The Equality of Women (Part 2)
Updated: Sep 18
The Bahá’í Principle of Complementarity
To appreciate the distinguishing characteristics of the Bahá’í paradigm, we must first realize that there is no single issue or explanation that governs all distinctions of function as regards gender. The exigencies of family life dictate parental roles, whereas the restriction of membership on the Universal House of Justice to men has its own special wisdom. For example, let us approach the rationale for gender distinction with regard to functions in the Bahá’í family. In Bahá’í society, parental responsibility is in many ways the most essential and pivotal function of community life, since the training of children is viewed as the primary means by which the bird of humankind takes flight and an “ever-advancing civilization” is fostered. As a result of this priority, the duties of both parents are carefully focused on this crucial task.
Thus, because of physiological fact, the woman as mother has obligations regarding children that men do not have to the same degree, “for it is the mother who rears, nurtures and guides the growth of the child”. Likewise, and we may presume to facilitate the mother’s duty, the father has obligations that the mother does not have—“primary responsibility for the financial support of the family...”.
But we must immediately note that these are “primary” areas of responsibility in the context of a marriage in which there are children. Such distinctions most emphatically do not imply that the man has no parental responsibilities or that the woman is less capable than the man of earning a living, that the woman does not have full and equal part in making all financial decisions, or that the woman should not have a vocation. Indeed, the Universal House of Justice notes that these relationships and responsibilities must be worked out within the exigencies of each individual family, that “family consultation will help to provide the answers”, and of course, in such consultation, neither sex has primacy of authority or status. In addition, the Universal House of Justice notes that the role of the woman as mother “does not by any means imply that the place of women is confined to the home”.
The reason for gender distinction as regards parental functions thus seems centered around this essential goal of society to advance itself by training its children and the pivotal role of the family as a divinely ordained organism in accomplishing that task, a duty that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states is so important that neglect of this duty is a “sin unpardonable”. It is perhaps understandable, then, that the crucial nature of this function dictates that the woman be released from financial responsibilities to accomplish the initial stages of this process. We might, also assume that the man’s right of inheritance with regard to intestacy is likewise bound up in his special financial responsibilities in Bahá’í family life, obligations that might render the appellation “head” of the family appropriate to the father as it relates to his special financial duties: “... it can be inferred from a number of the responsibilities placed upon him, that the father can be regarded as the ‘head’ of the family”.
However, this designation carries with it no special authority, but rather demonstrates that because the family as an organic enterprise is “a very special kind of ‘community’,” it reflects a division of duties according to the exigencies of this function:
The members of a family all have duties and responsibilities towards one another and to the family as a whole, and these duties and responsibilities vary from member to member because of their natural relationships. The parents have the inescapable duty to educate their children—but not vice versa; the children have the duty to obey their parents—the parents do not obey the children; the mother—not the father—bears the children, nurses them in babyhood, and is thus their first educator, hence daughters have a prior right to education over sons and, as the Guardian’s secretary has written on his behalf: “The task of bringing up a Bahá’í child, as emphasized time and again in Bahá’í Writings, is the chief responsibility of the mother, whose unique privilege is indeed to create in her home such conditions as would be most conducive to both his material and spiritual welfare and advancement. The training which a child first receives through his mother constitutes the strongest foundation for his future development” A corollary of this responsibility of the mother is her right to be supported by her husband—a husband has no explicit right to be supported by his wife. This principle of the husband’s responsibility to provide for and protect the family can be seen applied also in the law of intestacy which provides that the family’s dwelling place passes, on the father’s death, not to his widow, but to his eldest son; the son at the same time has the responsibility to care for his mother. - Universal House of Justice
Thus, if the term “head” of the family be used in a Bahá’í context to designate the father, it must be understood to have none of the conventional authoritarian implications that the term heretofore has so often connoted, because in the Bahá’í family, the husband does not have any authority, privilege, or status that the wife does not share equally:
The atmosphere within a Bahá’í family as within the community as a whole, should express “the keynote of the Cause of God” which, the beloved Guardian has stated, “is not dictatorial authority but humble fellowship, not arbitrary power, but the spirit of frank and loving consultation.” (Lights of Guidance 224– 25)
Or to understand the term in relation to the concept of complementarity, the term “head” in the Bahá’í context designates the nature of the husband’s function, not a hierarchy of status:
Indeed, to use the human temple as the example, if the husband is the head, the wife can well be regarded as the heart of the family. When the husband and the wife work cooperatively and complementarily, the well-being, health and proper functioning of the unity can be ensured. -Universal House of Justice
The House of Justice has stated previously, in response to a question from a believer, that the use of the term “head” does not confer superiority upon the husband, nor does it give him special rights to undermine the rights of the other members of the family. It has also stated that if agreement cannot be reached following loving consultation, “there are times...when a wife should defer to her husband, and times when a husband should defer to his wife, but neither should ever unjustly dominate the other”; this is in marked contrast to the conventional use of the term “head” with which is associated, frequently, the unfettered right of making decisions when agreement cannot be reached between husband and wife. -Universal House of Justice
In short, regardless of what appellations we use for family members, authority is still equally distributed between the husband and wife, and, in fact, the primacy of duties is attributed to the mother, both with regard to her having first rights to education and in relation to her essential worth to human society:
The woman is indeed of the greater importance to the race. She has the greater burden and the greater work. Look at the vegetable and the animal worlds. The palm which carries the fruit is the tree most prized by the date grower. - ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
Therefore, though the duties in the Bahá’í family relate in certain circumstances to gender, there is no intent in any of this that the woman’s role be subordinate or inferior. Quite the opposite is the case, though clearly Bahá’í gender roles can only be fully understood and effected “in the context of Bahá’í society, not in that of past or present social norms”. Even with our present limited insights about the future evolution of Bahá’í community life, we would do well to note at least one major characteristic of these gender distinctions with regard to Bahá’í relationships and institutions. These differences seem to result from circumstantial and physiological fact. They are not in any way attributable to distinctions in human capacities or powers. To confirm this fact, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá points out that in a sane, just, and healthy society women will have full status and function in every human endeavor:
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. - 'Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks
With this clear statement of the equality of women and men, let us consider a distinction of duties that seems unrelated to matters of rearing children—the crucial matter of membership on the Universal House of Justice. How can we not infer from this distinction of function a sense of the woman as less capable in some as yet unknown capacity? If we approach this issue by asking ourselves what it is that qualifies men that does not quality women, or the converse, what capabilities do women not have that men have, then we have already strayed from the logic and integrity of the Bahá’í paradigm. Once we have established that there is absolutely no distinction in human capacity between men and women, such questions automatically become illogical and unfounded. We can infer as much from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá statement that “ere long” the wisdom of this distinction will be “manifest as clearly as the sun at high noon”. We may presume that at such a time we will exclaim, as have the women of Iran regarding ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s advice to them, “This was indeed supreme wisdom!”. In the meantime, we must necessarily confine our speculation to answers that deal with circumstantial explanations, since the reason can have nothing to do with gender per se, an inference absolutely confirmed by the fact that women are ordained to serve on every other Bahá’í institutional and administrative body.
Even if we accept that there is a special logic and just explanation for every gender-based distinction of function in the Bahá’í community (the wisdom of each of which we will in time behold), what can we conclude about the nature of gender itself quite apart from the assignment of duties? Which attributes ascribed to women and men are real, and which are artificially derived from antiquated notions of status and function?
Most probably we must conclude that for the present we cannot know with certitude anything much about true sex-determined traits in the human species, since we approach such questions from the perspective of our own limited background and biases and since the emergence of valid and healthy distinctions, whatever they may turn out to be, must await a social context that is itself conducive to fostering such distinctions. In some passages ‘Abdu’l-Bahá seems to imply inherent and permanent gender traits. He states that “woman has greater moral courage than the man; she has also special gifts which enable her to govern in moments of danger and crisis”, that the woman is “more tender-hearted, more receptive, her intuition is more intense”, and that “‘in sciences and arts, in virtues and perfections ye shall become equal to man, and as regards tenderness of heart and the abundance of mercy and sympathy ye are superior’”. Of course, these distinctions may be appropriate only to our present circumstance wherein men have largely lost a sense of their so-called feminine traits, but it is interesting that in each of these distinctions, the feminine attributes cited are viewed not as signs of weakness or as alternative virtues, but as additional and as indications of superiority.
We may find one helpful key to understanding more generally this principle of co-equal complementarity in the metaphorical appellation Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá used in addressing women. On the one hand, They sometimes employed the epithet “leaves”—Bahíyyih Khánum was titled “The Greatest Holy Leaf.” Certain men, on the other hand, have been designated as “branches” and “twigs.” If the tree represents the attributes of God given phenomenal form, or the Anisa (the Tree of Life), or possibly the human race itself, what is the relationship between the branch and the leaf? Is one superior to the other, one more vital than the other in the thriving of the tree?
Their functions are distinct yet reciprocal and co-equal. Each is necessary for the survival of the other, even as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has observed that the husband and wife “are two helpmates, two intimate friends, who should be concerned about the welfare of each other”.
Furthermore, it is only when both function so as to complement the other that the tree can prosper. The branch channels raw fluids and nutrients to the leaf (perhaps as the father of a household provides the sheer financial wherewithal for the family), and the leaf takes that potential and through photosynthesis changes this raw substance into kinetic chemical energy. As we know, photosynthesis takes place because the leaf is capable of using sunlight, and in the scriptures, sunlight symbolizes spiritual and intellectual guidance. Metaphorically, then, the appellation “leaf” seems to designate the woman as the key instrument by which the enlightenment and evolution of human society takes place, possibly because it is she who by instructing the children translates the potentialities of the Revelation into kinetic virtues.
Finally, we are faced with the existential dilemma of trying to live in two worlds at the same time, one that is dying and suffering the pangs of that death, and the other world not yet fully born. We are challenged, therefore, to discover for ourselves the elusive and constantly changing point of balance between trying on the one hand to respond courageously to present injustices and, on the other hand, attempting to fashion, however embryonically, the society envisioned in the Bahá’í Commonwealth, which alone can ultimately elucidate and fully implement the equality of women and men. Of course, this is a dilemma we face with every social problem, since Bahá’ís perceive an inescapable relationship between abstract virtues and the expression of those verities in the edifice of human society, as well as a social ecology wherein no single issue can be resolved piecemeal as an isolated or autonomous pathology. For example, we cannot curtail drug abuse until we create a society sufficiently healthy that it no longer desires to escape from the realities of its existence. In the same way, we can with only limited effectiveness pursue the equality of women and men until we fashion a just and healthy social context to nurture that organic relationship:
The principle of the equality between women and men, like the other teachings of the Faith, can be effectively and universally established among the friends when it is pursued in conjunction with all the other aspects of Bahá’í life. -Universal House of Justice
Put another way, our goal is to establish a healthy human society, something that can only be accomplished when the full potential of women are unleashed. But health is not simply the absence of disease; it is the presence of a vital energy and direction. In Noah’s day the true workers for social justice were not those so immersed in pursuing what they deemed to be their own best interest that they were deaf to the Prophet’s guidance and admonitions, strange as his advice may have seemed at the time, but those noble few who listened and believed and labored with Him to fashion board by board the Ark of their own salvation.
By John S. Hatcher