Women's Service on the Universal House of Justice
Juan R.I. Cole
Department of History
University of Michigan
Women's Service on the Universal House of Justice
(Written Spring, 1996)
In his Most Holy Book, which he completed in `Akka around 1873, Baha'u'llah ordained the establishment of houses of justice (sing. Ar. bayt al-`adl) among Baha'is, which would manage their affairs. He wrote, "The Lord hath ordained that in every city a House of Justice be established wherein shall gather counsellors to the number of Baha [nine], and should it exceed this number it doth not matter." He describes them as the "guardians appointed of God" for all humankind, and adds, "it is incumbent upon them to take counsel together and to have regard for the interests of the servants of God" (K30, p. 29). That is, he expected these bodies to function in a parliamentary and consultative manner, since the verb he uses for "take counsel" had come to have a connotation of parliamentary governance in the nineteenth-century Middle East. In this book he employs the plain term "house of justice" with reference both to local community steering committees and with reference to the international body he appointed to head up his religion in the future, which came to be known as the Universal House of Justice. Among the duties of the local house of justice are to provide for the education of a child whose parents are too destitute to afford schooling (K48). He singles out the "deputies," obviously of the local house of justice, as responsible for providing welfare to those incapable of earning a living (K147, p. 72). Adulterers are to be punished by a fine, payable to the house of justice; such a fine would probably be levied and paid at the local level (K49, p. 37). Indeed, a third of all fines is to be paid to the "Seat of Justice" (K52, p. 38). Since the logistics of sending one third of all local fines to the World Center of the Baha'i faith appear forebidding, it seems likely that this verse also pertains primarily to the local house of justice (an important point to which we shall return). In the absence of male offspring, Baha'u'llah says, two-thirds of the estate go to female heirs, while one third goes to the house of justice, "which God hath made to be the treasury of the people" (QA72, p. 128). For the same reason, of logistics, probably the local house of justice is intended. The trustees of the house of justice are to appoint in every city a judge,one of whose duties will be to decide and record divorces.
He makes the future House of Justice supervisor of Baha'i endowments after his own sons (Aghsan) have died, and here it seems clear he is speaking of the Universal House of Justice (K42). Likewise, he makes the "Trustees" (wukala’) of the "House of Justice" responsible for deciding within what degrees of relatedness marriage is possible (QA 50, p. 122), and presumably a matter of law affecting so many people would be decided by the Universal House of Justice, rather than local bodies
Baha'u'llah refers in a number of places to the members of these bodies as "men." In Arabic a number of terms can be used for human being that are not gendered, such as insan or bashar or ins. These are the equivalent of the German "das Mensch," referring to the human being generically, without reference to sex. The English "man" or "men," employed in the sense of "humankind," is etymologically related to this German "Mensch." Arabic also has a word for "man" in the sense of "a male," which is rajul, with its plural rijal. Thus, in Arabic if we wished to say "men are social animals," meaning human beings, we would use a neutral word such as insan. If we wished to say that "men rode out to war" in the sense of "a party of males," we would say rijal. Baha'u'llah employed the word "rijal" or men in the sense of "males" to refer to members of houses of justice. This usage appears to occur only once in the Most Holy Book. He apportions one third of all fines to the "seat of justice," and then addresses its members as "O men ( rijal) of justice," urging them to safeguard their flock as a shepherd protects his sheep from wolves (K52). In Questions and Answers he says that two-thirds of found treasure shall revert to "the men (rijal) of the house of justice" to be expended for the welfare of all people. (no. 101, Aqdas p. 137). In supplements to the Most Holy Book he speaks of the "men of God's house of justice" being "charged with the affairs" of the Baha'i community (millat; Ishraq 8; Tablets of Baha’u’llah revealed after the Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 128). Elsewhere in the Supplements he says, "We exhort the men of the House of Justice and command them to ensure the protection and safeguarding of men, women and children." (Tablets of Baha’u’llah Revealed after the Kitab-i-Aqdas, pp. 69-70). In addition to this duty, in the Ishraqat or Splendours Baha'u'llah makes it incumbent "upon the men of God's House of Justice" to work for the education of peoples and the upbuilding of nations (Tablets of Baha’u’llah Revealed after the Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 125).
Now, it would be extremely difficult to see all these passages as referring solely to the men of the Universal House of Justice, the international body that is the ultimate religious authority for Baha'is. Rather, some of them would appear to do double duty, referring also to the men of the local house of justice. For instance, the duty of safeguarding the interests of men, women and children, laid upon the men of the house of justice in the Ninth Leaf of the Words of Paradise, seems no more especially apposite to the Universal House of Justice than to local houses of justice, and one must conclude that "House of Justice" in this instance is employed generically to mean the institution at all levels. It seems unlikely that one-third of fines collected from Baha'is in the city of, say, Kirman, are envisaged as being sent to the Universal House of Justice in the Holy Land; rather, it seems more probable that Baha'u'llah was speaking of local fines going in part to a local house of justice. Likewise, the logistics of sending two-thirds of treasure found anywhere in the world to the Universal House of Justice for redistribution seem forbidding. Even the training and upbuilding the nations, a charge laid upon the men of the house of justice in the Splendours, would seem to be a duty of both local houses of justice and of the Universal House of Justice. Further, it is of the utmost importance to note that Baha'u'llah demonstrably did refer to members of houses of justice other than the Universal House of Justice in this way. Thus, in a Tablet on universal language, he speaks of the duty to promote it on the part of "majalis" (parliaments) and "rijal-i buyut-i `adliyyih" (men of Baha'i houses of justice). The plural proves that he cannot be speaking here of the Universal House of Justice. (Referring to the verse in the Aqdas calling upon the parliaments of the world to choose a world language:)
This irrevocable decree was revealed from the realm of the Ancient of Days for the people of the world generally, and for the people of assemblies specifically. For the implementation of revealed commands, laws, and ordinances hath in the book been delegated to the men of the houses of justice. [In amr-i mubram az jabarut-i qidam az bara-yi ahl-i `alam `umuman va ahl-i majalis khususan nazil shudih. Chih kih ijra-yi avamir va ahkam va hududat-i munzalih dar kitab bih rijal-i buyut-i `adliyyih-'i ilahiyyih tafvid shudih.] (Ishraq-Khavari, ed., Ganj-i Shayigan, pp. 210-211).
This passage is interesting because Baha'u'llah here identifies Baha'i houses of justice as a subset of the parliamentary bodies (majalis) addressed in the Aqdas, which have a special duty to implement Baha'i law. But what is important for my purposes at the moment is that he refers to their members explicitly as "rijal," and discusses them in the plural, indicating that he is not speaking of the singular Universal House of Justice; rather, he thought of the membership of houses of justice at other levels as men, as well.
Did, then, Baha'u'llah envisage that only men would serve on his Houses of Justice, at the local and international levels? There is evidence that he in fact used the word rijal or men in an inclusive manner. Although Arabic distinguishes well between "human beings" and "men" (in the sense of males), the issues here go beyond simple matters of dictionary definition. Baha'u'llah in some passages puts forward a startlingly modern-sounding notion of gender as distinct from sex. Contemporary scholars make this distinction, seeing sex as biological endowment but gender as cultural construct. Baha’u’llah indicates that he sometimes means by rijal or "men," not biological males, but any human being possessing attributes such as courage. Thus, he says:
Today the maidservants of God are accounted as men [Imruz ama'u'llah az rijal mahsub]. (Payam-i Malakut, p. 231).
Verily, in the eyes of Baha women are the same as men. All are God's creation, which He created in his image and likeness, that is, they are manifestations of His names and attributes [Inna an-nisa'a `inda 'l-Baha'i hukmuhunna hukmu 'r-rijal. Fa 'l-kullu khalqun li'llahi, khalaqahum `ala suratihi wa mithalihi ay mazahiru asma'ihi wa sifatihi]. (Yazdani, Maqam va Huquq-i Zan, p. 12).
O maidservants: Rise for the Cause of the Truth in a masculine way. How many are the women who are mentioned by God in this day as men, while some men are considered women [Ay kanizan: Mardanih bar amr-i haqq qiyam nima'id. Basi az nisa' kih al-yawm `ind Allah az rijal madhkur va ba`di-yi rijal kih az nisa' mahsub]. (Payam-i Malakut,, p. 232).
`Abdu'l-Baha also makes this point explicit:
In this most great cycle and this century of the preexistent King, human limitations have been lifted and the laws of the worlds of being have been abrogated and annulled. Masculinity and femininity do not depend upon beards, moustaches, athletic strength, and wielding maces. [Masculinity] depends on courage, power, knowledge, steadfastness, uprightness, passion and attraction. How many mistresses of the bridal chamber have been sent forth and how many men have been consigned to headscarves and meekness [Dar in kawr-i a`zam va qarn-i malik-i qidam, hududat-i bashar murtafa` va ahkam-i `avalim-i kawn mansukh va munfasakh ast. Dhakuriyyat va anathiyyat va mardanigi va farzanigi bilihyih va sablat va yal va kupal nabudih. Bi himmat va qudrat va ma`rifat va thibat va istaqamat va ishti`al va injidhab budih. Chih bisyar-i rabbat-i hijal mab`uth shudand va basa mardan kih dar taht-i miqna`ih va havan mahshur shudand] (Yazdani, Maqam va Huquq-i Zan, pp. 13-14).
Note that both `Abdu'l-Baha and Baha'u'llah see gender attributes as detachable from sex. It is important for my argument below that one of the desirable attributes (coded masculine here) is "knowledge."
Moreover, there is no sign that Baha'u'llah thought men inherently more spiritual than women, or that he believed women incapable of bearing divine inspiration or even revelation. After all, Tahirih Qurratu'l-`Ayn, a woman, had been one of the eighteen Letters of the Living, or disciples of the Bab, and had shared in the Letters' aura of divinity. Baha'u'llah had clearly been a supporter of Tahirih. Further, Baha'u'llah recognized the possibility that God might ordain a female prophet or Manifestation of God, writing, "Know thou moreover that in the Day of Revelation were He to pronounce one of the leaves [female believers] to be the manifestation of all His excellent titles, unto no one is given the right to utter why or wherefore, and should one do so he would be regarded as a disbeliever in God and be numbered with such as have repudiated His Truth." [Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah revealed after the Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 185]
Further, in Persian, rijal means not simply "men" but rather something like "notables," and this is a group under which notable women might well be subsumed. That is, if one had a Persian biographical dictionary about the notables ("rijal") of Iran, one would not be surprised to see women listed in it, because they too formed part of the notable class. So on one level, the referent of "rijal" in Persian is not necessarily a male. But even if one saw the word as implying masculinity, it need not imply sex. That is, one might conclude from the passages just quoted that the requirement in Baha'u'llah's mind for service on the houses of justice at any level is dhakuriyyat or a kind of spiritual masculinity, where masculinity is coded as courage, education, and wisdom about the world. In this perspective, Baha'u'llah when he addresses members of the houses of justice as men is not speaking to their biological sex but to their spiritual gender. Thus, some men are spiritually "feminine" and would not deserve to be elected to a house of justice, while some women are spiritually "masculine" and would. Insofar as gender attributes are here detached from biology and distributed among the sexes, Baha'u'llah's stance is close to contemporary feminist thought. And since his diction opened up the possibility of equality for Middle Eastern women, it may perhaps be forgiven its rootedness in medieval chivalric notions of gender attributes. (Insofar as `Abdu'l-Baha sees women as peace-makers and nurturers, he urges men to be more like them at points, as well--to be, if you will, spiritually feminine).
Baha'is in Iran had attempted from the late 1870s to form local houses of justice in accordance with the Most Holy Book. The Tehran consultative assembly functioned vigorously 1879-1882, but then was closed down when tens of prominent Baha'is were arrested in the capital by Nasiru'd-Din Shah's government in 1882. In the 1890s, `Abdu'l-Baha began again the process of establishing such bodies in Iran. In Iran, these institutions were inevitably staffed by men, since educated women were in short supply and powerful codes of gender segregation made mixed-sex meetings impossible.
The Baha'i Faith was established in the United States in the 1890s, but its initial form more resembled an initiatory New Age circle than the religion practiced in the Middle East. Gradually, however, it became more institutionalized and knowledge about the religion's scriptures and authentic principles was gained. American believers had a translation of the Aqdas from about 1901, done by the Syro-Lebanese Baha'i Anton Haddad, and they, too, were eager to implement its provisions regarding establishing local houses of justice. When a house of justice was organized by the American believers in Chicago in 1902, it initially had women on it, but the male Iranian teachers who had been sent by `Abdu'l-Baha insisted that it be reconstituted so as to consist only of men (apparently on the grounds of the ritual impurity of women during their menses, a Shi`ite rather than Baha'i attitude [this information from R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram's researches in the U.S. Baha'i archives.]. `Abdu'l-Baha in correspondence sent from `Akka recognized this body as a "house of justice" (bayt al-`adl). American women, being unused to the Middle Eastern practice of gender segregation in even public institutions, found their exclusion from the local house of justice impossible to accept. Corinne True (and others) pressed for women's membership on the Chicago house of justice. In reply, that same year, `Abdu'l-Baha ruled that Baha'u'llah's use of the word "rijal" with reference to members of the house of justice excluded women from serving on it. He simply says "bayt al-`adl," House of Justice. It seems clear that in that context he must have been referring mainly to the Chicago House of Justice, though the tenor of the letter is that women are ineligible for service on any House of Justice. He also paraphrases Baha'u'llah's statement about women being accounted as men, but seems not to see it at this point as probative for the issue of their service on houses of justice.
The 1902 letter is as follows:
Know thou, O handmaid, that in the sight of Baha, women are accounted the same as men, and God hath created all humankind in His own image, and after His own likeness . . . from the spiritual viewpoint there is no difference between them . . . The House of Justice, however, according to the explicit text of the Law of God, is confined to men; this for a wisdom of the Lord God's, which will ere long be made manifest as clearly as the sun at high noon. (Stockman, Baha'i Faith in America vol. 2, p. 75).
From later in 1902, `Abdu'l-Baha thought better of calling the Chicago body a "house of justice," partially because of his fear that the term might be interpreted by enemies as having political implications, and instead started calling it a "spiritual assembly" (Stockman, 2: 72).
In 1909 Corinne True pressed the issue yet again, writing to `Abdu'l-Baha. He replied that women could not serve on the `umumi (general) house of justice, but could serve on spiritual assemblies and committtees:
According to the ordinances of the Faith of God, women are the equals of men in all rights save only that of membership on the [`umumi] House of Justice, for, as hath been stated in the text of the Book, both the head and the members of the House of Justice must be men. However, in all other bodies, such as the Temple Construction Committee, the Teaching Committee, the Spiritual Assembly, and in charitable and scientific associations, women share equally in all rights with men. (Stockman, Baha'i Faith in America, vol. 2, p. 323).
Robert Stockman and the Haifa Research Department, believe that the phrase "`umumi house of justice" refers to the Universal House of Justice. This rendering would require that `Abdu'l-Baha here changed his stance from the 1902 Tablet, and was now allowing women on the Chicago LSA, but reserving the Universal House of Justice for men.
I think that the Master's terminology in this period is elastic, and that by `umumi house of justice he probably meant the Chicago LSA, as a major or general Baha'i governing body. "Spiritual assembly" in this period often simply meant the entire community, or the women's steering committee. One argument that has been made is that `Abdu'l-Baha refers here to a "chairman" of the house of justice, which may echo his recent appointment in his Will and Testament of the Guardian as the chairman of the Universal House of Justice. But note that `Abdu'l-Baha says that it is written "in the Book" that the house of justice and its chairman must be men. "In the Book" cannot refer to the `Abdu’l-Baha's Will and Testament--he would never be so immodest, and besides, Book (Kitab) is equivalent to Revealed Law (shari`ah), a prerogative of the Manifestation of God. The phrase can only be a reference to some passage in Baha'u'llah's own writings.
As for the phrase bayt al-`adl-i `umumi or general house of justice, it does appear sometimes to be applied to other levels than the Universal House of Justice (though these instances are ambiguous, as well: Zarqani, 1:292; also in Ma'idih 5:177). It has been alleged that `Abdu'l-Baha at least once referred to the Tehran local spiritual assembly as a "general house of justice," but I have not seen that citation.
Certainly, the American Baha'i community, with the exception of Mrs. True, understood the 1909 Tablet as a reaffirmation of the exclusion of women from the Chicago governing body; and `Abdu'l-Baha did not intervene to correct this interpretation if it was wrong (although Sohrab wrote him about it). In any case, the 1909 letter either reversed the 1902 letter at least in part, allowing women to serve on a local house of justice but not the Universal House of Justice; or it reaffirmed the earlier 1902 exclusion of women from any house of justice.
When `Abdu'l-Baha visited Chicago in 1912 he acted very decisively to reverse his 1902 ruling on the Chicago house of justice. He does not appear to have written down his motives for doing so. `Abdu'l-Baha dissolved the all-male LSA and had a new one elected on which women could serve. The Star of the West reports,
On Saturday evening, August 10, the Baha'is of Chicago became the guests of Abdul-Baha at a feast held in his name and through his love and bounty, at the home of Mr. and Mrs. George Lesch . . . On Sunday evening, the 11th, the Chicago Assembly selected a "Spiritual Meeting" of nine, composed of men and women, whose service--according to the wish of `Abdu'l-Baha--is, first, to promulgate the teaching of the Revelation, and, second, to attend to other matters necessary to the welfare of the assembly [i.e. community]. (Star of the West, no. 9, vol. 3 (August 20, 1912):16).
The second type of "service" with which `Abdu'l-Baha charged the Chicago Local Spiritual Assembly, of attending to matters necessary to the welfare of the community, echoes Baha'u'llah's language in the Aqdas about the function of local houses of justice. He had written, "it is incumbent upon them to take counsel together and to have regard for the interests of the servants of God" (K30, p. 29). The phrase therefore points to an identification in fact if not in terminology of the Chicago local assembly with a house of justice.
In 1913 `Abdu'l-Baha made one last pronouncement (as far as we now know) on this subject, in a letter to a woman that is reprinted in English translation at the end of Paris Talks. He there affirms women's equality but excludes them from service in combat and on the house of justice. He says,
"As regards the constitution of the House of Justice, Baha'u'llah addresses the men. He says: `O ye men of the House of Justice" . . . When the women attain to the ultimate degree of progress, then, according to the exigency of the time and place and their great capacity, they shall obtain extraordinary privileges. (Letter of `Abdu'l-Baha dated 28 August 1913, in Paris Talks, p. 183).
Again, the rationale given for excluding women from the "house of justice" (N.B.: not "Universal House of Justice") is Baha'u'llah's terminology, his use of "rijal" (which, as we have seen, should apply to all sorts of house of justice). Yet by this time `Abdu'l-Baha has concurred with the service of women on a number of local houses of justice in the West. Again, why the seeming discrepancy? This letter, with its exuberance about the future of women, and its insistence that they will enter every sector of society, raises more questions than it settles.
The real problem is to understand what principle that underlay `Abdu'l-Baha's apparently evolving pronouncements on the issue. In the 1902 letter the legal principle upon which he depends to exclude women from "the house of justice" is that Baha'u'llah referred to its members as "men (rijal)." As I say, Baha'u'llah employed this usage with regard to all sorts of house of justice, not just the Universal one, and `Abdu'l-Baha surely knew this, which is why he brought this usage into play with regard to the Chicago local house of justice..
If this diction is the basis for the exclusion, however, then how did `Abdu'l-Baha decide suddenly in either 1909 or 1912 (depending on which interpretation one takes) that women could serve on the Chicago house of justice? If he decided that Baha'u'llah's use of "rijal" was no longer a bar to women's service on local houses of justice, then why should it be a bar to their service on the Universal House of Justice? How can he set aside the textual basis for the ruling in one case but not the other, when it is applicable to both? The problem is that `Abdu'l-Baha never appears to have explained these discrepancies, so that we can only guess what was in his mind.
One possible way of seeing his actions as consistent would be to assume that he did not consider the Chicago local house of justice to be a house of justice at all after 1902, and that he saw it only as a spiritual assembly. If he thought in this manner, he might have all along seen a problem with women serving on any house of justice. This view would explain the similarity of his 1902 and 1913 letters on the issue. And it would explain why he thought that women could serve on the Chicago body, insofar as it was only a local spiritual assembly and not a full-fledged house of justice. This approach would depict `Abdu'l-Baha as acting in a consistent and rational manner, and would accord with the evidence we have that Baha'u'llah addressed all levels of the house of justice as "men." It would, however, require that when local and national spiritual assemblies of the future undergo a name change and become known as houses of justice, women would be excluded from them. There are a number of reasons for rejecting this possibility. First, `Abdu'l-Baha gives as his reason for avoiding the title "house of justice" in 1902 and thereafter that he was afraid that the civil government might misunderstand the term as implying that the body is a court or claims some governmental authority. He gives no indication that the name change is anything but a matter of adopting a prudent terminology during the early period of the establishment of the Baha'i Faith in the U.S. And when `Abdu'l-Baha does put women on the Chicago body, he charges it to look after the affairs of the believers, employing the same diction as Baha'u'llah did when speaking of houses of justice in the Most Holy Book. Finally, informed Baha'i tradition has held that local and national houses of justice are already in fact houses of justice, and only differ in name from the latter institutions. In its notes to the Most Holy Book, the Universal House of Justice writes that "both women and men are eligible for election to Secondary and Local Houses of Justice (currently designated as National and Local Spiritual Assemblies)." (KA, p. 201, n.80). While later tradition does not, of course, necessarily tell us what was in `Abdu'l-Baha's mind, it does indicate that he never explicitly demoted local spiritual assemblies from being local houses of justice, despite the name change. We are, then, left with the major paradox that the reason given for women's exclusion is Baha'u'llah's diction; that that diction applies to houses of justice at every level; and yet that `Abdu'l-Baha explicitly allowed women to serve on the Chicago house of justice. It seems most improbable that he was simply being irrational or politick. But what was his rationale?
Another possible resolution would be that he linked women's service on the institutions to their dhakuriyyat or spiritual masculinity as a corporate group. As we have seen, in `Abdu'l-Baha's view being spiritually and intellectually "masculine" required not only courage but also a certain amount of knowledge (ma`rifat) and experience of the world, which was very rare among Middle Eastern women in his day. Although the population of the Middle East was probably only seven percent literate around 1900, almost all of these literate persons were men, and this group formed a talent pool for service on institutions. Women had no similar talent pool running to millions of persons; rather, a very small number of women were literate, educated, and experienced.
There is reason to believe that although `Abdu'l-Baha taught that women and men should have equal rights under the law, he thought of his female contemporaries as largely "backward" and disadvantaged because of a general lack of education and opportunity. "If women," he said in Paris on November 14, 1911, "received the same educational advantages as those of men, the result would demonstrate the equal capacity of both for scholarship." (Paris Talks p. 61). He added
Woman must endeavour then to attain greater perfection, to be man's equal in every respect, to make progress in all which she has been backward, so that man will be compelled to acknowledge her equality of capacity and attainment. In Europe women have made greater progress than in the East, but there is still much to be done! . . . It is my hope that women of the East, as well as their Western sisters, will progress rapidly until humanity shall reach perfection. (Paris Talks, pp. 162-163).
Note that the perfection of humanity is made dependent here on women's progress.
`Abdu'l-Baha condemned the Middle Eastern practices of secluding women and denying them educational opportunities (Promulgation of Universal Peace 166), and spoke of "rigid veiling" as "unspeakable" (PUP 251). He concluded that "in general, owing to lack of educational advantages, women have been restricted and deprived of opportunity to become fully qualified and representative of humankind." (PUP 283). This lack of representativeness appears to have been bound up with the policy that they not serve on houses of justice in the Middle East.
On the other hand, `Abdu'l-Baha grew to hold Western women's accomplishments in the highest esteem. In answer to a question from the audience about whether women or men would render greater services to the Baha'i Faith, `Abdu'l-Baha replied, "In Persia the men have aided it more, but in the West perchance the women." (PUP 170). By 1912 `Abdu'l-Baha had conceived of Western women as preeminent, implying that they possessed dhakuriyyat or spiritual masculinity above that of the men!
Thus in 1902, while still in Akka, `Abdu'l-Baha had thought women as a corporate group were not yet advanced (educated, experienced, "representative," etc.) enough to be accounted as men for practical purposes, and so excluded them from houses of justice. Thereafter, he gained a fair amount of experience with Western women and appears to have begun seeing them as "rijal"--even more spiritually masculine than American men--so that he felt comfortable putting them on the Chicago local house of justice in 1912. In this interpretation, `Abdu'l-Baha's 1913 letter can be read elliptically as predicting that eventually women will so universally be accounted as "rijal" or spiritually masculine that they will some day serve even on the Universal House of Justice, even though they were not sufficiently advanced to serve on "the house of justice," generically speaking, in 1913 ("when women attain the ultimate degree of progress . . . then they shall obtain extraordinary privileges . . .").
This line of argument would depend heavily on `Abdul-Baha, like Baha'u'llah, accounting believing Baha'i women to be "rijal," and upon his seeing the progress of the generality of women toward that station (through education and entering into the workplace, etc.) as gradual and uneven. Thus, in his view women became "rijal" enough for service on local houses of justice in the West from 1909 or 1912, but were not yet rijal enough for service on the Universal House of Justice then. Iranian women did not become rijal enough to serve on local and national houses of justice until 1954. Only when the majority of women become accounted as "rijal" on a development scale of literacy, education, experience with the world, etc., could they become as a corporate group eligible for service on the Universal House of Justice. And only then will humanity attain perfection.
A further reason for thinking that `Abdu'l-Baha did not intend to see women permanently barred from the Universal House of Justice is that he insisted over and over that all human beings, including women, should have equal rights under the law. He said, "Seventh, Baha'u'llah taught that an equal standard of human rights must be recognized and adopted" (PUP, p, 182). In Paris Talks he said, "Divine justice demands that the rights of both sexes should be equally respected since neither is superior to the other in the eyes of Heaven" (p. 162) and "their [women's] rights with men are equal in degree" (p. 182). `Abdu'l-Baha is here adumbrating what he and Baha'u'llah saw as an essential Baha'i principle, the equality of rights for all human beings (musavat-i huquq). Now, demonstrably, eligibility for service on Baha'i elective institutions is a "right" that pertains to adult Baha'is. For women to be permanently excluded from service on the Universal House of Justice would be to deny them equal rights of eligibility with men in this regard. Gender in the Middle East had been wrought up with power hierarchies, some of them with a scriptural basis, since the Qur'an (like the Bible) had supported patriarchal values. This patriarchy is brought sharply into question by both Baha'u'llah and `Abdu'l-Baha, and the Qur'an's prescription of male leadership is explicitly categorized as an abrogated law by `Abdu'l-Baha:
"O handmaiden of God: In past eras no female, however much she might come forward in rendering services or traverse the wilderness of the love of God, could be reckoned in the ranks of men. For "Men are the managers of the affairs of women" [Qur'an 4:38] had been stipulated. Now, in this wondrous age the work (kar) of women has advanced. These fetters have been thrown off. Anyone who steps forward will receive the reward . . . whether man or woman, whether male or female. O Lord, the mistress of the women's quarters has surpassed the males and triumphed over the amassed army, and raised the standards of superiority in the arena of [spiritual] ecstasy and joy." (Ma'idih-yi Asmani, vol. 9, p. 7).
It is difficult to see how an all-male Universal House of Justice does not in fact reinstate the values prescribed by Qur'an 4:38, making men the managers of the affairs of women. Only full rights of eligibility for women to service at all levels of Baha'i elective institutions would be compatible with this abrogation of Qur'anic patriarchy.
Apposite here is a 1954 cablegram from Shoghi Effendi, in Messages to the Baha'i World: "Full rights have been accorded to Baha'i women residing in the cradle of the Faith, to participate in the membership of both national and local Baha'i Spiritual Assemblies, removing thereby the last remaining obstacle to the enjoyment of complete equality of rights in the conduct of the administrative affairs of the Persian Baha'i community" (p. 65). The diction here is very instructive. Obviously, de jure or from the point of view of legal principle, Baha'i women in Iran had the "right" to eligibility for election to LSAs and NSAs from at least 1912 onward. But these rights could not be "accorded" to them until the early 1950s, de facto. (Not only were very few Iranian women literate in 1912, but in Shi`ite Iran values of gender segregation were very strong and a mixed meeting of women and men on an LSA would have been interpreted as an instance of moral laxity by non-Baha'i neighbors and become a source of scandal). Thus, Baha'i women can have de jure rights to eligibility for administrative office, but these rights de facto can be withheld for reasons of community security and reputation, or for reasons of women's unpreparedness as a corporate group. These rights are then "accorded" the women de facto at some point in history where conditions allow it, by the Head of the Faith. (There are parallels here to the legal language employed in the United Nations for the process of decolonization in the two decades after WW II, wherein entire peoples become "prepared" through education and lesser forms of self-governance to exercise de facto their de jure rights of self-determination, after a period of European mandates).
One cannot ignore, of course, Shoghi Effendi's own statements excluding women from the Universal House of Justice. But we must remember that Shoghi Effendi does not appear ever to have seen the 1909 letter to Chicago about women's exclusion from the `umumi house of justice. When he was asked about the subject, his secretaries in their replies cited the 1902 letter as excluding women from the Universal House of Justice. In fact, the 1902 letter appears mainly to have been about excluding them from the Chicago local house of justice, though the generic phrase "house of justice" would cover the universal one, as well. The stance taken by the Guardian's secretaries on this issue therefore appears to have been based on inadequate contextual information about the text they cited as probative. Since Shoghi Effendi himself said he was not omniscient and depended in his rulings on the information at hand, this is not a problem per se. Where new information or understandings arise, the Universal House of Justice is empowered to elucidate the law and reconcile seeming contradictions. Among the many duties laid upon the Universal House of Justice is legislation. The 8th Ishraq is explicit that the House may repeal its own legislation. `Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament also says:
It is incumbent upon these members (of the Unversal House of Justice) to gather in a certain place and deliberate upon all problems which have caused difference (ikhtilafi), questions that are obscure (masa'il-i mubhamih), and matters that are not expressly recorded in the Book (ghayr-i mansusih). Whatsoever they decide has the same effect as the Text itself. Inasmuch as the House of Justice hath power to enact laws that are not expressly recorded in the Book and bear upon daily transactions, so also it hath power to repeal the same."
As the last part of this passage makes clear, the matters on which there is a difference of opinion (ikhtilaf) and the "obscure" matters (mubhamih) both have the implication of being legal matters. The House is not here being authorized to resolve theological problems, which would be a matter of Interpretation (tabyin) and thus the purview of `Abdu'l-Baha and the Guardian.
Another duty laid upon the House is jurisprudential elucidation (istinbat.; see Compilation of Compilations, 1:355-56, Rahiq-i Makhtum, 1:203-204). Istinbat. is a technical term in Islamic jurisprudence. Although it has the technical meaning of "reasoning" in Islamic thought, it has a primarily jurisprudential connotation as a technical term. In the Usuli Shi`ite principles of jurisprudence, istinbat. is broadly synonymous with the word ijtihad. Both mean the application of juridical reasoning to a scriptural text with the intent of deriving positive law. In the Shi`ite culture in which `Abdu'l-Baha was steeped, istinbat. or ijtihad was a process that inhered in the reasoning of the jurisprudent. Should the jurisprudent reconsider a problem and come to a different conclusion than the first time, he and his followers must in Usuli Shi`ite law thenceforth uphold the second ruling. I believe this sort of flexibility is inherent in the cultural baggage that a word like istinbat carried with it.
There are many issues in which the revealed or inspired texts are ambiguous or even contradictory. These issues have to do, not with obvious basic principles (usul) apparent to virtually all reasonable persons, but to secondary matters open to dispute. In Islamic law, these secondary matters are called furu`, and it is upon the secondary matters or furu` that jurisprudential reasoning (istinbat) is carried out. My argument is that some matters may at first appear to the Universal House of Justice to be obvious basic principles, but, upon the excavation of further texts and contexts, may appear less and less straightforward and clear, with contradictory texts or inconsistencies emerging. This eventuality could only be ruled out if the House were omniscient, which it is not. In this case, the issue would be demoted from basic principle (usul) to secondary matter (furu`) and would become open to the jurisprudential reasoning (istinbat) of the Universal House of Justice, and possibly then even open to legislation (tashri`) by it. I should think it is obvious from the discussions and investigations on Talisman in 1994-1996 that the issue of women serving on the House is not without the sort of ambiguities and contradictions and disagreement among large numbers of reasonable individuals that might demote it from basic principle to secondary issue and thus make possible a jurisprudential and legislative reconsideration of it by the Universal House of Justice. That is, I would class it as among the obscure matters (masa'il-i mubhamih) that `Abdu'l-Baha puts in the purview of the Universal House of Justice. I personally think that the problems in `Abdu'l-Baha's correspondence can be resolved in favor of the possibility of women serving. The greatest bar is the four letters written on behalf of the Guardian on this issue. But these letters appear to show lack of contextual knowledge of the 1902 Tablet, raising questions about their finality. The Guardian was not empowered independently to legislate (tashri`), only to interpret (tabyin). Where his interpretation was based on inadequate factual or contextual knowledge, he often changed it in his own lifetime. Moreover, one researcher has seen a letter from the Guardian in the US Baha'i archives in which he gives lesser authority to letters only written on his behalf, as compared to letters actually in his own hand. The fact that the Guardian himself stated that he could not overrule decisions of the Universal House of Justice suggests that, at least in matters of Baha'i law, his interpretations could not bind the House in their sphere of authority.
I have thus presented two arguments to make sense of the seemingly contradictory texts in the Baha'i Writings about service of women on elective institutions. First, I have argued that such service was seen as requiring spiritual masculinity, which both women and men might attain, but which was rare among Eastern women in the nineteenth century. `Abdu'l-Baha recognized spiritual masculinity in Western women in 1909 or 1912 by allowing them to serve as rijal or "men" on local houses of justice. Shoghi Effendi bestowed this status on Iranian women in 1954 with regard to the local and national houses of justice. Since the Universal House of Justice is a world institution, service on it by women required that world-wide standards of women's literacy, education, experience with administration and politics, and other aspects of "spiritual masculinity" be met before they could be admitted to it. It may be that we are now approaching that threshhold. My second argument is that the Baha'i principle of the absolute equality of rights among human beings also predicts that eventually adult Baha'i women will have the same rights of eligibility to service on all Baha'i institutions as Baha'i men.
Last Updated 12-7-96