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?