Early Baha'i Heroines
The Bahá'í writings offer a potent vision of the qualities for which women must strive and the changes they can effect in the world; and the history of the Bahá'í Faith offers many examples of outstanding women who serve as models or paradigms of this "new womanhood." Two women in particular stand out, one associated with qualities of strength and audacity and the other with tenderness and servitude. The first is Tahirih, the Persian poetess and fearless defender of the Bábi Faith, for which she eventually suffered a martyr's death, and the second is Bahiyyih Khanum, the daughter of Bahá'u'lláh who served her Father selflessly throughout His life, forgoing marriage and the establishment of a family of her own in order to care for Him.
Tahirih was an exceptional woman for her time and place, breaking the bonds which normally enslaved women in nineteenth century Persia. She attained a level of education unusual for women; she composed poems still widely regarded as masterpieces of literature; as one of the original nineteen followers of the Báb, she became a leader of the Bábi community and taught her Faith fearlessly; she had the temerity to refuse a proposal of the Shah, who was greatly attracted by her beauty, that she become one of his wives; she is reported to have said, shortly before her death,
"You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women."
Shoghi Effendi referred to her as "the first woman suffrage martyr." Intrepid and outspoken, she did not allow the social dictates of her society to hold her back from reaching her potential. Yet she paid a terrible price for her courageous acts; she was imprisoned for some time by her husband, and when she escaped she was forced to leave her children behind, never to see them again. Brief years later, she was again imprisoned, this time by government officials who were disturbed by her success in winning converts to the Faith of the Báb, which they saw as heretical to Islam and a threat to the stability of Persian government and society. A group of soldiers was sent to end her life by strangulation, and her body was thrown down a well. Yet her final words proved prophetic; they express a certainty about the future--a vision evoking both hope and strength.
Tahirih ranks as the foremost woman of the Bábi revelation, and in the Bahá'í dispensation another female figure has been accorded a similar distinction. Bahiyyih Khanum, the saintly daughter of Bahá'u'lláh, was addressed by her Father in the following words: "Verily, We have elevated thee to the rank of one of the most distinguished among thy sex, and granted thee, in My court, a station such as none other woman hath surpassed." Shoghi Effendi, her great-nephew, extolled her as "the outstanding heroine of the Bahá'í Dispensation." The qualities of her character that led to this distinction are summed up in the following passage, also written by him:
Whether in the management of the affairs of His Household in which she excelled, or in the social relationships which she so assiduously cultivated in order to shield both Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá, whether in the unfailing attention she paid to the everyday needs of her Father, or in the traits of generosity, of affability and kindness, which she manifested, the Greatest Holy Leaf had by that time abundantly demonstrated her worthiness to rank as one of the noblest figures intimately associated with the life-long work of Bahá'u'lláh.
Shoghi Effendi remarked upon her serenity in the face of the terrible deprivations and degradations of exile and imprisonment, through which she accompanied her Father from the time she was six years old. He pointed to her care for all the members of the Holy Family and for the pilgrims who came from both East and West. Her physical frailty belied her spiritual strength, which was fully demonstrated at the time of `Abdu'l-Bahá's passing: Shoghi Effendi, then a young student at Oxford University, was first devastated by the news of his Grandfather's death and was subsequently overwhelmed at the prospect of assuming the leadership of the Bahá'í world community, as set forth in `Abdu'l-Bahá's Will and Testament. While the young Guardian secluded himself and prepared to take up the burden and responsibility that had been bequeathed to him, his elderly Aunt, at that time over 70 years of age, twice took the reins of the Bahá'í community in her hands and directed its affairs until his return. Years later, in an eloquent tribute written at the time of her death, Shoghi Effendi described her as his "chief sustainer," his "most affectionate comforter," "the joy and inspiration of [his] life."
In Bahiyyih Khanum's own writings, letters written to Bahá'ís all over the world, her strength of character and of expression is evident. The treacherous actions of some members of her own family taught her all too well the difficulties posed by disloyalty and disunity; thus the following passage, written just after the passing of `Abdu'l-Bahá at a time of crisis in the Bahá'í world, takes on great significance:
All the virtues of humankind are summed up in the one word 'steadfastness,' if we but act according to its laws. It draws to us by a magnet the blessings and bestowals of Heaven, if we but rise up according to the obligations it implies.
Similarly, her writings on service show the focus of her life:
In this Day nothing is so important as service. Did not `Abdu'l-Bahá voluntarily call Himself the 'Servant' of Baha, manifesting also in His life the perfections of servitude to God and man? We, wishing to follow the commands left by Bahá'u'lláh, spread and lived by `Abdu'l-Bahá, we can take no greater step toward the Heavenly Kingdom -- can give no greater joy to the present beloved Guardian of the Cause, Shoghi Effendi -- than that of loving service to all mankind.