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With astonishing frequency and rapidity, sexual assault and harassment against women has become a powerful public issue.
Prominent figures in political circles, broadcast media and corporate offices are being exposed for behavior that has traditionally been acceptable by men and silently tolerated by women. The old saw, “It’s a man’s world,” reflects this prevailing culture of male dominance over women.
So why now? Like a domino effect, women are emerging from obscurity into an arena that gives voice to their struggles both inside and outside the workforce. In this new arena, they feel safe and accepted rather than humiliated.
The time is ripe for an acknowledgement that equality of the sexes is essential to the growth and prosperity of humanity.
One of the key principals in the Baha’i Faith, which emerged directly from its founder Baha’u’llah in the 19th Century, is the equality of the sexes. As a woman and as a human being, that principle is very dear to my heart:
… 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. For the world of humanity possesses two wings: man and woman. If one wing remains incapable and defective, it will restrict the power of the other, and full flight will be impossible. Therefore, the completeness and perfection of the human world are dependent upon the equal development of these two wings. - Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 317.
Let’s be clear, such an equality does not imply a physical but rather a spiritual equilibrium. Men are generally stronger physically—but women, it so happens, are generally stronger intuitively. Owing to their aggressive strength, men have dominated, intimidated and manipulated women for centuries. In many cultures and religions women have been viewed as less than men, only valued for purposes of pleasure and child-bearing.
Women have been viewed by men as objects to attain, the more physically beautiful ones pursued even more as objects. Because they have been viewed as weaker and needing protection and guidance, women in various cultures have been denied the right of inheritance, of equal pay, of marriage, and of education. How many women are yet abused in the world is beyond reckoning. But in the United States, surveys show that between 29-35% of women are physically or emotionally abused.
The civil and moral law is clear: no one has consent to grope, touch, manhandle or sexually assault another. Intimate touching requires permission. Moreover, if the consent is later revoked because the person becomes frightened or unsure of her rights, the aggression should be understood as an assault and stopped.
Here is one example among millions: someone close to me confided that she asked her boyfriend of two years to stop during foreplay one night because she was not ready to lose her virginity. But he kept on anyway. This is rape. My friend, in saying no, ended up traumatized by the experience and left feeling guilty and ashamed for years afterwards. On the other hand, sexual harassment in the workplace or in social situations may be less easily definable when it involves the making of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks.
I have also received unwanted advances over the years, including at a very young age at camp, where a boy ran over to me, grabbed onto me and rubbed himself against me before running away. Men have yelled at me on the streets, followed me home from the gym or entering an elevator, and on and on. At one point I was very nearly kidnapped while doing volunteer work in India. Still later in a workplace, the boss would repeatedly and deliberately rub against me as he passed by. My female friends have shared similar stories of being stalked, molested, belittled, denied equal pay and promotions, and even raped.
Perhaps owing to his more aggressive nature–the testosterone effect, some might say–males, particularly if lacking moral restraint, can be swept up in tempestuous passions more than women. Consequently, men may do anything to bully and abuse a woman with the objective of satisfying their lust. This must stop.
As women emerge from the darkness of sexual abuse and more and more join the ranks of the #MeToo movement, the timeliness of women assuming their rightful place as equal shareholders with men in the destinies of humankind is well underway. My Faith declares that women are the equals of men:
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. 162.
Woman’s lack of progress and proficiency has been due to her need of equal education and opportunity. Had she been allowed this equality there is no doubt she would be the counterpart of man in ability and capacity. The happiness of mankind will be realized when women and men coordinate and advance equally, for each is the complement and helpmeet of the other. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 182.