Not often does it fall to individuals to be a part of history in the making. For the few who are given that privilege, its true value can only be estimated only in hindsight. More than 150 years ago in a garden at Badasht, Tahireh – Iranian poet and revolutionary – renounced her veil and before the stunned participants announced through the power of this deed a new age in the cause of women. Four years later, at the moment of her execution, she cried “You can kill me as soon as you like but you cannot stop the emancipation of women”.
One and a half centuries later, and a decade into a new millennium, I pause to remember Tahireh, and all those men and women since, who have kept the flame of her cause burning brightly down all the years and passed this torch on to our generation here today; another people, another land, another century. In my mind they remain with us, and will continue to inspire and guide us just as we too must inspire and guide the generations still to come.
The Connection Between Education and Emancipation
In the globally disseminated statement “The Promise of World Peace” the Universal House of Justice describes the important connection between education and discrimination, stating “…ignorance is indisputably the principal reason…for the perpetuation of prejudice.”
More and more we realise that if we are to change the cruel, destructive ways in which human beings treat one another, we must first change the way they think, and the things they value. Highlighting the supreme urgency of re-educating the souls and minds of humanity, H. G. Wells said “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”
A crucial aspect of this education which is necessary if we are to avert catastrophe and bring balance to the present state of disequilibrium, and which will eventually contribute to a new definition of humanity, is the process which some have called the ‘feminisation’ of the planet.
‘Abdu’l Baha, son of Baha’u’llah, Prophet Founder of the Baha’i Faith, described this process;
“The world in the past has been ruled by force and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the scales are already shifting, force is losing its weight, and mental alertness, intuition and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age less masculine and more permeated with the feminine ideals, or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilisation will be more properly balanced.”
The first entry in Collins Dictionary defining the word education is ” the act or process of acquiring knowledge…”. This broad definition vastly extends the sphere of education beyond that limited and formalised type of education provided by the state school system. Clearly ‘the act or process by which we acquire knowledge’ takes place on many levels. One purpose of this paper is to identify some of the primary ways in which we have acquired our present beliefs about the role and value of the sexes, and to suggest positive directions for future educational change.
True Education Creates Enduring Change
The real value of education lies in how it permanently changes our behaviour and our thoughts. Professor B. F. Skinner offers this definition; “Education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten.” People can learn to behave in outwardly politically correct ways, but the real challenge is to so internalise new values that they become an inseparable part of the individual. This is what Baha’u’llah asks of us when He calls for us to become “a new race of men.” Steven Covey, author of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” says “What we are communicates far more eloquently than anything we say or do.” How you behave in your day-to-day life is a truer indication of your inner beliefs than are the words you speak. For this reason we need to focus upon our deeds rather than our words. Baha’u’llah says “The reality of man is his thought, not his material body”. In seeking to promote the advancement of women, we need to retrain thoughts, attitudes, beliefs and values. We need to do this for ourselves as individuals, but we also seek to influence others at every level of our personal and collective lives.
A popular catch cry of feminism has been the statement that “The personal is political”. “The Promise of World Peace” describes how personal attitudes do indeed have political and international consequences, stating that denial of equality “promotes…harmful attitudes and habits that are carried from the family to the workplace, to political life, and ultimately to international relations.”
In the article ‘Training for the Year 2000’, James Aggrey maintains that the education of girls is of the greater importance because “To educate a man is to educate a single individual, but to educate a woman is to educate an entire nation.” The words of William Ross Wallace that ‘The hand that rocks the cradle Is the hand that rules the world’ have become legendary.
An earlier quotation from ‘The Promise’ described how inequality promotes harmful attitudes and habits which men carry with them into all spheres of life. It continues by saying “Only as women are welcomed into full partnership in all fields of human endeavour will the moral and psychological climate be created in which international peace can emerge” and in the subsequent paragraph states “…it is through educated mothers that the benefits of knowledge can be most effectively and rapidly diffused throughout society.”
Here then are two key factors in the education and feminisation of our society;
* the education of women which will enable them to participate equally in all fields of human endeavour and in doing so become in themselves a source of education; a ‘feminising influence’ to others
* the crucial role played by women in the education of the coming generation
The Education of Men is Crucial to True Equality
It is impossible to consider the issue of the advancement of women as belonging to women alone. In fact the Universal House of Justice states it is an issue that men too must own;
“It is important to acknowledge that the wellbeing and advancement of men is impossible as long as women remain disadvantaged. Men can not be happy whilst women are oppressed, and neither can they hope to remain unaffected by the changes women are making for themselves. The growth and development of women needs to be balanced by complementary growth and development on the part of men.”
Poet and pacifist Robert Bly stated:
“Contemporary man is lost… damaged by a childhood lack of contact with a strong male figure to initiate him into manhood. He has become a “soft’ or naive’ male, who, by rejecting the aggressive and obnoxious male traits that he has been taught women dislike, has also abandoned the forceful and heroic aspects of masculinity, to the detriment of society.”
Christchurch psychotherapist Paul Baakman bluntly observed “No wonder when boys grow up they can’t talk with other men, they’ve never learnt to talk with their bloody fathers.”
The N.Z. Dominion newspaper carried a report of an 11-country study of parental involvement with children. The study reported that “Preschoolers worldwide are alone with their fathers on average less than one waking hour a day…”. In their survey of the routines of four-year-olds, researchers found young children were rarely in the sole care of their fathers, regardless of the culture, and the article quoted an editor of the study as saying that “It certainly indicates that the rhetoric of equality and the male taking his share of the responsibility for child-rearing is a lot of talk but certainly not a lot of action.”
Sandra Coney writing in the N.Z. Sunday Star Times (22.1.95) describes how faulty perception of male roles in society creates negative behaviour patterns which may have contributed to that country having the world’s highest youth suicide rate, reporting;
“Research by the Alcohol and Public Health Research Unit at Auckland University found low self esteem was the dominant characteristic of today’s young men.
The men’s peer group was their principle source of belonging, support and acceptance. The group’s solidarity was reinforced by drunken, foolish exploits which won approval and became part of the lore of the group.
Women threatened the young men and the cohesion of the group. They represented commitment, responsibility and the possibility of rejection. The men protected themselves from this by being hostile and offensive around women.
The cultural context we provide for young men is all wrong. We expect, even tolerate their antisocial behaviour. Fathers provide poor role models as husbands and fail to develop emotionally close relationships with their boys.”
And, as final evidence of the faulty role modelling of males in Western society, let’s not forget comedian Rod Dangerfield who also suffered from low self esteem as a child, and complained; “Once I told my father, ‘Nobody likes me’. He said, ‘Don’t say that – everybody hasn’t met you yet.” “
The need to develop positive sex roles is common to both men and women, and presents an important challenge for our communities in order to heal past sufferings and bring about personal transformation, through identifying and developing strong options for the future. As Elizabeth Kubler Ross said; “I’m not OK, you’re not OK, but that’s OK”.
‘Abdu’l-Baha emphasises that the equality of men and women presents issues which will negatively affect us all until they are resolved;
“Until the equality between men and women is established and attained, the highest social development of mankind is not possible….Until woman and man recognise and realise equality, social and political progress will not be possible.”
Supporting the advancement of women is clearly in the interests of men, on many levels. Because women are the first and most influential trainers of sons, their development will in turn enrich men, who will be better educated from the earliest years at the hands of proficient mothers. When fully one half of the world’s human resources, lying largely untapped in the hearts and minds of women, are released and developed, the potential for global transformation on every level is profound. Therefore, in view of the eventual advantages to both males and females, it is easy to see why Abdu’l-Baha states “The woman is indeed of the greater importance to the race. She has the greater burden and the greater work…” ‘
New Concepts of Power
Many people have felt the need to coin new terms for the advancement of women that are not burdened with the negative associations many now attach to the word ‘feminism’. The term ‘feminisation’ has already been mentioned. Another phrase used by Maori in New Zealand-“mana wahine”-refers to a recognition of the rights of a woman to participate in all aspects of society. Until recently there have been clear distinctions between politically feminist and more spiritually-inspired thought. Feminism has focussed strongly on the achievement of equality through the acquisition of power by women. The spiritually-inspired ideal seeks power too, but in a different context. The development of a more balanced view was expressed in the opening address at the 1985 Nairobi Conference on Women by the Conference Secretary-General who commented ;
“Power, as it is increasingly seen by women today, is not a means of dominating others but rather an instrument to influence political, social and economic processes to create a more humane and democratic world. Will this vision be translated into reality? Let us hope so.”
In this context women seek the power to influence, to have access to areas of human endeavour where our voices can be heard and our feminising influence, our ‘mana wahine’, felt. We seek for men to actively support us in becoming more educated, more influential. One potent means of educating others is through the ‘power’ of example.
Role modelling is a popular term for what is referred to in Baha’i teaching as ‘the dynamic force of example’. Tahireh was an early champion of this influence, in her challenging words to “Let deeds, not words, be your adorning.” ‘Abdu’l-Baha offered the example of His own life, saying; “Look at Me, follow Me, be as I am”. The Universal House of Justice calls upon the Baha’i community to be a model.
Women have always exerted a strong yet often unacknowledged influence upon following generations through the power of their own lives. Macho Australian league player Alan Jones said; “What Australia needs today are examples and heroes, people and standards to look up to and live by. My mother will always be my hero.”
The powerful attraction exerted by mothers makes them important teachers and role models for better or for worse, whether they do so consciously or unconsciously. Even the physical proximity of mothers is powerfully attractive; Helen Keller recalled; “I used to sit on my mother’s knee all day long because it amused me to feel the movements of her lips and I moved my lips too, although I had forgotten what talking was.”
The creation of more role models for young women was considered to be one of the lasting benefits of Women’s Suffrage Year. Our communities need to consider how we can promote good role models for both our male and female children, within our families and within wider society, in day-to-day life and in their formal education.
How well does the present system of state education promote healthy sex role attitudes? Personally speaking, my own experience of school inclines me to the same view as rugby-playing All Black Andy Haden who said “I make no secret of the fact that I went to school to eat my lunch”
Does the content of our formal education promote healthy attitudes free from prejudice or is prejudice still perpetuated in ways which are especially dangerous because they are so insidious, subtle and deceptive? Our present education system is in reality only a narrow slice of human knowledge; it omits the input of many cultures and, with few exceptions, fully one half the world’s population since it is largely the history and knowledge of men. It denies intuition, and creates an artificial separation of church and state, of science and religion, of materialism and human values.
For example, Rosalind Miles, in ‘Review of The Women’s History of the World’ tells us what we could have been, but were not, taught, that;
“Aspatia, a women of Miletos was Plato’s principle teacher.
Aristoclea, another woman, taught Pythgoras.
In the fourth-century Alexandria, Hypatia, again, a woman, invented the astrolabe, the planisphere and a hydroscope, Artemesia in the command of the fleet, defeated the skilful Athenians near Salamis.
Mary Reiber was transported to Australia in 1790 at the age of 13, for stealing a horse; she was to become a grain trader, hotelier, importer, property developer and shipping magnate.”
It is no surprise that girls have grown up burdened by a belief that they have only a narrow sphere of influence and opportunity in the world, whilst males have an opposite but also burdening belief that they must know everything. This societal pressure has produced what was wittily described in an article called “Male Answer Syndrome; Why men always have opinions, even on subjects they know nothing about.” I admit the tone of this article is a little flippant and unscholarly, but readers who are able to approach it with a sense of scientific detachment can easily recognise the key point, which is of course an exposure of the tragedy of faulty sex role stereotyping.
Politically-slanted feminist conceptions of power usually diminish the role of motherhood with its attendant physical and historical limitations and restrictions. Spiritually-based teachings on equality place great emphasis on the role of women as mothers. Indeed, this is the area in which women have the greatest manifestation of their power. ‘Abdu’l-Baha states that the greatest of all ways to worship God is to educate the children and that no nobler deed than this can be imagined, thus acknowledging the primacy of mothers in their capacity to shape minds and souls during a child’s most formative period. In this context it is mothers who, upon receiving the necessary education and resources to maximise their own potential, can “..determine the happiness, the future greatness, the courteous ways and learning and judgment, the understanding and faith of their little ones.”
The role of women in educating children, particularly in early childhood, provides the vital foundation for the collective education of humanity, for it is in early childhood that values are most effectively transmitted from one generation to the next, and “….it is through educated mothers that the benefits of knowledge can be most effectively and rapidly diffused throughout society.” It follows that the role of the family in the advancement of women is a crucial one for it is here that attitudes are most rapidly and effectively disseminated from the individual to the family and ultimately to the world.
Therefore, in considering future directions in the advancement of women, primary considerations include;
* raising the status and perceived value of mothering
* providing training and resourcing for women to become competent mothers
* developing and promoting quality parenting programmes
* investigating and demonstrating how such mothering is compatible with full participation in wider human society
* providing good role models of this compatibility
* educating and supporting fathers, and providing strong role models
*fostering an understanding and value of the importance of families to the world
*fostering the development of scholarship and literature to develop new models for mothers, fathers, families, workplaces etc.
The Transmission of Values
A primary function of the mother is to teach good character and conduct, to train the children in values. Without morals or values, education can become as much a source of harm as advancement. G.M.Trevelyan observed of education that it “…has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading.”
There appears to be one noteworthy exception to the lesser role into which men have traditionally cast women. Those values which men may not be able to recognise in women collectively, they are often able to appreciate in their own mothers. The musician Glenn Miller testified to his mother’s training in values, describing her as “The inspirational head of a family in which she tried hard to establish an exceptionally high code of morality and a really deep-seated and lasting mutual love.”
Len Evans said of his mother; “There was great love, affection and care, but there was also a rigid code of conduct which followed her perception of exactly what was right or wrong…inflexible, stubborn perhaps, but also totally honest, upright, endearing and supportive. A woman to be reckoned with.”
The development of courses such as The Virtues Project, a global grassroots initiative inspiring the practice of virtues in everyday life, have proven to be effective first steps in helping mothers and fathers raise a new generation committed to equity, justice, cooperation, peacefulness and those other divine qualities which will transform individuals, galvanise nations, and unite the world.
Ultimately, all those who labour in the cause of the emancipation of women must realise that concepts of equality, unity and equity are spiritual concepts. Their true attainment is reached only through spiritual striving, They cannot be lobbied, legislated or demonstrated for. Feminism for the most part seeks to create outer forms and representations of equality, but it is not looking to the only sure and underlying source of sustained unity which is achieved through spiritual education which begins in the family.
New Zealand is distinguished for being the first country in the world to grant votes for women; it is also a country distinguished for horrific loss of life on the battlefields of the twentieth century.
“My poor little New Zealand” said James Herbert Henderson. “Exporting frozen meat in peace, live meat in war.”
Women are the most important factor in world peace; surely the present day battlefield of women, having attained distinction in winning the vote, is to become distinguished in the pursuit of a peace which will preserve the lives of sons and grandsons to come. The Universal House of Justice states;
“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 perpetuates an injustice against one half of the world’s population and promotes in men harmful 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 endeavour will the moral and psychological climate be created in which international peace can emerge.”
The peace which spiritually-minded women seek is not to be gained by waving banners and lobbying politicians, but by creating in our human society a climate both moral and psychological, in which the attitudes of peace will gain widespread acceptance. The process of the feminisation of the workplace will introduce into daily life those qualities essential to the creation of a peaceful world, as women model the reality of “Abdu’l-Baha’s words that “…women are most capable and efficient…their hearts are more tender and susceptible than the hearts of men…they are more philanthropic and responsive toward the needy and suffering…they are inflexibly opposed to war and are lovers of peace.”
When women, aided and encouraged by those very men whose own lives are most at risk from war, achieve full partnership in all areas of influence and decision making, the qualities of tenderness, compassion and peacefulness will prevail in human affairs, and the Most Great Peace, the Kingdom of Heaven, will come.
I began by recalling the events of the conference at Badasht, and the occasion on which Tahireh chose to announce the liberation of women from the shackles and veils of the past. I close with those same words from the Qur’an with which Tahireh, the Pure One, concluded that address, and which foreshadow the age of peace to come;
“Verily, amid gardens and rivers shall the pious dwell in the seat of truth, in the presence of the potent King.”