to that”. So the “cherry=picking” is not inevitable for the sake of keeping the text consistent, if that’s what you meant.

      I like what you say about engagement and conversing or arguing with the scripture. I’m not sure if it is compatible with the view of God being omniscient, but I think it can be reconciled with it, to some extent, taking advantage of the fact that the Baha’i Faith acknowledges what are in its scriptures are not the absolute good, but adjusted for the requirements of this time (for the average population). The absolute good might be revealed in future scriptures. Can this give some elite the space to consider themselves different from their time, and closer to the future standards? This is not a good answer to my posed problem, though, I know, since this problem is a tangible one to people of now, as well.

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  5. Thank you, Saba, for outlining the Bahai faith as it relates to women. From my reading of history, Bahaullah certainly was progressive for his time. Was the era for the next revelations exactly set down or could 170 years be long enough to qualify? To be a Bahai is it necessary to believe that the scripture is infallible? Or was that the understanding of 170 years ago, something that may have changed since then? I’m wondering because the world of Iran/Persia in the 1840s is very different from the world of Canada in the 2010s.

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    • Thanks Nancy!

      Yes, the era was set specifically, and it is supposedly a millennium at least.

      And yes, Baha’is consider the scriptures infallible.

      Whatever Bahaullah has revealed in his writings, is supposed to be followed without change, although the understanding of them could have been changed by Abdulbaha and Shoghi Effendi’s interpretations, who are the only authorized interpreters of the writing (Bahaullah himself assigned Abdulbaha, and Abdulbaha assigned Shoghi Effendi, and he never assigned anybody after). There are examples of that: Bigamy is one. Bahaullah wrote his book of rules in Arabic which is a gendered language (pretty much like French) and when addressing men and women collectively, uses male pronouns. So The book was written to a male audience. In that book, bigamy is allowed conditioned on being fair to both spouses. Abdulbaha, later prohibited bigamy, by interpreting that the condition is an impossible one to fulfill, therefore bigamy is meant to be prohibited. After Abdulbaha, Shoghi effendi stated that whatever rules that are ordered in the book for men, are applicable for women as well. This is a gradual change in understanding. Bahaullah had written the book in an environment where having four wives was considered a right for men, and part of their nature (it still is in Iran).

      So yes, change has been possible up to Shoghi Effendi’s time, and has happened to some extent. For the matters that arise as new, it is the Universal House of Justice’s job to take care of them, They usually issue guidance in light of previous scripture, but things get a taste of time requirements to themselves, once stated in the new language.

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  6. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I believe, the Baha’i faith is absolutely compatible with the concept of feminism . This is a long overdue article with important information on the position of women in the Baha’i religion.

    But I suppose if a community has been systematically persecuted in its birthplace, as the Baha’i in Iran has been, and seven of its leaders – two of whom are women – are still in prison, on trumped-up charges , then predictably focus shifts to survival, and feminist considerations take backstage.

    (Fatwa issued by Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei last August, terming the Baha’i faith “deviant and misleading,” and urging Iranians to have nothing to do with the Baha’i community. Iranian Baha’is currently face severe economic, educational and other forms of discrimination in Iran)

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    • Equality is absolute, not something with parameters or conditions. If the US Congress tomorrow said no women are allowed to be elected on the highest governing body in the country, how do you think that would be received? The only reason why this obvious inconsistency isn’t covered by the media is simply that this religion remains on the fringe. If it had the same following and recognition as Catholicism, the media would be all over it, much the same way they are with Catholic doctrine as it pertains to women in the clergy. There is an overwhelming pattern in all religions, which is that they are patriarchal, and hence created by man alone. Women and children continue to suffer as a consequence.

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  7. Feminism is about women’s liberation. All major religions are not about this, they are about male supremacy. Feminism is not about ending sexism, to me it is about freeing women, and only women can determine this. I recall being amazed at the hypocracy of saying men and women were equal in Bah’ai faith, but then not allowing women to be a part of the governing body of the religion itself. Men have no idea what women’s freedom would look like, so women can be in these religions, but this is not a feminist act. Feminism is a freedom movement of women, it has nothing to do with men really. When women, who are half the planet wake up, men will go along. The hardest thing is to tell women that religions aren’t feminist, anymore than being America or growing up somewhere is feminist.

    I don’t know why women equate anything feminist at all by being in the accident of birth known as the family religion of origin. In this sense, feminism and religion is an oxymoran really. If only this small point could be understood, oh well, I try.

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    • Men being the other half of our population have to also have a meaningful and understood seat at the table. Women can’t undo all the damage that has been done by years and years of gender role stereotyping. Men don’t know what it’s like to be a woman and battle these things because they’ve been excluded from the view for a long time. Educating all of us mean and women together about our view points is the it way to achieve equality.
      My parents always told us:
      You can’t state difference and achieve equality.
      You have to state sameness and then you can achieve equality.
      By making feminism and women’s liberation a woman’s only issue we are stating our differences and defeating our sameness.
      We all regardless of gender are human and have the same basic human needs.

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      • Hi Amzie —

        I think your parents were only partially right. We need to focus on our same basic human needs. But until women reach parity with men, we need to focus on difference between men’s status and privilege in our culture and women’s denigration and oppression. That’s a difference that needs to be before everyone’s eyes.

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  8. You write: “Mothers have a right for financial support from their husbands, but not the opposite, while they still retain their other rights.” This is incorrect in three respects:

    (1) This right applies only during the year of patience (separation) which precedes a divorce: it is not possible to deduce a general right applicable during a marriage or following divorce from it:
    “In the case of … and … you state that there is unlikely to be a civil judgement covering the question of financial support of the wife by the husband following the divorce. The House of Justice states that there is no general requirement in Bahá’í Law for a husband to continue to support his former wife beyond the ending of the year of waiting and the granting of the divorce. ”
    (From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of Canada, January 13, 1983)

    (2) the verse you refer to speaks of wives and husbands, rather than mothers and husbands. So the existence of children does not alter the principle.

    (2) The House of Justice has ruled that husbands may in some cases have a right to financial support from their wives:

    “the basic principle of Bahá’í Law is that the husband is responsible for the support of his wife and children so long as they are married; that is until the granting of the divorce. In a particular case, however, it may have been the wife who was the bread-winner of the family or both the husband and wife may have been earning income. The Assembly should not ignore such specific situations and change them merely because a year of waiting is running. (Letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United Kingdom, February 24, 1983)

    and in general, as explained in the introduction to the English translation of the Kitab-e Aqdas:

    “In general, the laws of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas are stated succinctly. An example of this conciseness can be seen in the fact that many are expressed only as they apply to a man,
    but it is apparent from the Guardian’s writings that, where Bahá’u’lláh has given a law as between a man and a woman, it applies mutatis mutandis between a woman and a man
    unless the context makes this impossible.”

    So you can strike off one of your examples of the exceptions to the general rule of full equality between men and women. Which is good news I think.

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  9. You write: “where there is no ‘last will and testament’ of a deceased person …, some of their female relatives receive an inheritance slightly less than the male relatives.”

    This is not quite accurate. Where the deceased is a man, and owned valuable investments worth, for convenience, 2,520 million, not counting his personal effects and the family home). The children get a total of 1,080 million, evenly divided between sons and daughters, eldest and younger. So a man’s only sister gets 150 million to keep her warm. The man’s ten brothers get 21 million each. If on the other hand the deceased man had one brother and 10 sisters, the proportions are roughly reversed (210 for the brother, 15 for each of the sisters). This does slightly favour the male heirs, as a group, over the females as a group. The Aqdas says “to the brothers, five parts or three hundred shares; to the sisters, four parts or two hundred and forty shares” but the outcome for individuals is random, rather than equitable. This may be precisely the point. The fact that 35% of the third class of wealth (ie not personal effects or the family home) is distributed in this random way may indicate that justice was not a significant consideration in Bahá’u’lláh’s mind at this particular point. Inheritance is chance – we don’t have any moral right to inherit at all. There is much to be said in favour of a system under which one must accept that one’s portion is determined by lot and can be improved by adding one’s own earnings to it. The details of the inheritance law seem to have an aesthetic rather than practical rationale. Nine parts for children, eight parts for the wife (or husband), seven parts to the father, six parts to the mother, five to the brothers, four to the sisters, three to the teachers.

    A separate question is the allocation of the family home, or the deceased’s share in it. Assuming that a husband and wife are co-owners of the family home, when a man dies his share of the home goes to the eldest son, rather than to his wife (unless he has stipulated otherwise in a Will). The result, in a normal situation, is that the son and mother become co-owners of the home. What if the wife dies? In the Questions and Answers nr. 37, Baha’u’llah says that where a woman dies without leaving a Will, and “..the deceased hath left no daughters, her estate in its entirety must be divided in the manner designated for men in the holy Text. ” That implies that if she does have daughters, the case is different. Applying the rule of mutatis mutandis which I cited in my previous comment, it would appear that if a wife dies intestate, her share of the family home goes, not to her husband, but to her eldest daughter, unless she has specified otherwise in a Will. The father and eldest daughter become co-owners of the home. If the wife’s share of the home went to the eldest son, as a general rule, then it would not make sense for Baha’u’llah to say that if a woman has no daughters, her estate is divided in the manner designated for men.

    If we go back to the third class of property that I discussed above, what is the division where the deceased is a woman? Surely it must read: “Nine parts for children, eight parts for the husband, seven parts to the mother, six parts to the father, five to the sisters, four to the brothers, three to the teachers.” Because that is mutatis mutandis, changing what must be changed, in the case where the deceased is a woman.

    So I think this is another example that can be struck from your list of exceptions to the general rule of full equality that can be struck from the list. There is equality, but it is not an androgynous equality: it treats women and daughters as a class, and men and sons as a class, and gives a symmetrical equality between them.

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  10. I always assumed (perhaps wrongly) that Baha’ism was very pro-women, probably because I was influenced by the biography of Tahirih (Fatima Baraghani). She seemed pretty darned ahead of her time and was just railing at the gender structures that kept her from doing what she wanted to do. I first learned about her from Muhammad Iqbal’s poem “Javid Nema” where he elevates her to the status of sainthood, in the company of Hallaj and Ghalib.

    Thanks for this article, as well as to all who left comments.

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  11. Thank-you for bringing up the subject of feminism as relating to the Baha’i Faith. I’ve identified myself Baha’i for decades and have enjoyed many course through Wilmette Institute. Most recently I have been in a course studying the Kitab-i-Aqdas (The Most Holy Book). Many of the laws left me questioning the “absoluteness” of their applicability to society for the next thousand years and also found many directed solely towards males and most unable to believe is the “mutates-mutandis” assumption as relating to virginity. This simply does not work as “discovering” her not to be a virgiin obviously refers to the female hymen and whether it is intact (a proof of virginity). One cannot have this biological proof in a male. So it once again puts the burden on the female just for being female. I have trouble accepting this and actually do not.

    QUESTION: Supposing that a man hath wed a certain woman believing her to be a virgin and he hath paid her the dowry, but at the time of consummation it becometh evident that she is not a virgin, are the expenses and the dowry to be repaid or not? And if the marriage had been made conditional upon virginity, doth the unfulfilled condition invalidate that which was conditioned upon it?

    ANSWER: In such a case the expenses and the dowry may be refunded. The unfulfilled condition invalidateth that which is conditioned upon it.

    However, to conceal and forgive the matter will, in the sight of God, merit a bounteous reward.

    So why should there be a “bounteous reward” for the male?

    I am active in teaching the faith and telling people about Baha’u’llah, but as to taking all the laws in Kitab-i-Aqdas seriously and believing in all of them, I don’t.

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  12. “O SON OF BEAUTY! By My spirit and by My favor! By My mercy and by My beauty! All that I have revealed unto thee with the tongue of power, and have written for thee with the pen of might, hath been in accordance with thy capacity and understanding, not with My state and the melody of My voice.” – Baha’u’llah

    Lory, it might be useful to know that those questions were questions asked of Baha’u’llah by the friends, they are not from Baha’u’llah. Only the answers to the questions are from Baha’u’llah. In the question posed to Baha’u’llah regarding a man discovering that his partner was unfaithful, Baha’u’llah’s advice was that it would be far more honorable for a man to conceal and forgive the matter. What is the objective of the answer?

    Nevertheless the words and deeds of the manifestations of God are always with purpose and meaning, the wisdom of which people don’t necessarily understand until much later, and can become a cause of confusion, but in this clash of human understanding vs the understanding of a Divine Educator the benefit of the doubt should always go to the Divine, rather than the creature.

    http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/b/GWB/gwb-37.html

    If my memory’s not mistaken, there’s a classic example from the time of the Bab, where the Bab had praised the letters of the living. This caused one of the believers (who later broke the covenant) much confusion and inner trepidation of Faith because he did not believe himself at all to be as great as what the Bab was describing. It was a test for him that he failed, but later it was revealed that the praises of the letters of the living were primarily directed at Quddus, and that he also received them as weeds get watered by a gardener due to their proximity to a flower.

    “They all give utterance to the words: ‘Verily He is to be praised in His deeds and is to be obeyed in His behest.’ Nevertheless if We reveal aught which, even to the extent of a needle’s eye, runneth counter to their selfish ways and desires, they will disdainfully reject it. Say, none can ever fathom the manifold exigencies of God’s consummate wisdom. In truth, were He to pronounce the earth to be heaven, no one hath the right to question His authority.”

    (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 51)

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  13. I appreciate your article because I also used to struggle with this issue. I grew up to be a feminist and it was the equality principle which attracted me to the Faith among other things. At first , everything was smooth because both valued education , women’s contribution to society etc. Then the more I dive into feminism and also the Bahai Faith simultaneously, I got into so much trouble as to what values I should ascribe. For example, the inestimable value given to motherhood, the teachings of modesty, ….. If you’re into some forms of feminism it teaches you how marriage as an institution is oppressive and that we need to get over our biology in order to bring equality, that to some extent also the view that men are oppressive…. I understand there are many feminist schools of thought that teach many different approaches to equality. But for me , the outcome was a subtle distrust and hatred of men. It also affected my belief about marriage which I got from the Bahai Faith. I also remember one time i was so angry at some Bahai men for not helping in the kitchen. I used to engage in so many arguments about equality. In that I totally forgot about avoiding argumemts and being kind to each other and teaching by example.And now after so many years of internal struggle , I have come to the conclusion that the Bahai Faith cannot be contained in any ideology including feminism. Yes it does have the principle of the equality of the sexes. But this principle cannot be divorced from the myriad of other principles of the Faith. Now it seems after years of readings and contemplation, I feel at peace on this matter. And most importantly , I have stopped comparing the Faith with anything else. Rather , I have started to see the Faith as it should be ‘the unerring balance’ . And may I also say I do appreciate your quest and I just wanted to share with you my journey on the matter.

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  14. I was interested in the Baha’i Faith until I came upon its rule of men only in its governing body. If the original texts were for the people of that time, then a new Messenger must manifest soon. There have been too many advances made by the feminist movement in modern times that religions and/or faiths should also be aware of them and change accordingly. Women are now leading nations and multi-national companies, yet we are not yet able to lead certain religious faiths? I refuse to believe that the Creator is of only masculine energy. Sadly, all of these established religions that the Baha’i is tolerant for is still not 100% tolerant of the female gender. If there is a way I can help in bringing about this change, please let me know, I would be very interested to support.

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  15. If change is inevitable, which I believe it is true, then…

    I cannot help to think that the same way that Baha’i women gained their right to serve on Local and National Spiritual Assemblies, with time they also gain their right to serve on UHJ. I hope this happen and come to fruition in a foreseeable future!

    This is my/ Bahereh’s reflection; have you ever wondered and pondered upon the phrase in our/ USA Declaration of Independence that reads: All Men Are Created Equal,,… I find it very interesting that the same phrase at different times had different meanings! If one looks through the history, it becomes apparent that at one point, it simply meant, All White rich American Men, then perhaps to All White American Men, then it changed to All White American Men & Women, then later it changed to All Men and Women in the USA regardless of their race or background, the way it should have been from the beginning!
    May be we should have started the sentence by saying: All People Are Created Equal to begin with, and mean it, and let our actions be in agreement with our words and support our words!

    Is it possible that what we read anywhere in scriptures and elsewhere can hold more than one meaning, and is it possible that as we grow individually and collectively the meaning of the sentence can grow and change with us?! My personal answer has always been and still is, YES! What do you think? -Bahereh

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  16. “The Bahá’í Faith is the best way to develop a value system in a society to promote the leadership of women.” And we do it the way we are.

    If you look back to the 1950s what world wide effort has anything to compare with a third female representation on national levels of governance? Is there any effort that is even half that? But even 60 years later the most common situation in the countries in the world is 10% female representation in government in most of the world. And the best of the best of the countries – literally the top 10 – only compare with Bahá’í rates of service of women because they use quotas. But Bahá’ís have a governance model that does need quotas – we just have no one running for office, everyone eligible to be voted for, secret ballots, and a call to vote for people one privately admires in realms of character, skills and knowledge – and a teaching of our religion that God has always seen men and women as equal (stated various places in various ways, and to favor the girl child if we don’t have the resources to educate all our children.)

    And this continental/country average picture only gets BETTER as you drive down to the regional and local level and you can directly compare with the most liberal Christian denominations:

    ” (A 1994) survey found that … 40% of the membership of local governing councils (are women) (these are called Local Spiritual Assemblies). Moreover, 47% of those (called members of the Auxiliary Boards) appointed to inspire and advise the community at the sub-national and regional level are women.… (and), the assistants they appointed to nurture and encourage Baha’i­s at the local level were also approximately 50% women and 50% men.”

    Meanwhile a survey the same year among Christian denominations found Unitarian Universalists only at 30% and Untied Church of Christ at 25% local female leadership, while the national average fluctuated between 8% and 12% across all Christians in America.

    Please note that the Bahá’ís don’t have clergy – but this is a comparison of the local/regional leadership and both Assemblies and Auxiliary Boards and their assistants operate on a local/regional level like pastors of churches.

    Could this be some selection that somehow the Bahá’ís are the most liberal minded somehow? Actually the Bahá’í Faith has been growing at twice the rate of population of the world for over a century. So we’re “bringing in” all the stuff around us, unconscious racism, sexism, materialism, whatever ails the world and somehow managing it through individual personal encounters of faith with the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh.
    So I return to the sound-bite – “The Bahá’í Faith is the best way to develop a value system in a society to promote the leadership of women.” And whatever it means that the top tier institutions of the religion don’t allow women didn’t stop us from being the first, everywhere, in holding up women leaders, even in the very same societies with otherwise a fraction of the standard across the Bahá’í communities. What’s the difference? I say it’s the Bahá’í teachings.

    Citations available but most are at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bahai_Faith_and_gender_equality#Elected

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    • typo “that does need quotas” -> “that doesn’t need quotas”

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      • A very good paper written in 1996 is titled “Women’s Service on the Universal House of Justice” by Professor Juan Cole . He addresses, among other things, the use of the word “rijal” (Arabic for notable people, distinguished individuals) and how the word can be used for both women and men.

        Women’s Service on the Universal House of Justice
        (Written Spring, 1996)

        This paper answered a lot of questions for me that anyone else could or would not. Hope you take the tie to read it.

        Lory Darnell-Gustafson

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      • I’m familiar with the paper. It is very dated now. The wikipedia entry and my comments is meant in part as an update to the paper and makes the case in far larger scales than was covered in the paper. The paper also speculates about things that the House addressed at http://bahai-library.com/uhj_women_uhj

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  17. Apologies. I was familiar with a similar paper from 1998. I’ll review this.

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  18. Sadly he speculates on a number of alternative interpretations and wrestles with the fact that Abdu’l-Baha interpreted the meaning of men on the Universal House of Justice and instead labels this interpretation as of other scholars or that Abdu’l-Baha changed his position or actions. None of these are the approaches Baha’is have as the basis of their approach to defining the beliefs of the religion and instead falls back on authority by experts and in his case ones that make their own assumptions.

    An example of the glosses he makes is that the common understanding of American Baha’is circa 1909 is a guide for understanding what the 1909 letter said and meant. Yet it is manifest that there were many misunderstandings common among Baha’is – misunderstandings that have nothing to do with the truth of the Writings then and which Abdu’l-Baha was at long pains to resolve and educate the Baha’is about, and at no little difficulty to him in the east.

    If this issue were to be advanced I can see no path for its change save that of the next greater Manifestation if even then.

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  19. In all due respect, dated or not, I found the paper illuminating. We are all invited to “individual investigation of truth”, but “sadly” it is not a route that the majority of Baha’is take, quite the opposite.

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    • I’ll agree with your characterization to a point – that Baha’is may not be prone to individual investigation as you see it (though it is also a core virtue in the religion of course.) This is my own pov I’m describing. But if you refer to the Seven Valleys you’ll recognize that an experience of faith, of understanding, of morality, advance in stages and different approaches. This is not very different from Kohlberg’s Stages of Ethical Development.

      So in the case where one searches vs when one is in love with faith there is a decidedly different approach – and so on to knowledge, unity etc. But these are natural, the individual progress of faith though I wonder sometimes if the progress of things can be managed more consciously. So you might be more referring to those Baha’is who have had that world illuminating experience of Faith, one that cannot be avoided on the path according to the Text, where one answer illumines all things, and all questions to be put aside. Never the less one is to advance beyond that stage. In my poor attempt at describing these things I’d say that in the Valley of Search one is all about questions, and all answers just lead to better questions. But in the Valley of Love all questions dissolve before an experience of an answer powerful enough to answer all questions. Then in the Valley of knowledge that one Answer begins to illumine individual questions rather than beating all questions over the head with one answer (and one learns humility because things do not obey our captivation by that one Answer.) And so on.

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  20. Thank you, Saba, for this article! This subjest and reflections are very important to me nowadays. I am looking inside myseflt for a model of my beliefes which would answer my Baha’i values and also correspond to my eager to free myself and sisters from sexism and terrifying misogyny in my country.

    For me as a Baha’i is lear that I wouldn’t really join any femclub dew to their more or less agressive and out-and-out communication. I would more likely find respective and assertive manner to protect my pretty much feministic values. :))) For me feminism is not so much about avoiding any sex-related topics or unisex or smth. First, it is about to give every woman AD man possibility to discover themselves and go out of gender roles. Second, to promote possibilities for women to fly at their full power! And here I accept the irony of this: maybe women when feel themselves freу to choose whatever they wnat their lives to be, will naturally become for “feminine”. :))) Here I also differ from fem-fems – they focus on unisex, while I am pretty comfortable about being a woman-woman. I belive that woman doesn’t have to make hereself a “man” in order to live life in full. And here I got this impact from the Writings – as souls and human beings we are absolutely equal in our abilities and charateristics! As my friends say, I am an impossible Vedical Feminist. :))) That is why I am ok about some prescription in the Faith for women and men differently. We are equal but not the same in everything.

    I am very friendly to any femclab (except radicals) in their movenement for rights and possibilities, for eradication of gender inequality. They really do a great job. Here I can support them communicationg their messages which correspond my Baha’i values in manner.

    I guess, that feminism is not the final and only true point for gender equality issue. It plays its role, but obviously cannot be the full and final answer. It is a meaningful part of the global proccess of promotiong women and thus the whole civilization bird to be able to fly. So we can work together even being not 100% coherent. Its ok, its “agree to disagree” point where we still go for one bigger point.

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  21. According to bahaullah men and women have different roles in society. Hence priveleges differ. His this view is compatible with islam. there is no point in interpreting as per ones fancy to be in synch with current social norms.

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    • I agree with francis, equality of women is not possible in islam or the ba’hai faith (and most other faiths for that matter.) It is more important to recognize the place they have made for you than to accept and be in the role of that place. Only then can you choose.

      If you don’t have the opportunity to choose your place what does that make you? What does that make them?

      Arguing the tenants of feminism or bahai is a different issue but the answer to your question is simple. No they aren’t compatible. In fact they are mutually exclusive according to the current doctrine. Accepting this reality frees us to act at will, to be faithful or be feminist- to be obedient or to be free.

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      • Francis and Chelsie, you have both ended this thread. I have chosen to be faithful to Jesus teachings in a Martin Luther inspired – five solas – (google it) – Christian faith after thirty years Baha’i (and earlier years VERY active abroad and here). So exactly, without fear, we should let ourselves go where we feel peace and balanced sensibility .

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