Around the world, Baha'i women's groups increase their activities

In Brief: 

Fired up by the Beijing Conference and their own commitment to spiritual principles, Bahá'í communities worldwide have established special offices and committees to promote the advancement of women. 

Among observances of International Women's Day this year, a celebration held in the village of Piplud near Indore, India, was likely among the most removed from metropolitan civilization.

Hosted by young tribal women, the event featured their dances, a sharing of personal experiences and a voicing of their concerns - including problems of alcoholism and illiteracy in their families.

It drew the attention of regional officials and news media. Shri V. R. Subramaniam, the District Collector of Dhar, a main speaker, said: "It is only when women are empowered that the country can move ahead with development."

Or maybe the gathering that qualifies as most far-flung was one in Chuuk, in the Federated States of Micronesia. A conference there drew more than 300 indigenous women from surrounding lagoon islands.

Held 8 March 1997, it was the second International Women's Day observance to be held in Chuuk, and a milestone for the region. The first celebration, held eight years ago, followed the local tradition of inviting only high ranking officials to make speeches. Hence, only men were at the podium. This year, the female organizers decided to make it a women's affair. "After eight years," noted this year's keynote speaker, Ms. Betty Benson, "a new door has opened."

What ties together these two events - as well as hundreds of other observances, seminars, workshops and campaigns - is the involvement of Bahá'ís around the world in activities to promote the advancement of women, a trend that has mushroomed since the establishment at the international level of a Bahá'í Office for the Advancement of Women five years ago.

As of June 1997, some 30 national-level Bahá'í communities have established special offices or committees to promote the advancement of women. The trend reflects not only the global spread and diverse nature of the Faith, but also its fundamental commitment to women's equality.

A Spiritual Principle

"As a worldwide community, we are responding to Bahá'í scripture, which explicitly teaches that women and men are equal," said Mary Power, director of the Bahá'í International Community's Office for the Advancement of Women. "As a spiritual principle, this was proclaimed by Bah·'u'll·h more than a century ago, something that is unique among world religions.

"At another level, national Bahá'í communities are responding to the creation of our international office, which was established by our supreme governing council, the Universal House of Justice, in 1992," Ms. Power added. "This has done much to stimulate, encourage, and support the development of similar offices or committees at the national level. Now we are really seeing the fruits of that, in terms of stepped-up local, national and regional activities."

An informal survey of Bahá'í activities at the national level turned up myriad projects and activities in support of women's advancement. Taken together, these portray a world community keenly engaged in reflecting on the issue within its own ranks - and energetically promoting its application in society at large.

The Women's Day observance in Piplud, for example, was organized by tribal women who have recently received training from the Indore Bahá'í Vocational Institute for Rural Women. The decision to commemorate the Day emerged from a two-week training session on family life, which had brought together some 18 couples from remote regions to discuss the importance of family and the need for equal responsibility in parenting.

In Chuuk, likewise, although the conference was not organized by the Bahá'ís, the keynote speaker, Mrs. Benson, is a Bahá'í - and she was invited because of grassroots work by Bahá'ís in the South Pacific to promote women's equality.

The Beijing Platform

Many of the activities undertaken by Bahá'ís aim explicitly to reaffirm and implement the Platform for Action adopted by the world's governments at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held September 1995 in Beijing. More than 400 Bahá'ís from at least 50 countries participated in the NGO Forum on Women, the parallel conference held that year in Huairou outside Beijing. Upon their return, these women and men brought home a fresh perspective and energy.

"For me personally, participating in the Beijing events was an exceptional life experience," said Lyn Lane, director of the Australian Bahá'í Office for the Advancement of Women, which was founded in 1993. "It enabled me to really address issues from a global perspective rather than a national level which had predominantly been my prior exposure; and it reinforced my commitment to working towards achieving equality between women and men."

Since Beijing, the Australian Office has engaged in follow-up activities, Ms. Lane said, such as working closely with CAPOW, a coalition of national women's organizations, to support task forces on "Women and Peace" and "Women in Decision-Making," two of the "critical issues" identified by the Beijing Platform for Action.

The Singapore Bahá'í Office for the Advancement of Women organized two workshops at the NGO Forum in collaboration with the Singapore Council of Women's Organizations. This year it is co-organizing a nine-month-long series of talks on women's health with the Council in collaboration with the Ministry of Health.

In the United Kingdom, the Bahá'í National Women's Committee, in addition to following issues from the Beijing conference, has worked with other religious groups to support the passage of legislation that would bring to justice UK citizens who have been involved in the exploitation of children overseas. The Committee gathered nearly 10,000 signatures from 159 cities and towns in support of the legislation, which was known as the Action for Children Campaign, and the legislation was approved by Parliament in March 1997.

In the United States, the National Spiritual Assembly, the community's national governing body, is co-chair of an NGO working group composed of more than 100 organizations pushing for Government ratification of the UN Convention on Women. The U.S. Assembly also recently issued a statement, "Two Wings of a Bird: Equality, the Foundation of All Human Progress," to stimulate "broad discussion within and outside the community" on equality.

Grassroots action

In addition to projects at the national level, many Bahá'í women have risen to form local or regional networks.

In Denmark, a Bahá'í Association of Women formed in January 1996. "Our goal is to try to develop the potential of women, to put it simply," said Ingegerd Bischoff, the Association's chairwoman. So far, the Association's members have organized a series of meetings in Copenhagen on such topics as "Women and AIDS" and "Female Genital Mutilation."

In Germany, the Bahá'í Community established a Bahá'í Women's Forum a year ago and now has 130 members in 10 regions of the country. The Forum has formed a number of "topic groups" to promote the discussion of issues such as "women and art," "the advancement of men" and "violence against women." Said Gisa Meier-Floeth, secretary of the Forum: "There are great chances for the advancement of women - and of men."

In France, an Association of Bahá'í Women for Development, Peace and Unity was founded in 1989 in Paris; it now has eight regional branches. "The creation of numerous branches is a sign of the vitality of women in the country at large," said Elaheh Locascio, the Association's secretary.

The specific issues that national-level Bahá'í women's groups and committees are involved in vary widely, often relating quite specifically to local or national concerns and conditions.

The Bahá'í Community of Equatorial Guinea, occupied with basic issues of social and economic development, sponsored a functional literacy course for women in Malabo and Bata from November 1996 to April 1997. Working with the Ministry of Women and Social Affairs, the Community used Bahá'í Centers for the courses, which taught literacy as well as reproductive health, nutrition, and basic mathematics.

In Ghana, the Bahá'í National Women's Committee has focused on programs aimed at promoting healthy families and helping women to realize their full potential. "In Africa," said Rosemary Mills-Tettey of the Ghanian Bahá'í community, "research has shown that women do a lot of the productive work, and yet at the same time their self-esteem is low."

Other issues of special focus around the world include violence against women and promoting partnership between women and men.

Community transformations

The proliferation of women's activities has also brought changes within the Bahá'í community. In Austria, for example, a national Task Force on Women has organized a nationwide series of seminars on themes of "Encouragement," "Change," and "Service." Said Daniela Hlavac-Marcak, secretary of the Task Force: "After four years of work, we believe that the general awareness of the connection between the issues of women and other topics of high relevance, for both the Bahá'í community and also the whole society, has been raised."

In Singapore, where a Bahá'í Women's Committee has existed since 1972, there has been a gradual transformation of attitudes of both women and men in the community. "In the past many women often did not attend Bahá'í events, study classes and so on, because they had to look after their children," said Cheryl Hum of the Singapore Bahá'í Office for the Advancement of Women. "And at the events it was usually the women who prepared and served the refreshments and cleaned up afterwards. In our administrative decision-making bodies, we saw a predominance of men elected.

"This has changed quite substantially over the last few years as the men and women are becoming more aware of the importance of working together as equal partners and the importance of the contribution of competent women to the decision-making process," said Ms. Hum. "More women are now being elected to the administrative bodies in Singapore, men and women work side by side on committees and at Bahá'í events, men and women share hospitality duties and cleaning up after functions, and husbands often look after their children so that their wives also have the opportunity of participating in events, serving on committees, joining study classes and so on."