Naw Ruz marks the end of the Fast and the beginning of a new year in the Baha’i calendar. Naw-Ruz is a celebration of a “spiritual springtime” that symbolizes both individual renewal and mankind’s revitalization.
Many people have strong opinions about the word “feminist” and the whole concept of feminism. These opinions might be based on good or bad experiences that people have had, on things they have heard or read, or on fundamental understandings of the realities of women and men. Everyone is entitled to their opinions and to the reasons behind those opinions.
For this article, we (the authors) are going to focus on only two things: a dictionary definition of “feminism” and some of the statements found in the Baha’i Writings that we feel address aspects of that definition. We hope that you will read with this in mind, gleaning anything you find useful from the post as a jumping off point for continued conversation.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary splits its definition of feminism into two distinct parts: “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities” and “organized activity in support of women’s rights and interests.” In order to better understand this concept, let’s break the definition down.
The first part of the definition is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities” which brings to mind this quotation from Abdu’l-Baha:
In this Revelation of Baha’u’llah, 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. Rest ye assured. Do ye not look upon the present condition; in the not far distant future the world of women will become all-refulgent and all-glorious. For His Holiness Baha’u’llah Hath Willed It so! 1
Therefore, women’s “rights with men are equal” and “Baha’u’llah hath willed” that women should have equal opportunities.
Let’s look at the dictionary’s second definition of feminism: “organized activity in support of women’s rights and interests.” There are a number of passages in the Writings that indicate that Baha’is should engage in such activity. Here are a few:
In the course of the current year which has been designated “International Women’s Year” as a world-wide activity of the United Nations, the Baha’is, particularly in these eighty national communities, should initiate and implement programs which will stimulate and promote the full and equal participation of women in all aspects of Baha’i community life, so that through their accomplishments the friends will demonstrate the distinction of the Cause of God in this field of human endeavour. 2
“…in support of …”
Work ye for the guidance of the women in that land, teach the young girls and the children, so that the mothers may educate their little ones from their earliest days, thoroughly train them, rear them to have a goodly character and good morals, guide them to all the virtues of humankind, prevent the development of any behaviour that would be worthy of blame, and foster them in the embrace of Baha’i education. 3
“…women’s rights and interests”
And among the teachings of His Holiness Baha’u’llah is the equality of women and men. 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. 4
Examining these quotations indicates that the female half of humanity should be “developed”, that we should “work”, that we should be “thorough”, that we should “guide” and “foster” women and girls, and that we should “initiate and implement programs” to promote the equality and interests of women.
BELIEF AND ACTION TOGETHER
Abdu’l-Baha expressed His hopes for women’s equality very clearly:
It is my hope that the banner of equality may be raised throughout the five continents where as yet it is not fully recognized and established. 5
It is our understanding that for Baha’is, the notions of belief (recognition) and action (establishment) can never be separated; true belief must be expressed in action. As Baha’u’llah wrote, “It is incumbent upon every man of insight and understanding to strive to translate that which hath been written into reality and action.” 6 Therefore, because we believe in the equality of women and men, we believe that we must act to bring it about.
ACTIONS TO TAKE
What does that action look like? There are many feminist organizations in the world that have detailed agendas for action. For example, the organization HeForShe (heforshe.org) includes a variety of everyday actions people can take to support women in areas such as education, health, work, and violence. Another organization, About-Face (about-face.org), raises awareness about, and fights, the demeaning images of women in the media. Numerous other websites and organizations share practical and up to date ideas of ways to work for women’s rights. For any given Baha’i, some of these actions will resonate strongly and others less so.
We can do heaps, though, within the Baha’i community. For instance:
Encourage: Many of the messages that reach women can be disempowering and disheartening. Abdu’l-Baha said, “… we must declare that her capacity is equal, even greater than man’s. This will inspire her with hope and ambition, and her susceptibilities for advancement will continually increase.” 7 A wonderful way to encourage a woman is to acknowledge and respect her inner qualities, her strengths, her courage, her assertiveness, her persistence, and it is usually preferable NOT to comment on her appearance, which can send the wrong message.
Listen: Women can face significant hurdles in a society where some people think that recognition and advocacy for women’s rights is evil. It can be very empowering and reassuring when Baha’i men and women listen to women’s stories. We don’t need to try to fix it immediately; just listen and acknowledge.
Educate: People need to be educated in order to understand their equality, develop their capacities, and make their most effective contributions. Whenever we see opportunities for women and girls to receive quality educational opportunities, we should help connect them to these opportunities. And if there are insufficient opportunities, we can create them. Remember that we are to educate a girl child first, if a family can only afford to educate one child and the other is a boy. 8
Support: If we show ourselves to be loving, encouraging, and willing to listen, women and girls may turn to us when they need help and support. We already know, based on the assurances of Baha’u’llah, that they have all the capabilities they need, so we can feel good about simply supporting them in whatever way they need to be supported.
There may be some of these actions that can be best taken by men in support of women, but mostly they are equally applicable. If women and girls feel supported both by men and women, it might have a significant increased effect overall.
We may not fit everyone’s definition of what it means to be feminists and we may not want to, but since, as Baha’is, we already believe in equal rights and opportunities for women, we should act on that belief. And that, as they say, is the dictionary definition of a feminist. It would be great to hear your thoughts and ideas of how we can better advance the station of women in the comments section below.
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.
Thank you Lorraine & Alan!
Vahid Master (February 2, 2018 at 2:55 AM)
Alan Manifold (February 2, 2018 at 12:30 AM)
Good discussion. Agreeing on a definition is the start. Decades ago, back in the 70s when I was a college student, some women set up a desk at the local mall asking for women to sign a petition in favor of recognizing women’s rights. They stopped me and asked if I believed in women’s rights. I said yes, certainly. I believe in human rights, and women are humans. They asked if I believed that a woman should have total control over her own body. (Turned out the petition wasn’t just about women’s rights, but also about abortion rights.) I said, Definitely, Yes. That is, I added, until she willingly introduces a man’s sperm to her egg and a new human being is created. Then, there are three people who have rights which need to be considered.
After I said that, I don’t think those women felt I was a feminist.
Kimberlee J Benart (February 2, 2018 at 3:00 AM)
Thanks for the comments, Kimberlee! There seems to be a constant competition between groups to “own” certain words and to define words a specific way to win over the audience. It sounds like you did well to clarify your own definition of what you meant, even if it didn’t agree with their particular stance.
Alan Manifold (February 2, 2018 at 12:34 AM)
I would only add this comment to this wonderful summary of our beliefs and duties towards the equality of men and women: While Baha’i scripture supports the Mirriam Webster definition of feminism, I think it is better for us all to avoid labels as much as possible. You correctly point out that there are many definitions of this term. That is one issue. The other is that the usage of these labels sometimes forces one’s thinking into rigid spaces where the labels are prone to replace more nuanced thinking.
Are Baha’is feminists? Are we anti-fascists? Are we socially conservative and economically liberal? You could make an argument that we are all of these things, but I prefer not to call myself any of them. And I say that without equivocating on the principles of the Faith and my duty to work towards their fulfillment.
Eamon (February 2, 2018 at 11:58 AM)
While avoiding labels has its points, avoiding them altogether may not be feasible, either. But since we know that labels don’t tend to be carefully analysed, it’s important that we are clear about what we mean. If I say I’m a feminist, I need to be clear what I do and don’t mean. And if someone says it’s bad to be a feminist, I can open a conversation to determine if I agree with their judgement, based on their definition; or if they will agree with my claim, based on my definition. The conversation is the important thing, whether it’s triggered by a discussion of labels or something else.
Alan Manifold (February 2, 2018 at 12:49 AM)
Thank you for your important post which hopefully helps to narrow the gulf between the Baha’i notion of equality and the dictionary definition of feminism. Technically, they mean the same.
Most people identifying themselves as “feminists”, however, do not merely adhere to this technical definition. Outside the Baha’i community the term “feminism” usually refers to women’s struggle for equal rights and opportunities. The Baha’i approach is far broader and deeper. It is based on the notion of ‘partnership’ where men play an equally important and crucial role in the attainment of full equality.
In a BIC statement on equality in 1991 it was written: “The transition (towards equality) will be eased when men realize that they will be unable to achieve their full potential as long as women are prevented from attaining theirs. Indeed, when men actively promote the principle of equality, women will no longer have to struggle for their rights.”
Without this partnership there will be no equality. There will be no equality without men, who are still the power-holders in many parts of the world or certain echelons of even Western society, becoming enlightened enough to (1) voluntarily grant women equal opportunities in any given community, and (2) to learn to embrace their authentic selves where feminine qualities feature far more prominently than men usually assume. For the rational soul does not have a sex according to the Writings.
Given the Baha’i approach to gender equality, which is based on a partnership for equality, the soul having no sex, and men’s crucial role in enabling gender equality, the word “feminism” may indeed have a slightly misleading ring. To avoid confusion, I’d rather talk about “Baha’i promotion of gender equality” than “Baha’i feminism”. That is, since “feminism” is still understood even by many prominent feminists as mainly a women’s struggle and movement. Even the form of the word sounds more like women’s struggle than partnership.
But as far as dictionary definitions go, you have successfully demonstrated that Baha’i promotion of gender equality and “feminism” denote pretty much the same thing.
Thank you for such a great opening for discussion!
Sam (February 2, 2018 at 8:53 PM)
Thanks for those great comments, Sam! If talking about feminism helps to promote the equality of women at the broad level you’re talking about, it’s a good thing. If it leads people to argue and fight, perhaps it’s best to avoid it. But however we approach it, we have our work cut out for us to help women achieve the vision laid out for us by the Writings of Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha, don’t we?
Alan Manifold (February 2, 2018 at 12:53 AM)
It is important that you are encouraging Bahá´i believers to join associations that work for attaining the rights of women. I have been in one such association for almost twenty years. We are in need of these kind of articles. Thanks a lot. Migdalia Diez, Puerto Rico
Migdalia Diez (February 2, 2018 at 9:33 PM)
There are many ways that Baha’is can work toward the vision of equality laid out in the writings, and working with other organisations can be a very effective one. No organisation outside of the Faith perfectly reflects the Baha’i goals and standards, but some of them work on issues and in ways that are very well attuned to what we want to see in the world. By carefully investigating an organisation, we can find many ways in which we can collaborate. Kudos to you for your long association with such a group!
Alan Manifold (February 2, 2018 at 12:59 AM)
I really enjoyed this article in Baha’i Blog. I believe that one of the issues that need to be addressed is in the field of cinema and TV entertainment where women are depicted as as a part of violence associated with sex. The distorted idea of equality and sameness needs to e clarified by both women and men. Abdu’l Baha makes this point so beautifully in His writings. Thank you for the wonderful article.
Wendy Jewell (February 2, 2018 at 11:08 PM)
Thanks for your kind words. Lorraine and I agree with you absolutely on this point. There are a number of TV shows and movies that we simply won’t watch, because it feels like they assault our souls too much. With heightened awareness, we can each make choices and take actions that we can hope will improve the situation over time.
Alan Manifold (February 2, 2018 at 1:02 AM)
I am a woman farmer, doing all the machinery. (My husband is very good repairing them). I am also a bus-driver, so i can be called a man’s equal. I have 3 sons, and clearly can see that raising children is The Most Important Task. It worries me that womens liberation is about making woman into a small man, and the women’s world of babies, nourishing and making a home have no importance because it cannot be measured in dollars. My feminism is to tell the men about the woman’s worldwiew
Bjørg Trønnes (February 2, 2018 at 11:14 AM)
Thanks for your comment, Bjørg! I look forward to the day when people are not judged or measured at all — when everybody is already perceived to be a valuable and noble soul. ‘Abdu’l-Baha talked about people who had no social standing, but excellent qualities. He clearly felt that it was only the spiritual qualities that were worth worrying about. And since we are not able to judge those in another person, we could just accept that everyone is valuable and important in spite of their worldly conditions, including gender.
Alan Manifold (February 2, 2018 at 1:04 AM)
Hello Bjørg, I so agree with you. Reaching equality is not, in my opinion, about women taking on the masculine traits. It’s about both men and women becoming less polarised. There is a beautiful quote in the Baha’i Writings that says: “The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the balance is already shifting-force is losing its weight and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age less masculine, and more permeated with the feminine ideals — or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more evenly balanced.” I can’t wait to witness such a more balanced society! And you are already part of that process. 🙂
Lorraine Manifold (February 2, 2018 at 6:29 AM)