When Principle and Authority Collide: Baha'i Responses to the Exclusion of Women from the Universal House of Justice

Published as: Karen Bacquet,"When Principle and Authority Collide: Baha'i Responses to the Exclusion of Women from the Universal House of Justice" Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions Volume 9, Number 4, May 2006:34-52 ©2006 by the Regents of the University of California. COPYING AND PERMISSIONS NOTICE: Authorization to copy this content beyond fair use (as specified in Sections 107 and 108 of the U. S. Copyright Law) for internal or personal use, or the internal or personal use of specific clients, is granted by the University of California Press for libraries and other users, provided that they are registered with and pay the specified fee via Rightslink® on CaliberTM, http://caliber.ucpress.net or directly with the Copyright Clearance Center, http://www.copyright.com/.

Abstract: The Baha’i Faith regards the equality of men and women as one of its fundamental tenets, yet excludes women from service on its international governing body, the Universal House of Justice, based on what are believed to be infallible interpretations of Baha’i scripture. This article outlines how the exclusion developed, and describes challenges from liberal Baha’i scholars, as well as the response to these challenges from the administration and rank-and-file adherents. It demonstrates that, when confronted with a contradiction between a basic principle upheld by religious teaching and loyalty to authority, the Baha’i administration and the majority of adherents have chosen the latter.

The Baha’i Faith is well-known for including several liberal social principles as part of its basic religious outlook, including gender equality. Not only is the equality of men and women explicitly advocated in Baha’i scripture, it is also commonly referred to in public statements by Baha’i institutions, is a frequent subject of study by Baha’i scholars, and a subject of concern in ordinary consultation in local Baha’i communities. The education and advancement of women is a common target for social service projects in the developing world.[1] Women vote in Baha’i elections, and serve in powerful positions at all levels of the administration.

However, it should also be remembered that the Baha’i Faith is a religion standing squarely within the Abrahamic tradition, based upon texts that are believed to be a revelation from God. While these scriptures promote women’s equality in a way quite remarkable for a religion that began in nineteenth-century Iran as a messianic movement within Shi‘ih Islam, that equality is not absolute. Men and women are occasionally treated differently in Baha’i law, either because of physical differences or based on the assumption of a patriarchal family structure.

While Baha’is profess a strong commitment to the advancement of women, the religion takes a strongly quietist stance on political activity, which discourages participation in secular women’s movements. Baha’i writers on the subject have noted that Baha’i discussions of gender issues tend to lag behind feminist explorations, and can seem “naive, . . . if not childish” by comparison. [2] Moreover, Baha’is tend to have conservative views on sexual morality, since Baha’i law limits sexual expression to heterosexual marriage, and generally disapprove of abortion, although they avoid the political “pro-life” label.

The importance of women’s equality is also often framed in terms of the millennialist belief that in the new era inaugurated by the Baha’i revelation, stereotypically “feminine” qualities, such as compassion and nurturing, will be more highly valued, and the advancement of women is thought to be directly tied to the Baha’i hope for world peace.[3]

The most glaring inconsistency between the broader principle of gender equality and Baha’i practice is that women are not allowed to serve on the religion’s highest governing body, the Universal House of Justice (UHJ), which is elected every five years and has its seat in Haifa, Israel. Women are among the electors, which consist of the world’s National Spiritual Assemblies (NSAs), the elected bodies that govern the affairs of Baha’i communities in individual countries, but they are not considered eligible for election themselves, based on the authoritative interpretations of Baha’i scripture.

This exclusion tends to be downplayed in public presentations, so that it is not uncommon for converts to discover it only after joining the community. Indeed it is fairly typical for Baha’is to deny that the exclusion is even relevant to their religion’s stand on gender equality. However, as became very evident with the expansion of the Internet in the 1990s, not all adherents are quite so sanguine concerning this conflict between principle and practice in their religion.

The issue as to whether or not the exclusion of women from service on the UHJ can be changed, or is an unalterable feature of Baha’i governance was a perennial topic of debate throughout the 1990s and a touchstone issue dividing liberals from conservatives in the clashes over scriptural interpretation raging in Baha’i cyberspace. Indeed, because it has been debated over a period of years, by a wide variety of posters, it becomes a useful lens through which this conflict can be examined. It touches on concerns about authority within the religion and challenges presented to popular Baha’i beliefs from the academic examination of its history.

When faced with the contradiction inherent in believing in gender equality as an article of faith while excluding women from its highest governing body, the majority of adherents have chosen loyalty to authority over adherence to the broader principle. Liberal attempts to reconcile the two through the examination of how the exclusion evolved have been rejected, and are viewed as an attempt to undermine the religion itself. The most articulate proponents for women’s full equality have been sanctioned, or threatened with sanctions in an effort to marginalize or stigmatize discussion about the possibility of reform. While official statements from the administration actively promote the ideal of equality in the world at large, Baha’i women themselves are not only excluded from the top of the hierarchy, but are also expected to remain content with the exclusion.

Fundamentalism and Liberalism in the Baha’i Community

The mix of progressive and authoritarian teaching in Baha’i scripture has resulted in a parallel tension between Baha’is who emphasize one aspect over the other since the earliest days of the Baha’i Faith in the West. Peter Smith notes divisions between those who saw the Baha’i Faith as an inclusive movement that embodied “the spirit of the age”, and those who took a more authoritarian attitude on doctrine, in the first decade of the twentieth century. The early liberals were lukewarm towards, and at times openly opposed, the development of Baha’i administration, and there were some short-lived attempts, such as Ahmad Sohrab’s New History Society in the 1930s, to create a more inclusive, less structured alternatives to the Baha’i mainstream.[4]

Several authors have commented on fundamentalist tendencies in the Baha’i community, marked by concern with doctrinal conformity and submission to a divinely-guided, infallible leadership as a key part of religious identity.[5] Baha’i liberalism has not yet been as well described, but its features include a greater tolerance for diversity of thought and a less deferential attitude towards religious authority, with a Baha’i identity more strongly rooted in the progressive teachings of the religion. In neither case is there a self-identified faction, but instead liberalism and fundamentalism should be thought of as a collection of definable attitudes and viewpoints. Baha’is tend to avoid, or even disparage, the use of terms like “liberal” or “conservative” to describe these perspectives, seeing them as divisive. However, liberal intellectual writers and publishers, who by the late 1980s were regarded as a distinct dissident group by the administration, have received an enthusiastic response from some Baha’is, while being vigorously attacked by others, indicating some differences in mentality among adherents.

There has been no serious attempt, in the current generation, to create an alternative organization, or even a cohesive liberal movement, with most efforts focused simply on the circulation of ideas. Baha’i liberals, in common with their more conservative co-religionists, have a strong aversion for the creation of a schism in the religion. When confronted by disapproving Baha’i officials, they have either ceased, or greatly moderated, the expression of their views, or have resigned their membership in the Baha’i Faith. Some of those who resigned have maintained their personal faith as unenrolled Baha’is. [6]

Significant areas of tension, besides women’s exclusion from the UHJ, include the scope and meaning of infallibility when applied to Baha’i authorities, scriptural literalism opposed to academic methods when applied to Baha’i history and scripture, Baha’i teachings on church and state, freedom of expression and its limits within the Faith, and tolerance of homosexuality in the community.

Historical Context for Women’s Exclusion

The Baha’i Faith was founded in the nineteenth century by the Iranian nobleman, Mirza Husayn ‘Ali Baha’u’llah (1817-1892). He had been part of the millenarian Babi movement, established by Siyyid ‘Ali Muhammad (1819-1850), known in the West as the Bab, meaning “gate”. This young merchant from the southern Persian city of Shiraz proclaimed himself the Qa’im, the messianic figure expected by Shi‘ih Islam. In 1850, the Bab was executed and thousands of his followers were massacred, driving the remainder of his followers underground. Baha’u’llah was imprisoned, then sent into exile, where he claimed to be the “Manifestation of God” promised to appear after the Bab, and transformed the radical sect into a religion based on principles of racial and religious tolerance and peace.

In his will, Baha’u’llah appointed his eldest surviving son, ‘Abdu’l-Baha (1892-1921) as the leader of the Faith and authorized interpreter of his writings. In turn, ‘Abdu’l-Baha appointed his eldest grandson Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (1921-1957) as Guardian, a hereditary position granted executive power and the authority to interpret scripture. Since he died childless and without appointing a successor, no further authorized interpretations are possible, and it is largely his vision that has shaped the Baha’i Faith as we know it today. While Baha’u’llah’s writings provide for the religion to be governed by consultative bodies he called “Houses of Justice”, the organization of the administration took place over a long period of time, most markedly during Shoghi Effendi’s ministry, and the Universal House of Justice was not elected until 1963.

While only the writings of Baha’u’llah are considered to be divine revelation, the interpretations of his successors ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi, while theoretically holding a different “station”, are given virtually equal weight as far as Baha’i belief and practice are concerned. This position that each of these successors held as infallible interpreters is part of the doctrine that Baha’is call “the Covenant”. That is, the belief that turning to, and accepting the authority of the successive heads of their religion is an essential element in maintaining its unity, and opposing that authority, or turning to an alternative, is the worst spiritual crime that a Baha’i can commit, a violation that can be punished with excommunication and shunning.[7] Most Baha’is also believe that the UHJ is divinely guided in its decisions, so that open criticism or opposition to any policy is seen as impermissible, and can provoke extremely hostile reactions.

The interpretations of Baha’i scripture that disallow women’s service on the Universal House of Justice are based upon Baha’u’llah’s use of the Arabic word rijal, meaning “men”, to describe its membership. However, this term is not quite as clear as it might first appear, since in Persian usage, the word can also be used to refer to notables or prominent people, regardless of gender.[8]

Another aspect is that Baha’u’llah refers to the members of the plural “Houses of Justice”, i.e. the local governing bodies, as rijal as well, and current Baha’i practice is that women are eligible to serve on them. In fact, Baha’u’llah specifically states that in this age “the maidservants of God are accounted as men”, with rijal being the term used there. He calls upon his female followers to “arise in a masculine way” to serve his religion, essentially equating masculinity with such qualities of character as courage, steadfastness, and knowledge. [9] In any case, Baha’u’llah makes no direct command to limit the membership of the Houses of Justice to men, only, at most, an assumption that members would be men. In the nineteenth century Middle East there were very few educated women who would be prepared for service on such a body, and mixed-gender meetings would have been considered immoral. In fact, women in Iran were not given permission to serve on local and national spiritual assemblies until 1954, forty years later than their Western counterparts.

When the Baha’i Faith became established in the U.S. in the 1890s, women served in various offices, but on the instructions of Persian teachers sent by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, the elected governing councils of the larger Baha’i communities became exclusive to men, and women formed their own separate councils and committees. Many Baha’i women were unhappy about this situation, and there was a good deal of tension between these segregated bodies.[10]

In 1902, Corinne True, one of the most prominent of these women, wrote to ‘Abdu’l-Baha, asking him to allow women to serve on the governing board in Chicago. The answer she received remains the key to today’s practice:

Know thou, O handmaid, that in the sight of Baha, women are accounted the same as men, and God hath created all humankind in His own image, and after His own likeness. That is, men and women alike are the revealers of His names and attributes, and from the spiritual viewpoint there is no difference between them. Whosoever draweth nearer to God, that one is the most favoured, whether man or woman. How many a handmaid, ardent and devoted, hath, within the sheltering shade of Baha, proved superior to the men, and surpassed the famous of the earth.

The House of Justice, however, according to the explicit text of the Law of God, is confined to men; this for a wisdom of the Lord God’s, which will erelong be made manifest as clearly as the sun at high noon.

As to you, O ye other handmaids who are enamoured of the heavenly fragrances, arrange ye holy gatherings, and found ye Spiritual Assemblies, for these are the basis for spreading the sweet savours of God, exalting His Word, uplifting the lamp of His grace, promulgating His religion and promoting His Teachings, and what bounty is there greater than this? [11]

Part of the confusion here is that Baha’i terminology for their administrative bodies was still in flux. While “House of Justice” (in Arabic, baytu’l-‘adl) is the term Baha’u’llah used, current Baha’i practice is to name both national and local councils “Spiritual Assemblies”, with “House of Justice” reserved for the internationally-elected center in Haifa. However, in the early American community, elected bodies bore a variety of names like “Board of Counsel” and “House of Spirituality”, and the scriptural term “House of Justice” was avoided, on ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s instructions, for fear it would seem like the Baha’i bodies were claiming governmental authority. Until 1911, “spiritual assembly” could mean virtually any Baha’i gathering, and it was common to refer to the entire local community as an “assembly”. [12] But, for present-day Baha’is, most of whom are unaware of the historical context, ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s letter appears to prohibit the service of women on the Universal House of Justice, and it is generally quoted as a justification for the exclusion.

Corinne True continued to press the issue, and in 1909 received another letter from ‘Abdu’l-Baha’, telling her that women could serve in all capacities except the House, using the Arabic term baytu’l-‘adl-i-‘umumi. The Baha’i administration argues that this is a technical term referring specifically to the Universal House of Justice, and it is used as such in ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament[13], which describes its responsibilities and conditions for its election. However, some Baha’i scholars have pointed out that ‘umumi can also mean “general”, and that the immediate issue concerning Corinne True and the American Baha’i community was the membership of the local elected councils, not a theoretical international institution which did not then exist, and would not be elected for another fifty years. In fact, this second letter names existing committees that ‘Abdu’l-Baha reminds True that women are encouraged to serve on, even if excluded from the “House of Justice.” However, True herself interpreted the letter as applying to only the international body, and again began lobbying for women to be elected, but the Chicago House was reluctant to accept her interpretation or change the policy.[14] The matter was finally resolved during ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to America in 1912, when he called for a mixed-gender council to be elected in Chicago. Baha’i historians continue to debate whether or not this was when he overturned his earlier ruling, or whether he was simply confirming what he said in the 1909 letter, which they believe excluded women from the UHJ only. The official stance of the Baha’i administration is that this second letter simply clarified the 1902 letter, and that neither one were intended to apply to then-termed House of Spirituality in Chicago, but to the international body that would be created in the future. [15]

A few posters have suggested that ‘Abdu’l-Baha, rather than changing his interpretation of the text, he may have decided that these elected committees did not qualify as “Houses of Justice”, and, in fact, he wrote several letters that explicitly distinguish between spiritual assemblies and the body called for in Baha’i scripture, saying that it was not the time to elect the latter. [16] However, ‘Abdu’l-Baha was making this distinction as early as 1901, long before his decision to allow women to be elected, so this is unlikely to have been a factor in his changed ruling. The issue is still ambiguous, however, since he initially referred to the Chicago board as a House of Justice, and Shoghi Effendi would later interpret ‘Abdu’l-Baha as treating the two bodies as “to all intents and purposes, identical”.[17]

‘Abdu’l-Baha seems to have taken a flexible approach to the matter, rather than trying to establish a uniform practice. For example, in 1911, he advised the Kenosha, Wisconsin community to resolve the friction between men and women by electing separate assemblies for each. Later that same year, he told the New York community to expand the membership of its board to twenty-seven and women were elected to it. Some of the smaller communities had never had an all-male board, or did without an elected committee altogether. [18]

The final known reference ‘Abdu’l-Baha makes to the issue is a letter written in Paris in 1913, which enthusiastically describes the “extraordinary privileges” that women will eventually attain to, including their entry into politics, at the same time saying that Baha’u’llah limits the membership of the House of Justice to men.[19] In addition, no Persian original of this letter is available, so there is no way to verify the accuracy of the translation. Even the name of the recipient is unknown.[20]

The position of Shoghi Effendi, however, is clearer. Four separate letters written on his behalf refer to the 1902 letter, interpreting ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s stance as allowing women on all elected and appointive institutions except the Universal House of Justice, and it is these statements that have made the practice normative in the Baha’i community. None of these letters written by his secretaries refer to either the 1909 or 1913 letters, but only to the promise in the 1902 letter that the reason for the exclusion would become “clear as the noonday sun.” [21] Many Baha’is, believing both interpreters to be divinely guided, are disquieted by the idea that Shoghi Effendi may have misinterpreted his grandfather’s intentions, or even that ‘Abdu’l-Baha may have changed his mind between the writing of his letters to Corrine True and his visit to the U.S.

Liberal Challenges and Administrative Responses

In the early 1970s the Baha’i community experienced a large influx of young converts in Western communities, most particularly in the U.S., some of whom were intellectually inclined and chose courses of study related to the Baha’i Faith. This created a class of Baha’i scholars that were trained in more critical methods of analyzing scripture and historical context, which have led them to conclusions that challenge both administrative policies and popular beliefs current in Baha’i culture. Many of them, in common with their non-Baha’i “Baby Boom” peers, have a keen interest in social issues, including gender equality.

At the 1988 Baha’i Studies conference in New Zealand, a group of these young intellectuals presented a paper titled “The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha’i Faith” which argues that . . .since this instruction of the Guardian [that is, the exclusion] is tied so closely to the meaning of the one Tablet of ‘Abdu’l-Baha which promises that the wisdom of the exclusion of women will become manifest in the future, and since it is known that the meaning of the Tablet was that women should be excluded only temporarily from the Chicago House, the assumption that women will be permanently excluded from the current Universal House of Justice may be a faulty one. A temporary exclusion may be intended. [22]

Many of the authors of the “Service of Women” paper were associated with the controversial and short-lived magazine dialogue, which shut down that same year in response to the administration’s hostility. [23] The UHJ wrote a letter to the New Zealand NSA officially ruling that the exclusion of women cannot be overturned and that “the ineligibility of women for membership of the Universal House of Justice does not constitute evidence of the superiority of men over women.” [24] The paper was not published until the rise of the Internet in the 1990s, where it, or the ideas behind it, have had a measurable impact on the attitudes of many Baha’i participants in cyberspace forums. As we shall see, a significant minority are uncomfortable with the exclusion, so at variance with their ideals of gender equality, and some can be readily persuaded to the view that it can be overturned, once they are exposed to it.

The rise of the Internet in the 1990s brought Baha’is together to discuss issues in a more direct way than had ever been possible in a print culture that was tightly controlled by the administration. [25] The issue of women’s exclusion from service on the UHJ rapidly became a favorite topic of discussion. Some of the original authors of the “Service of Women” paper were participants on the academic email list, Talisman@indiana.edu, and spirited arguments broke out over what ‘Abdu’l-Baha intended by his letters on the subject.[26] In 1996, six of Talisman’s prominent posters were investigated concerning the opinions they were expressing on the Internet, and the list closed down. While there have been successor lists to the original Talisman, which have kept its intellectual and liberal tone, four of the posters investigated resigned their membership in the Baha’i Faith, and some of the most active posters dropped out of cyberspace.[27]

It should be noted that no institutional action against Baha’i liberals has been solely on the basis of the controversy over women’s exclusion, but rather it should be seen as one of a cluster of issues which are seen by the administration as threatening. In a 1999 letter referring to the crackdown and its aftermath, the UHJ cited the liberal viewpoint on women’s exclusion, along with others that were being most cogently presented on Talisman, as being features of a “campaign of internal opposition to the Teachings” taking place on the Internet:

The effort, rather, has been to sow the seeds of doubt among believers about the Faith's teachings and institutions by appealing to unexamined prejudices that Baha'is may have unconsciously absorbed from non-Baha’i society. In defiance of the clear interpretation of ‘Abdu’l-Baha and the Guardian, for example, Baha'u'llah's limiting of membership on the Universal House of Justice to men is misrepresented as merely a “temporary measure” subject to eventual revision if sufficient pressure is brought to bear.[28]

There is no evidence to support the House’s belief that Baha’i liberals, no matter how openly critical in online discussions, are engaged in any sort of campaign to “pressure” the institutions into changing the policy i.e. through petitions and/or organized protest. Nor is there evidence of deliberate “misrepresentation” on the part of Baha’i historians, who have advanced the theory that ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s letters excluding women were intended to apply temporarily to the local situation. What has happened is that the previously-suppressed “Service of Women” paper has become publicly available and the idea that the exclusion need not be permanent has spread beyond an initially narrow circle of intellectuals and scholars.

It is also noteworthy here that the UHJ characterizes objection to the exclusion of women from its ranks as an “unexamined prejudice” i.e., if the non-Baha’i world sees this as a form of discrimination, then that is where the bias lay, rather than in the Baha’i practice. It is fairly common, in its letters, for the UHJ to critique contemporary social attitudes in this way, contrasting them unfavorably with the Baha’i system.

Many denominations that deny women full access to authority roles claim that they support gender equality, but that the differences between the sexes justify exclusion.[29] The attitude of the Baha’i administration bears a striking resemblance to that of the Roman Catholic Church’s position on the exclusion of women from the priesthood: Both religions claim that the leadership is not authorized to change the exclusion, that it was intended by the founder and cannot be attributed to historical circumstances. Both deny that the practice is discriminatory, and insist that all faithful adherents must accept it.[30]

Mark Chaves theorizes that denominations that refuse to ordain women are making a statement that they will not be influenced by the changing standards of the wider society. [31] To some degree, this is true of the Baha’i institutions which, as in the quote above, are concerned about the influence of outside ideas on adherents, and anxiety about the possibility of internal lobbying for reform. However, unlike Christian fundamentalist groups, for whom the refusal to ordain women is symbolic of an overall anti-modernist identity, the Baha’i Faith perceives itself as being largely compatible with, or even in advance of, the progressive ideas of the modern age. The refusal to reconsider the exclusion is a message aimed entirely towards adherents, that it is an irrevocable part of Baha‘i scripture and that any attempt to change it would be an action against the Covenant, and therefore, intolerable.

A more direct tie between the issue of women’s exclusion and punitive action by the UHJ can be found in the case of Michael McKenny, a Canadian fantasy writer and Baha’i of twenty-five years standing who was summarily removed from the membership rolls in 1997. According to his own account, McKenny initially came to Talisman in early 1996 looking for translations of some of Baha’u’llah’s mystical works. A Talisman member sent him a copy of the Service of Women paper, an event he describes as “staggering” in its impact. Not only did McKenny find its arguments convincing, but he was shocked that the paper had been censored and that the UHJ refused to reconsider the policy. He became an active poster on the successor lists to Talisman, with both the exclusion of women and the religion’s censorship system being his main concerns.

Beginning in January 1997, a Baha’i official engaged McKenny in a detailed correspondence with him about his views, and also met with him personally concerning his activities in cyberspace. [32] McKenny took her advice to write to the House about his concerns, and received a response restating the official position. In the meantime, he continued to post his opinions on several forums. On July 25, 1997, he received a terse note from the Canadian NSA stating that the UHJ had decided that he did not meet the requirements for membership, and that his name had been removed from the rolls.[33] This penalty was a somewhat shocking innovation, since up until that time most Baha’is believed that members could only be removed from the rolls by writing a letter of resignation explicitly renouncing belief in Baha’u’llah.

In September, McKenny’s wife, Catherine Woodgold, wrote the House of Justice expressing her outrage over how his case had been handled. The UHJ’s response did not refer directly to the issue of women’s exclusion, but described his transgression as “challenging the institutional authority that is an integral part of the Faith one professes to have accepted”.[34] But since his “challenge” was based largely on his views concerning gender equality, the two can be regarded as inextricable.

Opposition to women’s exclusion was also an issue in the New Zealand NSA’s investigation of Alison Marshall. Marshall is a Baha’i poet and mystic who, like McKenny, became an active Internet poster in the wake of the Talisman crackdown. She also was judged by the UHJ as not meeting the requirements for Baha’i membership, and was dropped from the rolls without warning in March 2000. In the NSA minutes concerning her, it was noted that, among other concerns, she “had problems in accepting such things as the infallibility of the House, and the absence of women on the House”. [35] It appears that the UHJ and the NSA were conducting separate investigations into Marshall’s beliefs and activities, and it is difficult to tie her disenrollment directly to the exclusion issue, or indeed, any specific issue other than general lack of faith in the administration, it is clear that at the national level, at least, her support of women’s full equality was among the reasons she was investigated.

Baha’is have been, in certain instances, able to articulate views that differ from Baha’i scripture, such as belief in astrology or reincarnation, with little interference from the administration. The issues of infallibility and women’s exclusion are sensitive because liberal arguments are seen as undermining the authority of the UHJ and Shoghi Effendi. The “internal opposition” has also been condemned for imposing “dogmatic materialism” on the study of the Faith and advancing the idea that Baha’u’llah taught the separation of church and state.[36]

Rank-and-File Response

While the administration insists that the exclusion of women from the UHJ is clearly rooted in Baha’i scripture and therefore unalterable, attitudes among rank-and-file Baha’is vary. In an informal survey, I categorized the posts, dated 1992-2002, of 256 Baha’i posters discussing the exclusion issue, on eleven Internet forums, being careful to exclude participants who did not have a Baha’i identity. I also exclude pseudonymous posters, except when I knew the person’s real identity, or the name had been used consistently over a period of time. Because the survey consists only of Baha’i Internet users, it may not represent the Baha’i community as a whole but will be somewhat skewed towards Baha’is who had access to online forums in the early years of cyberspace, and towards those who felt strongly enough about the issue of women’s exclusion to participate in these discussions.

The posts were sorted into the following groups: “Fundamentalist/hostile”, which were those that said those who didn’t accept the exclusion could not be Baha’is, or which demonstrated hostility to the topic being debated. “Conservative/positive” responses were those that accepted the exclusion, but took a positive, optimistic attitude about it. Posts that expressed regret over the exclusion, but could not see how it could be changed were called “moderate/resigned”. “Liberal/reformist” posts rejected the official stance that the exclusion is permanent, leaving it in the hands of the UHJ to decide when it would be lifted. “Dissident/critical” posts openly criticized the UHJ for refusing to change the exclusion. The survey results were as follows:

Fundamentalist/Hostile: 26%
Conservative/Positive: 52%
Moderate/Resigned: 24.5%
Liberal/Reformist 17.7%
Dissident/Critical 6.4%

The numbers exceed 100% because roughly a third of the posters made more than one type of response.

Michael McMullen, in his study of the Atlanta Baha’i community, found attitudes that correspond roughly to those I have called “moderate” and “conservative” responses to women’s exclusion. That is, he notes the discomfort that many Baha’is feel about the contradiction between principle and practice, and a willingness on the part of most Baha’is to accept the policy on faith. He also found, as I did, a tendency to emphasize the positive aspects of Baha’i teaching on gender equality, and to come up with rationalizations for the exclusion. Interestingly, he found a slight tendency for Baha’i women to be somewhat more negative about administrative authority, speculating that this might be related to the tension between ideal and reality on gender equality.[37] He does not mention Baha’is holding opinions that correspond to my other categories, suggesting that the Internet environment either creates, or provides a platform for, ideas and attitudes that do not usually find expression within the Baha’i community.

In my survey, open dissidence or criticism of the current policy is relatively rare, with slightly over 6% of the posters responding to the exclusion in that way. Nearly all Baha’is accept the UHJ’s authority to make the final decision on the matter, even if the exclusion makes them uncomfortable, or they believe it can be changed at some point. I found that a quarter of them took the moderate stand of regretting that the exclusion was in place, even though they didn’t see how any change could be made while remaining consistent with Baha’i beliefs concerning authority. A few posters in this category were deeply conflicted over the issue, even to the point of considering resignation of their Baha’i membership; others didn’t attach much importance to it at all, and were unwilling to allow a single policy to undermine their faith in the religion.

Over 17% of the posters in my study rejected the official position that women can never be elected to the UHJ, expressing the hope that in the future the exclusion can be overturned. While some liberals will simply argue from the perspective of “natural justice”, or the harm that the contradiction between principle and practice does to the Baha’i community and its potential for growth, the major arguments for allowing women to serve appeal to recognized Baha’i principles and sources of authority. First among these are the multitude of statements by Baha’u’llah, and especially, ‘Abdu’l-Baha concerning the necessity and inevitability of women’s advancement. In dealing with his letters that exclude women from service, liberals argue that, although he initially excluded them from local councils, he later reversed his decision; therefore the exclusion must have been a temporary measure that was abandoned as soon as the time was ripe. This principle of the gradual application of Baha’i law is well-understood within the Baha’i community; there are yet laws that exist in scripture that are believed to be for a future time, when the community is ready for them, that are either put into practice only among Iranian Baha’is, or not at all. [38] In the case of the exclusion, of course, there is no specific law allowing women to serve on the UHJ, only the general promise of their full equality.

Other liberal arguments rest on the confusing and contradictory nature of the authoritative interpretations themselves. Baha’u’llah made no distinction between the local and universal houses of justice as far as their membership was concerned, describing both as rijal, so that if the exclusion were truly based on the sacred text, the current Baha’i practice of allowing women to serve on national and local bodies violates it. ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s written statements contradicted his action in allowing women to be elected in 1912. Shoghi Effendi justified the exclusion at the international level based entirely upon references to ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s 1902 letter, which referred to the local house in Chicago. In light of this confusion, the liberals argue, it is within the purview of the UHJ to legislate a solution, since it is explicitly given authority in scripture to resolve obscure questions relating to Baha’i law. And, since such legislation is not a permanent part of the text, the current stance of the administration could conceivably be overturned by a future UHJ.

The most common response to the exclusion is the one I have termed “conservative/positive“, where posters depict it in a positive light, denying that it contradicts the religion’s teaching on sexual equality. In fact, very often the term “exclusion” is rejected in favor of the more benign word “exemption”, and some compare it with other exemptions women are given under Baha’i law e.g. being excused from fasting during menstruation and pregnancy. For these adherents, the scriptures, authorized interpretations, and administration are divinely inspired, therefore, the policy must, in the long run, be a beneficial one, even if the reasons for it are not evident. They point to the fact the women serve in all other elected and appointed positions, and to various heroines in Baha’i history as proof of the religion’s enlightened viewpoint.

It is also commonly argued that protests about restricting women in this fashion completely misunderstand the nature of Baha’i administration. Being elected to the UHJ is supposed to be a rather burdensome service, not a position of privilege or power, since members are not given authority as individuals, but only as a corporate group. This reflects an idealized view of power relationships within the religion that is found frequently among Baha’is. [39]

Another common reaction from posters in this category was to attempt to explain the exclusion. Such speculations are frequently countered by other posters, who point out that no justification is actually given in scripture, only the promise that the reason would eventually become clear. It is impossible to say exactly how widespread any particular explanation is within the Baha’i community, but they seem to fall into three basic groups: The first, based on the spiritualized view of the House mentioned above, is that since men have been oppressors through the history of mankind, that they now must learn to be its servants -- a lesson they need far more than women do. The second is that the world’s peoples are not yet ready for feminine leadership, and that women themselves will not be prepared for such a position until barriers for their advancement are removed. The final group of explanations focuses on the differences between men and women, insisting that equality of station does not imply that the sexes must play identical roles. Some of these are blatantly sexist, including: a woman’s menstruation periods leave her physically and emotionally unfit; her role as primary caretaker of children takes precedence; that women are, by nature, too “compassionate” to make impartial and just decisions; that women do not have adequate problem-solving skills; or that their sexual attractiveness would be too great a distraction for male members.

About a quarter of the posters reacted to the debate in a defensive, fundamentalist fashion. For the fundamentalist, God has ordained this exclusion, and one cannot “pick and choose” which elements of the Baha’i Faith one finds acceptable, at least, if one wants to become and/or remain a Baha’i. Some demonstrated hostility to the matter even being discussed. While most fundamentalist posters, however hard-line, were polite, some extremists accused their more liberal co-religionists of “attacking the Faith” or of being “covenant-breakers.”


Baha’is respond to the conflict between their religion’s teaching on the equality of the sexes, and the exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice in a variety of ways, but the majority is willing to compromise the broader principle for the sake of upholding beliefs about religious authority. Attempts on the part of liberal adherents to interpret the historical context in a way that would allow for the exclusion to be lifted have been rejected.

Although a significant minority of Baha’is express at least some degree of discomfort with the exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice, the vast majority accept the policy, even if some believe it amenable to change. There is no grassroots movement demanding reform, and indeed, it is difficult to see how one could possibly develop in a community where the simple presentation of historical and scriptural arguments is seen, both by the administration and many adherents as an attack on the religion itself. Any sort of organized protest movement would be considered “covenant-breaking” and result in excommunication, and so Baha’i dissidents remain a loosely-connected group of individuals who share a common perspective. There is no “women’s movement” within the Baha’i Faith comparable to that existing in many other religious groups. In fact, given the importance of sexual equality to Baha’i identity, Baha’i men are as likely to voice objections to the exclusion as Baha’i women.

Overall, one is left with a sense of missed opportunity. The scriptures of the Baha’i Faith explicitly uphold the equality of men and women, and the promotion of this principle is an essential part of Baha’i identity, especially among Western Baha’is. Yet, the exclusion of women from the highest elective office has created a culture of denial, and has even caused some Baha’is to engage in sexist and stereotypic thinking about women in order to explain it. While the Baha’i Faith has a positive role to play, especially among its adherents in the developing world, and it gives women comparatively more power than they have in most religious hierarchies, its potential for progress is hampered by a conservative approach to religious authority and the interpretation of religious texts.


[1] See, for example, “The Advancement of Women,” available at http://www.bahai.org/article-1-8-0-4.html, accessed 8 October 2005*.
[2] Trevor R.J. Finch, “Unclipping the Wings: A Survey of Secondary Literature in English on Baha’i Perspectives on Women,” Baha’i Studies Review 4 (1994): 1, available at http://bahai-library.com/articles/unclipping.wings.html, accessed 8 October 2005. See also Susan S. Maneck, “Women and the Baha’i Faith,” Religion and Women (Albany: SUNY press, 1994) ed. Arvind Sharma, 211-227, alao available at http://women.susanmaneck.com, accessed 8 October 2005.
[3] Universal House of Justice, “The Promise of World Peace,” October 1985, available at < http://bahai-library.org/published.uhj/world.peace.html >, accessed 8 October 2005.
[4] Peter Smith, The Babi & Baha’i Religions: From Messianic Shi‘ism to a World Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 109-114.
[5] The fullest and most recent treatment of Baha’i fundamentalism is Juan R.I. Cole, “Fundamentalism in the Contemporary U.S. Baha’i Community,” Religious Studies Review 43, (March 2002): 195-217, available at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/bahai/2002/fundbhfn.htm, accessed 8 October 2005. However, there are several articles that mention the phenomenon, especially in the context of the problems it poses for the development of Baha’i Studies, e.g., Denis MacEoin, “Baha’i Fundamentalism and the Academic Study of the Babi Movement,” Religion 16 (1986): 57-84; and Moojan Momen, “Fundamentalism and Liberalism: Towards an Understanding of the Dichotomy,” Baha’i Studies Review 2.1 (1992), available at http://bahai-library.com/bsr/bsr02/22_momen_fundamentalism.htm", accessed 8 October 2005.
[6] I should alert the reader here that I have been a Baha’i since 1985, resigning my membership in 1999. I have since then been an active participant on the liberal side of Baha’i debates on the Internet. I continue to maintain my personal faith as an unenrolled Baha’i.
[7] Schismatics are the primary targets of excommunication, or in Baha’i terminology, declared “covenant-breakers”. Baha’is have been declared covenant-breakers for other reasons, however, such as refusing to shun relatives that have been excommunicated. See Moojan Momen, “The Covenant,” available at http://bahai-library.org/encyclopedia/covenant.html, accessed 8 October 2005.
[8] The argument that the Persian usage of rijal includes women has been recently used by Iranian women who claim they have the right to run for the presidency under that country’s current constitution. See “New Times on Iran’s Constitution,” Indiana Student News (29 September 2000), available at http://idsnews.com/story.php?id=776, accessed 8 October 2005.
[9] A more thorough examination of Baha’u’llah’s thinking on gender issues can be found in Juan R.I. Cole, Modernity and the Millennium: The Genesis of the Baha’i Faith in the Nineteenth Century Middle East (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 163-187.
[10] Robert H. Stockman, The Baha’i Faith in America: Early Expansion 1900-1912, (Oxford: George Ronald, 1995), 46-63. See also Anthony A. Lee, Peggy Caton, Richard Hollinger, Marjan Nirou, Nader Saiedi, Shahin Carrigan, Jackson Armstrong-Ingram, and Juan R.I. Cole, “The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha’i Faith,” Unpublished typescript, 1988, available at http://www.h-net.org/~bahai/docs/vol3/wmnuhj.htm, accessed 8 October 2005.
[11]Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, ( Haifa: Baha’i World Center, 1978), 79-80
[12] Stockman, The Baha’i Faith in America, 394-396.
[13] A rejection of the argument that the Chicago House is referred to in the 1909 letter is referred to in a Research Department memorandum to the Universal House of Justice, “Translation of “Umumi’ in the Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Baha,” 30 March 1997, available at http://bahai-library.com/uhj/umumi.html, accessed 8 October 2005.
[14] Robert Stockman, “Notes on the Thornton Chase papers 1910-1912,” n.d., available at http://bahai-library.com/resources/chase.papers/ch.1910-12.html, accessed 8 October 2005.
[15] Universal House of Justice, “Translation of “Umumi’ in the Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’.” For a more general rejection of the argument that Baha’i texts allow for women’s exclusion to be overturned, see “Letter to the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of New Zealand,” 31 May 1988, available at http://bahai-library.com/uhj/women.uhj.html, accessed 8 October 2005.
[16] For example, see ‘Abdu’l-Baha, “Letter to the Spiritual Assembly of Kenosha, Wisconsin,” 4 March 1911, and “Letter to Albert Windlust,” 23 October 1913. Both of these unpublished letters are available from the Baha’i National Archives, Wilmette, Illinois.
[17] Shoghi Effendi, World Order of Baha'u'llah, (Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1938), 6.
[18] Stockman, Baha’i Faith in America,338-339.
[19]‘Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks (Wilmette: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1972), 181-184, available at http://www.ibibio.org/Bahai/Texts/EN/PT/PT-59.html
[20]Sen McGlinn “PT - Example of unauthentic text,” posted to talisman9@yahoogroups.com, 16 September 2003. McGlinn argues that the translation of this letter is misleading.
[21] Lee, et. al., “The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha’i Faith.”
[22] Lee, et. al., “The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha’i Faith.”
[23] A brief outline of the dialogue incident is described in Karen Bacquet “Enemies Within: Conflict and Control in the Baha’i Community,” Cultic Studies Journal18 (2001):140-171.
[24] Universal House of Justice, “Letter to the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of New Zealand”.
[25] All written material, including academic work, published by members of the Baha’i Faith about their religion must be submitted to “pre-publication review” at the national level on pain of sanction, although there have been occasions when the UHJ itself has intervened to prevent publication, or has insisted that material be altered.
[26] A partial archive of Talisman@indiana.edu is available at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/tarc1196.htm
[27] The investigation was carried out from Feb-July 1996 by Counsellor Stephen Birkland, and in letters, cited below, written to two of those investigated made it clear his actions were with the knowledge and approval of the UHJ. A “Counsellor” is the highest appointed official in the Baha'i administrative hierarchy, responsible for the “protection and propagation” of the religion. They are directed by the International Teaching Center (ITC) in Haifa, and appointed by the UHJ. Birkland is a member of the Continental Board of Counsellors in the Americas.
All six people investigated are named in K. Paul Johnson, “Baha'i Leaders Vexed by Online Critics,” Gnosis (Winter 1997), available at http://bahai-library.com/newspapers/gnosis.talisman.html
The targets of the investigation were:

Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, resigned his membership in the Baha'i Faith publicly on May 4, 1996. One of several accounts of his interview with Birkland is “Re: Mazindarani and the Interrogation,” posted to Talisman@umich.edu, 12 June 1998, available at http://www.fglaysher.com/bahaicensorship/Cole10.htm, accessed 8 October 2005.

David Langness, a publicist for Los Angeles-area hospitals, had been sanctioned by the U.S. NSA on April 24, with the loss of his administrative rights over an email post he had made on Talisman. Shortly thereafter, Birkland told Langness over the phone that the ITC announced that he had “said things contrary to the Covenant”. His account can be found in “Rights”, posted to Talisman@indiana.edu, 17 May 1996; this email post refers to a meeting with Birkland that was to take place that day. Langness remains a member of the Baha'i Faith, although the sanctions imposed upon him severely limit what Baha’i activities he may participate in.#

Anthony Lee, co-founder and co-owner of Kalimat Press, remains a Baha'i in good standing. A reference to his meeting with Birkland and Auxiliary Board member Pierre-Yves Mocquais in May 1996 can be found at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/bahai/2002/fulltext.htm

Steven Scholl, publisher and owner of White Cloud Press in Ashland, Oregon, would only agree to meet with Birkland if the conversation was tape recorded. Birkland’s response to him can be found at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/bahai/1999/bhcouns2.htm Scholl resigned his membership in 1996.

John Walbridge is a Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of Indiana; he was the listowner of Talisman@indiana.edu. Birkland interviewed Walbridge in February 1996, and the Counsellor’s letter to him can be found at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/bahai/bhcouns.htm He resigned his membership in the Baha’i Faith two years after the Talisman investigation.

Linda Walbridge was an anthropologist specializing in Islam; she refused to meet with Birkland, but her response to the investigation can be found in Rifkin, Ira “Critics Chafe at Baha’i Conservatism,” Religion News Service (1997), available at http://bahai-library.com/newspapers/chafe.html Linda Walbridge resigned her membership in May 1996, eventually returning to the Roman Catholic Church; she died in December 2002.

[28]Universal House of Justice, “Letter to National Spiritual Assemblies,” 7 April 1999, available at http://bahai-library.com/compilations/issues.scholarship.html, accessed 8 October 2005.
[29] Mark Chaves, Ordaining Women: Culture and Conflict in Religious Organizations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 2-3.
[30] Kelly A. Raab, When Women Become Priests, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 29-31.
[31] Chaves,Ordaining Women 91-101.
[32] Michael McKenny, “Re: One Area in Which Liberty is Limited in the Baha’i Community,” posted to talk.religion.bahai 25 July 1999, available at http://www.fglaysher.com/bahaicensorship/Mckenny17.htm, accessed 11 October 2005.
[33] “Documents Related to the Expulsion by the Universal House of Justice of Michael McKenny from the Baha’i Faith 25 July 1997,” available at http://www.h-net.org/~bahai/docs/vol3/mckenny.htm, accessed 11 October 2005.
[34] Universal House of Justice, “Letter to Catherine Woodgold,” 24 September 1997, available in “Documents”, cited above.
[35] A chronology of the events leading up to Alison Marshall’s disenrollment can be found on her website at http://www.whoisbahaullah.com/Alison/chron.html;other documents pertaining to her case can be found at http://whoisbahaullah.com/Alison/expulsion.html, accessed 11 October 2005.
[36] Universal House of Justice, “Letter to National Spiritual Assemblies.”
[37] Michael, McMullen, The Baha’i: The Religious Construction of a Global Identity, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 58-71. It should be noted here that McMullen did not include questions about women’s exclusion in his detailed survey of the Atlanta community. What is included in his book are impressions gained from interviews. However, he does have interesting data concerning attitudes about administrative authority: Nearly 87% of his respondents either “agree” or “strongly agree” that they submit to administrative authority, even when they disagree, and over 63% either “disagree” or “strongly disagree” that individuals should have a great deal of latitude in following UHJ decisions. While this accords with my observations, McMullen’s survey also suggests the presence of a significant minority within the Baha’i community that is either ambivalent or negative towards placing administrative directives over personal conscience.
[38] In the past decade, for example, two laws, that of Huquq’u’llah, a religious tax on capital gains, and the devotional requirement to recite Allah’u’abha (God is Most Glorious) 95 times daily became binding on the entire Baha’i community for the first time, through an announcement by the UHJ.
[39] A discussion of the politics involved in Baha’i elections can be found in Juan R.I. Cole, “The Baha’i Faith as Panopticon,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37 (June 1998):234-248, available at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/bahai/1999/jssr/bhjssr.htm

*In early discussions of this paper, there was confusion over the late, and very similar access dates given for webpages in the endnotes. These access dates reflect a final check on the availability of these pages prior to publication, not the time of my original research, which was mostly in late 2002-2003. khb

#Since this writing, David Langness has recovered his administrative rights, and is now a Baha'i in good standing. khb

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