The Wilmette Institute’s ninth Web Talk marking its Twentieth Anniversary was titled “The Leaves of the Twin Divine Trees.” Baharieh Rouhani Maani talked a bit about the mothers of Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb and about Bahíyyih Khánum, the Greatest Holy Leaf, the daughter of Bahá’u’lláh and the sister of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. But much of her September 27, 2015, talk focused on the historical reasons for why we know so little about women in religious history throughout the ages, including women in the twin Holy Households in the Bahá’í era.
Maani began by expressing her gratitude to the Wilmette Institute for allowing her to talk “about the lives of the women closely related to the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh” and also to give a course on the same topic. For her talk Maani chose to spend most of her time explaining why there is so little literature available on the many women who made “vital contributions at critical junctures” in the development of the Bábí and Bahá’í faiths and why it has taken so long to find and translate what little material there is.
She pointed out that Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, not historians, was the one who made Bahíyyih Khánum, with her “towering personality,” her station, and her services to the Cause, known both to the East and West. He did so with tributes in English and Persian when the Greatest Holy Leaf passed away in 1932.
But why are there so few publications, in a religion that promotes the equality of women and men and education for all, even giving preference to girls as the educators of the next generation when the education of a girl or boy must be made? Why, Maani asks, have “women suffered obscurity in the early years of the development of the Bahá’í Faith? For her answers she looks to the effects of gender inequality in the treatment of women in the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian religions and religious history.
In Judaism, Maani noted, Gen. 1:26–28 says that God created male and female with identical functions: being fruitful and multiplying and replenishing the earth (she quotes ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in The Promulgation of Universal Peace 76 as making the same point). But when the serpent deceived Adam and Eve, Eve, the woman, “bore the brunt of the punishment”: bringing forth children “in sorrow” and having Adam “rule” over her (Gen. 3:16). These double punishments appear “to have been the first foundational stone in the structure of gender inequality leading over time to the widely accepted practice of men’s superiority and women’s degraded status in religion,” with the further consequence of the mistreatment of women, which continues to this day.
In Christianity the inequality of women continued with Paul saying (1 Cor. 11:9) that “Neither is the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man” and Timothy adding (1 Tim. 2:12) “suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”
In Islam, Maani added, Muhammad made some improvements in the status of women, saying (Qur’an 4:1) that both man and woman were created of “one living entity,” both were to “spread abroad a multitude of men and women,” and both were to “remain conscious of God, in whose name you demand [your rights] from one another.” But another verse (Qur’an 4:34) gave ulama a pretext for imposing harsh restrictions on women: “Men shall take full care of women. . . . As for those women whose ill-will you have reason to fear, admonish them [first], then leave them alone in bed; then beat them; if thereupon they pay you heed, do not seek to harm them.”
About the treatment of women in the Middle East, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, in a question-and-answer session after a talk given, ironically, at the Church of the Ascension in New York City in 1912 and recorded in The Promulgation of Universal Peace 166, said that women were purposefully left ignorant, not taught to read and write, not informed about world events, relegated to raising children and keeping house, were prisoners in their houses, and did not even have windows looking on the outside world. Men, He said, “enjoyed ascendance over women because bodily might reigned supreme. . . .”
When the Bábí and Bahá’í faiths burst on the scene in the mid-nineteenth century, Maani observed, millennia of men’s recording history, which resulted in “women’s invisibility in religious history,” influenced many of those who recorded early Bábí and Bahá’í history. The women who fought alongside men at Fort Tabarsí and Táhirih are known, but countless other women who sacrificed everything for their new faith are not. Bahá’í women, like their compatriots in the Middle East, were generally illiterate and could not write, even though they carried on and educated the next generation when Bahá’í men were killed.
One exception, Maani reported, was Khadíjih Bagum, the wife of the Báb, the first to believe in Him and the first to teach another in the Afnán family. Among others, Munírih Khanum, the future wife of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and one of the few literate Persian women, asked Khadíjih Bagum questions. In 1981 her great-nephew the Hand of the Cause of God H. M. Balyuzi published her recollections in Khadíjih Bagum, the Wife of the Báb.
Other exceptions include the recollections of the Greatest Holy Leaf. She was interviewed by Myron Phelps, who published Life and Teachings of ‘Abbas Effendi in 1903, and Lady Blomfield, whose The Chosen Highway was published in 1940 shortly after her death.
To fill the gaps in the information about the women so vital to the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, Maani wrote a proposal for a book about the women in the lives of the Twin Manifestations (published in 2009 under the title The Leaves of the Twin Divine Trees, An In-depth Study of the Lives of Women Closely Related to the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, Against Incredible Odds. Then she asked the Universal House of Justice for permission to have access to unpublished writings of the Central Figures of the Bahá’í Faith about women in the Holy Households. After she received copies of tablets, she translated them from Persian and Arabic into English and then had her provisional translations approved. Other sources included Shoghi Effendi’s 1939 account of Asíyih Khánum, the wife of Bahá’u’lláh; his 1932 account of the Greatest Holy Leaf written on the occasion of her passing; and the 1982 volume Bahíyyih Khanum, the Greatest Holy Leaf, published by the Universal House of Justice on the fiftieth anniversary of her passing with an introduction by the Hand of the Cause of God Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum.
Maani concluded her talk by reiterating how women have for millennia been nearly excluded from religious history because men were literate, and they decided what to write about and what to ignore with the result that half of humanity has been “at best marginalized, at worst ignored.” “Success,” she says, “will be assured when humanity rids itself of all kinds of prejudice.” She quoted the Universal House of Justice, in The Promise of World Peace 29: “World order can be founded only on an unshakable consciousness of the oneness of mankind. . . . Recognition of this truth requires abandonment of prejudice—prejudice of every kind—race, class, color, creed, nation, sex, degree of material civilization, everything which enables people to consider themselves superior to others.”