Too tender for the House?
Posted by Sen on May 23, 2010
The Universal House of Justice is an elected body that serves as the head of the world-wide Bahai community. It is empowered to decide when Bahai laws are applicable for Bahais, to provide the necessary framework so that they can be applied, and to make laws and rulings for situations that are not covered in Bahai scripture. So it has a very important role in Bahai community life. Unlike all the other Bahai institutions and roles and positions in community life, membership of the Universal House of Justice is, at least for now, reserved for men. I will return to that ‘for now’ briefly, at the end of this posting.
Because this exclusion of women is an exception, and runs counter to the practice in other aspects of Bahai life, and also counter to the strong Bahai teaching that women should be involved in every area of human endeavour, from the lowest to the highest levels, and even more, because the Bahai Writings give no explanation of this situation, there is a great deal of speculative thinking among Bahais as to possible reasons why women should not serve on the Universal House of Justice.
One of the suggested explanations is that women are too tender-hearted for such a responsible position.
One of the friends once expressed it this way:
Consider this: Our supreme institution is called a House of Justice. It is not a house of mercy. Think of the different ways that men and women discipline children. Most often it is the men who believe that the children need punishment of some kind when they have done wrong. It is the women who must overcome an inclination to forgive and show mercy to the child.
“Woman by nature is opposed to war; she is an advocate of peace…Therefore
as woman advances toward the degree of man in power and privilege, with the
right of vote and control in human government, most assuredly war will cease;
for women is naturally the most devoted and staunch advocate of international
peace.” (Abdul-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 375)
I’ve responded to that previously: we cannot take the division of roles we know in our own families or our own societies as normative or universal. I am brought back to the issue by another of the friends who said, more specifically, that the House of Justice might have to approve of the world uniting to take up arms against a tyrannical government, or approve of capital punishment — tasks apparently unsuitable for women.
This argument doesn’t work, because these two functions, of waging war and punishing criminals, are in fact reserved to the governments, not the House of Justice, according to the Bahai teachings, and women are not only allowed to serve in these public spheres, they are encouraged to do so, precisely because of their feminine input. Abdu’l-Baha writes:
In the Dispensation of Baha’u’llah, women are advancing side by side with men. There is no area or instance where they will lag behind: they have equal rights with men, and will enter, in the future, into all branches of the administration of society. Such will be their elevation that, in every area of endeavour, they will occupy the highest levels in the human world….
(Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 392 (this is a revised translation of the familiar tablet which is printed at the back of Paris Talks))
There are a number of talks printed in Promulgation of Universal Peace in which Abdu’l-Baha says that peace will be achieved when women have the vote and participate in politics. Unfortunately most of these talks cannot be authenticated, but there’s at least one important exception:
Baha’u’llah has proclaimed unity in education, which is necessary for the sake of human unity. All people, men and women, should have one education; girls and boys should receive one education, and when the education is given in all the schools is of one kind, the result will be a perfect bond, and when the human race benefits from one kind of education, the unity of men and women will be proclaimed, and the foundations of war and conflict will collapse. But this is impossible unless this question is addressed. Because incompatibility in education leads to warfare and strife, equality of rights between the male and female is a preventative to war and killing.
Women do not tolerate war and contention. Those young men are very dear to their mothers. They will never consent to them being killed on the battlefield, to their blood being spilled. Will a mother accept that the young man whom she has raised with such toil and trouble for twenty years, should be blown to pieces on the battlefield? No mother will accept this, whatever illusions people may come up with, about patriotism, or political unity or unity of race of family descent or of government, saying that these youths must be surrendered and sacrificed for the sake of these illusion. Therefore it is certain that when the equality of men and women is proclaimed, war will be banished among the children of Adam.
(My translation from Khatabat-e Abdu’l-Baha vol 2 p 135-6; talk at the Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, 8/9 June 1912, cf Promulgation of Universal Peace 172)
There’s also a previously untranslated talk on page 44 of Khatabat vol. 2 (April 23 1912, home of Ali Quli Khan) which says (in my translation):
Although limited and specific war is fatal, that is, it is the destroyer of souls, this [state of armed camps esp. in Europe] is endless and universal war, and it harms the whole, indeed, the world of humanity suffers an injury. However, given that women in this era are mobilising, they should examine this matter, so that the cause of universal peace may be promulgated and the unity of the world of humanity may be manifest.
From this it is evident that, in Abdu’l-Baha’s view, whatever qualities and strengths may particularly characterize women, these do not prevent women engaging in questions of war and peace, and life and death. Quite the contrary: precisely in those matters, their exclusion has harmed humanity.
The Houses of Justice, however, are not governments or criminal courts; it’s precisely to make this clear to the public that Abdu’l-Baha ordered their name to be changed to ‘Spiritual Assembly.’ The destruction of a government that commits aggression is also specified for governments, and it is governments which are to make the rules that govern such action. In Secret of Divine Civilization Abdu’l-Baha writes:
True civilization will unfurl its banner in the midmost heart of the world whenever a certain number of its distinguished and high-minded sovereigns … shall.. arise … to establish the Cause of Universal Peace. … They must conclude a binding treaty and establish a covenant, the provisions of which shall be sound, inviolable and definite. … In this all-embracing Pact the limits and frontiers of each and every nation should be clearly fixed, the principles underlying the relations of governments towards one another definitely laid down, … the size of the armaments of every government [not House of Justice!] should be strictly limited, … if any government later violate any one of its provisions, all the governments on earth should arise to reduce it to utter submission, ..”
Both the military and the criminal justice system are ‘instruments of security,’ and Baha’u’llah has written:
The instruments which are essential to the immediate protection, the security and assurance of the human race have been entrusted to the hands, and lie in the grasp, of the governors of human society. This is the wish of God and His decree…. (Gleanings CII)
So there’s no possibility that a woman, or a man, serving on the House of Justice would bear responsibility for such matters. “This is the wish of God and His decree..” But it is very possible that a Bahai woman who is head of state, Minister of foreign affairs, or supreme court judge, might face such life-or-death decisions, and it would be in accordance with the teachings of Baha’u’llah and the wishes of Abdu’l-Baha, for her to acquit herself of that responsibility with wisdom and diligence. I for one do not believe that women are constitutionally too tender-hearted to cope. Even if the necessary tough-mindedness is less common in women – and I am not persuaded it is – this would be a justification for excluding women from public life, not from the Universal House of Justice, but Bahais are arguing precisely the opposite: that women should become involved in all aspects of society at the highest level, but cannot be members of the Universal House of Justice.
But the real power is …
In response to this refutation of the idea that women cannot be on the Universal House of Justice because they are too tenderhearted, one of the friends wrote that, when the World Order of Baha’u’llah is securely established, women will be involved in governments, but ultimately guidance on matters of war, and life and death will be sought from the men of the House of Justice “that will give that ultimate guidance.”
But this question too has been specified in the Bahai Writings:
When the laws of the Most Holy Book are enforced, contentions and disputes will find a final sentence of absolute justice before a general tribunal of the nations and kingdoms, and the difficulties that appear will be solved
(Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, 64)
“Should differences arise, they shall be amicably and conclusively settled by the Supreme Tribunal, that shall include members from all the governments and peoples of the world.
(Abdu’l-Baha, The Will and Testament, 13)
“a Supreme Tribunal must be established, representative of all governments and peoples; questions both national and international must be referred thereto, and all must carry out the decrees of this Tribunal. Should any government or people disobey, let the whole world arise against that government or people.
(Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, 249)
…the national assemblies of each country and nation — that is to say parliaments — should elect two or three persons who are the choicest of that nation, and are well informed concerning international laws and the relations between governments and aware of the essential needs of the world of humanity in this day. The number of these representatives should be in proportion to the number of inhabitants of that country. The election of these souls who are chosen by the national assembly, that is, the parliament, must be confirmed by the upper house, the congress and the cabinet and also by the president or monarch so these persons may be the elected ones of all the nation and the government. The Supreme Tribunal will be composed of these people, and all mankind will thus have a share therein, for every one of these delegates is fully representative of his (or her) nation…. (Revised translation cited in “Monogamy, Equality of Sexes”)
Clearly, if “all mankind” are to have a share in this body, women must have both a vote for it and a voice on it. This is the signification also of the revision in the translation, from “two or three men” to “persons.”
Shoghi Effendi further says that the Supreme Tribunal will develop from the League of Nations (precursor of the United Nations) – see God Passes By, 305, whereas the Universal House of Justice (which didn’t exist in the time of Shoghi Effendi) was to develop out of the International Bahai Council.
As for the relationship of national governments and the Universal House of Justice (or the National Spiritual Assembly of their own country), it is one of collegiality and respect, of working together for common goals, but careful avoidance of even the appearance of interference in the distinct sphere which, in the Bahai writings, is assigned to each of these organs. The model of this that we can observe is the relationship between the late King Tanumafili II of Samoa and the Universal House of Justice. Another model we could draw on is the relationship between the Guardianship and the House of Justice, or the National Spiritual Assemblies and the Counsellors. The Bahai Faith is full of these pairings based on complementarity and respect, rather than domination of one by the other.
What we learn about oneness-through-twoness, by reading what the Bahai Writings say about church and state, can be applied in understanding the House of Justice and the House of Worship; science and religion; government and the market, the Guardianship and the House of Justice — for it is the principle of twoness in itself that gives us the most difficulty, habituated as we are to a concept of ‘unity’ that involves the abolition of distinction, or the imposition of one will over another.
And in the future?
Another reason suggested for the exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice is that it reflects women’s historically lower level of education or is a concession to the cultural environment, just as women were at first not allowed to be members of local Bahai assemblies in the west – a policy changed by Abdu’l-Baha – and were not allowed to serve on assemblies in the Middle East until the 1950’s. Which brings me back to ‘for now.’ If conditions change, could women serve on the Universal House of Justice? I don’t want to tackle this in detail here, just to outline the current state of play in this ongoing debate in as few words as possible. There are quite a number of arguments showing that women may be permanently excluded from membership, but no one of them found so far is in itself conclusive. The first two levels of this are dealt with in ‘The Service of Women‘, with sources. (1) Baha’u’llah used the word rijal, usually meaning ‘men’, with reference to the members of the House of Justice at all levels, however Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha both said, in their other writings, that women can be rijal too, and Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi found this no barrier to women serving on local and national institutions as conditions permitted. (2) Abdu’l-Baha wrote several tablets about this, in response to questions as to whether women can serve on local Bahai institutions, and he at first said no, and later, yes. One of these tablets says that women cannot serve on the Universal House of Justice, however that was a term that had been used for the local institution in Chicago, to distinguish it from the women’s assembly and other local committees. (3) There are four letters on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which say that women cannot serve on the Universal House of Justice, however there is also the principle that Shoghi Effendi lays down, that the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice have two separate spheres, and that the Guardian:
…is debarred from laying down independently the constitution that must govern the organized activities of his fellow-members, and from exercising his influence in a manner that would encroach upon the liberty of those whose sacred right is to elect the body of his collaborators.” (The World Order of Baha’u’llah, 150)
If this limitation applies to the Guardian in person, surely letters written on the Guardian’s behalf cannot be deemed to predetermine the constitution of the Universal House of Justice or limit the right of the international delegates to vote for whomever they think best fitted.
So we have arguments based on the words of Baha’u’llah, ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi, but these are all debatable, for different reasons. After decades of debate on this, one might think that every piece of evidence that can be found, would have been found by now, but there are at least two pieces of evidence from Abdu’l-Baha that could show conclusively what he intended for the membership of the Universal (that is, international) House of Justice in the far future.
The first is the tablet which is published in the back of the back of Paris Talks, which is an edited version of a tablet translated by Mirza Ahmad Sohrab and published in Abdu’l-Baha in Egypt pages 249-50. The Sohrab version, if we take out the material between parentheses, which is likely to be his editorial addition, reads:
As regards the constitution of the House of Justice, Baha-Ullah addressed the men, saying:`O ye men of the House of Justice!’ but [nevertheless] (…) the right which belongs to women, so far as their voting and their voice is concerned, is indisputable.
That is, it could be saying that despite the masculine form of address, women are also meant to be included in the membership of the Universal House of Justice. It all depends on the word translated as ‘but,’ which could be wa (and) or ama (but) or magar (nevertheless). Magar is the most likely of these, given the sense of the two clauses it joins. However even supposing that what joins these clauses is ‘nevertheless,’ the Persian text for “their voting and their voice” might be inconclusive. It depends on whether ‘voice’ means membership of the body, or a delegate’s vote for the members.
The Persian text of this tablet must be held at the Bahai World Centre, since the first of the quotations above, which says that women “will enter, in the future, into all branches of the administration of society” is newly translated by the World Centre. So publication and retranslation of the entire tablet might resolve the question. I personally don’t expect it to, because at that time there was no settled and precise Persian terminology for speaking of modern political procedures.
The second source that might give a conclusive resolution is a pilgrim’s note, from the visit of Ali Quli Khan to Abdu’l-Baha in 1906, which says:
Being asked as to the sex of its membership, ‘Abdu’l-Baha answered: “The membership of the House of Justice shall be all men.” Being asked if the members of the General House of Justice will be nine in number, He answered: “The membership is not limited to nine. Nay, nine is the minimum number and it will gradually be increased nine by nine. For instance, it will be raised to numbers which are multiples of the number nine, such as eighty-one which is equal to nine times nine, and so forth.
Anyone who has been following this blog, will know that a sharp distinction should be made between pilgrim’s notes and authentic Bahai scripture. The reason this might resolve the question of women’s future membership, in the negative, is that Ali Quli Khan writes “a number of Baha’i friends requested me to take notes of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s conversations during our visit, … This I did, and towards the end of our visit, I copied my Persian notes and submitted the most important among them to ‘Abdu’l-Baha for revision.” If the Persian notes show that Abdu’l-Baha checked the text just quoted, and if the text reads directly through from the previous paragraph (which appears to refer to the Universal House of Justice and not a local House of Justice), then the explanation that the exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice is a temporary concession to cultural norms will also be disproved.
The end of power?
Another way of dealing with the exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice is to say that this is an inequality in power, and power itself is to become irrelevant. The idea is that humanity is entering a new cycle of existence, in which equality is not a question of equal power but of equal opportunity to take responsibility and exercise individual initiative. One advocate of this view said that it strikes at the very core of Sen’s argument over church and state, because it rejects his assumption that governance is the process of coercion. He’s attempting to answer the question, “Who’s going to be in charge?” My answer is, “Nobody.”
But this is circular reasoning, based on the supposition that the Bahai Administrative Order is another term for the Bahai World Order, and also misunderstanding what Bahai Administration is. While it is true that the Bahai Administration has no powers of coercion, and should be characterised by “genuine and sustained cooperation and mutual confidence” between the friends and the assemblies, this does not mean that nobody is in charge in the Bahai Administration, that Baha’u’llah’s plan for World Order has no room for coercion, or that government is not fundamentally about coercion.
Government, unlike Bahai administration, is about ultimate power and the threat, and sometimes actual use, of coercion; it’s about “dominion.” The World Order would hardly be an “order” if Nobody is in charge. Baha’u’llah writes:
What mankind needeth in this day is obedience unto them that are in authority, and a faithful adherence to the cord of wisdom. The instruments which are essential to the immediate protection, the security and assurance of the human race have been entrusted to the hands, and lie in the grasp, of the governors of human society. This is the wish of God and His decree…. .” (Gleanings, CII 206-7)
your Lord hath committed the world and the cities thereof to the care of the kings of the earth, and made them the emblems of His own power, by virtue of the sovereignty He hath chosen to bestow upon them. … (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, 304)
In the Epistle to the Romans Saint Paul hath written: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.” And further: “For he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” He saith that the appearance of the kings, and their majesty and power are of God. (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, 91)
is it not your clear duty to restrain the tyranny of the oppressor, and to deal equitably with your subjects, that your high sense of justice may be fully demonstrated to all mankind? God hath committed into your hands the reins of the government of the people, that ye may rule with justice over them, safeguard the rights of the down- trodden, and punish the wrong-doers. (Suriy-ye Muluk, in Gleanings from the Writings of Baháu’llah, CXVI 247)
and from Abdu’l-Baha:
The fundamental principle underlying this solemn Pact should be so fixed that if any government later violate any one of its provisions, all the governments on earth should arise to reduce it to utter submission, nay the human race as a whole should resolve, with every power at its disposal, to destroy that government. (Secret of Divine Civilization, quoted in Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, 37)
The World Order of Baha’u’llah is not a polyanna dream: it’s a practical legal and political structure that can be made to work by ordinary human beings with their weakness and failings, because it incorporates all the elements necessary – including poer, coercion, punishment and even the possibility of war – and puts each element in its right place under the right kind of leadership.
Having said that, Shoghi Effendi says that the Bahai Administration is “the nucleus and pattern” of the Bahai World Order (Citadel of Faith, 5). The pattern that the Bahai Administration shows us is its fundamental two-part architecture: the separation of the Guardianship and the House of Justice, whose different natures and different roles in the whole make them complementary within the Administrative Order. This is what is meant by organic unity – a unity of different organs in one body, each organ with its own nature. Therefore one cannot deduce from the nature of one, how another organ should function.
~~ Sen ~~
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