“As long as women are prevented from attaining their highest possibilities, so long will men be unable to achieve the greatness which might be theirs.”
— Abdu’l-Baha, eldest son of Baha’u’llah, the founding prophet of the Baha’i Faith
It is fascinating to live at this time in history. While there is much that we could complain about, there is so much more that is improving. One of these improvements is the trajectory of rights and opportunities for women.
For millennia, women have been subservient to men. Actually if we’re honest, it has been a lot worse than that. It has been legal for a man to beat his wife and even sexually assault her. Rape has long been used as a weapon of war (with the aggressors always being men and the vast majority of the victims being women). Women have always been paid less than men. Sexual harassment at work was such a common thing in American life that there wasn’t even a term to identify it until the 1970s. Women’s voices and opinions have been minimized and ignored in boardrooms and at dinner tables.
But things are changing. After thousands of years of being compelled to silence at the polls, the right to vote — the official ability to have one’s voice actually count in the realms of legal authority — was granted to women. For American women, this was in 1920, during the lifetime of a few people still alive today. Spousal rape finally became illegal in all 50 states in 1993. Record numbers of women are serving in the U.S. Congress, and in 2013, Rwanda became the first country ever to have women make up 64% of its parliament.
In 1848 in Persia (modern-day Iran), the 31-year-old Tahirih was one of the earliest members of the Baha’i Faith. She was characterized as a “woman chaste and holy, a sign and token of surpassing beauty, a burning brand of the love of God.” She appeared unveiled before a gathering of her male co-religionists.
Evoking biblical and quranic prophesy, she declared: “I am the trumpet-blast. I am the bugle-call.” Many of the men present screamed in horror at the sight of such a pure and revered woman with her face and hair uncovered before their eyes, and one man was so horrified that he cut his own throat and, with blood pouring from his neck, fled the scene.
Four years later, she was about to be executed for converting to this new religion and so boldly teaching the principle of the equality of women and men throughout the country. Her final words were a promise: “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.”
Achieving full gender equality is essential to human progress and to the transformation of society. We tend to see the issue of gender equality as a favor to women, or at best helping women to get what is rightfully theirs so they can be better off, though often at the expense of men.
But the Baha’i writings tell us that our mutual success is intimately intertwined: “The world of humanity has two wings — one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. Should one wing remain weak, flight is impossible.”
The mother is most often the first educator of the children, so a child’s best chance for success in life comes when the mother is educated and empowered. Childhood literacy rates increase, infant mortality decreases, and prejudice and superstition disappear the more educated the mother is.
Interestingly, a recent study by the World Bank shows a significant decrease in the number of corporate scandals and corruption in companies with women on their boards of directors. With female influence, it seems, it is less likely that “boys will be boys.”
We are even told that the elimination of war, the greatest scourge to human progress, is dependent on the empowerment of women: “War and its ravages have blighted the world; the education of woman will be a mighty step toward its abolition and ending, for she will use her whole influence against war ... . In truth, she will be the greatest factor in establishing universal peace and international arbitration. Assuredly, woman will abolish warfare among mankind.”
We as men can rest assured that our own best interests will be most fully realized when our sisters on this planet are fully respected and supported. To tweak a common Southern saying? “If Mama ain’t successful, ain’t nobody successful.”