The Greatness Which Might Be Theirs: The Status of Women in the Baha'i Community
Change is an evolutionary process requiring patience with one's self and others, loving education and the passage of time as the believers deepen their knowledge of the principles of the faith, gradually discard long-held traditional attitudes and progressively conform their lives to the unifying teachings of the cause. -- The Universal House of Justice
Women's struggle for recognition and full participation in their religious communities has always been difficult, often more difficult than in the secular world. In both religious and secular life, women are excluded by attitudes and behaviors that derive from the belief that women are inferior to men, but in many religious communities the subordination of women is also enshrined in institutions and reinforced by the interpretation of scripture as the will of God.
Not so in the Baha'i community. The teachings of Bahá'u'lláh, Prophet-Founder of the Baha'i Faith, are unequivocal in asserting the full spiritual and social equality of women. Moreover, the institutions of the Baha'i Faith have a moral obligation to support and encourage the full participation of women in leadership and decision making and all other aspects of Baha'i community life. A recent survey of the participation of women in Baha'i community life found women well represented in leadership positions in Baha'i communities the world over and illustrates the progress that is being made to overcome traditional attitudes and strong cultural norms.
In order to understand the information gathered by this survey, it is important to understand the nature of leadership in the Baha'i community -- a religious community without clergy. The emphasis on group leadership, as opposed to individual power, runs throughout the Baha'i administrative system, which has two branches: one composed of councils elected to govern; the other composed of individuals appointed to inspire and advise. The survey found that women make up 30% of the membership of the elected national governing councils (called National Spiritual Assemblies) and 40% of the membership of local governing councils (called Local Spiritual Assemblies). Moreover, 47% of those (called members of the Auxiliary Boards) appointed to inspire and advise the community at the sub-national and regional level are women.
Although these statistics put the Baha'i community well ahead of the world at large in the participation of women in leadership, the Baha'i community has yet to fulfill its own goal of full equality between women and men. For the vast majority of the Baha'is in the world today, many of whom are the first in their families to become Baha'is, the values and habits they have been brought up with are not easy to shake. But by becoming Baha'is they commit themselves to a process of individual and social transformation, based on the fundamental reality of this age: the oneness of humanity. The equality of men and women is one important aspect of this principle. Thus the entire Baha'i community is engaged in a shared struggle to overcome a variety of traditional prejudices, and its members are assisted in this struggle by the Baha'i administrative institutions.
Background of the Survey
This most recent survey of the status of women in the Baha'i community (1993-1994) is the third conducted by the Baha'i International Community. The first was conducted in 1972 in preparation for International Women's Year (1975) and the second in 1984 at the end of the Decade for Women (1976-1985). All three surveys examined -- in increasing detail -- the following critical factors affecting the status of women:
- women's participation on the elected councils that govern Baha'i community life;
- ways in which Baha'i institutions encourage women to participate in Baha'i community life; and
- strategies used by Baha'i institutions to change attitudes toward women.
The 1993-94 survey collected data on women's participation in the administrative activities of the Baha'i community from two sources: the elected institutions and the members of the appointed branch of the Baha'i administrative order (Auxiliary Board members) whose functions -- advising, protecting, and encouraging the community -- complement those of the elected branch, which is charged with governing. The information gathered sheds light on the transformation process itself and shows how these complementary institutions are promoting -- each in its own way -- the process of understanding and implementing the principle of equality of the sexes.
Questionnaires were sent to all 165 National Spiritual Assemblies; 92 responded. Questionnaires were also sent to appointed members of the Auxiliary Boards, who inspire and guide individuals and consult with elected governing councils at the sub-national and regional level. Two hundred fifty-four (65%) of the 389 Auxiliary Board members serving worldwide responded, reporting on their activities and those of their assistants, appointed to carry out the same functions at the local level. Reliability of the survey sample was validated by comparing membership statistics on all 165 National Spiritual Assemblies, collected by the Baha'i World Centre, to the same information reported by the National Assemblies responding to the survey.
Preliminary Findings from the Elected Institutions
The percentage of women serving on the 92 National Spiritual Assemblies responding to the survey was 30%, demonstrating the degree to which Baha'is -- who vote by secret ballot -- are attempting to overcome traditional prejudices. This percentage, which has remained constant since the first survey in 1972, is consistent with the percentage for all 165 National Assemblies, according to statistics gathered by the Baha'i World Centre. The survey found that 41% of the national secretaries were women. This is a significant show of confidence, as the Office of the Secretary is a highly responsible and visible position in Baha'i administration.
In addition to basic information on male-to-female ratios in various positions of leadership, the survey also asked about women's activities at the local and national levels. The response indicated that over half of the national Baha'i communities responding held specific events concerning women's issues at least once a year over the last six years. Among the topics discussed were equality between women and men, women in leadership, marriage and family life, parenting, and "heroines of the Baha'i Faith." The 38 National Assemblies with literacy programs reported that, due in part to special efforts to recruit women, more women attended classes than men.
The survey also found that in Baha'i publishing ventures, women play a prominent role. Most national communities indicated that they appointed publication committees, and the male-to-female ratio on these committees was about one-to-one. Of the 54 communities which reported publishing books during the last six years, 24 produced books about women.
Particularly encouraging is the survey data on 4,680 local communities (approximately one fourth of the organized communities worldwide) indicating that an increasing number of women are being elected to serve at the grassroots level. Of those elected to serve on local governing councils, an impressive 40% were women. What's more, half of the local secretaries and a third of the local treasurers were women.
Preliminary Findings from the Appointed Institutions
The commitment of Baha'i institutions to the full participation of women is evident in the appointment of almost equal numbers of women and men to serve on the Auxiliary Boards. Of the Auxiliary Board members reporting, 47% were women; 53% men. Moreover, the assistants they appointed to nurture and encourage Baha'is at the local level were also approximately 50% women and 50% men.
These individuals exert a powerful moral influence in Baha'i communities. Their ideas and insights are frequently sought both by elected Baha'i governing councils and by individual Baha'is. Many of these appointed leaders, in responding to the survey, indicated that they regularly promote principles of equality and partnership between women and men in their speeches, workshops and personal discussions.
The survey produced a mountain of data that has yet to be fully analyzed. However, preliminary results clearly demonstrate that women play a significant role in governing (30%) and guiding (47%) Baha'i communities all over the world. The survey data also confirms that the institutions of the Baha'i Faith are taking affirmative action to foster the development and the full participation of women in the life of the community. In addition, and perhaps more interesting, the survey sheds light on the role of the two branches of the Baha'i administrative order - elected councils and appointed individuals - in catalyzing the process of individual and social transformation.
The international governing council for the Baha'i community, the Universal House of Justice, advises an integrated approach to this process: "The principle of the equality between women and men, like the other teachings of the Faith, can be effectively and universally established among the friends when it is pursued in conjunction with all the other aspects of Baha'i life."
The survey data confirms that in this evolutionary process both appointed and elected Baha'i institutions are exerting moral leadership. By appointing women to positions of responsibility within the community and then supporting and encouraging them, both elected and appointed institutions assist women to develop and demonstrate the capacities called for in those who serve on Baha'i governing councils at every level. According to the Baha'i Writings, these qualities include "unquestioned loyalty," "selfless devotion," "a well- trained mind," "recognized ability and mature experience." 1 As women arise to serve, particularly at the local level, the community can see them in new roles and experience for themselves the contributions women can make. Given this new evidence of women's capacity, many Baha'is are able to internalize this revolutionary principle of the equality between women and men. We speculate that as these efforts succeed in assisting Baha'is to "discard long-held traditional attitudes" more women will be elected to serve as members and officers of both national and local governing councils.
The findings of this survey are especially encouraging given that the Baha'i community is among the most diverse on the planet. The more than five million Baha'is worldwide come from virtually every nation, ethnic group, culture, profession and social or economic class, representing more than 2,100 different ethnic and tribal groups. Geographically, the Baha'i Faith has become the second-most widespread independent world religion, following Christianity. Baha'is, who have established communities in some 232 countries and territories, will continue to pursue the full emancipation of women because they understand that "Until the reality of equality between man and woman is fully established and attained, the highest social development of mankind is not possible."2
1. Shoghi Effendi, Baha'i Administration, Selected Messages 1922-1932,
rev. ed. (Wilmette: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1974), p. 88.
2. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, Talks Delivered by 'Abdu'l-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912,
2d ed. (Wilmette: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1982), pp. 76-77.