The Equality of Women
Updated: Sep 18, 2020
The Bahá’í Principle of Complementarity
The Bahá’í teachings simultaneously assert the equality of men and women while advocating in some cases distinct duties according to gender. Since the Bahá’í Faith also teaches that religious convictions should be examined by the “standards of science,” this ostensible paradox invites careful study. At the heart of the response to this query is the Universal House of Justice statement that “equality between men and women does not, indeed physiologically it cannot, mean identity of functions.” To appreciate and to accept this thesis that there can be gender distinction, even insofar as the assignment of fundamental tasks is concerned, without any attendant diminution in the role of women, we must turn to statements in the Bahá’í writings about the complementary relationship between men and women. Through a careful consideration of this principle, we can discover how there can indeed be gender distinction without inequality in status or function.
Among the most distinguishing features of the Bahá’í Revelation is the concept of revelation itself, the belief delineated in the Kitáb-i-Íqán that the purpose of religion historically is to raise by degrees human consciousness to the realities of the spiritual world. From such a view, religion consists of two distinct but inextricably linked processes: the unveiling of eternal verities and the subsequent application of that enlightenment to human social structures.
As a corollary of this twofold process, the Bahá’í scriptures teach that knowledge of truth is inseparable from deeds, but not simply because action gives dramatic form to understanding. The concretizing of a verity in the artifice of human society heightens our perception of that truth and thereby gives rise to more ample expression. Indeed, this reciprocity of causality is at the heart of the Bahá’í belief in the evolution of human society. The interdependence of knowledge and deed is, thus, no mere moral dictum, but a thoroughly practical relationship because it is ordained for the training of humanity, and its connection with the principle of the equality of women with men is strategic. For while we are only now beginning to come to terms with how to translate this revealed truth into human relationships and institutions, the principle itself is eternal. Bahá’u’lláh states unequivocally that
“women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God...”
Therefore, inasmuch as this verity is eternal, we cannot in one sense say that either Bahá’u’lláh or the Bahá’í Faith has caused women to be equal to men—they always have been so. However, by unveiling this eternal truth to humanity and by further inaugurating laws and institutions that embody this spiritual reality, the Manifestation empowers us to make this relationship, which already exists in the “sight of God,” extant in every aspect of human society as well.
Of course, it is important to understand that while Manifestations of the past may not have given explicit utterance to the equality of men and women, the emergence in various religions of contrary beliefs is not to be attributed to the Prophets. These are distortions, perversions, and misunderstandings of Their teachings. Thus, Christ never advocated the sort of subordination of women that we find implicit in some Pauline letters and explicit in the anti-feminist treatises of St. Jerome and other patristic leaders of early Christianity, and yet such beliefs still afflict much of contemporary Christian thought.
Therefore, to appreciate the divine methodology whereby certain principles must await the fullness of time to be made explicit, we need to understand more generally the concept of timeliness as it regards revealed truth. For example, no doubt some of the Iranian Bahá’í women may have been troubled upon receiving ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s letter early in this century stating that they should “now engage in matters of pure spirituality and not contend with men”. At the time, this advice may have seemed to contradict his other statements about women having an equal role in all aspects of human society and governance, but the pragmatic benefits derived from this temporary delay later became apparent. Indeed, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s wisdom calls to mind Bahá’u’lláh’s general statement about the timeliness of revealed truth: How manifold are the truths which must remain unuttered until the appointed time is come! Even as it hath been said:
“Not everything that a man knoweth can be disclosed, nor can everything that he can disclose be regarded as timely, nor can every timely utterance be considered as suited to the capacity of those who hear it” -Baha'u'llah
Accordingly, we may safely presume that Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation and explicit directives regarding the equality of women imply that humanity currently has both the experience and capacity to comprehend this relationship as well as the social circumstance to implement it in human society.
Such logic seems to underlie ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s observation that “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”. And yet, humanity has for some time emerged from a primitive state wherein survival depended on physical prowess. Furthermore, even among the animal kingdom and in many tribal societies, there exists distinction of function between male and female without any attendant sense of oppression, disdain, or subordination. Consequently, we can infer a third requisite for the timeliness of revealed truth, the emergence of a universal need that arises from a state of imbalance, ill-health, and functional disorder, a condition which occurs whenever operant spiritual laws are ignored or violated. In short, humankind is now thoroughly motivated to acknowledge the equality of women because we are experiencing the dire crisis that has resulted from a society’s domination by males and so-called male attributes (i.e., the emphasis on territoriality, materialism, acquisitiveness, aggression, etc.).
From the Bahá’í view, then, the timeliness of the principle of equality of women with men is not simply that this is one among a myriad of newly revealed verities. The very pathology and ecology of contemporary human crisis is significantly attributable to the violation of this fundamental principle, because the need for a complementary balance between male and female aspects of ourselves and of our collective enterprise is essential to creating a just and functional society, as several statements of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá confirm:
In past ages humanity has been defective and inefficient because it has been incomplete. War and its ravages have blighted the world....
…it is well established that mankind and womankind as parts of composite humanity are coequal and that no difference in estimate is allowable....
The world of humanity consists of two parts: male and female. Each is the complement of the other. Therefore, if one is defective, the other will necessarily be incomplete, and perfection cannot be attained.
…the new age will be an age less masculine, and more permeated with the feminine ideals....
At first thought, it might seem that the entire remedy for this disease would be relatively obvious and simple—to offset the imbalance by increasing the status of women, and indeed numerous statements in the Bahá’í writings affirm that this is a crucial part of the solution:
…the education of woman will be a mighty step toward its [war’s] abolition and ending, for she will use her whole influence against war. -‘Abdu’l-Bahá
Only as women are welcomed into full partnership in all fields of human endeavour will the moral and psychological climate be created in which international peace can emerge. -Universal House of Justice
Similarly, the Bahá’í writings state that the only reason this imbalance has occurred is the deprivation women have experienced in educational opportunity:
In all human powers and functions they are partners and coequals. At present in spheres of human activity woman does not manifest her natal prerogatives, owing to lack of education and opportunity. Without doubt education will establish her equality with men. -‘Abdu’l-Bahá,
But noble and salutary as have been the efforts on the part of Bahá’í and secular movements in remedying this imbalance in opportunity, such responses are, by themselves, inadequate, incomplete, and even possibly unfortunate when they are pursued without a clear understanding of the overall truth underlying the relationship between the sexes in a healthy society. For example, one understandable reaction to the injustices that erroneous ideas of gender distinction have produced has been the perception that all notions of gender are unnecessary, illogical, artificial, and condemnable. One might even infer from some passages in the Bahá’í writings that this is a correct assumption:
Equality of the sexes will be established in proportion to the increased opportunities afforded woman in this age, for man and woman are equally the recipients of powers and endowments from God, the Creator. God has not ordained distinction between them in His consummate purpose. -‘Abdu’l-Bahá
However, the term distinction in this passage clearly refers not to difference in function but to degree of status or equality of human powers, such as reason, intellect, enlightenment, spirituality. It is similar to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s use of the term in the statement, “The sex distinction which exists in the human world is due to the lack of education for woman...”. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is not here implying that there is no difference between the sexes but that the unjust distinctions which currently obtain are baseless and unfounded.
Another similarly understandable but likewise counterproductive response to the injustice and subordination created by traditional gender roles has been the tacit re-creation of women in the image of men, even while we acknowledge that the male role is unbalanced, unhealthy, and the cause of much of humanity’s contemporary dilemma. Instead of inducing balance, such a response can exacerbate the very imbalance that has so afflicted human society by producing even more human beings in the mold of the stereotypical male.
What, then, is distinctive about the Bahá’í notion of a cure for this imbalance and what is further unique about the Bahá’í paradigm for a natural, proper, healthy, but egalitarian relationship between women and men? As with other social problems, the Bahá’í position is not an Aristotelian mean between extremes, not a point of moderation between those who deem gender itself as a meaningless distinction and those who view the woman’s role as confined to some narrow province of domestic duties. It is, instead, a simple yet subtle principle of co-equal complementarity. The principle is simple because it retains a sense of gender distinction as natural while affirming the absolute equality of status. It is subtle because we have come to consider equality as synonymous with identicalness (particularly insofar as discussions of gender are concerned), yet the Universal House of Justice states forthrightly that “equality of status does not mean identity of function”.
It is of utmost importance, therefore, that we have a clear understanding of how these two qualities can exist simultaneously in the same principle, and perhaps the best place to begin is with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s often cited comparison of humanity to a bird:
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.
We should carefully note that in this analogy humanity is neither male nor female. It is an independent organism that uses two distinct faculties—men and women. We should further note that neither wing has any meaning or purpose without the other; they have a completely complementary relationship. Most important of all, we should observe that the primary objective of the bird is neither the amalgamation of one wing with the other nor solely the possession of two wings, particularly two of the same type (two left wings or two right wings). The goal of the organism is flight, and flight is achieved only when each wing retains its distinct identity and function but is precisely equal to the other in power and status:
The solution provided in the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is not...for men to become women, and for women to become men. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gave us the key to the problem when He taught that the qualities and functions of men and women “complement” each other. -Universal House of Justice
This Bahá’í concept of gender distinction co-existing with absolute equality of status is thus at the heart of any perception of this revealed truth, and it must be understood and appreciated before we can hope to approach the second of our twin duties, the institutionalization of this principle in Bahá’í laws and relationships. But we quickly discover that even if we have a relatively clear sense of the principle in theory, the application of this concept of complementarity to social relationships requires careful consideration. For example, we must begin by disabusing ourselves of the connotative responses we all share with regard to traditional gender distinction because gender roles have so often been promulgated for the purpose of suppression and subordination of women: The male had his province (the world of business, politics, the running of society) and the woman hers (the home, the children, the church). Let us attempt, therefore, an objective look at some of the most obvious gender distinctions with regard to function in the Bahá’í society to understand how a division of duties can exist without unjust and inappropriate distinctions of status or authority.
We find in the Bahá’í writings statements that attribute “primary responsibility for the financial support of the family” to the man, and statements which describe the woman as “chief and primary educator of the children". We may understandably blanch at the assignment of these duties solely on the basis of sex differences because connotatively these duties call to mind contexts in which similar role distinctions have been used to circumscribe and subordinate women. We may have an equally skeptical response to the statement by the Universal House of Justice that “homemaking is a highly honourable and responsible work of fundamental importance for mankind”. If we take these gender distinctions out of the Bahá’í context, lump them together with some other gender distinctions in Bahá’í law regarding such things as dowry, inheritance, exemption from “military engagements”, and membership on the Universal House of Justice, we may infer a general contradiction between the enunciation of the egalitarian relationship and the implementation of that truth in Bahá’í society.
By John S. Hatcher