Read over any introductory book or pamphlet about the Baha'i Faith, and there, listed among the basic social principles, will almost certainly be "the equality of men and women". This progressive belief is almost unique in the world's religions, inasmuch as it is scripturally based and not due to more "secular" political influences. Baha'u'llah, the prophet-founder of the Baha'i Faith, plainly said that in his religion "women are as men."
What the public generally doesn't know, and converts often do not discover until after they have enrolled, is that women are excluded from serving on the religion's highest governing body, the Universal House of Justice, which has its seat in Haifa, Israel.
To be fair, compared to almost any other religion with a hierarchical governing structure, women hold a good deal of power, especially in Western communities. Women vote, and are elected to both local and national bodies, called Spiritual Assemblies. They also serve on appointed positions at all levels. It would be unfair to characterize Baha'i policy as intolerably sexist or oppressive of women.
But it is not equality.
Anecdotal evidence would suggest, that in the West at least, most Baha'is are not particularly happy about this. However, the vast majority believe that the exclusion of women from the House is impossible to change, since that provision occurs in the "authorized interpretations" of Baha'i scripture. However, Baha'i scholars have cast doubt on the absolute nature of this exclusion for more than a decade, and some Baha'i liberals call openly for its abandonment.
In order to understand the nature of the controversy, a small lesson in Baha'i doctrine and history is necessary: Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i Faith, is believed by Baha'is to be the bearer of a divine revelation. As part of this revelation, in his Will (called the Book of the Covenant), he appoints his oldest son, 'Abdu'l-Baha, as leader of the faith and interpreter of his writings. By giving his religion a single authoritative center, Baha'u'llah intended to protect it from division. 'Abdu'l-Baha led the new faith from 1892 until his death in 1921, and in his own Will & Testament appoints his eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, Guardian of the Baha'i Faith, a position which was given interpretive authority. When Shoghi Effendi died in 1957, he had no children, and all his relatives had been excommunicated, so there could be no further authorized interpretations of Baha'i scripture. A great deal of current-day Baha'i belief and practice is based upon the interpretations he provided.
One of these interpretations concerns the service of women on the religion's highest elected institution. Shoghi Effendi explained that, while women could serve in all other capacities, they were excluded from the Universal House of Justice. To support this, he quoted from a letter written by his grandfather 'Abdu'l-Baha, which said that Baha'u'llah referred to the members of the House of Justice as "men", and that women were therefore not eligible to serve. To many Baha'is, this exclusion cannot be changed any more than a Christian could remove an inconvenient passage from the Bible.
In 1988, a paper called "The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha'i Faith" was written by a group of young Baha'i scholars and presented to an Association for Baha'i Studies conference in New Zealand that same year. However, Baha'i authorities suppressed the article, and its authors were forbidden to circulate it, and few were aware of it until it was published on the web in the mid-90s. What this paper revealed was that the letter Shoghi Effendi quoted, and used as a justification for excluding women from the Universal House of Justice was actually written to an early American believer in 1909 and referred to the "House of Justice" (now Spiritual Assembly)in Chicago. The intention of this exclusion, made at a time when most American women didn't have the right to vote even in ordinary governmental elections, was probably to avoid undue controversy. It is a principle of the Baha'i Faith to apply its laws and teachings gradually and "wisely". There are still laws which exist in Baha'i scripture that are not yet applicable world-wide.
However, 'Abdu'l-Baha later reversed the policy of exclusion, giving women the equal status on local and national assemblies that they now enjoy.
Besides bringing up the historical context for the letter used to justify women's exclusion, the "Service of Women" paper points out that while Baha'u'llah refers to the members of the "House of Justice" as men, he also does so when referring to the plural. A reference to "houses of justice" could only mean the local bodies, so that if he intended to exclude women from serving, this would have meant at all levels. It should also be pointed out that the term used for "men" in Arabic, can also be used to mean "notables".
Instead of welcoming the possibility of resolving a clear conflict between principle and practice in the Baha'i Faith, the Universal House of Justice reacted by suppressing and denying this information. In fact, openly opposing the official stance on this issue can result in retaliation by Baha'i institutions. In 1997,Canadian fantasy writer Michael McKenny was summarily disenrolled, primarily for his outspokenness on email forums for women's full inclusion in Baha'i administration. In fact, this was the first time the penalty of disenrollment had ever been used, and it was apparently specifically devised to deal with dissidents on the Internet.(For the story of another case of disenrollment see my article Baha'i Faith Expels New Zealand Poet".)
A good discussion of gender issues in the Baha'i Faith is found in a chapter of "Modernity and the Millennium" by Juan R.I. Cole. This book, denounced by the Baha'i establishment, is a fine academic study of the early Baha'i Faith, and can be ordered through Amazon
The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha'i Faith
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