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Women and the Universal House of Justice

by Romane Takkenberg

Appeared: 09/21/2007

Editor's note: It seems odd to many people that although Bahá'u'lláh taught that women and men are completely equal, He restricted membership on the Universal House of Justice to men. The reasons for this have been much debated in the Bahá'í community. In this article, Romane Takkenberg offers his thoughts on the subject as a contribution to that discussion. He wishes us to point out that they are no more than the thoughts of one individual and are in no way authoritative.

It is an accepted fact of the Revelation of the Ancient Beauty that women are not eligible to be members of the Universal House of Justice. There has been, over the years, considerable discussion on this matter, with those opposed to the concept wielding vigourous argument and, in some cases, allowing their opposing view to becloud their vision and obscure their recognition of the Blessed Beauty, Bahá'u'lláh.

It makes no difference whether one is accepting or non-accepting of this, or of any Law of God. It being a fact, discussion should focus upon the reasons why, not upon the personal opinions that support or deny the Law, nor upon the emotionally loaded convictions of equality, superiority or other false and man-made conceptualisations. It is not ours to foist upon the Cause of God our personalities and outlooks, but to, with radiant and humble acquiescence, allow the principles and outlooks demanded by this infinitely progressing Cause to permeate our beings, that we may become "as a lamp shining throughout Thy lands that those in whose hearts the light of Thy knowledge gloweth and the yearning for Thy love lingereth may be guided by its radiance." (Bahá'u'lláh , Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 152). The wealth of textual Writings and elucidations that has been bequeathed to us in this Mighty Revelation of the One True God should be sufficient to all who wish to explore further, for we may be certain that God would not place within our reach a mystery to which he does not also place within our reach the answer, and in this mystery we have been given explicit assurance that the reason "will erelong be made manifest as clearly as the sun at high noon." ('Abdu'l-Bahá , Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 80)

It is the wish of this writer to here attempt an exploration of but one or two tiny perspectives that may explain the reason for this injunction that the Universal House of Justice membership is confined to men. There is no claim made to correctness nor to validity; it is offered with the hope that minds better suited to uncovering the jewels in the Sacred Mine of inner meaning expressed through the Pen of the Most High, may find in it a leaping point to their own musings that will, for the betterment of society, demonstrate and fulfill the promise of the Master's statement, which is repeated again here : that it is the "wisdom of the Lord God's which will erelong be made manifest as clearly as the sun at high noon".

In the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, we read:

"O ye Men of Justice! Be ye, in the realm of God, shepherds unto His sheep and guard them from the ravening wolves that have appeared in disguise, even as ye would guard your own sons." (Bahá'u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas, para. 52, p. 38)

There is in this sentence a clear and explicit reference to a condition of conflict. It does not matter that this may not be (though in certain circumstances in the future it may be) physical conflict. The imagery implicit in this statement, to this writer, is reminiscent of the "more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind" ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era, p. 156) of the male of this species.

Elsewhere, The Master states:

"But there are certain matters, the participation in which is not worthy of women. For example, at the time when the community is taking up vigorous defensive measures against the attack of foes, the women are exempt from military engagements. It may so happen that at a given time warlike and savage tribes may furiously attack the body politic with the intention of carrying on a wholesale slaughter of its members; under such a circumstance defence is necessary, but it is the duty of men to organize and execute such defensive measures and not the women--because their hearts are tender and they cannot endure the sight of the horror of carnage, even if it is for the sake of defence. From such and similar undertakings the women are exempt." ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 183)

In this same section, he also states:

"Ere long the days shall come when the men addressing the women, shall say: 'Blessed are ye! Blessed are ye! Verily ye are worthy of every gift. Verily ye deserve to adorn your heads with the crown of everlasting glory, because in sciences and arts, in virtues and perfections ye shall become equal to man, and as regards tenderness of heart and the abundance of mercy and sympathy ye are superior'" 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 184)

It is, this writer conceptualises, this very "tenderness of heart" and "abundance of mercy and sympathy", so admirable, so desirable and so worthy of the spirituality of mankind, that is one small reason for women not being eligible for membership on the Universal House of Justice. This does not exclude the process that will see the softening of the "forceful and aggressive qualities" of the male, for 'Abdu'l-Bahá also states that "...the new age will be an age less masculine, and more permeated with the feminine ideals--or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more evenly balanced." ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era, p. 156).

If this ignorant one may conjecture regarding this aspect, it is a mercy and bounty from God to women that they are excluded from membership, for they are thereby protected from harm and damage to their softness and gentleness, their "tenderness of heart" and their "mercy and sympathy". Even as we see in the world today equal savagery expressed by women as by men, women who have been and still are inflicted with the sight of carnage, and who are the victims of repression and prejudice, not to mention an appalling lack of education (discussed further below). To borrow from the imagery that equates the human species to a bird, with one wing being female and the other male, and both wings needing to have equal strength for the bird to soar in the Heaven of God's Desire, we can imagine a bird in which one wing is strong in the positive spiritual qualities; if the other wing is weaker in these desirable and admirable qualities and attributes, that bird cannot fly, and the desire of that bird to soar in the heavens will cause, with time, the wing with the weaker qualities to develop the strengths of the stronger wing so that the bird may soar effortlessly in the Divine Realms.

There is another very much related and inter-related, and perhaps more important reason, which concerns the variances in function between the male and the female. In support, and prior to making our argument, the following quotes are provided for contemplation:

"...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." ('Abdu'l-Bahá , Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 79)

"From the fact that there is no equality of functions between the sexes one should not, however, infer that either sex is inherently superior or inferior to the other, or that they are unequal in their rights." (From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer, July 28, 1936)

"...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" ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era, p. 156)

"If the mother is educated then her children will be well taught. When the mother is wise, then will the children be led into the path of wisdom. If the mother be religious she will show her children how they should love God. If the mother is moral she guides her little ones into the ways of uprightness... Therefore, surely, God is not pleased that so important an instrument as woman should suffer from want of training in order to attain the perfections desirable and necessary for her great life's work!" ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 162)

"The task of bringing up a Baha'i child, as emphasized time and again in Baha'i writings, is the chief responsibility of the mother, whose unique privilege is indeed to create in her home such conditions as would be most conducive to both his material and spiritual welfare and advancement. The training which the child first receives through his mother constitutes the strongest foundation for his future development...." (From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer in India, November 16, 1939)

Let it not be assumed that these quotes relegate again, as in past ages, women to their earlier deprived state of only child-rearing and housework, for the Master has said:

"In this Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, the women go neck and neck with the men. In no movement will they be left behind. Their rights with men are equal in degree. They will enter all the administrative branches of politics. They will attain in all such a degree as will be considered the very highest station of the world of humanity and will take part in all affairs." ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, pp. 182)

And from the Universal House of Justice:

"The duty of women in being the first educators of mankind is clearly set forth in the Writings. It is for every woman, if and when she becomes a mother, to determine how best she can discharge on the one hand her chief responsibility as a mother and on the other, to the extent possible, to participate in other aspects of the activities of the society of which she forms a part." (From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, April 22, 1981)

There are many more quotes which further evolve this theme, and also delineate the responsibilities of the male in this process. It is left to each person to themselves further investigate this matter of vital importance. It is not the purpose of the writer to here explore in any depth the ramifications of education, but only to touch lightly upon possible reasons regarding the membership of the Universal House of Justice.

From the foregoing, it would appear evident that one of the differences in function between women and men is in the role of education. Women are the primary educators of the human race through the process of their education of their children, which, to this one, would seem to be a vital matter and of considerable importance, while men are the primary protectors of the human race, an equally important and complementary function. It is not that these are necessarily the exclusive domains of each, but they are of necessity the primary functions of each, for women are excluded only from membership on the Universal House of Justice, not of the National and Local Houses of Justice which also have roles of protection within society, while men are variously and continuously exhorted to uphold their responsibility and duty and to educate their children.

It appears implicit to this author that, in this Law of God we see in application the discharge of the two functions of protection and education, the principles of which we see propagated also in the Institutions of the Auxiliary Boards. This protection, wielded by the Universal House of Justice, consists not only of material protection but also of spiritual protection. This education, applied by the female of the species, likewise consists of both material and spiritual education, and of these the spiritual could be seen as more important, as this quote demonstrates:

"Training in morals and good conduct is far more important than book learning. A child that is cleanly, agreeable, of good character, well-behaved--even though he be ignorant--is preferable to a child that is rude, unwashed, ill-natured, and yet becoming deeply versed in all the sciences and arts. The reason for this is that the child who conducts himself well, even though he be ignorant, is of benefit to others, while an ill-natured, ill-behaved child is corrupted and harmful to others, even though he be learned. If, however, the child be trained to be both learned and good, the result is light upon light." ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, pp. 135-136)

Who better to train human society that those who in "tenderness of heart and the abundance of mercy and sympathy ... are superior" and who are thus best suited to infuse their children with these same qualities. With further advances in equality of education, with the gaining of further experience, with the extending of opportunity to the same degree as with the male, and with the demolition of all barriers and obstructions to the advancement of women, it is believed by this negligent one that the future will see glorious progression in, not only the sciences, the arts and the crafts, but even more importantly in the strengthening of the spiritual resolve of the human species and evolution of our souls toward the goal of all life, the drawing nearer unto God, and in that process, result in the unified sharing by the male and female of their complementary tasks and responsibilities to society in fulfillment of the following:

"All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. The Almighty beareth Me witness: To act like the beasts of the field is unworthy of man. Those virtues that befit his dignity are forbearance, mercy, compassion and loving-kindness towards all the peoples and kindreds of the earth. Say: O friends! Drink your fill from this crystal stream that floweth through the heavenly grace of Him Who is the Lord of Names. Let others partake of its waters in My name, that the leaders of men in every land may fully recognize the purpose for which the Eternal Truth hath been revealed, and the reason for which they themselves have been created." (Bahá'u'lláh , Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 214)

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