Elimination of Discrimination Against Women


Elimination of Discrimination Against Women

Statement to the 25th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women Item 4 (A) of the provisional agenda: international instruments and national standards relating to the status of women: implementation of the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and related instruments

New York—15 January 1974

Since this is the first occasion we have had to report on publicity given to the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, we would like to mention that as far back as 1968 we were making available to our affiliates information on that United Nations instrument, as well as mailing supplies for United Nations Day or Human Rights Day meetings. In a circular letter of 12 February 1968, sent to Baha'i­ National Spiritual Assemblies, offering suggestions for kinds of activities their communities might undertake during the International Year of Human Rights, we suggested sponsoring "some activity or celebration built around women's rights, to stress our belief in the equality of men and women." That year our records indicate that supplies of the Declaration were sent to several countries, as has been true since.

We are very pleased to report, however, that, in a circular letter of 15 June 1973, we offered to supply our National Spiritual Assemblies with quantities of the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, to assist them "to emphasize the need for a better understanding of the principle of the equality of men and women" in their United Nations Day and Human Rights Day observances. The response was most encouraging. We shipped almost 4,000 copies of the Declaration -- in English, French, or Spanish -- and over 100 copies of the new brochure, "The Equality of Rights for Women." The materials were sent to the following Assemblies, representing quite a range of peoples and cultures: Alaska, Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Dahomey, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Fiji, Finland, Ghana, Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Guatemala, Hawaii, Honduras, Jamaica, Kenya, Laos, Mauritius, Netherlands, Niger, Réunion, Spain, Swaziland, Thailand, Togo, United Republic of Tanzania and the Windward Islands.

On 21 July 1972, the Baha'i­ International Community sent copies of the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to 113 National Spiritual Assemblies -- national administrative bodies of communities which are our member-affiliates. Particular attention was called articles I, III, and XI, paragraph 2, as it was in these areas the Baha'i­ communities could make a most effective contribution. A compilation of quotations from the Baha'i­ writings on the equality of men and women -- a basic teaching of the Baha'i­ -- as well as specific quotations on the importance of women in assuming an equal role in community life, were included.

A detailed questionnaire to determine the degree of activity of Baha'i­ women in each national community was included in the same mailing. To date replies have been received from 81 administrative bodies, and these questionnaires are being reviewed and a report prepared. The forms included questions on changing attitudes of both men and women -- the influence of traditions and customs, the participation of Baha'i­ women in Baha'i­ community life (administrative activity, elections, consultation, service on Baha'i­ administrative bodies, teaching activity etc.), as well as questions relating to education (literacy programmes, school enrollment and the education of children in the equality of the sexes) and inquiring as to whether women were assuming roles considered traditionally masculine.

It is our hope that the measures referred to above, as well as our plans for International Women's Year, which we are at the present time in the process of formulating, may be a contribution to the implementation of the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

Because of their commitment to the Baha'i­ Faith, Baha'i­s the world over continue to deepen their understanding of the principle of equality, and a gradual but steady change in attitudes can be counted upon because of the roots from which such action springs. The programme of the Baha'i­ International Community for International Women's Year will serve to re-emphasize important aspects of the status of women and help Baha'i­ communities relate to other organizations and to the work of the United Nations in promotion of the principle of the equality of both sexes.

Preliminary Enquiry Into the Status of Women in the Baha'i­ World Community


On July 21, 1972, the Baha'i­ International Community sent a questionnaire on the participation of women in the life of Baha'i­ communities to its member-affiliates -- 113 National Spiritual Assemblies, national administrative bodies of those communities -- to determine the extent to which changing attitudes among Baha'i­s have affected the position of women. The topics covered in the broad range of questions were of interest, directly or indirectly, to the work of the United Nations in the area of the status of women.

In addition to the questionnaire, the Baha'i­ International Community provided National Spiritual Assemblies with a selection of important passages from the Baha'i­ Writings on the equality of men and women, which not only emphasized in a concise way the goals toward which all Baha'i­ communities are striving, but provided material which could be used for the education of local and national communities. Many communities, not fortunate in having a full library of Baha'i­ literature on this subject, are now provided with a brief but powerful summary of authoritative statements on the importance of the principle of the equality of men and women -- one of the significant teachings of the Founder of the Baha'i­ Faith.

Also enclosed with the questionnaire was a copy of the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, calling specific attention to those sections in which the Baha'i­ International Community, a Non-Governmental Organization accredited to the Economic and Social Council, can make, and is already making, a contribution to the work of the United Nations.

We find that this questionnaire and enclosures have increased the interest of Baha'i­ communities in the subject of the equality of men and women and have encouraged plans for discussions, conferences, and institutes.

It should be pointed out that all individual Baha'i­s and Baha'i­ institutions are committed to the belief that the teachings of their Faith are invested with Divine authority and that the principles of these Teachings are the guidance toward which Baha'i­s continually turn for new insight and understanding. It is inevitable at this time in the history of the Baha'i­ world community that there are wide differences in the understanding, as well as in the application, of these principles, and that the full appreciation of their significance, and its demonstration in action, are dependent upon many factors in the life of the individual and in society. Baha'i­ communities, although very different one from another, since they include a wide diversity of cultural backgrounds, are also very similar. They express a unique unity in diversity, unity in that all are committed to Bahá'u'lláh, the Founder of their Faith, as the Divine Revelator for this period in human history; diversity in that they are an unusual blend of nationalities, races, creeds, classes, and temperaments -- all welcomed and appreciated in the Baha'i­ Faith.

Certainly the problems which individual Baha'i­s and local and national Baha'i­ communities must face in gradually educating and raising themselves to the high standards inculcated in the Teachings of Bahá'u'lláh may be different; but the direction is determined, and the growth and achievement already evident, as the answers to the questionnaire indicate.

Since the way in which Baha'i­ communities function is part of the learning process in which Baha'i­s voluntarily participate as they become voting members, a few words about the Baha'i­ administrative order that fosters the development of the Baha'i­ community would be helpful to understand the results of the questionnaire.

The Local and National Spiritual Assemblies, each consisting of nine adult Baha'i­s, are elected annually by secret ballot, without nomination or electioneering. The Universal House of Justice, the supreme institution of the Baha'i­ administrative order, is elected every five years by the members of the National Spiritual Assemblies. The Local Spiritual Assembly receives recommendations from the community at large during the regular community meeting held every 19 days -- the Baha'i­ Feast. Decisions of an Assembly are made by majority vote on all matters, which even now, on a small scale, reflect the gamut of human problems and activities. Although the same tensions and antagonisms may exist as are found outside the Baha'i­ community, separatism caused by such conflict has been made impossible, since no doctrine representing an individual or any one group can gain ascendancy, and all Baha'i­s are subject to one authority in the Teachings of Bahá'u'lláh. Pressure groups do not arise, since those elected are responsible not to a constituency, but to God and their own consciences. Consultation on any matter calls for participation in an open manner -- each member of the Assembly putting forth his views and in turn learning from the views expressed by all the other members. When a decision is made, everyone in the Baha'i­ community must abide by it, preserving the unity at each stage of growth.

This report on the questionnaire points out the very rapid assimilation of all Baha'i­s in the Baha'i­ community. The Baha'i­ administrative system provides the means for the accomplishment of the Baha'i­ teaching of the abolition of all prejudice, whether based on race, religion, class, nationality, or sex, and is oriented toward the establishment of a world order, in which the contribution of all people is valued, and is understood to contribute toward the development of a world civilization.

The report which follows is based on replies from 81 countries (list attached) and significant territories, and while not yet complete, presents trends which are already definite and promising. In many instances progress is either more marked in the Baha'i­ community than in the society in which Baha'i­s live, or is in quite a different direction. In other places perceptible but only very gradual change in attitudes can be seen, either due to the small numbers of Baha'i­s or to the strong influence of traditional patterns. It is evident that where Baha'i­ communities are firmly established, where numbers are large, and where there has been opportunity for deeper understanding and development over a considerable period of time, a greater security for the individual and for the family provides a sense of greater freedom -- and a concomitant desire -- to practice the Baha'i­ belief in the equality of rights, privileges, and opportunities for members of both sexes.

Participation in Elections

An important trend was noted in the replies received regarding the participation of women in elections in the Baha'i­ community. In all national Baha'i­ communities thus far reporting, except one, Baha'i­ women actively participate in voting, an easy process for them since there is no electioneering or nominations, and the ballot is secret. Many communities, still very undeveloped from the standpoint of the acceptance of equal status for women, indicate that Baha'i­ women vote in Baha'i­ elections. Sometimes, "this participation is their first attempt at freedom of expression;" or "this activity [elections] has given women their first opportunity to take part in administrative affairs" in village and rural areas. Even in the most remote village areas, women participate in Baha'i­ elections, though they are more reticent in other activities, and customs are more inhibiting in villages further away from urban centres. In certain areas, participation in Baha'i­ elections is the extent of the activity of Baha'i­ women, and in some countries where, because of tradition, women have not as yet taken as active a part in Baha'i­ community life as men, they do, however, participate in elections; and one National Spiritual Assembly remarks: "It is our policy to make sure that by and by women take part in Baha'i­ elections to the same degree as men."

The activity of Baha'i­ women is often directly dependent on cultural background. One National Spiritual Assembly reports that the younger generation has changed its attitude, but the "older generation is still holding on to old prejudices." In countries where the western tradition prevails women have played a key role in the Baha'i­ community from the beginning and "women have found in the Faith an arena of service in which they can become more and more sure that they form a concrete part." The replies mention, however, that new issues will be posed by the influx now of women of other races who are entering the Baha'i­ community.

In older Baha'i­ communities progress in the participation of women is most marked, "particularly in elections and voting for women."There is, however, outstanding evidence that in countries where tradition is very strongly against the participation of women in community life, Baha'i­ women are also already participating in elections, in consultation, and in teaching activity, and one report mentions that "Baha'i­ women are not only more active [than men] in teaching, in discussion of themes, and on teaching trips," but are often "a decisive factor in elections." In Melanesian society, "among the indigenous people, Baha'i­ women, though shyer than men, participate fully in Baha'i­ elections and express their ideas as much as men in consultation."

Election of Women to Office

Following closely upon this participation in the election process, women are elected to serve on Local and National Baha'i­ Assemblies. This fact is dramatically illustrated in some countries, where "by tradition, women seldom speak when men are present," and where great discrimination exists, yet where a number of Baha'i­ women are serving on different Local Assemblies. One such Assembly has, in fact, four women members, one of them serving as Chairman, another as Secretary, and it is by no means unique for women to serve as officers of the Spiritual Assemblies. In places where only men serve on village councils, women are elected to the Baha'i­ Assemblies, and "it is apparent that Baha'i­ men have a changed attitude as they vote for some women." In many parts of Africa women are often elected Treasurers, as they are "considered good managers of money and are reliable." In some areas of Africa, when it is explained to village Baha'i­s that both men and women are elected to our Assemblies, as we have no prejudice, often women are elected on their new Local Assembly, though all may be very new Baha'i­s.


In some countries women, as they participate in Baha'i­ consultation, are being encouraged for the first time to take part in community affairs. In others, although women take part in elections and in consultation, progress is slow, while in yet others the questionnaire notes the changing attitudes of men and women among Baha'i­s in spite of the fact that custom is against freedom for women. One country notes that men are becoming more respectful of women, inviting their participation; women then join in the consultation. One reply indicates that women often do not attend as many meetings as men, but they participate fully in Baha'i­ elections, express their views in consultation, and are more active than before they were Baha'i­s. Another notes that although women are reluctant to express their views in consultation when in a mixed group, unless they have been Baha'i­s for a long time, it is evident that they are coming to the fore. Sometimes Baha'i­ women seem to wait for the men to make decisions, but some of strong personality "are quick to disagree if they feel strongly about a subject."

One very interesting comment on an important aspect of Baha'i­ life was that "Women try, in many cases more effectively than men, to set themselves a higher standard of behaviour and integrity."

Traditional patterns are seen to vary in the way in which they inhibit the freedom of women. Some countries report more equality in participation in rural areas, others in the urban centres. A number of questionnaires reported that although men in the beginning attended more meetings, took a more active part in Baha'i­ consultation and in teaching activity, now attitudes were seen to have changed to permit the greater participation of women.

It is apparent from the replies received that women, as they become Baha'i­s, are assuming responsibilities which they would otherwise have been reluctant to undertake, and that as they become more educated in the Baha'i­ way of life their activity increases.

An important point should be added as to how this education in the Baha'i­ life directly bears on participation in the consultative process. Because of the Baha'i­ emphasis on the spiritual worth of every individual and the recognition that the acquisition of character and virtues is a primary goal of human life, it follows that every person's contribution in Baha'i­ consultation is not only sought after, but is considered of great importance. The redefinition of values in regard to human life does away with the feelings of inferiority and lack of worth which an over-emphasis on material values produces and which inhibits the participation of women. In addition, the encouragement which women experience in the Baha'i­ community because of its recognition of the organic oneness of mankind, and the great importance placed on the universal participation of all members of the Baha'i­ Faith, is unique.

Change in Attitudes

Answers to questions relating to a change in the attitudes of both men and women when they become Baha'i­s show a very encouraging trend. Baha'i­s are striving, often with marked success, to change their attitudes toward the education and participation of women.

Almost universally the replies indicated that Baha'i­ men encourage the active participation of their wives in Baha'i­ community life, even where tradition has kept women out of affairs and even where the women themselves are shy or reluctant to assume active roles in community life. Baha'i­ men encourage their wives both to participate more fully in Baha'i­ community life and to take a more equal position in home life," and "Baha'i­ men appreciate seeing their wives participate in Baha'i­ activities." Very few examples of male intransigence are reported among Baha'i­ men.

It is evident from the reports received from National Spiritual Assemblies that the degree of freedom for women in Baha'i­ communities varies a great deal, although the Baha'i­ viewpoint on the equality of men and women seems to have become established. However, the pattern of life for women has certainly been affected by many elements in society in general. Remote areas make slow progress away from tradition, but in parts which have had long contact with the outside world, progress has been remarkable. In one Baha'i­ village, the women are outstanding and have a notable place in civil as well as Baha'i­ affairs. A few National Spiritual Assemblies have mentioned the fact that traditions and customs encourage the participation of women and women have played an important role in the history of the country. One reports that women in the indigenous communities are more active than men and when these communities become Baha'i­ they continue this tradition. (It is quite clear from the replies to the questionnaires that belief in and dedication to the teachings of the Baha'i­ Faith have resulted in progressive change in all Baha'i­ communities -- and these communities will be found to be working diligently for the advancement of women in every part of the world.)

In general the reports indicate that when women become Baha'i­s, progress in their community activity is speeded up: "after becoming Baha'i­s, the women work as much as the men."


The Baha'i­ Teachings place great importance on the education of women, as the enclosed quotations show. The Baha'i­ Writings stress the principle of equality of education for men and women, as well as that of compulsory universal education, and elaborate the responsibilities of parents and of Baha'i­ institutions toward equal opportunities in the education of children. There is at the same time a statement in the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh that if parents are not able to educate both boy and girl, the girl should be given preference because she is the future mother and first educator of the child.

Baha'i­ institutions bear responsibility for education of the members of the community, and every individual Baha'i­ has a relationship to all Baha'i­ institutions -- local, national, and international. Thus the Baha'i­ administrative order provides means for the expression of religious teachings in the private action of individuals and in society.

Although a few National Spiritual Assemblies commented on the lack of interest in education on the part of individuals, because of a number of obstacles, the overwhelming majority confirmed that Baha'i­ parents and Baha'i­ institutions wanted the young to acquire an education, as did the youth themselves.

Many National Spiritual Assemblies reported that teaching conferences and special meetings have been held for the purpose of increasing Baha'i­ awareness of the role of women in society. A Baha'i­ conference on the status of women was held and a number of prominent women were invited to participate. In many countries the role of women is discussed as a matter of course in public meetings, discussions and institutes where Baha'i­s gather to deepen in their understanding of the Baha'i­ Teachings.

The desire for education has found expression in various ways. There is indication that illiterate Baha'i­s are often motivated toward learning to read and write, and in general Baha'i­s are interested in furthering their education in order to help them better understand the Baha'i­ Teachings and the Baha'i­ life, as well as to enable them to contribute to the advancement of society as a whole by acquiring knowledge, training and skills. Women are enrolled in university night classes; Baha'i­ girls are studying medicine and architecture; and a few Baha'i­ women are very prominent in their countries because of their contributions.

Baha'i­s also help each other within the community; individual Baha'i­s help each other in learning to read and "women, because of their commitment to Bahá'u'lláh, have been actively involved in the establishment of alcohol education programs, taking dramatic presentations to ... villages, working with handicapped children, etc."

One eminent Baha'i­ woman has been responsible for founding a Council of Women in her country and for changing laws on the status of women.

Literacy programs have been established and provision made for the education of older illiterate women.

The influence of the younger generation upon the old is seen in one report; "some daughters teach their mothers to read and write." Another mentions the fact that Baha'i­s from other countries, as a part of the community, help the indigenous people to gradually accept the new standards of the Faith, pointing out the educative influence which Baha'i­s in their diversity have on each other. One individual Baha'i­ is making it possible for some girls to go to public school. There is awareness of the importance of attitudes towards education, one report noting that sometimes girls enter "active life, leaving their schools to marry and assume family responsibilities," because there are many children in the family or because the parents, before becoming Baha'i­s, did not encourage their girls enough in the matter of education.

Teaching Children the Equality of Men and Women

The importance of teaching children the equality of men and women seems to have taken strong root in many Baha'i­ communities all over the world, and both Baha'i­ parents and Baha'i­ institutions are actively promoting this principle in a variety of ways. A number of Assemblies indicate that this represents a different attitude from that of people outside the Baha'i­ community. One report elaborates on this difference in commenting that equality outside the Baha'i­ community is considered more in terms of study or job goals only. Others state that Baha'i­s are teaching their children in the principle of equality and have a desire to secure education for themselves in spite of the fact that "society here is not sympathetic."

Children's classes generally make a very successful contribution to community life, and offer opportunities for Baha'i­ women to "contribute their share of service by conducting Baha'i­ children's classes." One Assembly has founded a national committee on women and children for the coming year, to study the problem of women in the Faith.

The general conclusion may be made that within the Baha'i­ International Community great advances have already been made towards equality of the sexes, and the advancement of women is constantly pursued. The influence of Baha'i­ communities on the societies within which they exist varies in respect of this matter, but all Baha'i­ communities teach equality of the sexes and act to eliminate as far as possible prejudice and discrimination against women.

It is noteworthy that women are numbered among the highest-ranking officers of the Faith, and are active in all its work. In Europe there are seventeen National Spiritual Assemblies, each composed of nine members; fifteen have women members. In Africa, twenty-four out of thirty-one National Spiritual Assemblies have women members. In Asia the figures are twenty-five National Spiritual Assemblies, fifteen of which have women members; in the Americas thirty and twenty-nine, and in Australasia eleven and ten.

National Spriritual Assemblies Replying to Questionaire on Status of Women


Central African Republic
Congo Republic
Ivory Coast, Mali, and Upper Volta
North East Africa
North West Africa
Swaziland and Mozambique
Upper West Africa
West Africa


Costa Rica
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Guyana, Surinam, and French Guiana
Puerto Rico
Trinidad and Tobago


Eastern Malaysia and Brunei
Near East
North East Asia


Fiji Islands
Gilbert and Ellice Islands
Hawaiian Islands
New Zealand
North West Pacific Ocean
Papua and New Guinea
Solomon Islands
South West Pacific Ocean
Tonga and Cook Islands


United Kingdom


Two replies sent; one for New Caledonia and one for New Hebrides