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The ‘Paris Talks’ tablet on women

At the end of Paris Talks – a collection of much-edited accounts of addresses delivered by Abdu’l-Baha in Paris – there is a tablet about the feminist issue as it was being discussed around 1913, in the world and in the Bahai community. How a ‘tablet’ (a letter written by Abdu’l-Baha) came to be included in a collection of ‘talks’ is a story I would like to hear one day.

Because the talks in Paris Talks are not authentic Bahai scripture, and because there are several differing versions of this tablet, the question arose as to whether it is in fact a ‘talk’ or a ‘tablet’ and what its status may be.

I contributed:

The tablet is authentic: part of it has been retranslated at the World Centre, (Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 392), ergo they have found the Persian original, and if there is an available text in the original language, checked by Abdu’l-Baha or otherwise authenticated, the tablet is scripture – even if the translation of it is not officially approved.

We have to go back to Sohrab’s translation, and the one bit that has been re-translated at the World Centre, because the editor of Paris Talks introduced quite a lot of changes, THAT version is not reliable.

Neither are the versions in Star of the West, volumes 18, 19 and 20 – which differ from one another as well, and are intended to show that women do have the right to vote, rather than do not have the right to be on the Universal House of Justice, which is the question today.

Here’s Sohrab’s translation, with the new translation by the World Centre inserted in [[ ]] :

ABDUL BAHA IN EGYPT 249

Abdul Baha Writes on the future Condition of Women

This morning we got glimpses of Abdul Baha as he passed by our house two or three times. He was busy all day. In the evening, the correspondent of the Agdam, published in Cairo, called on him and had a long interview. These days, the Master is devoting much of his time to writing Tablets for the Persian believers. He is fulfilling his promise, that after his return from America and Europe, he would answer all their petitions. I produce herein the translation of one of these Tablets on the “Feminist Question,”–one that is very opportune. It is as follows:

“O thou my beloved daughter! Thy eloquent and fluent letter was perused in a garden, under the cool shade of a tree, while the gentle breeze was wa fting. The means of physical enjoyment was spread before the eyes and thy letter became the cause of spiritual enjoyment. Truly, I say, it was not a letter, but a rose-garden adorned with hyacinths and flowers. It contained the sweet Fragrances of Paradise and the Zephyr of Divine Love blew from its roseate words. “As I have not ample time at my disposal, I will give herein a brief answer. It is as follows :— [[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]] and will take part in all affairs. Rest ye assured of this! Do not look upon present conditions; in the not distant future the world of women will become all-refulgent and all-glorious. For His Holiness Baha-Ullah hath willed it so. At the time of elections the right to vote is the inalienable perogative of women, and their admittance to all the departments of life an irrefutable and incontestable right. No soul can retard or prevent it. But there are certain matters, participation in which, is not worthy of woman. 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 circumstances defense is necessary; and it is the duty of the men and not of the women to organize and execute such defensive measures, because the women’s hearts are tender, and cannot endure the sight of horror and carnage, even if it is for the sake of defense. For such, and similar undertakings, the women are exempt. “As regards the Constitution of the House of Justice, Baha-Ullah, in the Book of Akdas, addressed the men, saying :–» ‘O ye men of the House of Justice!’ but (when the members are being elected) the right which belongs to women, so far as their voting and their voice is concerned, is indisputable. When women attain to the ultimate degree of progress, then, according to the exigencies of time and place, and of their capacity, they shall obtain extraordinary privileges. Be ye confident on this account. His Holiness Baha-Ullah has greatly strengthened the Cause of women and their rights and privileges are the special principles of Abdul Baha. Rest ye assured! Ere long the day will come when the men, addressing the women will say :- “Blessed are ye! Blessed are ye! Verily ye are worthy of every gift, and deserve to adorn your heads with the crown of Everlasting Glory; because in sciences and arts, in virtues and perfections, ye have become equal to men and as regards the tenderness of heart and the abundance of mercy and sympathy, ye are superior”.

The tablet is not unambiguous, bearing in mind that Sohrab’s practice was to put his own explanation in parentheses, so what is in round parentheses above is probably not in the Persian text. The crux is whether the phrase “voting and their voice” means women voting for the house of justice and having a voice as members of the house of justice, (NB it is not about the Universal House of Justice, but the house of justice in general), or does “voting and voice” just mean the vote? According to how you read that, the paragraph breaks and conjunctions have to be changed – the translation of these depends on how the translator reads the overall sense of the argument. It could be read this way:

[At the time of (civil) elections the right to vote is the inalienable prerogative of women, … even though there are certain matters, participation in which is not worthy of woman such as military engagements.

“As regards the Constitution of the House of Justice, Baha-Ullah, in the Book of Akdas, addressed the men, saying :–» ‘O ye men of the House of Justice!.’ Nevertheless, the right which belongs to women, so far as their voting and their voice (on the House of Justice) is concerned, is indisputable.]

When it is read in this way, Abdu’l-Baha was saying that women’s suffrage is a good idea, and that women would be on the Bahai assemblies – or at least those that existed at that time, the local assemblies – as contingencies permitted. Whether one can extrapolate to say that women can be on the Universal House of Justice, is for the House to decide, since it is sovereign over its own Constitution.

Sen
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