There are many barriers to world peace, each of which must be overcome in its own way. One of these obstacles is gender inequality, in which over half the human race is suffering under this oppression. “Until the reality of equality between man and woman is fully established and attained,” says ‘Abdu’l-Baha, son and authorized interpreter of the founder of the Baha’i Faith, “the highest social development of mankind is not possible.”
We often think of ourselves in Canada as having made great strides in the achievement of gender equality, and we have, but we still have a long way to go. If we look, for example, in the political realm, Canada sits at number 39, tied with Australia, for the percentage of women in a national parliament. With Iraq, Cuba, Afghanistan and East Timor ahead of us, there is still plenty of room for improvement.
Even though we see greater numbers of women entering the workforce, and more and more women breaking barriers in both science and sports, our language still hasn’t caught up with this fact. One example of where we are still falling short would be the word “misogynist” or woman-hater. Most of us are familiar with the term, although we may not be able to recall the definition. At the very least we could look it up in our average dictionary. The word for man-hater, however, is conspicuously absent. You must go to an unabridged dictionary to find it, and even then may not see it listed. The average person on the street, when asked to give a word for man-hater, will likely think ‘feminist’. The correct term, ‘misandrist’, is not in common usage. By our very linguistic limitations, we condemn the noble and admirable trait of feminism, the doctrine advocating all rights of women equal to those of men.
“The world in the past has been ruled by force,” writes ‘Abdu’l-Baha, “and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the balance is already shifting…” In our multi-cultural society, we often hear “tradition” as an excuse for the subjugation of women. This can often be traced back to the mis-begotten idea of the woman as a seductress tempting the male from his “state of purity”, ignoring the responsibility of each individual for their own personal behaviour. Or it can be seen in the sad belief that woman are the property of the men, and must be controlled. One outcome of this is the miscarriage of justice when a rape victim is not believed because she was dressed in clothes deemed inappropriate. Another is when men think that they are somehow defending their “honor” by killing a woman who doesn’t live according to the man’s belief. Fortunately, you have to go to the very fringes of society to find people who still believe this sad idea.
Some people perpetuate this inequality by saying that women have no right to serve in a spiritual capacity, that they are somehow unworthy of teaching the Word of God. This is despite the fact that Jesus Himself, in the Gospel of St John, sent a woman into Samaria to teach the people, and that it was Mary Magdalene who brought the message of His rising to the Disciples. Christ’s attitude toward women was the same as that of His attitude toward all peoples: love. “In the estimation of God,” says ‘Abdu’l-Baha, “there is no distinction as to male and female.” He confirms that women and men alike are the revealers of the attributes of God. As we, the human race, were created in the image of our Creator, we all manifest those divine spiritual attributes, ranging from love and compassion to honour and wisdom. “Noble have I created thee” is the testament to us all.
This does not negate the differences between the genders, but raises them to a station worthy of celebration. It places them on equal footing. In fact, ‘Abdu’l-Baha goes further and compares woman and man to the two wings of the bird of humanity. “Not until both wings are equally developed”, He says, “can the bird fly.” Any perceived social differences are merely due to education and opportunity, not inherent in creation. When both are raised to the level of true equailty, then both shall achieve a greatness that is unattainable when one is subjugated.
Baha’u'llah, the Founder of the Baha’i Faith, in His writings states unequivocally that if we have a girl and a boy but can only afford to educate one of them, we must educate the girl. Although this often raises a question of why, it makes perfect sense when we see that the woman, as a mother, is most often the first educator of the child. When we educate a man, we educate an individual, but when we educate a woman, we educate a generation. Numerous studies from the UN further testify that educational programs targetting the girl-child are by far the most effective in raising the overall welfare of a society.
We have generations of tradition to correct, millenia of inertia to overcome, and billions of people that need to be shown we were created “all from the same dust” so that “none could exalt himself over the other”. In our society, we always look for a quick fix, a panacea that will solve all the problems, but the fact is that “change is an evolutionary process requiring patience with one’s self and others, loving education and the passage of time…” We have begun moving in the right direction, and as we further embrace this step, we will have achieved a major milestone towards that Great Peace “which seers and poets for countless generations have expressed their vision”.