Let’s talk ….
Posted by Sen on August 6, 2015
… about Mehrangiz Kar and the service of women, about open and courteous discussions, and more
This posting begins with the following letter from the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States, dated July 31, 2015, in response to Bahai involvement in an embarrassing internet fracas. The letter itself explains the situation further:
Dear Baha’i Friend,
We have received your email query of yesterday’s date [July 30, 2015], inquiring about postings on the Internet resulting from an article recently published by Professor Mehrangiz Kar in Roozonline, following on remarks she made as a guest speaker at a recent event in Virginia. The event was about Tahirih and examined the historical and social context of her unveiling at Badasht. Professor Kar, a highly respected proponent of women’s rights, called into question the Baha’i teaching that confines membership of the Universal House of Justice to men. In particular, she observed that were Tahirih alive today, she could not be a member of the House of Justice.
What is most surprising about the ensuing exchange of views is the harsh criticism made against Professor Kar by some Baha’is. A fundamental teaching of the Faith is that “[c]onflict and contention are categorically forbidden in His book.” Baha’u’llah has urged His followers “not to view with too critical an eye” the statements of others. He has exhorted them to approach such statements in a loving spirit and with open-mindedness. To attack and condemn others is a clear violation of the teachings.
Also surprising is that the remarks of an individual who is not a Baha’i would cause Baha’is to doubt their own teachings and to engage in speculation—some of which is fanciful and even harmful—on the reasons why women do not serve on the Universal House of Justice. As the House of Justice has explained:
“the instruction that the membership of the House of Justice is confined to men is set forth in His [Baha’u’llah’s] Writings, as confirmed in the authoritative statements of ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi. While there is no explanation of the reason for this provision of the Sacred Text, ‘Abdu’l-Baha has stated:
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.’”
(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, section 38.4)
It should not be surprising that a person who is a strong upholder of women’s rights might find it difficult to accept this teaching. Rather than criticizing the individual, Baha’is should simply respect that point of view, explaining that we accept this teaching as an article of faith. The friends can use such occasions as an opportunity to describe how we are endeavoring to uphold the principle of the equality of women and men in our personal lives and in our community. In this respect, it is a healthy exercise to ask ourselves how we measure up to the Baha’i standard. Are we raising our boys to treat girls as equals? Do women and men work shoulder-to-shoulder in all areas of life? Are women equally encouraged to enter the fields of science and technology, or commerce and the arts? Do we make special efforts to facilitate the education and advancement of girls and women so that the capabilities with which they are endowed may come forth? Are Baha’i men recognized as champions of women’s rights? Clearly, it is by creating a community that is the living embodiment of the equality of women and men that we can demonstrate the sincerity of our commitment to this essential principle and make it easier for people to see that the exclusion of women from the House of Justice has nothing to do with the essential equality of women and men.
As they ponder this matter, the friends are encouraged to reflect on the following words of the House of Justice, conveyed in a letter to an individual believer dated December 22, 2013:
“Thus, Baha’is are presented with an apparent paradox. We do not possess an explanation that would fully satisfy a critical observer. Yet, having acknowledged Baha’u’llah as the Manifestation of God, and having accepted the principle that “He doeth whatsoever He willeth” according to His understanding of the condition of the world and the problems facing humanity, we accept His instruction and remain assured by ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s promise that clarity of understanding will be achieved in due course. At the same time, we cannot rest upon the explicit statements in the Baha’i writings about the equality of men and women as being sufficient assurance to others about our allegiance to this principle. Rather, we are obligated to demonstrate our commitment through our actions and accomplishments, working to establish equality between men and women within the Baha’i community and in the wider society. In this regard, fair-minded individuals will find an abundance of evidence in the number of women serving in Baha’i administrative institutions, in projects of social and economic development, and in all aspects of community life.
“An important point to remember is that in the face of the categorical pronouncements in Baha’i Scripture establishing the equality of men and women, the ineligibility of women for membership on the Universal House of Justice cannot be interpreted as evidence of the superiority of men over women. It must also be borne in mind that women are not excluded from any other institution of the Faith. They have been among the ranks of the Hands of the Cause, they serve as members of the International Teaching Centre, as Continental Counsellors, and as elected members of both National and Local Spiritual Assemblies, discharging vital responsibilities worldwide in stimulating the expansion of the Baha’i community and fostering its spiritual life. Indeed the percentage of women serving on Baha’i institutions often significantly exceeds their representation on institutions in the society around them.”
The Assembly hopes that this perspective will be helpful. You may feel free to share this letter with other online discussants.
With loving Baha’i greetings,
Kenneth E. Bowers
A Persian translation of this letter is in the documents archive here.
The first observation I have about this is that the NSA’s letter, and the letter of the Universal House of Justice it quotes, do not recognise that there are reasonable questions about the meanings of the various texts of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, which hinge on the fact that Baha’u’llah refers to the members of the House of Justice as Men of Justice (rijal al-‘adl). Rijal in Arabic means ‘men’ and in Persian ‘gentlemen.’ One group of questions relate to what institution Abdu’l-Baha was discussing, in each of his various tablets, and whether he himself later changed his ruling. Another question regards the exclusionary reading of rijal, given that it can in Persian include women who are so eminent that they warrant entries in biographical encyclopedias, the ‘books of gentlemen,’ and also given that several tablets of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha that say that, in the Bahai era, women can be rijal. On the other hand there are relevant pilgrim’s notes from Ali Kuli Khan, reporting statements that Abdu’l-Baha made in 1906 (before his decision to allow women on the local spiritual assemblies). He states that “towards the end of our visit, I copied my Persian notes and submitted the most important among them to ‘Abdu’l-Baha for revision.” These are pilgrim’s notes, but of an unusually reliable standard. They are also long and interesting, but I will quote only one section :
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.”
The historical and textual evidence regarding the exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice has been summarized in ‘The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha’i Faith,’ which so far as I know includes all the relevant texts except the Ali Kuli Khan notes. That paper also lacks a discussion of the key term ‘wisdom’ (“this for a wisdom of the Lord God’s” see above), which has been explained by Susan Maneck in ‘Wisdom and Dissimulation.’ And it does not deal with the ‘two spheres’ model of the Bahai Administration propounded by Shoghi Effendi, according to which we may not read his words as “laying down independently the constitution” of the Universal House of Justice, or as limiting the liberty of the international convention to elect whomever they chose to the Universal House of Justice. (see Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 150, section 111)
Dr. Kar’s question at the end of the meeting in Virginia, which she repeated in an article on Rooz online, (in Persian) was:
“Suppose that Taahereh were to miraculously return to life, and came to the same meeting [in Badasht], and put her name forward for membership of the House of Justice, the highest decision-making body for Bahais. Given the ruling of the new religion, that women are excluded from the principle centre of authority in the Bahai Faith simply by virtue of their sex, could Taahereh, with all her courage, passion, wisdom and knowledge, enter the House of Justice?”
From her question it seems that she did not think the exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice deserves any more respect than the rulings of the rule-bound Shiah religious authorities who confronted Taahereh. In her following comments on Rooz Online she says that the meeting “boiled over,” and that she received no satisfactory answer, but only appeals to an ‘article of faith.’ Had she known that the historical and textual arguments are quite complex, and that both sides of the question are argued within the Bahai community, she might have evinced more interest and understanding of the position in which the Bahai community finds itself, torn between relatively convincing evidence that Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha intended women to be excluded from the Universal House of Justice, and perhaps from all levels of the House of Justice, and the example of Abdu’-Baha and the tenor of the Bahai teachings as a whole, which favour the intelligent application of the spirit of religion over slavish adherence to the letter of the texts, and which allow for continuing flexibility in its administrative machinery. Had she received a dispassionate and informed response, she might have understood more, and also learned that there are no nominations for the House of Justice (although an appointment to the ITC works that way), and that the members of the Universal House of Justice are not the most knowledgeable and wise in the community (in contrast to the theory if not the practice in Shiah Islam). Instead, she was faced with a fideist reaction: “the scriptures say so.” This is the Bahai equivalent of Roma locuta est, causa finita est in Roman Catholic theology, or “without asking how or why” (be-la kayfa) in Sunni theology. It is religion for the brain-dead, and an invitation to cursory dismissal from educated and capable people.
For more on the “Baha’u’llah said so” argument, see the paper of the same name by Arash Abizadeh, in Bahai Studies Review 5:1.
A second and related observation is that the democratisation of the media through internet and especially the social media makes it possible for many more people to respond publically to events as they unfold. Professor Kar’s remarks became an issue for the National Spiritual Assembly not because they implied a parallel between the Bahai position today and that of the Islamic divines in the days of Taahereh, but because of undignified and unsuitable responses from a number of Bahais. I am referring here not only to one Bahai gentleman who has a propensity for denouncing all and sundry as enemies of the Faith and agents of the Iranian government, but also to the need facing all participants in all discussions – to answer a questioner at his or her own level. A learned response full of references to translation issues in multiple languages, given to a simple person, is simply an assertion of superiority, and an insult. But if someone who is intelligent and quite at home in a multilingual setting asks a question, they should be given a factually based and intelligent answer at that level.
As the National Spiritual Assembly has stated above, we are “not to view with too critical an eye” the statements of others. A fault-seeking attitude, point-scoring, and adopting the pose of the victim can so poison the atmosphere that reasonable voices will not be heard.
A third observation, is that the value of open discussion is demonstrated, even as the demand it places on the participants’ self-restraint has been underlined. So far as there has been open discussion on this issue in the Bahai community – and it has happened from time to time – this has been good preparation for responding helpfully to questioners such as Professor Kar. And so far as such discussion has been squelched by appeals to firmness in the Covenant and the threat of sanctions, this has fostered an internal culture that leaves too many Bahais with no vocabulary but outrage and condemnation.
Finally, I would like to “engage in speculation” as the National Spiritual Assembly calls it, or apply reason to religion, as I would prefer to say, not by finding a reason for the exclusion of women from the House of Justice, but by suggesting how it can be turned to the good.
The exclusion of women from the House of Justice is one problem we have: a problem of consistency with our own principles of justice and equality, specifically for women. A second problem we have is that the creation of the International Teaching Centre in 1973 has given the Counsellors who serve on it such prominence that the male members are almost inevitably elected to the Universal House of Justice. All of the present members of the Universal House of Justice were members of the ITC before their election, and none today have any extensive experience on a National Spiritual Assembly. When the present members appoint men to serve on the ITC, they are in effect selecting their own, like-minded, replacements. And while these replacements may have been good Counsellors, the skills and knowledge suited for serving on a National Spiritual Assembly or the Universal House of Justice are different to the skills required of a Counsellor.
These two problems add up to one opportunity: by appointing only women to the ITC, and indeed to all of the high-visibility appointed positions in the Bahai community, the Universal House of Justice can ensure that a substantial portion of the incoming members of the House of Justice will have accumulated administrative experience and proved their abilities, as long-standing members of the National Spiritual Assemblies. Moreover, if the Universal House of Justice selects the women best suited as Counsellors to the ITC, and to the Continental Boards of Counsellors, the quality and continuity of these institutions will be assured, as the electors cannot co-opt these women to serve on the Universal House of Justice. The members will also avoid the appearance of hand-picking their own successors. And by appointing only women, the Universal House of Justice can make at least the senior levels of the Bahai administration a shining example of what can be done if a community is really confident that women have all the capacities needed to participate at every level and in every branch of activity.
I have discussed this and other aspects of the election of the Universal House of Justice in a posting entitled Without reference to particular individuals. I would like to pre-empt two objections to this suggestion briefly.
The one is that there is no scriptural warrant for excluding men from the senior appointed positions today, and there is precedent, in the appointments of the Hands of the Cause by Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi, for appointing mainly men. However, there is also no scriptural warrant for the International Teaching Centre itself: it is a policy response, from the Universal House of Justice, to what was felt to be a need. It could if necessary be abolished, and its structure can be changed. Whatever the Universal House of Justice does in this respect may be altered again in the decades to come. There is a good precedent for a women-only body, at least as an interim measure leading to full equality, and that is Abdu’l-Baha’s endorsement of the Women’s Assembly of Teaching alongside an all-male House of Justice, as the two most important Bahai institutions in Chicago in the early 20th century. (See Abdu’l-Baha’s 1909 letter to Corrine True, cited in The Service of Women)
The second possible objection is that Shoghi Effendi, in a discussion of the alternatives available in designing the Bahai electoral system, has emphasized “the freedom of the elector who, unhampered and unconstrained by electoral necessities, is called upon to vote for none but those whom prayer and reflection have inspired him to uphold.” Would an appointments policy that excluded men from senior appointed positions face a similar objection? The answer is that it would not: it is the exclusion of women from election to the Universal House of Justice (or more exactly, the policy that votes for women are invalid), that limits the freedom of electors. The policy of appointing only women to senior and visible positions is a restriction of the freedom of appointment, and since it is the Universal House of Justice that makes these appointments, and the Universal House of Justice that must introduce the policy, and can change it, the prerogatives of all the parts of the system are preserved.
Finally, should Professor Kar read this far, I would like to say that the responses she received were most regrettable. In most cases, they do not reflect a distrust of outsiders, or of women, within the Bahai community. Men and members of the Bahai community have faced the same over-heated fideist response to reasonable questions and suggestions. There may perhaps be an element of anti-intellectualism involved: I cannot entirely absolve the Bahai community of that shortcoming. But please understand this primarily as a reflection of the very issue you raised as regards Taahereh and the ulama who opposed her: what is the role of reason in religion? It’s a big question. We are working on it, and there’s a wide diversity of approaches.
Short link: http://wp.me/pcgF5-2DC