The oneness of humanity is the animating principle of the Bahá’í faith. A corollary is that women and men are equal partners in advancing civilization. The Bahá’í writings aver that “The world of humanity has two wings — one women, the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly.” These words were penned in 19th century Persia by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, son of Bahá’u’lláh, the prophet-founder of the Bahá’í religion.
Yet worldwide, the progress of women to achieve full equality has been uneven — for example, even in the United States, we have yet to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
At a time when women worldwide were largely confined to the home, the Bahá’í teachings encouraged women to study science, engineering, agriculture, and other subjects designed to improve the human condition. In the 1870s, Bahá’ís in Iran established schools that taught a curriculum highlighting science and math.
In 1911, Bahá’ís established the Tarbiyat School for Girls in Tehran, offering science, languages, math, and even gymnastics, more than 15 years before the government allowed physical education for girls. By 1934, when these schools were closed by government decree, at least 25 Bahá’í-run schools for girls were thriving in Iran. Against custom, no classes on religion were offered in these schools, and the schools were open to Bahá’ís and non-Bahá’ís alike.
In 1918, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote that education must be compulsory, and added that if funds in a family were insufficient to educate both the girl and the boy, “the money must be dedicated to the girl’s education” — a profound and radical challenge to the status quo.
More recently, in 1995, Beijing was host to the Fourth World Conference on Women, drawing 30,000 participants from around the world. The Bahá’í International Community launched a platform for action in advancing women “from the standpoint of moral principle, as distinct from pure pragmatism.” The Bahá’í International Community named the education of women and girls as the key to every country’s development, a theme adopted by the World Bank and now central to global development efforts.
Another example is the Tahirih Justice Center. As a law student, Layli Miller-Muro was first shocked, and then galvanized by her experience with the plight of women seeking refuge from physical abuse in their home countries. In 1997, inspired by the principles of her Bahá’í faith, she launched the Justice Center in Washington, D.C. The center's advocacy led to changes in the law, and the center continues to advocate through the courts and legislatures. Since its founding, it has helped more than 22,000 people.
Today, with offices in four U.S. cities, it is a national nongovernmental legal services and advocacy group that focuses primarily on immigrant women and girls. A wealth of information about the center is available online. This April, its fierce advocacy for immigrant women and children was described in The New York Times.
Under the recent executive orders, immigrant women are less and less likely to seek help, especially as U.S. courts and churches cease to be places of protection and refuge. In an April 5, interview with Nicolas Kristof of The New York Times, Miller-Muro explains this situation in detail (goo.gl/VHRqTM).
Our faith must lead us to action, to enacting laws and regulations that promote education for women and ensure their equality and legal protection. The still-undeveloped female wing cripples the entire human race — every country, every political and economic system testifies to this weakness. Only when women equal men in strength, capacity, and knowledge will humanity truly soar.