Everyone wants immediate gratification in the short term—but massive, lasting social change often requires some delayed gratification instead.
The women who worked for equality in the 19th Century, for example, did so without much expectation of immediate change. Many who spent their entire lives working for equality never lived to see women get the vote, or attain the right to own property, or receive opportunities for an equal education.
All of us participate in two kinds of activities to change our societies: the first kind, those endeavors which come to fruition within the span of our own lives; the second kind, those for which we sow seeds now, realizing that they will only come to fruition for posterity.
But we can all now see, at this point, the arc and the direction of change when it comes to the eventual equality of the sexes. We’ve made many positive steps, and will undoubtedly make many more before we achieve full gender parity. So in one sense, the Baha’i teachings say, the age of gender equality has dawned:
Through the effulgent rays of divine illumination the capacity of woman has become so awakened and manifest in this age that equality of man and woman is an established fact. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 74.
What does this mean for the future of humanity? It means that gender equality will soon be seen as more than a goal, for it will be recognized as the means to greater achievements for all. To make both wings of humanity equal is not the ultimate goal—the real goal is to fly, to raise all of us above our previous limitations. Furthermore, equality does not imply sameness; it means ensuring that every individual is free to excel and to develop as his or her God-given talents warrant.
The Baha’i teachings maintain, in fact, that gender equality will help humanity realize a peaceful future:
Equality between men and women is conducive to the abolition of warfare for the reason that women will never be willing to sanction it. Mothers will not give their sons as sacrifices upon the battlefield after twenty years of anxiety and loving devotion in rearing them from infancy, no matter what cause they are called upon to defend. There is no doubt that when women obtain equality of rights, war will entirely cease among mankind. – Ibid., p. 175.
For men, warfare on the battlefield has always been seen as a way to solve big problems. The rationale behind this method of problem solving emerges from the mistaken belief that we can solve disputes by mustering a superior force and winning a physical contest through killing and destruction. However, that physical contest rarely addresses the underlying issues that gave rise to the conflict, and some problems have an enormous inertia that does not allow a quick solution. If something has moved in one direction for a thousand years, for example, it stands to reason that its direction cannot be changed overnight.
Such problems require the cooperation of succeeding generations of people who work together to improve a shared condition.
That reality, according to the Baha’i teachings, makes achieving gender equality a vitally important step to a global peace:
Let it be known … that until woman and man recognize and realize equality, social and political progress here or anywhere will not be possible. For the world of humanity consists of two parts or members: one is woman; the other is man. Until these two members are equal in strength, the oneness of humanity cannot be established, and the happiness and felicity of mankind will not be a reality. – Ibid., p. 77.
Often the goal of efforts to achieve equal rights is to remove the barriers that keep the oppressed from attaining equality. Yet there is another important goal, which is to free the oppressor. When one person maneuvers to keep another from advancing, energy and resources that could be spent more productively on something else are expended on keeping the other person down. When we hold someone down, we are not that far above them. To keep them there, we have to stay with them. As long as men do this to women, men cannot advance freely either:
Women have equal rights with men upon earth; in religion and society they are a very important element. 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, Paris Talks, p. 133.
This dynamic explains why men should feel that the struggle for gender equality is also their struggle.
It is not enough that women be seen as equal to men—both genders should be seen as equal to something higher, something more human and more spiritual than the existing masculine or feminine stereotypes. True advancement for both women and men implies the creation of a new and as yet unrealized ideal in human achievement.
Men must take an active role in ensuring that women are guaranteed freedom from oppression; they must work to overcome the sexual prejudice that they may harbor in their hearts; and they need to come to the realization that no true progress will ever take place until they grasp the truth that gender equality is not just a woman’s issue—it is a human issue. By the same token, women must recognize their own internalized oppression and forgive past injustices; they must educate themselves and strive to realize their full human potential.
We ourselves may never live to see the establishment of a society based upon these values of equity and justice. However, what we do now will lay the groundwork for what the sons and daughters of the future will experience. What men do now for the equality of women will help prevent their grandsons and great-grandsons from dying in wars we could potentially prevent.
Together, male and female add up to something greater than one or the other can ever be separately. Turning to God in prayer can be of great assistance in overcoming gender prejudice if we ask Him to help us look deep within ourselves to solve our problems. This will give us the spiritual fortitude to overcome age-old problems and progress toward a new future in which both women and men will realize their true capacities.