I write on diverse religious issues, often analysing perspectives from the Abrahamic faiths (Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Bahá’í).
International Women’s Day
A couple of months ago, I took the opportunity afforded by the 8th of March observances to share a few things with my interfaith group about the rights of women and related matters. 8 March, after all, is International Women’s Day, a day specifically set aside by the United Nations to annually commemorate the socioeconomic, cultural, and political achievements of women and to bring attention to those gender issues that adversely affect their rights.
Women and Religion
I felt it was an opportune occasion to discuss these matters in the group because of the uniqueness of the teachings of my faith on the rights of women, teachings that are entirely new in the hallowed realm of religion.
As is generally well known, women have historically and traditionally been oppressed, looked down upon, and accorded an inferior status to men in almost all societies of the world. It happens in the home; it happens in the community and in public life; it even happens in religion. For this reason, women find themselves with roles that are generally subservient to those of men in most faith-based communities.
This does not mean there is anything necessarily wrong with the religions associated with these communities in their attitude towards women. No, it is rather a reflection of the progressive nature of divine revelation—as taught in the Bahá’í Faith—the concept that in each day and age, the divine teachings are revealed to man in accordance with the needs of the times, the level of maturity of the people, and the social conditions of the populace. The same teachings are then updated, amplified, and enhanced in another age, with the coming of a new Manifestation (or Messenger) of God to address the profound changes in that society and bring about a more elevated and improved social order.
Women’s Rights in 19th and 20th Century
We can see that the primitive days of invasions, conquests, and wanton plunder that placed a heavy responsibility on men to fight in defence of the community are fast receding. A new era is emerging, an era permeated by achievements in the great arenas of the arts, the sciences and technology, an era that therefore looks more to the power of the mind rather than of muscles for human progress and wellbeing.
And this emerging reality is reflected in the teachings of a new religious cause, the Bahá’í Faith, whose founder is Bahá’u’lláh. What this faith has to say about the rights of women is without parallel in religious history. Indeed, the equality of men and women is one of the 12 basic principles that underpin Bahá’u’lláh’s vision for a united and peaceful world.
If we pause for a moment to consider the background of the founder of this new religious cause—that he was from an Islamic background, born into a Muslim family, that his earliest disciples were predominantly of Islamic background, and that his prophetic mission was carried out in its entirety within the milieu of an Islamic society, in the Middle East, in the heart of the Islamic world—it becomes apparent the radical nature of his teachings.
And this, moreover, occurred in the second half of the 19th century, in an era when women had very few rights anywhere in the world. For example, even in the progressive, liberal countries of the West, seen as far advanced in freedoms and respect for universal human rights, women are still clamouring for equal pay even today. And just to give another perspective, in no independent, sovereign nation in Europe, at the start of the 20th century, were women eligible to vote and be voted for in national elections. The first self-governing country in the entire world to give women the right to vote (but not to be voted for in parliamentary elections) was New Zealand in 1893. That was one year after the passing of Bahá’u’lláh, a passing that brought his prophetic mission to an end.
It might come as a surprise to learn that most major western countries only extended full voting rights to women in the intervening years between the start of the First and the end of the Second World War (1914-1945). It was 1915 in Denmark; 1917 in Russia; 1918 in Austria, Great Britain, and Germany; 1919 in the Netherlands; 1920 in the USA; and so on, and only in 1945 did women have a full vote in France and Italy.
As a matter of interest, the latest country to extend the vote to women is Saudi Arabia, in 2011 (of the 21st century). As a result, 2015 was the first time Saudi women were able to cast their votes in any election in their country.
We now consider a few of the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith on women.
1. Equality of Men and Women
The discussion in the preceding section offers some perspective on the extent of discrimination women have had to endure worldwide. It is a situation that is so contrary to Bahá’u’lláh’s assertion that: “Women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God.” The reason given for such an unambiguous affirmation is that God’s goodness and grace, like the light of the sun, reaches all humans, both men and women, equally, and that it is the quality of a person’s spiritual life, rather than gender or other human factors, that really matters to God and attracts His blessings.
In other words, the oppression and disadvantage women have suffered, and are still suffering, are really of a physical nature—which does not make it any less abhorrent, of course—but in the spiritual sphere, which is the eternal aspect of human reality, women have always had equal status with men. As already stated, God cares less about our physical attributes—like gender—and is more concerned with the spiritual virtues we cultivate in this life—such as love, kindness, justice, humility, mercy, and so on—virtues that women have in abundance and to a no lesser degree than men.
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2. Gender in Nature
So, the unequivocal teaching on the equality of the sexes is the first thing to be noted here about the teachings of this faith. The second thing of relevance is the compelling arguments the faith evokes from nature in support of its standpoint on gender. A cursory look at nature will show that sexual differentiation is not specific or exclusive to humans. It exists throughout the vegetable and animal kingdoms but without preference or distinction in their diverse species. There is absolute equality between male and female plants, and the same is true amongst the animal species. This positive characteristic of nature offers a strong argument in support of equality between the sexes in humans, the species at the apex of God’s creation and supposedly excelling all others in wisdom and nobility.
Two Wings of a Bird
Another analogy from nature is the comparison of the two sexes to the two wings of a bird—one wing representing female and the other male. A bird whose wings are not equally developed will struggle to fly heavenwards. If one wing remains weak and undeveloped, it will not even be possible for the bird to take off at all. And this, according to the faith, is true of humankind as a whole. For not until women attain equality with men in education, in virtues and perfections can humanity attain the dizzy heights of uninterrupted success and prosperity.
3. Women and Girl’s Education
The third area of concern for the religion, in respect of women's rights, is in the field of education. It argues that a principal reason woman has remained so far behind man in most areas of human endeavour is not because of any inherent deficiencies but because of her lack of equal education and opportunity in the past. If she had been granted the same opportunities as man, the argument goes, she surely would have attained to the same height as men in ability and capacity.
It might appear counterintuitive, but when it comes to education, the position of the faith is that girls should be accorded priority over boys. And this notwithstanding that universal compulsory education for all children is one of the faith’s twelve basic principles. The reason for giving priority to girls' education over that of boys—and this could happen in cases where resources are limited, for instance—is because women are the mothers of the race. Being the ones who rear the children makes them the first teachers of children. How can they be good educators of their children, both sons and daughters, if they are not well trained? And this is the core of the Bahá’í argument.
4. Women’s Role in World Peace
One surprising dimension to gender parity, espoused by this faith, is its association with the attainment of world peace. Women, it is argued, will be more reluctant than men to sacrifice their children on the battlefield; hence mothers will generally not sanction war nor be satisfied with it.
“So it will come to pass,” is the faith’s bold prediction, “that when women participate fully and equally in the affairs of the world, when they enter confidently and capably the great arena of laws and politics, war will cease; for woman will be the obstacle and hindrance to it.”
Of course, some might argue, and with good reason, that there have been women in leadership positions who have not shown themselves any more peace-loving than men, and that could be true but is beside the point. Few women operating in a man’s world cannot be expected to operate any more differently to men. What is being suggested here is that when women are universally free to operate within all the corridors of power and influence and in all departments of life, peace will gradually and irreversibly emerge because of such participation and for the reason advanced.
5. Future of Women’s Rights
And finally, while firmly asserting that “Women have equal rights with men upon earth,” the faith goes further to make some interesting forecasts about the future of women’s rights. What then does the future hold for women in the fight for equal rights, you might be curious to know.
First is this word of warning to men that: “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.” This means, in effect, that it is in the interest of men (like me, who is also a man) to assist the womenfolk to catch up with them in this shared journey of life.
But whether assisted or not, the future for womankind is very bright—as far as the Bahá’í Faith is concerned, because its writings categorically avow that in this new era, “the women go neck and neck with the men. In no movement will they be left behind. Their rights with men are equal in degree. They will enter all the administrative branches of politics. They will attain in all such a degree as will be considered the very highest station of the world of humanity and will take part in all affairs.”
This should bring hope and cheer to all women as they continue their arduous and protracted “struggle” for their God-given right to equality and recognition in the tottering male-dominated systems of the world.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2021 Kobina Amissah-Fynn