Service of Women on the Universal House of Justice

By Wendi Momen

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #4
DePoort, Netherlands
November 4–6, 1994
(see list of papers from #4)

    Bahá'u'lláh often stated that men and women are equal; it is not easy to understand, therefore, why women cannot serve on the Universal House of Justice. 'Abdu'l-Bahá has said that the exclusion "is for a wisdom of the Lord God's which will erelong be made manifest as the sun at high noon" (Selections from the Writings of 'Abdul-Bahá, 79-80). There are certain features and characteristics of the world in which we live that might have a bearing on this teaching:

    1. In the time of Bahá'u'lláh, and in much of the world today, women had no rights at all; they lacked education, opportunities to better themselves, independence, and money. In consequence, many men judged them incapable of being educated, owning property, or making decisions in the public arena. Because of this we might expect that people in many parts of the world would have no respect for any governing system that included women.

    2. Our present Western, liberal understanding of equality is much colored by eighteenth and nineteenth-century concepts of equality, power, and authority, and by the suffragette and feminist movements. But some of this understanding is incompatible with the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh, as a reading of Individual Rights and Freedoms in the World Order of Bahá'u'lláh reveals. 'Abdu'l-Bahá states that one cannot infer from the fact that women do not serve on the Universal House of Justice that "either sex is inherently superior or inferior to the other, or that they are equal in their rights" (Dawn of a New Day, p. 85), suggesting that our linkage of membership on the Universal House of Justice to equality of the sexes is invalid.

    3. As a result of our Western, liberal thinking, we are apt to equate roles of responsibility with power and authority, whereas we know from the Baháíí writings that such roles are really arenas of service to the Cause and to humanity. Membership on Baháíí institutions brings no personal power and privileges; they are not to be sought. We are not looking at a question of whether women are worthy or have the necessary qualities to serve on the Universal House of Justice. We are clearly looking at some other

    dimension, something we cannot quite see yet. We need to change our concepts of what service on this institution means so that they are based on the Bahá'í teachings and not on modem liberal Western thought.

    4. We know from the Bahá'í writings that the status of women is very high. The Bahá'í writings identify the following responsibilities and challenges for women: first educators of children; peace-bringers; negotiators of peace; governors of society; industrialists and scientists; artists; workers; and others.

    5. In addition to not serving on the Universal House of Justice, women are also exempt from military engagement. This underscores their role as peacemakers.

    We must accept that we will probably not be able to give an adequate explanation of why women cannot serve on the Universal House of Justice. In 1947 Shoghi Effendi noted that "As . . . the wisdom of this will be known in the future, we can only accept, believing it is right, but not able to give an explanation calculated to silence an ardent feminist!" The Universal House of Justice added in 1991 that "Baháíís accept this teaching as an article of faith" and that "the ineligibility of women for membership on the Universal House of Justice does not constitute evidence of superiority of men over women."

    It is, we therefore might conclude, nothing in women that precludes them from service on the House of Justice, nor is it because of some deficiency in women, or even because of the inability of men to accept that women are equal. Rather, we must perhaps look at the nature of the House of Justice itself, the nature of the new world order, to glimpse why women are not to serve. Perhaps the better question to ask is "What is the Universal House of Justice?" rather than "Why cannot women serve?"

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