FROM ISLAM TO FEMINISM VIA BAHA'I FAITH
by Elena MONAKHOVA
The humankind is a bird with two wings - a man, and a woman, and unless they are of equal size, the bird will never fly. And unless they are of equal strength, the flight is impossible as well.
As a journalist, I meet a wide variety of individuals involved in women's movement. Many of them are bright and successful, and they often make me wonder: what makes them stand for the rights of their less successful compatriotesses? Why do these women who are obviously happy with their personal lives fight against violence in families? There is no personal interest for them in that, so why do they care? What drives them? Is it female solidarity? Inborn integrity? Aspiration for more social influence? Among other motives, I never thought it could be a religion that would drive anyone to join women's movement. However, at a round table I met Nancy Ackerman, executive secretary of public information department at Baha'i Disciples Community in Russia. She was very intelligent-looking and modest lady who bought me with her good-hearted and easy manners. Nancy came from Canada about ten years ago and since then has been at work in Russia. And the next thing she had to confess was about her faith that drove her to seek involvement with female movement. My next question was to be expected. It was about the essentials of that relatively new religious teaching.
Early 19th century was the age when in many nations people awaited a new Messiah. In Persia, that historical turn was associated with the person and the teaching of a young merchant of Shiraz, whose name was Bab (the Gate). For nine years, Persians at all social levels were enthralled in hopes and agitation as the result of Bab's announcement that the Day of God was nay, and he was the promised one, whom Moslem Scriptures had predicted. That bold statement produced outrageous fists in the Moslem priesthood who taught that divine revelations had ceased with Mohammed coming, and everyone who dared doubt it was a renegade and deserved death. Clerical attacks at Bab received ready support from Persian lay authorities. Throughout the country, his followers were persecuted and put to death in scores, and Bab himself was publicly executed on July 9 of 1850.
However, the seeds were sawn and Bab's mission was continued by a man whose name was Baha-Ullah. He was of high-ranked Persian family descending from famous ancient emperors. Instead of becoming a government officer, Baha-Ullah preferred a variety of charitable actions and by 1840s was already known as the Father of the Poor among the folks. By 1844 Baha-Ullah had become a rigorous and, probably, the favorite disciple of Bab. Among other followers, Baha-Ullah was put under arrest, chained, and shipped to Teheran. Good personal reputation, high social standing of his family and western nations' diplomatic efforts against persecution of babi saved Baha-Ullah from being sentenced to death. Instead he became a prisoner of the bad-famed Siyakh-Chal (Black Hole) dungeon, which was located in a defunct communal water reservoir - full of rats and poisonous insects. It was there, while expecting inevitable death, where Baha-Ullah received the first sign of his future mission.
After four months of imprisonment, Baha-Ullah was released from the Black Hole and expelled from the country, and all his estate was confiscated. In essence, all his further life was the continuous chain of exiles and imprisonments. It was as late as in 1877, when Baha-Ullah was finally released from Akka Fortress, and since then he spent his last twelve years writing numerous manuscripts on social and spiritual themes. He moved to the Palestine and spent his days giving audience to the ceaseless flow of visitors from Persia and other places. All around the Middle East and Central Asia, communities of Baha-Ullah's disciples began to form.
The core idea of Baha'i religion is the concept of humanity as the integral entity. It implies, along with renovation of individual consciousness, an unprecedented restructuring of the modern society: states merging, global government implemented, and, finally, a worldwide civilization in place. "Loving one's country is not enough feeling to be proud of. It is love for the universe that matters. For the Earth is a single nation, and we are its citizens." Note, that integration is attained not with elimination of cross-cultural discrepancies, but rather with the increase of knowledge and genuine respect of values embedded in every nation and every individual. The root of enmity is our attitudes rather than cross-national discrepancies themselves. Intolerance and prejudices are mere reflections of human immaturity.
The concept of global unification naturally implies the principle of equality of men and women. "Since the Almighty created the entire humankind in his image and semblance, women, as well as men, represent manifestation of his name and being, and no difference between them exists in spiritual sense." "In former times, the power used to rule the world, and the man used to dominate women due to more rude and aggressive qualities of his body and mind. The balance is changing: the power loses its weight, giving way to vividness of mind, intuition, and such spiritual qualities as love and service, and those are women's strengths. So, the coming age will be more oriented towards female, rather than male ideals. To put it more precisely, male and female elements of the civilization will be better balanced."
Baha'i disciples follow the principle of equality of men and women in their daily lives as well as in theory. Representation of women in Baha'i organizations' leadership is much higher as compared to percentages of women observed at the top of other political or religious organizations anywhere in the world. According to statistics reported to the 4th World Women's Forum (Peking, 1995), women constitute about 30% of the total elected Baha'i leaders at the national level and almost one-half of either elected or appointed leaders of Baha'i communities. These figures are striking when compared to the average 10% representation of women in developed nations' parliaments. Although the women-to-men proportion in Baha'i leadership is slightly skewed from the desirable 50/50% (in favor of men), it reflects the community sincere desire to follow the proclaimed principle of Baha'i religion, which are somewhat different from what cultural and societal traditions would imply. Another notable fact is that every other book published by Baha'i communities are dedicated to women.
It was Baha-Ullah himself who had developed the code of laws to govern communities and established a number of institutions to help implement principles described in his works. In particular, the highest authority in a Bahai community is a convent freely and democratically elected by community members. It helps exclude the very probability of a clerical elite developing with advisory and collegial decision-making principles fully implemented.
The way of life praciced in Baha'i's communities also offers a number of interesting models. For instance, the process of marriage is rather peculiar. The preference is given to early marriages preceded by the celibate. Although the wedding ceremony is uncomplicated, preparations to it are rather long. First of all, parents' consent on either side is required, irrespectively of whether parents themselves are Baha'i or not, whether their families are intact or have fallen apart, etc. Initially introduced by Baha-Ullah himself, this rule offers a good trial of a couple's true feelings. While free to choose life-mates, boys and girls will have to wait for months and even years for their parents' consent to arrive. In most cases, their long waiting will be rewarded with fathers' and mothers' blessing, as soon as they will have come to respect their children faith and fidelity to the beloved one. Then the engagement ceremony and, 95 days later, the wedding itself will follow. After that, parents will have no right to meddle in their children family lives.
With fundamental parity of sexes acknowledged, relations in a Baha'i family are quite specific. The principle of non-confrontation serves the basis for any decision. The dominating spirit of consensus enables flexible exchange of social roles between spouses. Wives are encouraged to seek professional success and build their careers, while husbands are involved in housekeeping and raising children. Whatever the spread of functions, parents are responsible for holistic development of their children, including spiritual, moral, mental, emotional and physical aspects. In Baha'i communities, boys and girls receive equal education. However, if a family is short of finances and parents face a choice as for who is to continue education, the preference shall be made to girls. In Baha'i families, the usual practice is to secure better food and more education for daughters. The underlying reason is that it is girls who will have to bring up the next generation. In addition, educating girls helps decide the problem of sustenance in the future, since educated women actively involved with their profession will usually give birth to a few children, and the level of personal income is usually higher in families where both spouses are educated specialists.
Regardless of its Islamic roots, the teaching of Baha-Ulla bans polygamy. Though divorces are allowed, they require very solid grounds and, therefore, are rare. Lack of bodily attraction, sexual inconsistency and disharmony between partners in marriage are not enough grounds for their divorce. To cancel their marriage, spouses have to apply for a sanction by the Spiritual Council. If the Council sanctions a divorce, spouses will have to wait for another year for the divorce sanction to enter force. This 'tolerance year' is the time for spouses to change their mind.
The idea of gender parity is spread beyond the Baha'i community and over to the entire local population. This approach is best demonstrated with the project undertaken by Baha'i communities in Cameroon, Bolivia and Malaysia and supported by UNIFEM. The project goal was to improve women's standing in these countries. Baha'i volunteers helped perform research, educational, public information and cultural activities among local populations. To begin with, aborigines were asked to list separately daily workloads performed by men and women. The difference proved striking. Many men were confused when they had to recognize that their workload is at best one-half of what their wives had to carry out. Those surveys and the following classes helped pinpoint critical inputs to the subdued standing of women, which were: no education, excessive workload, and disparity in family income spread with high costs of alcohol consumed by men. After that, members of Baha'i community would invite local actors and artists to translate the survey findings to a local cultural language - songs, dances, stories, plays. The resulting performances were then demonstrated to local folks. After that, men would demonstrate much more willingness to help women in their work out in the field, discuss family budget spending with them, and even to sit at community gatherings.
Inspired with the above outcomes, Baha'i communities in Nigeria and Brazil also enthralled in pilot projects relying on local cultural traditions to improve women's standing.
Baha'i communities were represented in Russian Empire as well. They first emerged in late 80's of the 19th century. After the October Revolution, and with special forcefulness in late 20's, Baha'i suffered severe mass persecution resulting in complete dissipation of their communities. It was as late as in 1963, with the institution of the World House of Justice (the supreme administrative body of national spiritual assemblies of Baha'i), when their centers were restored in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, which added to the five centers that had fortunately survived in Turkmenistan. After the Perestroika, many Baha'i communities were reinstated throughout the former USSR. At present, Russian Baha'i are unrestricted members of the International Baha'i Union of 174 national communities. The Union is accredited at the United Nations and, along with other non-government organizations in the status of U.N. advisors, participates in multiple international programs aimed at social development. They include activities in the fields of education development, environment protection, women's rights, international law, human rights, and peaceful conflict settlement.
Additional information is available from
Public Information Office at Baha'i Followers Community in Russia,
P.O. Box 55, Moscow, 129515;
tel.: (950) 132 2544, (095) 956 2496.