Survey of Baha'i communities finds high ratio of women leaders

In Brief: 

Women compose 30 percent of elected leadership in the in Bahá'í councils at the national level, comparing favorably to national parliments, which average 10 percent women worldwide. 

In 1994, among 169 national-level governing councils of the Bahá'í Faith worldwide, some 30 percent of the members were women. Each council has nine members, although there were some vacancies when the above numbers were compiled.

The percentage of women in positions of leadership in the Bahá'í Faith compares favorably with the percentage of women in positions of political leadership worldwide.

Figures on the subject have just been collected in a survey on the participation of women in Bahá'í community life. The survey was conducted by the Bahá'í International Community's Office for the Advancement of Women in 1994 in preparation for the Fourth World Conference on Women, to be held in September in Beijing, China.

The survey found that women compose about 30 percent of the elected membership of national-level Bahá'í governing councils, for example, and some 47 percent of the membership in special Bahá'í appointed positions for the sub-national regional level. The average percentage of women members in the world's parliaments is about 10 percent, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

While the percentages in the Bahá'í community fall short of an idealized 50 percent, they reflect the earnest efforts of a highly diverse worldwide community to live up to and put into practice a religious value that often runs counter to the traditions and culture in society at large, said those who conducted the survey.

"The equality of women and men is a cardinal principle for Bahá'ís," said Rebequa Getahoun, one of the team that conducted the survey for the Bahá'í International Community's Office for the Advancement of Women. "But for the vast majority of the Bahá'ís of the world today, many of whom are the first in their generation to become Bahá'ís, the values and habits they have been brought up with are difficult to shake.

"In this sense, the results of this survey are really rather dramatic," said Ms. Getahoun. "The fact that women compose some 30 percent of our elected governing councils at the national level shows the degree to which Bahá'ís - who use secret ballots when voting - have already begun to overcome traditional prejudices.

"Further," Ms. Getahoun said, "the fact that appointed positions do approach an idealized 50/50 ratio shows that the community's leadership is making an earnest effort to further combat the trends in society at large."

In addition to basic information on male-to-female ratios in various positions of leadership in the Bahá'í community, the survey also asked about women's activities at the local and national level. The responses indicated that some 55 Bahá'í communities held specific events concerning women's issues at least once a year over the last six years. Among topics that were discussed at these events were equality between women and men, women in leadership, marriage and family life, parenting, and "heroines of the Bahá'í Faith."

The survey found that in Bahá'í publishing ventures, women play a prominent role. Most national communities indicated that they had publication committees, and the male-to-female ratio on these committees was about one-to-one. Some 54 communities published books during the last six years; 24 were produced about women.

Many of the appointed leaders who responded to the survey indicated that they regularly promote principles of equality and partnership between women and men in their speeches, workshops and personal discussions.

The membership of the Bahá'í community is among the most diverse population of people on the planet. The more than five million Bahá'ís worldwide come from virtually every nation, ethnic group, culture, profession and social or economic class, representing more than 2,100 different ethnic and tribal groups.

Geographically, the Bahá'í Faith has become the second-most widespread independent world religion, following Christianity. In all, Bahá'ís have established communities in some 232 countries and territories.