Equality of women and men

The equality of women and men is a fundamental tenet of Bahá’í belief. The relationship of equality to world peace is central to Bahá’í thinking on this issue and is one of the main themes of several Bahá’í statements presented at United Nations conferences and meetings. For full equality to be realized, priority must be given to the education of women, starting with a greater investment in the education of girls. Essential, too, is the partnership of men and boys in working towards the day when women and girls have full equality in all aspects of life.

The emancipation of women, the achievement of full equality between the sexes, is one of the most important, though less acknowledged prerequisites of peace. The denial of such equality perpetrates an injustice against one half of the world’s population and promotes in men harmful attitudes and habits that are carried from the family to the workplace, to political life, and ultimately to international relations. There are no grounds, moral, practical, or biological, upon which such denial can be justified. Only as women are welcomed into full partnership in all fields of human endeavor will the moral and psychological climate be created in which international peace can emerge.1

Since its inception nearly 150 years ago, the Bahá’í Faith has promoted equality of the sexes. Indeed, the Bahá’í Faith is the only independent world religion whose Founder has stated unequivocally that women and men are equal. “Women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God,”2 said Bahá’u’lláh.

Bahá’ís understand that the values which women bring to human interaction are necessary to the proper functioning and advancement of modern society and that qualities that have formerly been associated with the feminine sides of our natures — such as compassion, nurturance, cooperation and empathy — will be increasingly important in creating a peaceful, just, and sustainable world civilization.

Bahá’í institutions around the world promote various educational efforts for women and work to raise an awareness in both women and men of their fundamental equality. Many of the Bahá’í International Community’s schools, learning centres, and grass-roots social and economic development projects specifically integrate the promotion of the advancement of women into their curricula or agendas.

Women compose approximately 30% of elected leadership in Bahá’í councils at the national level, comparing favorably with national parliaments, which average 10% worldwide in their makeup of women.

Bahá’í women have long been active in the struggle to promote women’s equality. The Bahá’í Faith was founded in 1844 in Iran, and among its early followers was Tahirih, a Persian poet and scholar. In 1852, she laid down her life in defence of her beliefs, which included the right to lay aside her veil and work for the complete emancipation of women.

Laura Dreyfus-Barney, a member of the first Bahá’í community in Europe, was among the leading figures in promoting the advancement of women in the early years of this century. In the years after World War I, she focused her attention on mobilizing women for peace. She represented the International Council of Women (ICW) in the League of Nations and was president of the ICW’s Peace and Arbitration Commission.

After World War II, Ms. Dreyfus-Barney played an important role in developing the relationship between the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Since the Bahá’í International Community (BIC) obtained consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 1970, it has cooperated officially with the United Nations in its work to improve the status of women throughout the world.

The BIC has worked directly with the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and its Secretariat, the UN Division for the Advancement of Women. In addition, the BIC has established close, cooperative relationships with other international non-governmental organizations at the United Nations that seek to promote the advancement of women.

Initially, the BIC contributed to the work of the United Nations by submitting statements to United Nations bodies, and in particular the Commission on the Status of Women, on various aspects of equality. Such statements have addressed the education of girls, the importance of elevating the status of women as mothers, and the relevance of women’s participation at local, national, and international levels to the establishment of world peace.

As part of International Women’s Year in 1975, the BIC participated in the first World Conference on Women, held in Mexico City. Two Bahá’í representatives were officially accredited to attend the conference and nine representatives attended the NGO Tribune, a parallel meeting for non-governmental organizations.

During the next 10 years, which were designated the United Nations Decade for Women, the Bahá’í International Community developed a solid reputation for its work in promoting the advancement of women. BIC representatives served on NGO committees on the status of women in New York, Geneva, and Vienna and participated in the World Conferences on Women that were held in Copenhagen, Denmark, in l980, in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1985, and in Beijing, China, in 1995.

The BIC’s representatives have also been involved in planning parallel activities for NGOs at these meetings. Relationships were established with major organizations worldwide that share its focus on the promotion of the advancement of women.

The BIC collaborates increasingly with UN agencies such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA).

* Adapted from Bahá’í Topics, an information resource produced by the Bahá’í International Community.