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A Web Talk You Won’t Want to Miss: “Six Revolutionary Bahá’í Teachings about Gender Equality”

Apr 1, 2016
A Web Talk You Won’t Want to Miss: “Six Revolutionary Bahá’í Teachings about Gender Equality”
 “I watched it and enjoyed very word. . . . Absolutely brilliant. So far, the best I have ever heard on gender equality. It reflects on your having had great experience on this subject. You beat out all the discourses of many other efforts Bahá’ís have written on this subject. Well done. . . . I loved the way your brought in Bahíyyih Khánum and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá . . . and the emphasis on the importance of the work and achievements of women in the Bahá’í Faith.” So emailed Nalina Jiwnani, the former head of the Office of the Advancement for the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of India. So what impressed Ms. Jiwnani so much that she dipped into her arsenal of superlatives to describe it? The “it” was the Wilmette Institute’s March Web Talk “Six Revolutionary Teachings on Gender Equality in the Bahá’í Faith.” The “you” was Vasu Mohan, who for the past sixteen years has focused on political, social, and legal empowerment of the disenfranchised in Asia—youth, women, ethnic minorities, and persons with disabilities. He gave his talk on a Saturday and an hour earlier than usual (12 noon. EST; 9:30 p.m. in India) so that his friends in India would be able to listen. One listener in someplace else in Asia posted a noted saying that it was midnight there and asking if anyone else from Asia had logged in. Vasu MohanVasu’s extraordinary Web Talk was preceded for the first time by a fifteen-minute devotional, consisting of Bahá’í writings set to music and performed by six Bahá’ís from Westminster, Colorado, USA. The devotional was arranged by John Hicks, a member of the Wilmette Institute Board of Directors. The devotional is not included in the talk, which is now available on the Wilmette Institute’s YouTube channel. Vasu began his talk by saying that “One of the most distinguishing principles of the Bahá’í Faith is the equality of women and men.” Then he paused to acknowledge and thank many for the insights he had derived in collaboration with them: numerous Bahá’í friends, scholars, his professional colleagues, his family, and his dear friends. He said he was grateful to them “for walking on this path before him and with him.” But he stressed that “the learnings belong to all of us.” To provide a context for his talk, Vasu chose a passage from the writings of Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Faith and the great-grandson of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith:

The principle of the Oneness of Mankind—the pivot around which all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve— . . . is applicable not only to the individual, but concerns itself primarily with the nature of those essential relationships that must bind all the states and nations as members of one human family. . . . It implies an organic change in the structure of present-day society, a change such as the world has not yet experienced. (The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh 43).

Then Vasu noted that, although we are “still at an early stage of understanding,” we will explore some of the implications and claims of the Bahá’í Faith. He said that “the equality of women and men is one of the core components of the principle of the oneness of humanity because it applies to the oneness between the two halves of humanity—male and female.” We can talk about many other unities (races, ethnicities, and so on), but if there is no unity between male and female, the other unities are not possible. Vasu stopped at this point, and with the help of Boyd Staszewski, the Wilmette Institute’s IT expert for its Web Talks, took a survey, asking “Do you have a woman who has played a significant role in your life?” Choices were Yes, More or Less, or No. Almost instantaneously Boyd announced the results: Yes, 82 percent; More or Less, 14 percent; and No, 5 percent. Vasu then talked about a saying he had once seen on a billboard: “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” “Now is the time. We are the generation,” he said for taking on this global principle of the equality of women and men. At both the international and personal level changes are being made. The next UN leader may be a woman; men are sharing household duties; women are breaking glass ceilings. “We live in an exciting time,” Vasu said. The four goals that Vasu addressed in his talk are:
  1. Elevate conversations about gender equality to the realm of principles, turning them away from polarized political discourse.
  2. Offer generously, unconditionally and with the utmost humility the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith and our experience in applying them as a contribution to the betterment of society (as the Universal House of Justice has instructed us).
  3. Recognize that the Bahá’í vision for the equality of women and men has facets that are bold and transformative (even the Bahá’í community itself has only taken a few steps in applying the principle).
  4. Bring this perspective (this level of self-examination) to our own Bahá’í communities and to like-minded friends in all its community-building activities to help us walk the talk.
Vasu used photographs to show the absence of women in the highest level of negotiations (for example, the Syrian peace negotiations) and statistics to show how few women are involved in high-level major peace processes and are members of national parliaments or are heads of state. But he also showed photographs of women who played a critical role in the Iran nuclear deal (whatever you may think of that); men involved in the negotiations praised the women for helping the men to be “concrete and pragmatic” and for keeping the negotiations on track. In addition, a climate-change revolutionary and Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is Costa Rican Christiana Figueres, who has no authority but all the responsibility to make efforts to slow climate change. In the area of climate change, men are generally interviewed, but only some 10 to 15 percent of women. When women are interviewed, they are not asked about broad scientific or policy aspects but, rather, about how climate change affects women. Despite some advances for women, gross human-rights violations against women still exist. Amartya Sen, an economist and a Nobel prize winner, notes that more than 100 million women are missing because of abortions, infanticide, and the neglect of girl children. A page of data on inequality (violence, under-age marriage, rape, female genital mutilation, honor killings, earnings)—Vasu said he had five more slides of additional inequalities—show why it is important to tackle the equality of women and men. Turning to religion, Vasu said that equality of women and men is at the core of all world religions, though it is not always obvious. He shared a photograph of a thirteenth-century bronze statue of a Hindu deity, half male, half female. From Christianity, he talked about Jesus’s female followers and helpers, particularly Mary Magdalene, who reestablished the faith of the eleven disciples after Christ’s crucifixion (‘Abdu’l-Bahá talks about her). From Islam, Vasu quoted the Qur’an 4:1:

Be conscious of your Sustainer, who has created you out of one living entity (nafs), and out of it created its mate, and out of the two spread abroad a multitude of men and women. And remain conscious of God, in whose name you demand your rights from one another, and of these ties of kinship. Verily, God is ever watchful over you!

About the Bahá’í Faith, Vasu noted that it is the first religion in religious history to make categorical statements about the equality of women and men. For example, Bahá’u’lláh states: “Women and men have been and always will be equal in the sight of God” (Compilation of Compilations II 2145: 379). ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states that vegetables and animals both have sex distinctions but that there is no distinction or preference given to male or female. So why should there be distinctions in the human world (The Promulgation of Universal Peace 280)? ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also said something else that was “bold” and “transformative” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, “something that no one else was saying”:

The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated over women by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the balance is already shifting—force is losing its weight and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age, less masculine, and more permeated with the feminine ideals . . . an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more evenly balanced. (Lights of Guidance 615)

Vasu noted that studies show that businesses that hire women do better, that women make better laws, and that women spend money more wisely. Moving to a discussion of love, Vasu pointed out that the equality of women and men is not a stand-alone principle; it is part of core Bahá’í teachings on love. He quoted passages from Bahá’u’lláh’s Hidden Words (Arabic Hidden Words 3, 4) showing that love was central to God’s creating human beings; hence the equality of women and men comes from the Creator’s love. Vasu then discussed the purpose of life in which, again, women and men are equal: It is important to note, Vasu said, that all men and women have equal opportunity to find the “gems of inestimable value” hidden within themselves (Gleanings 122: 259), irrespective of their sex. He continued his discussion by quoting Shoghi Effendi, who wrote that the “principle of the Oneness of Mankind” is the point round which all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve” (The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh 42), and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who said that “the pivot of the oneness of mankind is nothing else but the power of the Covenant” (quoted by Shoghi Effendi in God Passes By 238). The Covenant, of course, is the relationship between the founders of great world religions and their followers and also the greater covenant between God and every single human being: if we follow the Manifestation, He will never forsake us. Vasu’s next idea involved a further discussion of carrying forward an ever-advancing civilization and the two facets of the purpose of life: personal transformation and social transformation. Bahá’u’lláh writes that “‘The betterment of the world can be accomplished through pure and goodly deeds, through commendable and seemly conduct’” (quoted by Shoghi Effendi in The Advent of Divine Justice 24–25). This, Vasu observed, is not something one small group does for another. “All of us are involved.” An important facet of carrying forward an ever-advancing civilization is justice at all levels: personal, family, community, work place, national, and international. Bahá’u’lláh tells us (Arabic Hidden Word 1) that justice is the “best beloved of all things in” His sight. It is a capacity we can learn and develop; we can “see with” our “own eyes” and know with “our own knowledge.” He concludes by saying “justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness.” Hence justice is an “important capacity for understanding the equality of women and men.” Bahá’u’lláh, “like all Founders of great religions,” redefines concepts. He tells us that He has “breathed a new life into every human frame” (Gleanings 42: 92–93). Hence equality as we have understood it in the past has been recast. He also “throws away outdated concepts,” which Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’u’lláh’s great-grandson, describes in this way:

if long-cherished ideals and time-honored institutions, if certain social assumptions and religious formulae have ceased to promote the welfare of the generality of mankind, if they no longer minister to the needs of a continually evolving humanity, let them be swept away and relegated to the limbo of obsolescent and forgotten doctrines. . . . For legal standards, political and economic theories are solely designed to safeguard the interests of humanity as a whole, and not humanity to be crucified for the preservation of the integrity of any particular law or doctrine. (The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh 42)

Vasu challenged his listeners to “think about the implications. We should only save what safeguards humanity. We should not safeguard old ideas for their own sakes.” He went on to say that rules “are often used to subjugate, to justify systems such as slavery, the inequality of women and men, and so on.” Before coming to the six revolutionary teachings on gender equality in the Bahá’í Faith, Vasu used three photographs to conclude the framework of his talk. The first was a photograph of a soaring eagle, with its two wings symbolizing the important principle of the equality of women and men. Just as an eagle cannot fly with a hurt wing, so, also, men and women cannot “fly” if one half is deprived of its rights. Vasu then talked about the mother, who is the first educator of the child, a station that is often used to subjugate women and confine them to the home. But, Vasu pointed out, “Rather, women should operate at all levels, from motherhood to the global stage.” Bahá’u’lláh said one hundred years ago that women should devote their energies to industrial and agricultural endeavors, “a bold assertion.” From the time of the Báb, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said, women followers were bolder than men. The second photograph was of Bahiyyih Khanum, known as the Greatest Holy Leaf, the daughter of Bahá’u’lláh and sister of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá,. Bahá’u’lláh gave many important tasks to the Greatest Holy Leaf. When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá traveled in Europe and North America from 1911–13, He entrusted the Faith to her care, and she led it during His absence. After ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s death in 1921, when Shoghi Effendi went to Switzerland to prepare himself for the tasks that his grandfather had left to him, he, too, entrusted the Faith to his great-aunt. The third photograph was photograph of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá with children and adults in Lincoln Park in Chicago. Vasu used the iconic photograph to discuss ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’u’lláh’s appointed successor, the incarnation of all Bahá’í virtues, the perfect blend of male and female qualities (male strength and female kindness and nurturing). ‘Abdu’l-Bahá empowered and championed women; He gave them leadership roles, provided them with material and spiritual help, signaling and modeling the principle of the equality of the sexes. Often when men would write about something they had accomplished, He would reply, saying that that was good but that they should establish schools for girls. Such schools distinguished the Bahá’í Faith from the society around it. As Vasu approached the end of his talk, he said that he had “talked about several teachings and a framework” for understanding the equality of women and men. “Now,” he said, “we have come to the six revolutionary principles that, in his opinion, are “truly revolutionary.” 1 The Rational Soul Has No Gender. Vasu chose as his first revolutionary teaching the genderlessness of the rational soul, which he described as a “powerful concept.” Only  “spiritual capacities distinguish” human beings:

The reality of the human being is her or her soul; and the soul, we firmly believe, has no gender. Man and women exhibit physical differences that undeniably influence some aspects of how they experience the world. Yet, in their essence, in their qualities and potentialities, in those aspects that make human beings human, men and women are without distinction. Neither can claim superiority over the other. (Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity)

2 The Importance of Educating Girls and Women. Vasu’s second revolutionary teaching is the importance of educating girls and women. The Bahá’í Faith is the first and only major world religions that says to educate girls before boys if one has to make a choice. It also calls for girls and women to be educated in every branch of knowledge, including STEM subjects. It calls for girls and women to be educated with the same curriculum used for boys. See ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Compilation of Compilations II 2133: 374. 3 Men Cannot Attain the Greatness That Might Be Theirs If Women Are Prevented from Attaining Theirs. For his third revolutionary teaching, Vasu quoted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: “As long as women are prevented from attaining their highest possibilities, so long will men be unable to achieve the greatness which might be theirs.” Vasu pointed out once again that the bird cannot fly if one wing is weak. Hence men must grow, too, in order to attain spiritual distinction. It is not a matter of bring women up to men’s level. Men have to grow, too, and a new level for all souls must be set. 4 Men Must Own the Equality of Women and Men. For his fourth revolutionary teaching, Vasu again chose a passage from the writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: “When men own the equality of women there will be no need for them to struggle for their rights!” (Paris Talks 50.14: 171). Men, Vasu said, must change their concept of knowledge and responsibilities. At times they must step forward and uphold the equality of women. At other times they must step backward and let women grow. Vasu referred to what Shoghi Effendi says about eliminating racial inequalities, which can also be used in eliminating gender inequalities; for both, it requires “genuine love, extreme patience, true humility, consummate tact, sound initiative, mature wisdom, and deliberate, persistent, and prayerful effort” (The Advent of Divine Justice 40). “Think,” Vasu said, “how such qualities will affect violence in the home.” 5 Women Will Be the Greatest Factor in Establishing Universal Peace and International Arbitration. For his fifth revolutionary teaching, Vasu turned again to a statement by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: “when women participate full and equally in the affairs of the world . . . war will cease” (The Promulgation of Universal Peace 134). This is a principle, Vasu noted, that must operate at all levels: family, local, national, and international. Women have different experiences that need to be brought to the table. 6 Chastity. For his sixth revolutionary teaching, Vasu turned to a new standard set by Bahá’u’lláh: “Let your eye be chaste” (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh 138). This, Vasu noted, is an “important social change.” Bahá’u’lláh sweeps away society’s treating women as sexual objects, as temptresses of men, not as spiritual beings. In Gleanings 60: 118, He says that, if a man “met the fairest and most comely of women, he would not feel his heart seduced by the least shadow of desire for her beauty.” This sets a new standard for chastity for men. Vasu concluded his talk on six revolutionary teachings on gender equality in the Bahá’í Faith with additional passages from the Bahá’í writings about the essence of woman and men. One, from the writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, comes from The Promulgation of Universal Peace 133:

God has created all mankind, and in the estimation of God there is no distinction as to male and female. The one whose heart is pure is acceptable in His sight, be that one man or woman.

Another one is found the Ridván 2015 letter from the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the world, paragraph 3: “all activity begins with this simple strand of love.” Thus, for taking steps to ensure the equality of women and men, our actions must begin with a “simple strand of love.” After Vasu ended his talk, he entertained a number of questions. One of the listeners emailed the next day to say:

I had the very good fortune of joining the Webinar talk by Vasu Mohan yesterday, and it was truly brilliant; his wisdom and delivery were serious, but not heavy-handed—gracefully wonderful. Clearly, he is very deepened in the Bahá’í sacred writings, and his presence and voice were balanced and moving as a result. Even though I’ve been a Bahá’í for over thirty years, in fact, I came to understand the sacred writings to which he referred more clearly, and it was very difficult to see how anyone could disagree with the Bahá’í standpoint on women’s equality. This is definitely how great teaching should always happen.

To that, the writer of this article can only urge you to listen to the talk yourself. Vasu’s talk was so packed that, even with the length of this article, it was possible to only skim the surface of what he said. Vasu Mohan leads Asia programs at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), where he has been working since 2001. He has supervised programs in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, the Republic of the Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Republic of the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste. He  was responsible for IFES’ Women’s Legal Rights Initiative and Garima Projects in India (2003–11), a program on violence against women and gender equality/women’s empowerment, which focused on expanding the dialogue on women’s rights and legal resources available to women. He has also served in various voluntary capacities related to women’s empowerment including service as Member of the Board of Directors for the Tahirih Justice Center. Mohan is co-author of Gender Equality and Election Management Bodies: A Best Practices Guide and Sehr: A New Dawn Breaks, a book highlighting IFES’ Muslim Women’s Initiative in India (Spring 2016). He is also working on a translation of vignettes of the history of Sri Lanka from Tamil into English. Mohan is fluent in Tamil and Hindi and conversant in Sinhala and Urdu. Here, again, is the link to Vasu’s Web Talk.

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