This paper was published in the Baha'i Studies Review, vol. 4, no. 1 (1994), pp. 37-45 

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Moojan Momen


This paper argues that the Baha'i goal of achieving equality of womenand men cannot beachievedmerely by trying to advance the position of womenin society. Rather a much more radicalchange isneeded to produce a more"feminine" society. At present power is given the highest socialvalue andisthus the basis for judgements about an individual's worth and status. TheBaha'i Faith teaches that wemust work towards a society with different valuesand an ethos in which service andco-operation aremore highly valued. Thishas implications for understanding some of the other Baha'iteachings suchasnon-involvement in partisan politics.


This statement can be said to summarize the experience of women in almost every society inrecordedhistory. Why is it that women have been continually pushed aside in our societies? How canweconstruct a society in which women play a more equal role? Since Baha'is claim to work towardsasociety in which women will play a more equal role, what are the features of that societywhich willbring this about? The history of the past eighty years in the Westhas shown that merely goodintentionsare not sufficient to bring about atransformation in the position of women in society.

A useful starting point is to determine what are "the ways that matter" in our society. Oursocialstructure is one which anthropologists call a patriarchy. This word means a society in which menrule.But it is not just a question of the gender of those in positions of power and authority. There are aset ofvalues that are typical of the patriarchy. These values continue to exist even when we had atemporarysituation, as occurred in the Britain duringthe 1980s, when there was a female monarch and afemaleprime minister. Thesetwo women did not transform the United Kingdom from a patriarchy intoamatriarchy. It is still a patriarchy and has the values of a patriarchy. All that happened was thatthesetwo women were made into "honorary males" within the structure of the patriarchy.

Patriarchy determines the values of our society. It may be said that the patriarchy constructs ourvisionof what reality is.(1) This construct then becomes reality for us. We take on board all ofitsassumptionsand values without a second thought.

What then are the values of the patriarchal society in which we live?In patriarchy, the supreme valueispower. Those who have power are important; they are taken notice of; their deeds are recordedinnewspapers and in history books. Those who do not have power are ignored; they do not count; theyare not even "seen" in the social structure in the sense that no account is taken of them when decisionsaremade; they do not appear in history books.

A good example of this is Greece in the fifth and fourth millennium B.C. This was the period inwhichGreek civilization reached its peak; when Socrates, Plato and Aristotle lived in Athens andAlexanderthe Great conquered most of the civilised world. Thus this is recorded in the history books asthe "greatand glorious age" of Greece. But that is only the way it looks in relation to those in power inGreece.What about the women of Athens who were considered intellectually and physically defective,whowere married at an early ageand confined to their husband's house thereafter with no rightsorfreedoms?What about the numerous slaves in Athens? Was it a "great and glorious" agefor them?Onesuspects not--but we will never know because they were unseen.No historian bothered to recordtheirthoughts and feelings on Greek civilisation.

The same analysis applies to all groups without power--history has ignored women, the poor, racialandethnic minorities, slaves, peasants and the working class.

One of the reasons that the patriarchy has proved so enduring, despite numerous revolutionaryattemptsto overthrow the prevailing order, is that power as a value is subversive. If there are twogroups, A andB, the first of which holds power as its supreme value and the second of which does not, then Group Bloses whatever it does. If it sticks to its values and refuses to compete for power withGroup A, it issubjugated and has A's values imposed upon it. If B does compete with A, then this canonly be throughstrivingfor power and thus it has adopted power as a value and has lost its own values; thus A has stillsucceeded in asserting its values upon B.

The second reason that power is subversive as a value is that the group that holds that value tendstosubjugate those that do not. The group in power tends to be the group that constructs the socialrealityof the society and is then able to impose this on the rest of society, through its control of education,information, and religion. And, of course, it tends to be groups that hold to power as thesupreme valuethat come to power.

Many people think that equality of men and women will be achieved once women comprise 50%ofmanagers, top government officials, professionals and, in the Baha'i community, of theNationalSpiritual Assemblies. But this would only mean that women (or some women, to be moreaccurate) willhave climbed the power structure of society and consequently some other group--a racial or religiousminority, the poorer classes, or the rural population--will have fallen down the scale into thegap in thepower structure left by the ascending women. The structure itself will have remained intactwith all ofthe injustices that it perpetrates. Only its composition will have been re-arranged.

Indeed we may take the argument further: to take as our goal a 50% female composition in thehighestpower structures is to lull ourselves into a false sense of achievement and a hollow victory.Anyparticular group that unites, organises itself and is determined enough can succeed in gainingaccess to power. If a 50% female representation at the highest levels of power is our goal, then it is onlya matterof uniting, organising and being aggressive enough--it can be achieved. Conceivably it couldeven bedone within a few decades.

Most revolutions begin as an attempt to overthrow the power structureand introduce a moreegalitariansociety. The dispossessed and subjugatedelements in society seek to create a more equalsociety. Theyargue that oncethey are in power, they will use their authority to produce a moreegalitarianco-operative society. This was the aim of the proponents of the French Revolutionand of theBolshevikRevolution in Russia. It has formed part of the justification for most other revolutionarymovements.But if the revolution succeeds and the revolutionaries come to power, what occurs? Insteadofpromoting their egalitarian principles, the revolutionaries become corrupted by the power gamewhichthey have played and which has helped them to seize power. Instead of ceding a measure of theirpowerin order to create a more egalitarian society, they begin to create institutions and createpropaganda inorder to keep power in their own hands while persuading people that the goals of therevolution havebeen achieved. As George Orwell's Animal Farm depicts, instead of a revolution,generally nothingmuch has changed in the situation of the poor or the way that politics is operated. Oneset of people inauthorityhas been exchanged for another. This shows the danger of this method ofproceeding. For the"revolution" is achieved but the structure of society remains unaltered. All that hadhappened once therevolutionary dust has settled is a power shuffle.

What are the alternatives to patriarchy? There has probably never been a true matriarchy (rulebywomen). As indicated above, where women have ruled, it has been as honorary males. Therehavehowever in the past been societies that were matrifocal (where the women are the focus of thesocialgroup) and matrilineal (where descent is traced through the female line rather thanthe male line)andthese still exist among some remote tribal peoples. Inthese societies, it is not that women dominateorhave greater power. It ismore that power itself is not an important value. Men and women existsidebyside in co-operation rather than competition in such societies.

It appears that many, perhaps most, societies were matrifocal in the remote past.(2) The reason thatthishas ceased is probably related to the level of interactions between groups of humans. As longashumans were sufficiently thinly spread so that there were few interactions betweenneighbouringgroups, then these groups could remain matrifocal. The situation would have been similarto thematrifocal societies found amongmost primate groups. But as the pressure of population builtup,groups beganto interact more extensively with each other and, inevitably, power relations developed,with one group subjugating another.

We may characterise the patriarchal society as giving the greatest value to power, authority,control,victory, ownership, law, courage, strength.The main interactions are power struggles andcompetition.The ends justifythe means. Results are expressed in terms of victory or defeat. Thereareonly pointsfor the winners in such a society, none for the also-rans. Itis epitomised by tradition,institutions,civilisation, and control over thenatural world. There is a tendency towards centralisation ofauthoritybecausethat is one way of achieving greater and greater power.

In the matrifocal society, the highest values are nurturing, life-giving, compassion,sensitivity,spontaneity, creativity, working with nature, giving support to others. The principleinteractions aremutual and co-operative. The means are as important as the ends. Victory and successand judged by the degree to which the condition of all is bettered. It is epitomised by the natural world.The mutualityand consultative decision making that itfavours best occurs in small autonomouscommunities.

What then does the Baha'i principle of the equality of men and women mean in connection withthis.Many people have assumed that it means that women should be given equal power with men inoursociety--the concept of "empowerment" has become a catch-phrase.

But `Abdu'l-Baha has called for a feminisation of society itself--fora society in which power islessimportant:

"The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominatedwoman by reason of hismoreforceful and aggressive qualities both of bodyand mind. But the balance is already shifting--forceislosing its weightand mental alertness, intuition and the spiritual qualities of love and service,inwhichwoman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will bean age less masculine, andmorepermeated with the feminine ideals--or, tospeak more exactly, will be an age in which themasculineand feminine elementsin civilisation will be more evenly balanced."(3)

Indeed, `Abdu'l-Baha insists upon a redefinition of certain words that have long been associatedwiththe masculine values of the patriarchy. Regarding the word "victory", for example, he writes thatfor theBaha'i Cause: "its victory is to submit and yield"(4) and quotes Baha'u'llah as stating: "Therefore,today,`victory' neither hath been, nor will be opposition to anyone, nor strife with any person; but ratherwhat is well-pleasing--this is, that the cities of men's hearts, which are under the dominion of the hostsofselfishness and lust, should be subdued by the sword of the Word of Wisdom, and of Exhortation."(5) Similarly, `Abdu'l-Baha subverts the concept of competition from its usual role in a masculinesociety,that of gaining power, and instead promotes it as an approach in the arena of service: "Vie yewith eachother in the service of God and of His Cause. This is indeed what profiteth you in this world, and inthat which is to come."(6) The goalof personal ambition and the source of greatest glory do notbelong,in `Abdu'l-Baha's estimation, to the person who seizes power but to the person who excels in service to"human uplift and betterment"(7) and to "the cause of the Most Great Peace."(8)

Therefore I would submit that what the Baha'i Faith is seeking to bring about is not so much a societyinwhich women have more power, but rathera society in which power itself, as a value, isgreatlydiminished in importance. In such a society women will be able to become equal to men-- notthrough competing with men in a power structure but expressing their own virtues. `Abdu'l-Bahahascommented on some of these feminine virtues:

If women received the same educational advantages as those of men, the result would demonstratetheequality of capacity of both for scholarship. . . In some respects woman is superior to man. She ismoretender-hearted, more receptive, her intuition is more intense.(9)

The woman has the greater moral courage than the man; she also has special gifts which enable hertogovern in moments of danger and crisis . . . Taken in general, women today have a stronger senseofreligion than men. The woman's intuition is more correct; she is more receptive and her intelligenceisquicker." (10)

The view taken in this article of the meaning of the Baha'i principleof the equality of men andwomenthrows light on a number of other Baha'iteachings and principles.

First, we can see immediately the importance of the decentralised power structure and thenon-personalnature of the authority in the Baha'i administration. As we noted above, probably the mainreason forthe decline in the matrifocal society was the increasing pressure of population that led to anincreasing ability of one group to have power over others. Greater and greater degrees of centralisedpowercharacterises the patriarchal society. Thus in orderto achieve a more feminine society, we musthave agreater degree of decentralisation than exists in most of our societies. The Baha'i administrativeorderwith its insistence on the rights of the local assembly to jurisdiction over its local area; thestatementsof Shoghi Effendi warning against "the evils of excessive centralization"(11); the decision oftheUniversal House of Justice to devolve decisions about the formulation of global plans to anationallevel; the statement of the Universal Houseof Justice (2 January 1986) that it was thisdevolution ofresponsibilitythat marked the progress of the Baha'i Faith and the dawn of a newepoch--allthese serveto indicate the importance of decentralisation as a feature ofthe Baha'i administrative order. Thepersonalised power that is characteristicof the patriarchy is also negated in theBaha'i Faith as allpower and authorityrests with elected institutions rather than individuals. The Baha'imethodofelections to these institutions avoids the highly competitive electioneeringof most modernelections.The procedures of these institutions involves deliberation with the whole community andconsultativedecision-making. The whole ethos of this administrative machinery is radically different tomuch ofmodernadministration. Shoghi Effendi sums up this difference in his words of cautionto thoseelectedto Baha'i administrative office: "Let us also bear in mindthat the keynote of the Cause of God isnotdictatorial authority but humblefellowship, not arbitrary power, but the spirit of frank andlovingconsultation." (12) Although there are institutions such as the Continental Boards of Counsellorsand theAuxiliary Board where the appointment is individual, these institutions do not have any powerorauthority but rather their roles are to advise and encourage.

Second, the Baha'i principle of non-involvement in politics can be seen in the light of this analysisofpower. Baha'is are trying to build up a society that is more feminine in its nature and qualities. Ifitallows itself tobe sucked into the power politics of the patriarchy, it stands in dangerof being divertedfrom its ultimate goal. To enter into partisan politicsmeans accepting power as the supremevalue. Thisis the subversive effectof power as a value. This would be to follow other revolutions downa paththatcompromises the ultimate goal.

Many have criticised the Baha'i community for abstaining from partisan politics and thus foregoingtheone apparently effective way of getting society to adopt its principles. But in the light of theanalysisabove, we can see that to enter into politics would be the sure way of failing in the ultimate goal.Indeed, it is difficult to see what other way there can be to the Baha'i approach. How else canthesubversive effect of power be combatted? We have already seen that it cannot be combatteddirectlywithout subverting its opponent to its own values. The only path is for Baha'is to proceedquietly on,building an alternative, more feminine society while the ravages of power politics continueto pulldown the old order.

The third area on which this analysis throws light is the long time frame which will be needed forthechanges which Baha'is envisage. Shoghi Effendi, for example, writes of such achievements as"theemergence of a world community, the consciousness of world citizenship, the founding of aworldcivilization and culture"--all achievements which seem to us to be far off at present--as synchronizingwith only "the initial stages in the unfoldment ofthe Golden Age of the Baha'i Era".(13)Forwhat we areconcerned with here is not a mere intellectual assent to the equalposition of men andwomen; nor justthe movement of women into all areas ofsociety; but rather, a far more fundamentalchange to thefoundations andvalues of society, the evolution of a new reality.

The reason that this will take a long time lies in the subversive nature of power. Progress along thepathtowards lessening power as a value in society is necessarily slow and tortuous. All it takes is afewpeople who are still motivated by considerations of power to ruin the efforts of large numbers ofothers.Power does not require a critical mass of people in order to seize control of a society. But toensuremore feminine values does require thesupport of the masses. If just a few decide to act on thebasis ofpower,they can hold a whole society to ransom, either subjugating the majorityor causing themajorityto forego their values in order to bring the few toheel. It will not, therefore be sufficient for asimplemajority of the populationto be agreeable to a more feminine, less power-based society. Thatmay bethe "initial stages in the unfoldment" but the ultimate goal would appearto be still a long way offevenat that stage.

The sort of society that Baha'is envisage, however, is not one that has gone over completely toamatrifocal society. What `Abdu'l-Baha is calling for is a balance between these two value systems.TheBaha'i system, the world order of Baha'u'llah does have structures of authority and power. But these donot devolve upon the individual. Power and authority is resident in society as a whole as expressedinelected institutions, which because of their constitution, manner of election, and functioning arelesslikely to tyrannize individuals or minorities. Thus society will continue to have the instrumentsofpower, courts, prisons, etc., but these will not be controlled by, or become the weapons of,anyparticular individual or group.

Finally, there is the vexed issue of why there are no women on the Universal House of Justice. This,inthe context of present-day society, is a question of the location of power. The above analysiswouldtend to indicate that the very fact that this question of power is such a burning question is anindication of the extent to which the values of this society are distant from thosewhich the Baha'i Faithenvisages.It is the assumption that membership ofthis body is a powerful, high status position, thatmakes theexclusion ofwomen from membership of this institution such a problem. And the extenttowhich thisis perceived to be a problem is thus a benchmark of our successin transforming society. Wewill trulyhave achieved a more feminine societywhen this question of who wields power is no longerimportantto us.

In the light of this analysis of the role of power, an altered strategy for the achievement of theBaha'igoal of a more feminine society would be indicated. While there is no reason that we should nottry tomake progress in the number of women elected to Local and National Assemblies, this sort ofemphasisis, in reality, trying to persuade women to accept the masculine nature of our society and tocompetewith men on these patriarchal terms--it is playing into the hands of the subversive nature ofpower.Rather we should be looking at our Baha'i communities and seeing in what ways we canmakethem abetter arena for a genuine "feminine" contribution, by both males andfemales. We can lookat ourcommunal activities and see which of them arethe more masculine in nature and which aremorefeminine. I would suggestthat those activities that are to do which expansion, forexampleadministrationand proclamation, as well as those goals of Baha'i communal life whichareeasilyenumerated such as numbers of Local Spiritual Assemblies and introducingthe Baha'i Faithinto newlocalities, are the masculine activities; whilethose activities which involve nurturing thecommunity,for example deepeningand children's classes, as well as the less easily enumeratedqualitativegoals ofimproving Baha'i community life, are the feminine activities. Givingtalks ismasculine; consultativeprocesses are feminine. Of course both malesand females should be involved inboth the masculineand feminine activities.

Up to the present, the more masculine activities have predominated inthe Baha'i community.Consider,for example, the number of teaching and proclamation activities and conferences that areheldcompared with the number of programmes dedicated to developing consultation skills, orpromotingBaha'i marriageand family life. But, fortunately, the balance is already shifting. The SixYear Plan andthe Three Year Plans of the Universal House of Justice givemuch more emphasis to thequalitativegoals than previously and this is beingreflected in the Baha'i community.

In summary then, returning to the title of this article--"In all the ways that matter, womendon'tcount"--most people and many feminists (and manyBaha'is also I suspect) imagine that the goal oftheadvancement of womenshould be to change things so that women do "count" in society. Whatthisanalysis points to, however, is that what we should be aiming for is to change"the ways that matter"inour society.

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1. See P. Berger and T. Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality. Harmondsworth: Penguin,1971

2. This conclusion has been reached on the basis of observations of primate socialgrouping,anthropological research among remote tribal groups, the study of myths, and archaeologicalevidence.For a survey of this whole question, see Marilyn French, Beyond Power: on women, men andmorals,London: Jonathan Cape, 1985, pp. 25-122.

3. `Abdu'l-Baha quoted in Esslemont, Baha'u'llah and the New Era, p. 141.

4. Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Baha , p. 256

5. Baha'u'llah quoted by `Abdu'l-Baha in A Traveller's Narrative (trans. E.G. Browne),Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1891, vol. 2, p. 114

6. Quoted by Shoghi Effendi in Advent of Divine Justice, Wilmette: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1990,p.83

7. Promulgation of Universal Peace, Wilmette: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1982, p. 353

8. Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 123

9. Paris Talks, London: Baha'i PublishingTrust, 1969, reprinted 1979, p. 161

10. `Abdu'l-Baha in London, London: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1982, pp. 104-5.

11. World Order of Baha'u'llah, p. 41; see also p. 42

12. Baha'i Administration, Wilmette: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1968, p. 63

13. Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha'u'llah , p. 163 (italics added)


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