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In Persia in the mid-1800’s Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, taught the equality of men and women – a revolutionary religious teaching that completely upended tradition.
The realization of this progressive vision of gender equality may not be evident in many parts of the world yet, including Iran, but Baha’u’llah’s principle of the equality of the sexes has definitely taken hold in the west.
In 1912, Abdu’l-Baha, the son and successor of Baha’u’llah, made a trip to the United States and Canada, giving many talks on the subject of gender equality, including this one to a federation of women’s clubs in Chicago:
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. God willing, this is to be so.
The image often accompanying this quote is of a bird, which cannot fly unless and until both wings are of equal strength. Since then, women in the west have made many gains.
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My grandmother’s generation was at the tail end of the efforts to give women the right to vote. It took activists and reformers nearly 100 years to win that right, and the campaign was not easy. Some of them were clubbed, beaten, and tortured, and others were even arrested and put in jail.
My mother’s generation saw women burning their bras in a stand for women’s rights at a Miss America Beauty Pageant. They wanted to show how all women were hurt by beauty competitions. They argued that the contest declared that the most important thing about a woman is how she looks, by parading women around like cattle at an auction. They also threw things such as bras, girdles, curlers, tweezers, high heels, etc. into trashcans to be burned.
My generation was taught that women could have it all – that we could be “super women.” The preview issue of Ms. Magazine in the spring of 1972 influenced my generation with an image of a pregnant woman in a yoga pose, representing the Hindu goddess Kali. She is standing on one leg, balancing eight arms like an octopus. Each arm held items such as a phone, a clock, a torch, a frying pan, an iron, a rake, a steering wheel and a typewriter, showing that women could juggle many different facets of life, all at the same time. This was a good idea in theory, but not in practice.
My son’s generation saw men baffled by women’s attempts to become independent. There was a widening gap between men and women, an increase in sexual freedom and the use of pornography; and the divorce rates rose. In a recent study, more than half (54%) of all partnered women reported greater or equal earnings to their spouse, and nearly one-third (32%) of millennial and Gen X women reported being the primary breadwinner, versus the 20% rate reported by baby boomers and traditionalists (those born between 1928 and 1945).
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My grandson’s generation has had to deal with the COVID pandemic, which has brought women back into the home, where they have been expected to juggle child-care and online education for their children, while trying to keep up with the housework and working at their jobs remotely, side by side with their husbands. This has led to increased tension, divorce, mental health breakdowns and even addictions.
During the pandemic, though, countries led by women had systematically and significantly better Covid-19 outcomes due to locking down earlier and suffering half as many deaths on average as those countries led by men.
Human society, the Baha’i teachings say, has every reason to be hopeful. We know the road to gender equality will be long and stony. We know there will be lots of gains and lots of setbacks. We know that with every crisis comes many victories. We know, too, that the Baha’i teachings promise humanity a future where “equality of the sexes will be established:”
Baha’u’llah proclaimed equality of the sexes – that both man and woman are servants of God before Whom there is no distinction. Whosoever has a pure heart and renders good deeds is nearer to God and the object of His favor – whether man or woman. The sex distinction which exists in the human world is due to the lack of education for woman, who has been denied equal opportunity for development and advancement. Equality of the sexes will be established in proportion to the increased opportunities afforded woman in this age, for man and woman are equally the recipients of powers and endowments from God, the Creator. God has not ordained distinction between them in His consummate purpose.
Baha’u’llah’s principles and promises are being and will continue to be fulfilled as humanity works for the equality of men and women.
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