When Principle and Authority Collide Baha’i Responses to the Exclusion of Women from the Universal House of Justice

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By Karen Bacquet

 

Abstract

The Baha’i Faith regards the equality of men and women as one of its fundamental tenets, yet excludes women from service on its international governing body, the Universal House of Justice) In Israel ), based on what are believed to be infallible interpretations of Baha’i scripture. This article outlines how the exclusion developed, and describes challenges from liberal Baha’i scholars, as well as the response to these challenges from the administration and rank and file adherents. It demonstrates that, when confronted with a contradiction between a basic principle upheld by religious teaching and loyalty to authority, the Baha’i administration and the majority of adherents have chosen the latter.

 

Introduction

The Baha’i Faith is well-known for including several liberal social principles as part of its basic religious outlook, including gender equality. Not only is the equality of men and women explicitly advocated in Baha’i scripture, it is often referred to in public statements by Baha’i institutions, is a frequent subject of study by Baha’i scholars, and a subject of concern in ordinary consultation in local Baha’i communities. The education and advancement of women is a common target for social service projects in the developing world.[1] Women vote in Baha’i elections, and serve in powerful positions at all levels of the administration. It should also be remembered, however, that the Baha’i Faith is a religion standing squarely within the Abrahamic tradition, based upon texts that are believed to be a revelation from God. While these scriptures promote women’s equality in a way quite remarkable for a religion that began in nineteenth-century Iran as a messianic movement within Shi’a Islam, that equality is not absolute. Men and women are occasionally treated differently in Baha’i law, either because of physical differences or based on the assumption of a patriarchal family structure.

While Baha’is profess a strong commitment to the advancement of women, the religion takes a strongly quietist stance on political activity, which discourages participation in secular women’s movements. Baha’i writers on the subject have noted that Baha’i discussions of gender issues tend to lag behind feminist explorations, and can seem “naïve . . . if not childish” by comparison.[2] Moreover, Baha’is tend to have conservative views on sexual morality, since Baha’i law limits sexual expression to heterosexual marriage, and generally disapprove of abortion, although they avoid the political “pro-life” label.

The importance of women’s equality is also often framed in terms of the millennialist belief that in the new era inaugurated by the Baha’i revelation, stereotypically “feminine” qualities, such as compassion and nurturing, will be more highly valued. The advancement of women is thought to be directly tied to the Baha’i hope for world peace.[3]

The most glaring inconsistency between the broader principle of gender equality and Baha’i practice is that women are not allowed to serve on the religion’s highest governing body, the Universal House of Justice (UHJ), which is elected every five years and has its seat in Haifa, Israel. Women are among the electors, which consist of the world’s National Spiritual Assemblies (NSAs), the elected bodies that govern the affairs of Baha’i communities in individual countries, but they are not considered eligible for election themselves, based on the authoritative interpretations of Baha’i scripture.

This exclusion tends to be downplayed in public presentations, so that it is not uncommon for converts to discover it only after joining the community. It is fairly typical for Baha’is to deny that the exclusion is even relevant to their religion’s stand on gender equality. However, as became very evident with the expansion of the Internet in the 1990s, not all adherents are quite so sanguine concerning this conflict between principle and practice in their religion.

The issue as to whether or not the exclusion of women from service on the UHJ can be changed, or is an unalterable feature of Baha’i governance, was a perennial topic of debate throughout the 1990s and a touchstone issue dividing liberals from conservatives in the clashes over scriptural interpretation raging in Baha’i cyberspace. Indeed, because it has been debated over a period of years, by a wide variety of Internet posters, it becomes a useful lens through which this conflict can be examined. It reflects concerns about authority within the religion and challenges presented to popular Baha’i beliefs from the academic examination of its history.

When faced with the contradiction inherent in believing in gender equality as an article of faith while excluding women from its highest governing body, the majority of adherents have chosen loyalty to authority over adherence to the broader principle. Liberal attempts to reconcile the two through the examination of how the exclusion evolved have been rejected, and are viewed as efforts to undermine the religion itself. The most articulate proponents for women’s full equality have been sanctioned, or threatened with sanctions, in an attempt to marginalize or stigmatize discussion about the possibility of reform. While official statements from the administration actively promote the ideal of equality in the world at large, Baha’i women themselves are not only excluded from the top of the hierarchy, but are also expected to remain content with the exclusion.

 

Historical context for  women’s  exclusion

The Baha’i religion was founded in the nineteenth century by the Iranian nobleman, Mirza Husayn ‘Ali Baha’u’llah (1817–92). He had been part of the millenarian Babi movement, established by Siyyid ‘Ali Muhammad (1819–50), known in the West as the Bab, meaning “gate.” This young merchant from the southern Persian city of Shiraz proclaimed himself the Qa’im, the messianic figure expected by Shi‘a Islam. In 1850, the Bab was executed and thousands of his followers were massacred, driving the remainder of his followers underground. Baha’u’llah was imprisoned, then sent into exile, where he claimed to be the “Manifestation of God” promised to appear after the Bab, and transformed the radical sect into a religion based on principles of racial and religious tolerance and peace. In his will, Baha’u’llah appointed his eldest surviving son, ‘Abdu’l-Baha (1892–1921) as the leader of the faith and authorized interpreter of his writings. In turn, ‘Abdu’l-Baha appointed his eldest grandson Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (1921–57) as Guardian, a hereditary position granted executive power and the authority to interpret scripture. Since he died childless and without appointing a successor, no further authorized interpretations are possible, and it is largely his vision that has shaped the Baha’i religion as we know it today. While Baha’u’llah’s writings provide for the religion to be governed by consultative bodies he called “Houses of Justice,” the organization of the administration took place over a long period of time, most markedly during Shoghi Effendi’s ministry, and the Universal House of Justice was not elected until 1963. While only the writings of Baha’u’llah are considered to be divine revelation, the interpretations of his successors ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi, while theoretically holding a different “station,” are given virtually equal weight as far as Baha’i belief and practice are concerned. The standing that each of these successors held as infallibl interpreters is part of the doctrine that Baha’is call “the Covenant.” That is, the belief that turning to, and accepting the authority of the successive heads of their religion is an essential element in maintaining its unity; and opposing that authority, or turning to an alternative, is the worst spiritual crime that a Baha’i can commit, a violation that can be punished with excommunication and shunning.[4] Most Baha’is also believe that the UHJ is divinely guided in its decisions, so that open criticism or opposition to any policy is seen as impermissible, and can provoke extremely hostile reactions. The interpretations of Baha’i scripture that disallow women’s service on the Universal House of Justice are based upon Baha’u’llah’s use of the Arabic word rijal, meaning “men,” to describe its membership. However, this term is not quite as clear as it might first appear, since in Persian usage, the word can also be used to refer to notables or prominent people, regardless of gender.[5] Another element of the controversy is that Baha’u’llah refers to the members of the plural “Houses of Justice,” i.e., the local governing bodies, as rijal as well, and current Baha’i practice allows women to serve on them. In fact, Baha’u’llah specifically states that in this age “the maidservants of God are accounted as men,” with rijal being the term used there. He calls upon his female followers to “arise in a masculine way” to serve his religion, essentially equating masculinity with such qualities of character as courage, steadfastness, and knowledge.[6] In any case, Baha’u’llah makes no direct command to limit the membership of the Houses of Justice to men, only, at most, an assumption that members would be men. In the nineteenth century Middle East there were very few educated women who would be prepared for service on such a body, and mixed-gender meetings would have been considered immoral. In fact, women in Iran were not given permission to serve on local and national spiritual assemblies until 1954, forty years later than their Western counterparts. When the Baha’i religion became established in the U.S. in the 1890s, women served in various offices, but on the instructions of Persian teachers sent by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, the elected governing councils of the larger Baha’i communities became exclusively male. Women formed their own separate councils and committees. Many Baha’i women were unhappy about this situation, and there was a good deal of tension between these segregated bodies.[7] In 1902, Corinne True, one of the most prominent of these women, wrote to ‘Abdu’l-Baha, asking him to allow women to serve on the governing board in Chicago. The answer she received remains the key to today’s practice:

“Know thou, O handmaid, that in the sight of Baha, women are accounted the same as men, and God hath created all humankind in His own image, and after His own likeness. That is, men and women alike are the revealers of His names and attributes, and from the spiritual viewpoint there is no difference between them. Whosoever draweth nearer to God, that one is the most favoured, whether man or woman. How many a handmaid, ardent and devoted, hath, within the sheltering shade of Baha, proved superior to the men, and surpassed the famous of the earth. The House of Justice, however, according to the explicit text of the Law of God, is confined to men; this for a wisdom of the Lord God’s, which will erelong be made manifest as clearly as the sun at high noon. As to you, O ye other handmaids who are enamoured of the heavenly fragrances, arrange ye holy gatherings, and found ye Spiritual Assemblies, for these are the basis for spreading the sweet savours of God, exalting His Word, uplifting the lamp of His grace, promulgating His religion and promoting His Teachings, and what bounty is there greater than this?[8] Part of the confusion here is that Baha’i terminology for their administrative bodies was still in flux. While “House of Justice” (in Arabic, baytu’l-‘adl) is the term Baha’u’llah used, current Baha’i practice is to name both national and local councils “Spiritual Assemblies,” with “House of Justice” reserved for the internationally-elected center in Haifa. In the early American community, however, elected bodies bore a variety of names like “Board of Counsel” and “House of Spirituality,” and the scriptural term “House of Justice” was avoided, on ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s instructions, for fear it would seem like the Baha’i bodies were claiming governmental authority. Until 1911, “spiritual assembly” could mean virtually any Baha’i gathering, and it was common to refer to the entire local community as an “assembly.”[9] But for present-day Baha’is, most of whom are unaware of the historical context, ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s letter appears to prohibit the service of women on the Universal House of Justice, and it is generally quoted as a justification for the exclusion. Corinne True continued to press the issue, and in 1909 received another letter from ‘Abdu’l-Baha’, telling her that women could serve in all capacities except the House, using the Arabic term baytu’l-‘adl-i-‘umumi. The Baha’i administration argues that this is a technical term referring specifically to the Universal House of Justice, and it is used as such in ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament, which describes its responsibilities and conditions for its election.[10] However, some Baha’i scholars have pointed out that ‘umumi can also mean “general,” and that the immediate issue concerning Corinne True and the American Baha’i community was the membership of the local elected councils, not a theoretical international institution which did not then exist, and would not be elected for another fifty years. In fact, this second letter names existing committees that ‘Abdu’l-Baha reminds True that women are encouraged to serve on, even if excluded from the “House of Justice.” However, True herself interpreted the letter as applying to only the international body, and again began lobbying for women to be elected, but the Chicago House was reluctant to accept her interpretation or Bacquet: When Principle and Authority Collide change the policy.[11] The matter was finally resolved during ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to America in 1912, when he called for a mixed-gender council to be elected in Chicago. Baha’i historians continue to debate whether or not this was when he overturned his earlier ruling, or whether he was simply confirming what he said in the 1909 letter, which they believe excluded women from the UHJ only. The official stance of the Baha’i administration is that this second letter simply clarified the 1902 letter, and that neither one was intended to apply to the then termed House of Spirituality in Chicago, but to the international body that would be created in the future.[12] A few Internet posters have suggested that ‘Abdu’l-Baha, rather than changing his interpretation of the text, may have decided that these elected committees did not qualify as “Houses of Justice,” and, in fact, he wrote several letters that explicitly distinguish between spiritual assemblies and the body called for in Baha’i scripture, saying that it was not the time to elect the latter.[13] However, ‘Abdu’l-Baha was making this distinction as early as 1901, long before his decision to allow women to be elected, so this is unlikely to have been a factor in his changed ruling. The issue is still ambiguous, since he initially referred to the Chicago board as a House of Justice, and Shoghi Effendi would later interpret ‘Abdu’l-Baha as treating the two bodies as “to all intents and purposes, identical.”[14] ‘Abdu’l-Baha seems to have taken a flexible approach to the matter, rather than trying to establish a uniform practice. For example, in 1911, he advised the Kenosha, Wisconsin community to resolve the friction between men and women by electing separate assemblies for each. Later that same year, he told the New York community to expand the membership of its board to twenty-seven and women were elected to it. Some of the smaller communities had never had an all-male board, or did without an elected committee altogether.[15] The final known reference ‘Abdu’l-Baha makes to the issue is a letter written in Paris in 1913, which enthusiastically describes the “extraordinary privileges” that women will eventually attain, including their entry into politics, at the same time saying that Baha’u’llah limits the membership of the House of Justice to men.[16] In addition, no Persian original of this letter is available, so there is no way to verify the accuracy of the translation. Even the name of the recipient is unknown.[17] The position of Shoghi Effendi, however, is clearer. Four separate letters written on his behalf refer to the 1902 letter, interpreting ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s stance as allowing women on all elected and appointive institutions except the Universal House of Justice, and it is these statements that have made the practice normative in the Baha’i community. None of these letters written by his secretaries refer to either the 1909 or 1913 letters, but only to the promise in the 1902 letter that the reason for the exclusion would become “clear as the noonday sun.”[18] Many Baha’is, believing both interpreters to be divinely guided, are disquieted by the idea that Shoghi Effendi may have misinterpreted his grandfather’s intentions, or even that ‘Abdu’l-Baha may have changed his mind between the writing of his letters to Corrine True and his visit to the U.S.

 

Conclusion

Baha’is respond to the conflict between their religion’s teaching on the equality of the sexes, and the exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice in a variety of ways, but the majority is willing to compromise the broader principle for the sake of upholding beliefs about religious authority. Attempts on the part of liberal adherents to interpret the historical context in a way that would allow for the exclusion to be lifted have been rejected. Although a significant minority of Baha’is express at least some degree of discomfort with the exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice, the vast majority accept the policy, even if some believe it amenable to change. There is no grassroots movement demanding reform, and indeed, it is difficult to see how one could possibly develop in a community where the simple presentation of historical and scriptural arguments is seen, both by the administration and many adherents, as an attack on the religion itself. Any sort of organized protest movement would be considered “covenant breaking” and result in excommunication, and so Baha’i dissidents remain a loosely-connected group of individuals who share a common perspective. There is no “women’s movement” within the Baha’i Faith comparable to that existing in many other religious groups. In fact, given the importance of sexual equality to Baha’i identity, Baha’i men are as likely to voice objections to the exclusion as Baha’i women. Overall, one is left with a sense of missed opportunity. The scriptures of the Baha’i religion explicitly uphold the equality of men and women, and the promotion of this principle is an essential part of Baha’i identity, especially among Western Baha’is. Yet the exclusion of women from the highest elective office has created a culture of denial, and has even caused some Baha’is to engage in sexist and stereotypic thinking about women in order to explain it. While the Baha’i religion has a positive role to play, especially among its adherents in the developing world, and it gives women comparatively more power than they have in most religious hierarchies, its potential for progress is hampered by a conservative approach to religious authority and the interpretation of religious texts.

 

References:

[1]. See, for example, “The Advancement of Women,” available at , accessed 8 October 2005.

[2]. Trevor R. J. Finch, “Unclipping the Wings: A Survey of Secondary Literature in English on Baha’i Perspectives on Women,” Baha’i Studies Review 4, no. 1 (1994), available at , accessed 8 October 2005. See also Susan S. Maneck, “Women and the Baha’i Faith,” Religion and Women, ed. Arvind Sharma (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 211–27, also available at , accessed 8 October 2005.

[3]. Universal House of Justice, “The Promise of World Peace,” October 1985, available at  <http://bahai-library.com/published.uhj/world.peace.html>, accessed 8 October 2005.

[4]. Schismatics are the primary targets of excommunication, or in Baha’i termi-nology, declared “covenant breakers.” Baha’is have been declared covenant breakers for other reasons, however, such as refusing to shun relatives who have been excommunicated. See Moojan Momen, “The Covenant,” available at <http://bahai-library.com/encyclopedia/covenant.html>, accessed 8 October 2005.

[5]. The argument that the Persian usage of rijal includes women has been recently used by Iranian women who claim they have the right to run for the presidency under that country’s current constitution. See “New Times on Iran’s Constitution,” Indiana Student News, 29 September 2000, available at <http://idsnews.com/story.php?id=776>, accessed 8 October 2005.

[6]. A more thorough examination of Baha’u’llah’s thinking on gender issues can be found in Juan R. I. Cole, Modernity and the Millennium: The Genesis of the Baha’i Faith in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 163–87.

[7]. Robert H. Stockman, The Baha’i Faith in America: Early Expansion 1900–1912 (Oxford: George Ronald, 1995), 46–63. See also Anthony A. Lee, Peggy Caton, Richard Hollinger, Marjan Nirou, Nader Saiedi, Shahin Carrigan, Jackson Armstrong-Ingram, and Juan R. I. Cole, “The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha’i Faith,” unpublished typescript, 1988, available at <http://www.h-net.org/~bahai/docs/vol3/wmnuhj.htm>, accessed 8 October 2005.

[8]. Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha (Haifa: Baha’i World Center, 1978), 79–80.

[9]. Stockman, The Baha’i Faith in America, 394–96.

[10]. A rejection of the argument that the Chicago House is referred to in the 1909 letter is referred to in a Research Department memorandum to the Universal House of Justice, “Translation of ‘Umumi’ in the Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Baha,” 30 March 1997, available at , accessed 8 October 2005.

[11]. Robert Stockman, “Notes on the Thornton Chase papers 1910–1912,” n.d., available at <http://bahai-library.com/resources/chase.papers/ch.1910-12.html>, accessed 8 October 2005.

[12]. Universal House of Justice, “Translation of ‘Umumi’ in the Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’.” For a more general rejection of the argument that Baha’i texts allow for women’s exclusion to be overturned, see “Letter to the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of New Zealand,” 31 May 1988, available at <http://bahai-library.com/uhj/women.uhj.html>, accessed 8 October 2005.

[13]. For example, see ‘Abdu’l-Baha, “Letter to the Spiritual Assembly of Kenosha, Wisconsin,” 4 March 1911, and “Letter to Albert Windlust,” 23 October 1913. Both of these unpublished letters are available from the Baha’i National Archives, Wilmette, Illinois.

[14]. Shoghi Effendi, World Order of Baha’u’llah (Wilmette, Ill.: Baha’I Publishing Trust, 1938), 6.

[15]. Stockman, Baha’i Faith in America, 338–39.

[16]. ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks (Wilmette: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1972), 181–84, available at <http://www.ibiblio.org/Bahai/Texts/EN/PT/PT-59.html>, accessed 8 October 2005.

[17]. Sen McGlinn “PT—Example of unauthentic text,” posted to talisman9@ yahoogroups.com, 16 September 2003. McGlinn argues that the translation of this letter is misleading.

[18]. Lee, et. al., “The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha’i Faith,” n.p.

 

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Karen Bacquet-Challenge of Principle and Authority on women and UHJ in Baha'i Faith

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