Perspective: Religion and the advancement of women
"According to the spirit of this age, women must advance and fulfill their mission in all departments of life, becoming equal to men. They must be on the same level as men and enjoy equal rights. This is my earnest prayer and it is one of the fundamental principles of Bahá'u'lláh." - 'Abdu'l-Bahá
The Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing stresses the importance of safeguarding women's human rights and emphasizes the principle of shared responsibility and partnership between women and men as the basis for achieving equality, development and peace. It sets out an Agenda for Equality which calls for immediate action to create a peaceful, developed, and just world, based on the principle of equality and built on the strength of women's knowledge, energy, creativity and skills, for peoples of all ages and from all walks of life. The Platform for Action thus addresses the issues associated with the advancement of women from the standpoint of moral principle, as distinct from pure pragmatism. Effective implementation of these objectives will, necessarily, require changes in values, behavior, and procedures and modification of the internal dynamics of power and organizational structures.
The great religions of the world have traditionally been important sources of vision and values, and primary agents of socialization. The spiritual principles and values they inculcate not only form the basis of a unifying world-view, but also serve to motivate individuals and social institutions both to act on these principles and to use them as a standard against which to weigh practical actions.
Religious values have a dual potential - either to foster human solidarity or to intensify the processes of division and social fragmentation. Indeed, the history of the role of religion in promoting the advancement of women discloses a most uneven record. While, typically, in the early years of their existence, religions tended to encourage the advancement and participation of women, at other times, women have been actively held back and oppressed by religion, especially when the forces of extremism prevail.
While many commentators acknowledge the enduring relevance of the universal spiritual values inculcated by religion, they express the view that the application of these values needs to be re-examined in light of the trend towards globalization as well as the changing social circumstances and their impact on women. As a contribution to this discourse we offer the example of the Bahá'í Faith, which has a system of values that categorically upholds the principle of the equality of women and men in all areas of human endeavour and whose worldwide community is actively working for the emancipation of women, most especially in those parts of the globe where the rights of women are traditionally and persistently denied. We will highlight those moral and spiritual principles, which, in our view, facilitate the shift in values required for the effective implementation of the Agenda for Equality.
Recognition of the basic oneness of humankind is a prerequisite to social evolution and the future well-being of the earth and its peoples. Integral to this concept is the principle of the equality of the sexes. The rights of women are clearly upheld by the Founder, Bahá'u'lláh. He emphatically asserts that, "Women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God." The rational soul has no gender, and the social inequalities that may have been dictated by the survival requirements of the past can no longer be justified in an age when the members of the human family are becoming daily more interdependent.
The principle of equality has profound implications for the definition of the roles of women and men. It impinges on all aspects of human relations and is an integral element in domestic, economic, and community life. The application of this principle must necessarily entail a change in many traditional habits and practices. It rejects rigid role delineation, patterns of domination and arbitrary decision-making; calls for women to be welcomed into full partnership in all fields of human endeavor; and allows for the evolution of the roles of men and women.
The principle of equality also influences the manner in which the advancement of women is fostered. The Bahá'í Writings contain the image of humanity as a bird in which one wing is woman and the other man. Unless both wings are strong and well-developed, the bird will not be able to fly. The development of women is considered vital to the full development of men and is seen as a prerequisite to peace. Hence, the members of the Bahá'í community, male and female alike, and its democratically elected administrative councils share a strong commitment to the practice of the principle of equality in their personal lives, in their families, and in all aspects of social and civic life. Individuals and social institutions collaborate in encouraging the development and emancipation of women, and in designing and implementing programs to enhance their spiritual, social, and economic development.
Great emphasis is placed on education in the Bahá'í Faith as a means of promoting the advancement of women. The religion not only upholds the principle of universal education, but it accords priority to the education of girls and women when resources are limited, since it is only through educated mothers that the benefits of knowledge can be most effectively and rapidly diffused throughout society. It advocates that girls and boys follow the same curriculum in school, and women are encouraged to study the arts, crafts, sciences, and professions and to enter all fields of work, even those traditionally the exclusive province of men.
Education is considered an important means of empowering women. Apart from the acquisition of knowledge and moral values conducive to social evolution, education provides such benefits as the development of the mind, and training in logical and analytical thinking, organizational, administrative and management skills, as well as enhanced self esteem and improved status within the community.
The type of education envisaged and actively pursued by the Bahá'í community strengthens the role of mothers and encourages the spirit of cooperation in men. It prepares women for participation in all fields of endeavour and provides them with the practical skills to enable them to share power and decision-making. Women serve at all levels of the Bahá'í administrative system, playing a distinguished role on the international level and being elected to membership of Bahá'í national and local governing councils in all parts of the world.
The system of values embodied in the Bahá'í Faith is giving rise to the development of a vibrant worldwide community which is committed to promoting the emancipation and advancement of women. The approach which has been adopted is conscious and evolutionary. This religion is engaged, long term, in implementing systematic plans, plans that are guided and sustained by the vision of the principle of equality of the sexes, developed through consultation and with the full participation of women, implemented in a spirit of cooperation, and fully supported by its governing institutions. Such an approach is conducive to effecting fundamental social reconstruction and to lending significant support toward achieving the objectives of the Agenda of Equality as set out in the Platform for Action.
[Editor's note: The following article first appeared in The Greatness Which Might Be Theirs, a booklet published by the Bahá'í International Community in advance of the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, under the title: "Religion as an Agent for Promoting the Advancement of Women at all Levels." The author, Janet A. Khan, has a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and taught psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia before moving to Haifa, Israel, where she currently serves in the Research Department at the Bahá'í World Centre. Given its broad relevance to the upcoming Beijing Plus Five conference at the United Nations, we are reprinting this article now.]