Do you feel impatient waiting for improvements in the move toward gender equality? If you answered yes, join the club—you’re part of a very large and growing group of people.
Naturally, when we’ve seen injustice with our own eyes, we want changes to happen now, in our lifetime. We’re willing to struggle for our rights and the rights of the oppressed, and we want to enjoy the benefits of that struggle.
But unfortunately, humanity can usually only see and evaluate progress and lasting change in retrospect.
When we look back on the history of the past millennium, we can all easily see that it has been dominated by wars fought because of national, racial, ideological, and religious intolerance. These wars have been highly visible and are thoroughly documented in history books. At the same time, there have been other less acknowledged and less documented struggles—including the struggle for gender equality. In the lives of many women—and, consequently, in the lives of their loved ones—the fight for sexual equality has generated as great a conflict as any of the world wars, even though it has been far less widely reported and studied.
If racism is racial prejudice, then sexism is gender prejudice, for it is based on the same erroneous premises, which assert that some of us are superior to others. The Baha’i teachings clearly point this fallacy out, and have done so since the Baha’i Faith began in the middle of the 19th Century:
… among the teachings of Baha’u’llah is the equality of women and men. 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. Not until the world of women becomes equal to the world of men in the acquisition of virtues and perfections, can success and prosperity be attained as they ought to be. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 301.
These prejudicial beliefs and attitudes about the inferiority of women manifest themselves in behavior that segregates us by gender and discriminates in all areas of human endeavor. This problem exists everywhere, and no nation is immune from this social ailment. Abdu’l-Baha characterized that prejudice as “pure imagination:”
It has been objected by some that woman is not equally capable with man and that she is deficient by creation. This is pure imagination. The difference in capability between man and woman is due entirely to opportunity and education. – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 135.
Simplistic and sweeping generalities about gender are not only inaccurate and inadequate, they also prevent us from seeing the human commonalities shared by both genders. Phrases such as “the opposite sex” are loaded with implications. If we see the genders as opposites, then whatever we see as characteristics of the other gender must be, by implication, the antithesis of what we are. While there are undeniable differences between the sexes, Baha’i scripture explains those differences that do exist between the sexes should be seen as complementary and beneficial:
… there must be an equality of rights between men and women. Women shall receive an equal privilege of education. This will enable them to qualify and progress in all degrees of occupation and accomplishment. – Ibid., p. 317.
The Baha’i teachings ask all women and men to engage in an occupation that will benefit themselves and others—which means that Baha’is have a responsibility to know their true selves and abilities, and to follow their God-given path in life.
So when true equality between women and men becomes a reality, society will not only support both genders in the pursuit of whatever occupation they are best suited for, but will value all occupations, regardless of whether they be in the home or workplace. An occupation’s value should not be based on what it pays or how much power it provides, but on what it contributes to society. When considered from this perspective, vitally important roles such as motherhood are elevated.
In fact, Baha’i scripture points out that raising children is among the noblest deeds any person can perform:
It is clear therefore that the future generation depends on the mothers of today. Is not this a vital responsibility for the woman? Does she not require every possible advantage to equip her for such a task?
Therefore, surely, God is not pleased that so important an instrument as woman should suffer from want of training in order to attain the perfections desirable and necessary for her great life’s work! Divine Justice demands that the rights of both sexes should be equally respected since neither is superior to the other in the eyes of Heaven. Dignity before God depends, not on sex, but on purity and luminosity of heart. Human virtues belong equally to all! – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 163.
How a woman elects to fulfill her role as a mother is largely up to her and the particular needs of her unique family. The important principle here is that women and men are meant to fulfill their God-given capacities in this lifetime; how they choose to do so is a personal choice that should receive the loving support of the community.
Let us hope that we will come to see that the purpose of having wings is to fly. To achieve this, the present inertia of gender inequality and prejudice must be overcome so that a condition of healthy interdependence and cooperation can be established. For this metaphorical bird of humanity to fly, both wings—male and female—must be equally strong, and each must work in complete harmony with the other. For real birds, getting off the ground is the hardest part of flying, and the same is true for us. Once we are airborne there is little we cannot do. We will become what we were designed to become: a lofty creation that can soar to heights that were unimaginable and unattainable while we were earthbound.