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Policies are not the same as Bahai Teachings

November 8, 2019

“…it is not possible to recognize a same-sex union within the Baha’i community…”

Thanks for your comments Michael, for me as a Bahai, the issue is what is in the Will and Testament of Abdul-Baha (“…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 … it hath power to repeal the same”) and what Shoghi Effendi wrote: “the Guardian of the Faith has been made the Interpreter of the Word and that the Universal House of Justice has been invested with the function of legislating on matters not expressly revealed in the teachings. … Neither can, nor will ever, infringe upon the sacred and prescribed domain of the other. Neither will seek to curtail the specific and undoubted authority with which both have been divinely invested.” (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 149).

Marriage Equality cartoon, 2012, by Adam Zyglis, USA.

Marriage Equality cartoon, 2012,
by Adam Zyglis, USA.

So for me what matters is what is or is not a Bahai teaching. It is a Bahai teaching that the authority of the Universal House of Justice ( (UHJ) head of the Bahai Faith comprised of 9 elected members) is in the laws it makes and these policies of the UHJ are able to change and that could include the UHJ’s own understandings. I see no point in lobbying the UHJ nor any point in a change in the membership of the UHJ being a solution to gays and lesbians being treated differently.

According to Shoghi Effendi the UHJ cannot interpret Bahai Scripture. They can rule on what their own understanding of what marriage means but they cannot restrict the scope of what marriage is and call this a Bahai teaching. So how I interpret the UHJ writing “Marriage is a union between a man and a woman” (Department of the Secretariat, 5 June 2018) and ” … it is not possible to recognize a same-sex union within the Baha’i community.” (Department of the Secretariat, 5 June 2018) is that this is policy of the UHJ based on their current understandings. One day they could change their understanding or one day they might find evidence in support of this and present it to us.

What this informs me as a Bahai is that UHJ policy must be obeyed but my thinking and understanding – my own interpretations – are influenced by Bahai scripture (penned by Baha’u’llah and the Bab, and elaborated on by Abdul-Baha and Shoghi Effendi). So I need to find a balance between my own understanding that there’s nothing in Bahai Scripture that supports any form of discrimination against gays or lesbians with these statements of the UHJ. This means that I have to think and act for myself. I realise that I am very fortunate because when I joined the Bahai community scholarship was encouraged and so I have decades of exposure to cultures within and outside the Bahai community to not only develop some skills in research but also a wide circle of Bahais who I can consult.

I think the emphasis in Baha’u’llah’s teachings is on a religion that doesn’t have a priest class and so it means developing communities of diversity, meaning we should interpret for ourselves and speak from our own diverse perspectives and use the processes of consultation to come to decisions, when decisions are needed. I know there is a lot of fear in Bahai communities to even discuss the topic of homosexuality let alone issues related to the topic of the authority of the UHJ’s policies in relation to the permanent teachings of Baha’u’llah and I do not see any solution here except in my case to write this blog. In fact I cannot discuss any of these topics in any Bahai community setting because the fear is so much that I could be branded a covenant breaker even though I would have never challenged the authority the UHJ has to rule and make policy without any restrictions. I wish this was a non-issue, so that I don’t need to state that I do not challenge the UHJ’s authority each time I write something.

But if I hear a Bahai say something negative about gays or lesbians I do speak up, saying “that sounds like prejudice” or softer less direct words, if the person seems unaware of the implications of what they had said. That’s often all I say as I just want it to be made clear that there’s an objection, but this is very rare. My impression is that most Bahais see nothing wrong with homosexuality but feel conflicted and so avoid the topic. I understand this approach but it doesn’t help in a society where same sex marriage is legalized and where same sex couples are raising amazing children or where gay or lesbian individuals are now visible as members of society.

The point of the Bahai Administration, as I see it, is to give structure but not to be like a priest class instructing individuals how to think and behave. The UHJ has full authority and freedom to make policy so it can be flexible to changing circumstances and so the Bahai Faith doesn’t split into a million sects.

I see an alternative to the current situation. That local or national communities could both prioritize Shoghi Effendi’s instruction: “they will, unhesitatingly, subordinate the operation of [Baha’i] laws and the application of [Baha’i] principles to the requirements and legal enactments of their respective governments.” (The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 65) and obey the UHJ’s current policy which denies a married gay or lesbian membership.

They could create a community where unregistered members are overtly equally welcome and involved. If I wasn’t allowed to register but I was told, “I am sorry we are not allowed to register your membership because of your marriage but we want to treat you as equal and will treat you as equal” – I think I would join and I wouldn’t care if I wasn’t allowed to vote or to serve on an LSA if no other member of the community treated me as if I was a problem. No one is challenging the UHJ’s policy and that community has found a way to be welcoming. But such a statement needs to be stated clearly, so a potential member knows that in this community, each time my family experiences any form of discrimination, that there is a structure in place – whether a support person or group or the whole community, where this issue could be brought up as a topic for consultation so I, my partner and children feel safe and welcome, and so the openness becomes a form of protection.

Someone might claim that this approach challenges the authority of the UHJ but I would say, that that person’s idea of the UHJ is that policies are to be treated like of book of rules in the narrowest sense. No one is challenging the UHJ if they reference: “The doors are open for all humanity to enter the Cause of God, irrespective of their present circumstances; this invitation applies to homosexuals as well as to any others…” (Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States, 11 September 1995) and “…it is entirely against the spirit of the Faith to regard homosexuals with prejudice or disdain..” (Department of the Secretariat, 12 April 2016) And no one could accuse this community of hyprocrisy if it is stated clearly, this is a solution in line with the current policy of the UHJ.

Perhaps one day the UHJ might view same sex marriage differently, such as: “…should a polygamist become a Baha’i, he would not be required to divorce or separate from any of his spouses; however, he would not be able to enter into a new marriage while still being married to another spouse.” (Department of the Secretariat, 13 April 1999)

Perhaps one day the UHJ might view the qualifications for membership or marriage to be determined by NSAs. When I was on an LSA in Aotearoa | New Zealand in the 1980s, our decision concerning a Soloman Island Bahai who had not had a wedding was influenced by this: “…Common Law Marriage … type of relationship, if contracted before a person has become a Bahá’í may be accepted by the Institutions of the Faith without requiring the person to undo such ties.” (From letter of the Universal House of Justice to the National Assembly of Paraguay, November 21, 1967) (Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 381)
Since then I have met many Bahais in a long-term relationship, who were not required to marry after they joined the Bahai community. And it seems to me that Abdul-Baha views marriage as culturally bound and being a social teaching, would mean that the definition of Bahai marriage is not something set in stone. In a provisional (provisional translations are not official Bahai translations but are allowed to be used if acknowledged) translation by Sen McGlinn of a 1899 Tablet by Abdul-Baha:
“ … As for the matter of marriage, this falls entirely within the ‘cultural laws.’ [“ahkaam madaniyyih”] Nevertheless, its preconditions are found in the Law of God, and its fundamentals are evident. However those unions between relatives that are not explicitly treated, are referred to the House of Justice, which will give a ruling based on the culture, medical requirements, wisdom, and the capacity of human nature. …
In short, whatever ruling the House of Justice makes in this respect, is the decisive decree, it is God’s sharp sword. No one may transgress that limit. If you consider, it will be apparent how much this rule (that is, referring cultural laws to the House of Justice) is consistent with wisdom. For whenever a difficulty may arise in relation to the local context of an issue, since the House of Justice delivered the previous ruling, the secondary House of Justice can issue a new national ruling on the national case and instance, in the light of local contingencies. …”
(The full translation is on senmcglinn.wordpress.com with some commentary)

In the first comment on Sen McGlinn’s blog are details of previous translations into English by others as well as more context for the source which can be found: in a collection of hand-copied tablets, in the Iranian National Bahai Archives, volume 59; http://www.h-net.org/~bahai/areprint/ab/G-L/I/inba59/59IBA275.gif (INBA 59), in Ishraq-Khavari’s thematic collection of Bahai Writings, Amr wa Khalq, volume 4, page 299; http://reference.bahai.org/fa/t/c/AK4/ak4-302.html and more recently in Rahiiq-e Makhtum volume 1 pages 222-223, published in 2007, of the same texts originally collected by Ishraq-Khavari.

In a 2010 blog of mine I connected the idea of the UHJ determining what marriage could be (“As for marriage, this falls entirely within the social laws. Nevertheless, the preconditions are found in the Law of God, and its fundamentals are evident.” Abdul-Baha, “Amr wa Khalq” volume 4, pp. 301-2. http://reference.bahai.org/fa/t/c/AK4/ak4-302.html, provisional translation by Sen McGlinn) to Abdul-Baha’s reference in the Will and Testament to “daily transactions” (mu’aamaalat refers to religious law on dealings between individuals as distinct to other types of religious law that relate to the individual’s relationship towards God.) being within the sphere of the House of Justice. So perhaps marriage could be defined by Houses of Justice (NSAs) or that the UHJ can rule what marriage means, which it does currently by stating that it can only be between a man and woman.

I do not think Baha’u’llah’s religion would be watered down if differing social teachings were applied in differing countries.

I view the UHJ as a force for stability: “… this Administrative Order is fundamentally different from anything that any Prophet has previously established … to supplement and apply His legislative ordinances. … and the guarantee against disintegration and schism.” (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 144)

And in some ways this makes sense to me because how can a worldwide community function with top down rules on things that are nationally and culturally specific, and there’s the possibility that one day the UHJ might decide to change its policy on excluding same sex marriage. Our advantage on the beginnings of the Catholic church is that we can read Bahai Scripture for ourselves and the UHJ encourages this: “The principle of the harmony of science and religion means not only that religious teachings should be studied with the light of reason and evidence as well as of faith and inspiration, but also that everything in this creation, all aspects of human life and knowledge, should be studied in the light of revelation as well as in that of purely rational investigation. In other words, a Bahá’í scholar, when studying a subject, should not lock out of his mind any aspect of truth that is known to him.” (Universal House of Justice, Messages UHJ 1963 to 1986, p. 388/9)

And I end with
“A clear distinction is made in our Faith between authoritative interpretation and the interpretation or understanding that each individual arrives at for himself from his study of its teachings.
While the former is confined to the Guardian, the latter, according to the guidance given to us by the Guardian himself, should by no means be suppressed. In fact such individual interpretation is considered the fruit of man’s rational power and conducive to a better understanding of the teachings, provided that no disputes or arguments arise among the friends and the individual himself understands and makes it clear that his views are merely his own. Individual interpretations continually change as one grows in comprehension of the teachings…”

(From a letter of the Universal House of Justice to an individual
believer, May 27, 1966) (Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 311-312)

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Be Kind

May 7, 2019

"We will all, verily, abide by the will of God."My favourite quotation is Baha’u’llah’s “My first counsel is this: Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart, that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable and everlasting.” (Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words)

For me this stresses that our goal in life should be to make the world a nicer, kinder, safer place for all, in any manner available to each of us.

I wish the Bahai community was a kinder place towards our LGBTQ members – kinder so they didn’t have to leave, remain in the closet, or develop toughness to deal with discrimination ranging from slurs to condemnation to threats to exclusion. I wish the Bahai community was a kinder place, period. This might sound extreme to some ears who believe the Bahai community is open to diversity and does not discriminate, so I will explain.

In response to my last blog a number of not quite out of the closet individuals (one no longer wishes to be known as a Bahai) were privately harrassed by Bahais because they commented on a link to my blog which had been circulated on facebook. A lifetime of being told your kind are diseased, immoral, aberrant or shameful contributes to mistrust, distrust, fear, unhappiness or depression and so it doesn’t take much to tip the balance.

Another was told that she should be ashamed for liking my blog because that boy deserved to die. An elderly friend was told that they should be ashamed for liking the reference to my last blog and then she was told that she should be reported on because the UHJ (Universal House of Justice, international head of the Bahai community) condemns homosexuality. As I wrote in my previous blog, the UHJ no longer associates homosexuality with disease, but many Bahais turn to older UHJ policy which did. This elderly friend was so upset he asked me to intervene in some manner.
I decided that the best way to help was to write this blog because the worse possible response to discrimination is silence. Well, denying that there is any discrimination would be even worse.

Yes I have changed the gender. I mismatch most stories on my blog so it is not possible to trace comments to any particular individual but the incidents and the diverse locations are true.

Another Bahai wrote in reference to this same blog that this “sinful behaviour that is forbidden in the faith. The individual identifying as homosexual will always be socially shunned and politically stifled in the Baha’i Faith. This will not change.” Yes a Bahai from a western country wrote this in a closed facebook group in 2019!

Another gay Bahai thinking it was now safe for him to make it known that he was gay to his local community, contacted me, heartbroken because he was told he couldn’t be a Bahai any more by an ABM (an Assistant Board Member is appointed with a pastoral function in the Bahai community: some Bahais treat them more as authorities than as advisors). He left, later rejoined, left again. It saddens me that he feels that his lifetime of being a Bahai was no longer possible because now he couldn’t pretend he was not gay and now couldn’t even face the slurs or negative comments about homosexuality he used to be able to tolerate. He knew that that ABM had no right to say what he did, but it hurt him to the core and broke his faith in a future that would get better. Like many other gays and lesbians who have communicated with me, he couldn’t find the words to defend himself.
Some of these LGBTQ Bahais mention that they are celibate, which is none of my business, but they tell me anyway. I say this to illustrate the discrimination is against homosexuality, not about sexual practice, which many Bahais would say is no-one’s business. But those Bahais who say one’s private life is no-one’s business might also say, Bahais shouldn’t discuss homosexuality. For me the issue isn’t about the private life of any individual but about developing and maintaining an atmosphere of tolerance. No Bahai should have to live in the closet or keep their private life separate from the Bahai community to protect themselves from a complaint being made about them. One Bahai offered his home to a member of his LSA (a Local Spiritual Assembly is a group of 9 who run the Bahai community at a local level) who needed a place to stay. Then she made a complaint to the LSA which removed him from all Bahai committees and told him that he wasn’t allowed to mix with any other single Bahais. This individual was a professional teacher. He rang me, upset, because these were his childhood friends he was told he was not allowed to see on threat of having his voting rights removed. He had told no one of his sexual orientation but felt he couldn’t lie to his LSA when accused of being a homosexual.

A young European Bahai after declaring, knew of the discrimination and could handle this, seeing it as a residue of the prejudices in society in general, but when her LSA told her she could no longer give Bahai children’s classes this was the last straw. Her profession was also as a teacher and now that action by that LSA made her feel like a second class citizen. Unfortunately such actions often go unnoticed. Other members, noticing that she has left or resigned might think it is not their business to pry. Any individual who might have made that complaint to the LSA – after all she had been giving these classes for some years – would have felt justified by the LSA’s action. It could even have been the case that within the LSA some members might have argued for tolerance but that they were outvoted. However what matters in the end is the action of discrimination. Even if this was just one example (and I have many more), this matters. That community now has no gay or lesbian members and the next person to declare or the next youth to come out is likely to be treated in the same manner unless the discrimination is addressed. If that community had discussed homosexuality before that wo-man had joined that community, perhaps they could have been kinder? Perhaps the person who made the complaint didn’t realise that this would cause so much pain? Perhaps that Bahai thought it was impossible to be gay and a Bahai? Perhaps if that gay individual knew that gays and lesbians were not allowed to give children’s classes in that community, then they might not have been so hurt? Perhaps the community might have had time to discuss the pros and cons of having a gay or a lesbian Bahai conduct children’s classes? I have many stories of lesbians and gays being removed from Bahai committees because it became known that they were gay or lesbian. And those most hurt were ones who had kept their sexuality private, so it only took one Bahai to be intolerant, one Bahai to make a complaint.

A part of the reason that there is so much unaddressed discrimination against any hint of LGBQT visibility is that Bahais tend to look the other way when someone says something offensive about gays, or worse Bahais say there is no discrimination because they do not hear about it. They do not hear it because they do not have any LGBTQ friends who would trust them enough to say anything. These same individuals do not notice that there are no out of the closet LGBTQ Bahais in their Bahai community either. Absence. Silence. What’s missing here? I have been told that it doesn’t matter because homosexuality shouldn’t exist.

Just think, decades of being part of a loving community, perhaps growing up identifying with a worldwide community aimed at unity in diversity and then being told, as another friend was recently told ‘Baha’u’llah forbids your kind’ – in other words, you do not belong. This is harsh. Especially harsh to a young person who might not even be sure what their sexuality is. But not just young people either. A middle-aged woman asked me if she really wasn’t allowed to be a Bahai any more and a few months later her NSA (The National Spiritual Assembly runs the Bahai community at a national level) removed her voting rights without even meeting with her. Of the 40 of more instances of discrimination, I know of only two LSAs who treated their LGBTQ members with kindness. One is referred to in this blog “Love and Legalism – a tale of two Bahai communities” and the other LSA was informed by an NSA member that they were under investigation because some members of that LSA attended a same sex wedding by a Bahai from another community.
Another Bahai told me that she had attended her son’s wedding even though she knew Bahais were not allowed to do this but she didn’t have the heart not to. She was referring to this: “…about believers attending weddings of Bahá’ís who are marrying contrary to Bahá’í law, and we have been asked to convey to you the following. “If it is known beforehand that a believer is violating such laws, it would be inappropriate for the friends to attend the ceremony.” From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of New Zealand, November 11, 1974: Australian Bahá’í Bulletin, No. 243, September 1975, p. 4 and in Lights of Guidance (1983).

Yet another Bahai told me that she knowingly attended her daughter’s non-Bahai wedding saying to me that she was discrete and that’s what Bahais should do. I do not agree. I think all parents should be free to attend their children’s weddings whether their children are Bahais or not. I would imagine that in 99% of all cases, no Bahai would dream of making a complaint. But it only takes one Bahai to complain and that’s the problem. Perhaps a future UHJ will make new policy stating that family members may attend their children’s weddings even if the children are gay or lesbian.

There is a strong tendency for Bahais to sit on the fence about anything out of a fear of showing disunity. There is only disunity if individuals with widely differing views accuse the other view, perspective or interpretation of being wrong. A minority voice is not a sign of disunity. Abdul-Baha clearly expected it to be a Bahai community norm for individual Bahais to have differing views when he wrote of “every member expresseth with absolute freedom his own opinion and setteth forth his argument. Should anyone oppose, he must on no account feel hurt for not until matters are fully discussed can the right way be revealed. The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions. If after discussion, a decision be carried unanimously well and good; but if, the Lord forbid, differences of opinion should arise, a majority of voices must prevail.” (Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 87) and Shoghi Effendi quoted this same text in the book, Bahai Administration (p.21)

So it seems to me that it is a core Bahai teaching that diversity of opinion is essential to what I view as a holistic community life. But the discrimination against homosexuality is so strong that I, as an individual have never brought this up as a topic at any Bahai gathering. Even when it has come up privately with Bahais, they bombard me with words, like Shoghi Effendi said, the UHJ says with words like, forbidden, wrong, immoral … so all I can squeeze out is, wouldn’t be better to be tolerant so it doesn’t look like prejudice? Because those ears are not open to the idea that a gay or lesbian has a right to exist. Of course not all Bahais who see homosexuality as part of a slippery slope are that intolerant, and I’ve had some insightful conversations with Bahais who view same sex marriage as wrong. Some of these Bahais wouldn’t make a complaint about anyone and would, I believe, be kind. So for me it isn’t a question of convincing Bahais there is nothing wrong with homosexuality but of creating a community where a gay or lesbian Bahai would feel they were treated with dignity and be free from a phone call or email telling them that they cannot attend any Bahai event aimed for their own age group or that they have to overcome their homosexuality.
A year ago a newly declared Bahai was shown the door at a deepening and two others had to leave with him because he had the car. These two were confused by what happened and when he said that it was because that Bahai knew he was gay, their response was that while they had sympathy for him, it was his own fault. It transpired that it was his fault for not knowing the ‘gay position’ before declaring. They had never had a gay declare in their community before. He has since resigned, so that community can go back to its idea of unity.

Any Bahai community that chooses to reduce the attitudes of discrimination against homosexuality have a tough task but they could start with just talking about how they might treat an individual in their community if they were gay or lesbian. It could be a way to address the more intolerant perspectives within their own community. Bahais thank me privately for my blog adding that they don’t dare say a word because they can’t handle the heat. Many of them are heterosexuals with some standing in the community and I understand and appreciate that they can’t do more. No one should have to step into an unkind space. Bahais regularly make complaints, even about this blog I write. The Universal House of Justice has not asked me to remove this blog and so these complaints are the opinions of Bahais, no matter what they might say behind my back. When I hear of these things it disgusts me but so far, I see it as fear, fear of difference, fear of people not like themselves but there is a bigger issue here than just the topic of homosexuality and that is a fear of the visibility of divergent or minority views within the Bahai community.

So why do I write on a topic that Bahais often tell me is divisive? Writing about homosexuality in relation to the Bahai teachings or community is only divisive if you think there is something wrong with homosexuality or if you think Bahais shouldn’t have differing opinions or perspectives. For me what is so amazing about the Bahai teachings is the often quoted ‘unity in diversity’ – it seems to me that Baha’u’llah intended to create a religious community based on differences – voices – not just one way of thinking or living or behaving. So diversity is not just something to be tolerated but at its essence having diverse views, interpretations or approaches is the means for holistic forms of problem solving. There are many passages in the Bahai Writings in support of the importance of diversity (“When thou doest contemplate the innermost essence of things and the individuality of each, thou wilt behold the signs of they Lord’s mercy…” (Selections. from the Writings of ´Abdu´l-Bahá, p. 41) but also in the manner of how the Bahai community affairs operates where there are elected individuals who consult together and where decisions are intended to be flexible and to evolve. “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.” (Abdu’l-Baha, The Will and Testament, p. 20)

Abdul-Baha states that the authority of the UHJ’s rulings is the same as what is in Bahai Scripture but this does not mean that it is entirely the same, as clearly shown in the second half of the sentence. The UHJ can change its own policies (“repeal the same”). So if a UHJ states today that gays or lesbians may not have the same rights and responsibilities as a heterosexuals, it is possible that a future UHJ might state a different understanding of the Bahai teachings.

So why did I start this blog?

In 2009 a Bahai attempted to silence me in a Bahai discussion group by having me blocked so I couldn’t correct his claim that I was belittling the letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi. I knew at that moment I had to make my words public so that his rewording and his interpretation of what I wrote could not be used behind my back as if these were my words. What did I write? I wrote that mention of homosexuality is only in these letters. He took the word, “only” and claimed that I was saying these were only letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, as if these had no authority, and had me blocked from the group so I couldn’t respond. Fortunately for two days I could read all the comments agreeing with his words, damning those words I never wrote.

I also decided not to hide who I am because I have been a Bahai for a long time and am in a position to defend myself from slurs such as:
“My impression of your post is you are using Lucas in a dishonest way to give credence to your personal feelings that are in conflict with Baha’u’llah’s teachings.”

I can handle it if a Bahai claims that what I write is in conflict with Baha’u’llah but it certainly helps that I can call on a number of scholars to help me to understand Bahai Scripture in the original languages. It also helps that because my mother tongue is English, I am in the fortunate position of being able to easily read the large amount of Bahai writings in translation. I am also very careful about when to reveal someone’s identity on my blog and when not to.

The point of my blog about Lucas was to open up the question of how can we show that the Bahai community is a safe place for our LGBTQ teens? So the next time someone is down they can go to someone. So they don’t die of an unstated cause alone in their apartment.

One person told me that I should leave the Bahai Faith and stop writing from the viewpoint of a Bahai, because he thought the Bahai Faith would never accept gays or lesbians as equals and so could never deal with the discrimination. I disagreed with him because I do not think the Bahai teachings are flawed. There’s nothing to stop the UHJ ruling one day that the policy on same sex marriage could be treated like: “In general, marriages entered into by parties prior to their enrollment in the Faith are recognized as valid under Bahá’í Law, and in such cases an additional Bahá’í marriage ceremony is not permitted. This applies whether the marriage was established under civil or religious law or under tribal custom.” (From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of Panama, September 7, 1981, Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 379). <a hr
ef=”http://bahai-library.com/hornby_lights_guidance_2.html&chapter=2#n1270″>Also in Lights of Guidance.

or perhaps,

“Furthermore, the Faith accepts in certain cases unions which are ‘immoral but accepted’ by the society in which the people live.” (From a letter of the Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of Peru, June 23, 1969). Cited in Lights of Guidance.
(A link to the index on marriage in Lights of Guidance)

However the current 2018 policy from the UHJ states: “… it is not possible to recognize a same-sex union within the Baha’i community.” (Department of the Secretariat, 5 June 2018)

But I live for today and not some distant future. Today I am here to support those who are discriminated against and I stand for equality for all which I know to my bones is a Bahai teaching without any exceptions. I am also happy to be the person a Bahai might choose to accuse of doing something wrong or the Bahai they make accusations about to others. I have a thick skin and a very fortunate life so I have the confidence to do this. My advice to anyone, whether gay or not, is to find a world where one’s orientation is a non-issue so you can just be. If one of your worlds is the Bahai community then it will be easier to see slurs or threats as discrimination and to ignore them, and there are networks of support (that don’t associate sexuality with alcoholism or drug dependency) for our rainbow members.

I write this blog because gays and lesbians are being told that they are diseased. They ring or text me when they are attacked. I can’t tell them to consult the LSA because half the time it is the LSA or an LSA member or an ABM who has told them that they are diseased, have to isolate themselves from their childhood friends, have to leave their community.
Lucas, the subject of my previous blog, told me that views on homosexuality were expressed with such hostility that he didn’t dare talk to anyone in his community and so he spoke to me – a Bahai half way across the globe. Then again, a few years older in another country and community, he shared what a secretary wrote to him about needing to overcome his homosexuality. I expressed sympathy and suggested he only mix with those who did not see him as a lesser human and told him that it was not a Bahai teaching to discriminate against gays and lesbians. But he needed kindness from Bahais around him and, from what he wrote to me, it seems there was no one. There was no one in his local community who just said, it’s ok. You are just fine as you are, you are part of the diversity of humanity.
I finish with this New Zealand Māori saying:
“He kokonga whare, e kitea;
He kokonga ngakau, e kore e kitea.”

Corners of a house can be seen but corners of the heart cannot be seen.

Please, even if you think homosexuality is despicable, for the sake of unity, hold your tongue when it comes to condemning homosexuality. If you don’t want to talk about it, don’t. But don’t go behind a person’s back and make a complaint to an Assembly. Work at making your Bahai community a space where anyone is welcome, in whatever manner that is possible. Just be kind and if you can, “Be a treasure to the poor, an admonisher to the rich, an answerer of the cry of the needy …. a lamp unto them that walk in darkness, a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression. … a dew to the soil of the human heart…”
(Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 285)
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R.I.P. my friend

April 26, 2019

my friend Lucas

My friend Lucas

Lucas (17 years) started communicating with me in 2014 because of our common interest in Esperanto. He was living and studying in Brazil and had declared as a Bahai 3 months earlier through one of his professors who is a Bahai. Upon learning that my main concern in the Bahai community was for the wellbeing of gay and lesbian Bahais, his response was: “Really?? This is new to me.”

We ended our conversation with him saying he was happy that I wrote on this topic and I thanked him for not telling me I was doing something wrong.

Two months later he wrote to me again: “Dear Sonja! Today is the convenant day, and my birthday. I just want to let you know that I’ve been reading your blog, and it makes my heart laugh… Not just for personal reasons (in fact, I am not still sure about my sexuality, and I think I just don’t need to be right now). I’m very happy to know that there are people like you. Just keep going! Don’t loose this marvelous courage! You have my prayers! Alla’u’abha!”

Our conversation in 2014

Our conversation in 2014


I thanked him and didn’t give this another thought because I communicate with a lot of individuals and I lead a pretty busy life.

About 6 months later he joined a secret Bahai gay, lesbian, trans Facebook support group I have been a member of since 2008. He wrote about his sadness at discovering that his local Bahais, including the professor, spoke of homosexuality so negatively that he couldn’t even discuss the topic with them.

He was welcomed into our secret support group by individuals from various backgrounds with a lot of joking and fun exchanged, and he said he was happy to have found this group.

Two years further along, now living in Poland, he wrote that he received an email from the secretary of his local spiritual assembly (LSA).
The 2017 subject heading was: The Baha’i Writings and Homosexuality.
“Dear, Lucas… I just received this message from the Baha’i Writings Service and immediately thought of you. Maybe it can be useful…


“Bahá’í teachings on sexual morality center on marriage and the family as the bedrock of the whole structure of human society and are designed to protect and strengthen that divine institution. Thus Bahá’í Law restricts permissible sexual intercourse to that between a man and the woman to whom he is married. Thus, it should not be so much a matter of whether a practicing homosexual can be a Bahá’í as whether, having become a Bahá’í, the homosexual can overcome his problem through knowledge of the teachings and reliance on Bahá’u’lláh.”
The Universal House of Justice
..in a letter to an individual believer. March 14, 1973
(Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 365)

Lucas was very upset even though he knew this letter was sent not from the LSA itself but by the secretary at her own initiative. He wrote:
“The problem is that this experience is killing all my faith day by day. I am still trying to stay “spiritual” “

Now two years later I hear that he was found dead on the floor of his home in Brazil at age 22. The cause of death is not clear.

When I first communicated with Lucas I had no idea that he was gay and it seems that he didn’t either.

The prejudice against gays and lesbians is so wide spread among Bahais, that in order to show I do not share in this prejudice I need to make it clear that I do stand for the rights of gays and lesbians and am a Bahai. For me is strategic – it shows that is possible. In this case, for Lucas who had just become a Bahai, he heard it was possible to be a Bahai and not see anything wrong with homosexuality.
I hope Lucas might have found contact with other gays and lesbians who are Bahais as well as Bahais who did not damn homosexuality, but his 2017 comments show that he was suffering and hurt by the discrimination.

It was wrong of that secretary of the LSA to send Lucas that email, but he knew that if he had brought up this to that LSA he would been given yet more quotations on how homosexuality is wrong. Who would want to face that? I wouldn’t.

Recently, in response to hearing of a case of discrimination against a lesbian by an institution, a Bahai said to me, “she should make a complaint, that’s unreasonable”. He meant well and I understand that complaints about discrimination should be made, but you can only do this if you are in a place of confidence or if you see any sign that the discrimination would be recognized. As for myself, I am not confident that an LSA or an NSA (National Spiritual Assembly, the national level of Bahai administration) would do anything. I know too many stories of discrimination and this is why I write this blog. For my friends who can’t write a letter of complaint after being called diseased or told that they cannot be a Bahai anymore. This blog is also for those Bahais unaware of the discrimination in the hope that they make it known to their gay or lesbian friends that they can come to them for support the next time that person is feeling down.

I am very lucky that I have been a Bahai for many years and in my first few years of being a member of the Bahai community no one said or did anything to indicate to me that there was prejudice against gays or lesbians. I have had close gay friends since I was 17 so if I had known that gays and lesbians were discriminated against I would not have joined.
I didn’t know of any texts that stated “homosexuality is forbidden” until I had been a Bahai for 5 years when a flatmate, a newly declared Bahai, announced this with great enthusiasm. I was shocked. I was shocked this text existed and I was shocked that she was so excited about homosexuality being forbidden. I couldn’t engage with her on this because I was in shock. It felt wrong to my core and it didn’t feel like a teaching of equality and justice. If the topic came up, which it rarely did, then I would say it didn’t feel right to discriminate and I made it clear to the gay xBahais who confronted me (now the 1983 book, Lights of Guidance, was in most communities), telling me that Bahais believe homosexuality is a disease, that I did not share this view.

Decades further and thanks largely to the internet I have been able to learn more about the context for that prohibition listed in the Aqdas. It is based on handwritten notes by Shoghi Effendi and is not Shoghi Effendi’s published authoritative interpretation. This is the Universal House of Justice’s understanding, I assume: the author of the list of prohibitions in the pages after Baha’u’llah’s Kitab-i-Aqdas is not clearly stated, but the Universal House of Justice (UHJ) have published the volume in the form that it is in. In any case, the UHJ is not authorized to interpret the writings of Baha’u’llah so this list must have the status of UHJ policy or of the Research Department.
So if a Bahai should say homosexuality is a problem, I will ask how? Many Bahais just say ‘it is a Bahai teaching’ and that’s what makes it so difficult. The prejudice against homosexuality is so widespread. How can a new Bahai find anyone they can talk to? How can a young person even discuss sexuality without the fear of being judged?
That Polish secretary thought she was being helpful but what she did was tell Lucas “the homosexual can overcome his problem” (a 1973 UHJ statement) and her initiative was in response to communications sent by the “Baha’i Writings Service”. How would you feel if a secretary gave you advice about overcoming your ‘problem’ when you know not all Bahais would be sent such advice? When you think most Bahais would agree with this advice, that homosexuality has to be overcome. You would think this because you never hear anything else. That you never hear a Bahai speak up to say, but homosexuality is not bad, not damned, and doesn’t need to be cured.

If the UHJ should state that homosexuality is a problem, this is trickier because many Bahais confuse the authority of the UHJ as ruler and maker of Bahai law with Baha’u’llah’s station. The UHJ no longer refers to homosexuality as a problem but these Bahais then just pull out the earlier statements of the UHJ where they state that homosexuality needs to be cured or overcome and since the UHJ has never stated in clear terms, the older policy of damning homosexuality is not current policy, it is hard to argue with Bahais who do this. So I have to point out that even if the UHJ should state that homosexuality is forbidden, this is a policy that they could change later on. It is not Baha’u’llah’s law because Baha’u’llah did not write a word on homosexuality and his teachings stress equality, justice and that Bahais should read Bahai scripture and interpret for themselves.

Like Lucas, it was after I had committed myself to joining the Bahai community that I discovered that the official policy was that homosexuality was considered aberrant in some manner but I only heard this from one Bahai in those first years expressed in almost a whisper – perhaps to gauge my response. There was a sense in this Bahai community that it was no one’s business to pry into people’s private lives, whether they were gay or not. Today I realise I was lucky to have become a Bahai in a community that was outward looking and tolerant of diversity. Then later there was that new Bahai excited because she found support for her prejudice in the book, Lights of Guidance.

Just a day ago a Bahai told me: “our duty is unquestioning obedience and compliance” and he possibly expected me to be silent. My response to him was that that was his opinion because the Universal House of Justice has not told Bahais that they are not allowed to discuss the policy of not recognizing legalized same sex marriage. Over the years I have developed a thick skin to attempts to silence me on this topic. It is not just because I think it goes against the Bahai principle of the independent search for truth but when people are afraid to say what they think, the Bahai community becomes a place of narrowness and not diversity. I think it is a Bahai teaching to be free to discuss and debate. The authority of the Universal House of Justice is to rule not to tell us how to think or interpret the Bahai Writings.

I understood from the tone of that man’s comment that he personally held no negativity towards gays but as a Bahai he had come to a decision that on this topic, there could be no discussion because he either didn’t see a solution or because he confused debate and critique with disobedience. As a Bahai I accept the authority of the Universal House of Justice to make Bahai law and their current policy is that married gays and lesbians are not allowed to join the Bahai community and same sex marriage is not accepted. I don’t understand why but there’s nothing stopping me from discussing this as long as I don’t make the mistake of saying that anything I say is any more than my own personal opinion. And therein lies the problem. That secretary’s opinion was that she thought she should send Lucas that email that stated that homosexuality was a problem to overcome.

And how many Bahais would then stand up and say, that’s discrimination. How many Bahais are willing to say out loud to a new Bahai or a young Bahai, it is possible to be a Bahai and gay – that it is a non-issue? How can we show that the Bahai community is a safe place for our LGBTQ teens?

Normally on my blog I do not reveal anything that might identify a Bahai and I take confidentiality very seriously but by the time Lucas died he was out to his Bahai community as a gay man and it seems wrong to keep his memory as another gay Bahai ‘unknown.’

It upsets me that Lucas is no longer with us and I end this post with mention of the Trevor project (thetrevorproject.org) in case any of you still think negative comments about homosexuality aren’t such a big deal. Words can really wound.



“Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24. [1]
LGB youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth. [2]
LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.2 Of all the suicide attempts made by youth, LGB youth suicide attempts were almost five times as likely to require medical treatment than those of heterosexual youth. [2]
Suicide attempts by LGB youth and questioning youth are 4 to 6 times more likely to result in injury, poisoning, or overdose that requires treatment from a doctor or nurse, compared to their straight peers. [2]
In a national study, 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt. 92% of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25. [3]
LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as LGB peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection. [4]
1 out of 6 students nationwide (grades 9–12) seriously considered suicide in the past year. [5] Each episode of LGBT victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average. [6]

SOURCES:
[1] CDC, NCIPC. Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) [online]. (2010) {2013 Aug. 1}. Available from:www.cdc.gov/ncipc/wisqars.
[2] CDC. (2016). Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts, and Health-Risk Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9-12: Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
[3] James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.
[4] Family Acceptance Project™. (2009). Family rejection as a predictor of negative health outcomes in white and Latino lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults. Pediatrics. 123(1), 346-52.
[5] CDC. (2016). Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts, and Health-Risk Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9-12: Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
[6] IMPACT. (2010). Mental health disorders, psychological distress, and suicidality in a diverse sample of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths. American Journal of Public Health. 100(12), 2426-32.

thetrevorproject.org

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The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha’i Faith

August 27, 2018

When I heard the following paper being presented at the 1988 Bahai Studies conference in New Zealand it seemed to me that the phrase by Abdul-Baha “the sun at high noon” meant when the timing is right or when time has passed.
Here is the whole text:
“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.”
Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Haifa: Baha’i World Centre, 1978, pp 79-80

Over the years various Bahais have come up with all sorts of ‘reasons’ as to why women are not allowed to serve as members of the international body of the Bahai Administration (The Universal House of Justice) which fortunately can be easily dismissed as prejudice or ignorance because in most Bahai communities women are not treated with any lesser status than men. I am not suggesting that Bahai communities do not display aspects of sexism but in general I don’t see it being any worse than in the surrounding culture and as each day goes by, less Bahais insist that a women’s place is in the home raising children 🙂

So when someone would ask me about the inequality of not allowing women to serve on the Universal House of Justice (UHJ). I would throw up my hands and say I have no idea but I trust it will work out and that I am a Bahai and a feminist and Bahais do see the importance of gender equality. After hearing the paper, depending on the person’s interest I might add it seems to me to be a historical misunderstanding because Abdul-Baha’s 1902 text cited above refers to the all male membership of the Chicago House of Justice and not to the Universal House of Justice and a decade later Abdul-Baha changed this policy to allow women also to serve.

I now saw the context for this quotation from Abdul-Baha as wisdom because for the Persian man sent to oversee this first election at Abdul-Baha’s request, the idea that women could be members was too much of a strange idea. So “confined to men” meant in the 1902 Tablet, 10 years (from the first tablet in 1902 to the change to allow women to be elected in 1912).

This paper also gives an overview on the development of the Bahai administration which began informally in Iran from about 1878 as well as some context for Baha’u’llah’s use of the word “rijal” which is the word used by Baha’u’llah for the members of a House of Justice.

Sen McGlinn wanted to publish this in a journal of essays, Soundings (see the essays that were published) but the UHJ would not allow this to be published. Then the authors were informed that they were not allowed to circulate this paper. Then in 2007 another letter of the UHJ said that they were unaware of any restrictions on the circulation of this paper. So this could go up on h-net.org where people now had access to this. Below this paper is a bit of discussion on this topic.

Here is the paper! It is also here on h-net.org but I am putting it here so there are two places it can be found. Please bear in mind that this was written in 1988 and so the statistics will be out of date. So far as I know no other Bahais have written on this topic since then. There have been a number of statements from the UHJ stating that the gender of the UHJ will never change.

The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha’i Faith
Presented in 1988 at the New Zealand Bahai Studies Association Conference, Christchurch.
Anthony A. Lee, Peggy Caton, Richard Hollinger, Marjan Nirou, Nader Saiedi, Shahin Carrigan, Jackson Armstong-Ingram, and Juan R. I. Cole

From 1844, the year of the founding of the Babi religion, to the present day, women have played important roles in Baha’i history. Babi and Baha’i women have often acted as leaders in the community, holding its highest positions and participating in its most important decisions. In the first days of His Revelation, the Bab Himself appointed Qurratu’l-‘Ayn, Tahirih, as one of His chief disciples – one of the nineteen Letters of the Living who were the first to believe in Him and were entrusted by Him with the mission of spreading His Faith and shepherding its believers. This remarkable woman would soon become one of the most radical and influential of the Bab’s disciples and the leader of the Babis of Karbala. Her vision and achievement have become legend. [1]

In later periods of Baha’i history, women have acted in central roles of leadership within the community. Bahiyyih Khanum, the Greatest Holy Leaf, the sister of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, several times in her lifetime was called upon to act as the de facto head of the Baha’i Faith. When ‘Abdu’l-Baha left the Holy Land to travel to the West, for example, He chose to leave the affairs of the Cause in the hands of His sister. Likewise, immediately after the ascension of ‘Abdu’l-Baha – before Shoghi Effendi, the new Guardian, could arrive in Palestine to assume control of the Faith, the Greatest Holy Leaf assumed leadership. The Baha’is in the Holy Land instinctively turned to her as their guide and protector. And again, during the Guardian’s absences from his duties during the early years of his ministry, he repeatedly entrusted the affairs of the Cause to the Greatest Holy Leaf. [2]

After the passing of Shoghi Effendi, women were once more called upon to serve the Baha’i Faith at its highest levels. The international leadership of the religion fell to the Hands of the Cause, the chief stewards of the Faith who had been appointed by the Guardian during his lifetime. The women Hands served along with the men to guide the Baha’i community through the turbulent years preceding the election of the Universal House of Justice. Once again, Baha’i women demonstrated their capacity to administer the affairs of the Faith at its highest levels.

The Baha’i Principle of Gradualism
Nonetheless, the service of women on the elected institutions of the Baha’i Faith has emerged only gradually. Although a few exceptional Baha’i women have always set the example for their sex, the role of women on Baha’i institutions in the community as a whole has not been comparable to that of men. Traditional notions of inequality, as well as the restrictions of a hostile environment, have caused the participation of women to lag behind.
Even to the present day, the participation of women on National Spiritual Assemblies, Boards of Counsellors, and Auxiliary Boards is not equal to that of men, as the charts show. A long road has yet to be travelled.

Participation of Women in Baha’i Institutions
“The equality of men and women is not, at the present time, universally applied.
In those areas where traditional inequality still hampers its progress we must take the lead in practicing this Baha’i principle. Baha’i women and girls must be encouraged to take part in the social, spiritual and administrative activities of their communities.”

The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 1984.

The following table shows, by continent, the numbers of National Assemblies with the corresponding numbers of women members indicated by the column headings. For example, column 1, line 1, there are 4 Assemblies in Africa with no women members.


(Information provided by the Department of Statistics at the Baha’i World Centre, and reprinted from dialogue, volume 1, no. 3 (Summer/Fall 1986), p 31.)

The gradual emergence of women on the institutions of the Faith should not come as a surprise, however. Virtually all Baha’i laws and practices have gone through a gradual evolution in Baha’i history. The recognition of the principle of the equality of men and women, and its gradual application in the development of Baha’i Administration is no exception.

The principle of progressive revelation, the concept of the gradual emergence of divine purpose, is a universal principle which applies within the dispensation of each Manifestation, as well as between dispensations. Baha’u’llah Himself has explained:
Know of a certainty that in every Dispensation the light of Divine Revelation hath been vouchsafed to men in direct proportion to their spiritual capacity. Consider the sun. How feeble its rays the moment it appeareth above the horizon. How gradually its warmth and potency increase as it approacheth its zenith, enabling meanwhile all created things to adapt themselves to the growing intensity of its light. How steadily it declineth until it reacheth its setting point. Were it all of a sudden to manifest the energies latent within it, it would no doubt cause injury to all created things …

In like manner, if the Sun of Truth were suddenly to reveal, at the earliest stages of its manifestation, the full measure of the potencies which the providence of the Almighty hath bestowed upon it, the earth of human understanding would waste away and be consumed; for men’s hearts would neither sustain the intensity of its revelation, nor be able to mirror forth the radiance of its light. Dismayed and overpowered, they would cease to exist. [3]

The Universal House of Justice has demonstrated how this principle of progressive revelation has applied, and continues to apply, to the implementation of Baha’i law, particularly to the laws of the Kitab-i Aqdas. The Central Figures of the Faith have promulgated these laws only gradually as the condition of the Baha’i community would allow. [4]

Similarly, ‘Abdu’l-Baha recognised that women could not take their rightful place in the affairs of the world all at once. Throughout history women have been deprived of education and opportunity. Therefore, it was impossible that they would be able to immediately play an equal role in Baha’i life. But ‘Abdu’l-Baha has insisted that all distinctions of sex will be erased once women attain proper education and experience. He says:
Woman’s lack of progress and proficiency has been due to her need for equal education and opportunity. Had she been allowed this equality, there is no doubt she would be the counterpart of man in ability and capacity. [5]

In a talk given in New York, ‘Abdu’l-Baha again pinpoints education as the key to women’s equality:
…if woman be fully educated and granted her rights, she will attain the capacity for wonderful accomplishments and prove herself the equal of man. She is the coadjutor of man; his complement and helpmeet. Both are human, both are endowed with potentialities of intelligence and embody the virtues of humanity. In all human powers and functions they are partners and co-equals. At present in spheres of human activity woman does not manifest her natal prerogatives owing to lack of education and opportunity. [6]

In Paris He said:
…the female sex is treated as though inferior, and is not allowed equal rights and privileges. This condition is not due to nature, but to education. In the Divine Creation there is no such distinction. Neither sex is superior to the other in the sight of God. Why then should one sex assert the inferiority of the other…If women received the same educational advantages as those of men, the result would demonstrate the equality of capacity of both for scholarship. [7]

On another occasion he made the same point:
The only difference between them [ie: men and women] now is due to lack of education and training. If woman is given equal opportunity of education, distinction and estimate of inferiority will disappear. [8]

And again:
Therefore, woman must receive the same education as man and all inequality be adjusted. Thus, imbued with the same virtues as man, rising through all the degrees of human attainment, women will become the peers of men, and until this equality is established, true progress and attainment for the human race will not be facilitated. [9]

It was clearly ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s position that lack of education and opportunity had relegated woman to an inferior position in society, and that through education and experience all inequalities of sex would be gradually removed. His own policies and actions concerning the service of women on the institutions of the Faith reflected this belief in gradualism.

The First Baha’i Institutions
Any investigation of the history of the development of the Baha’i Administrative Order will reveal that Baha’i women only gradually took their place beside the men in this area of service – and not without struggle. This has been especially true in the East, where women were most heavily restricted. But lack of education and other cultural circumstances have affected the participation of women on Baha’i institutions all over the world.

The first Hands of the Cause appointed by Baha’u’llah were, for example, all males. ‘Abdu’l-Baha appointed no additional Hands, and it was only during the ministry of Shoghi Effendi that women were appointed to this rank. Even so, it has been only Western Baha’i women who have been found qualified for this distinction.

At later times, when the first Auxiliary Boards to the Hands of the Cause were appointed, and then the first contingents of Boards of Counsellors, women were included. But circumstances dictated that it be mostly Western women who were appointed, and that their numbers were far fewer than those of men. As the above chart shows, that situation remains the same today. This is not due to any policy of discrimination on the part of the institutions of the Faith, but simply due to historical circumstances. As the position of women improves – especially in Asia and Africa – with respect to education and experience, we can expect that the current situation will change in favour of more participation of women.

The House of Justice of Tehran
The struggle for the equal participation of women in Baha’i Administration has been played out most dramatically, however, in the arena of the development of local institutions. The first of these bodies was formed in Tehran, Iran, at the initiative of individual believers.

In 1873, Baha’u’llah revealed the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Most Holy Book, His book of laws. Here He established the institution of the House of Justice (bayt al-‘adl). The Kitab-i-Aqdas states:
The Lord hath ordained that in every city a House of Justice (bayt al-‘adl) be established wherein shall gather counsellors to the number of Baha [i.e., nine], and should it exceed this number it does not matter … It behoveth them to be the trusted ones of the Merciful among men and to regard themselves as the guardians appointed of God for all that dwell on earth. It is incumbent on them to take counsel together and to have regard for the interests of the servants of God, for His sake, even as they regard their own interests, and to choose that which is meet and seemly. [10]

In the same book it is written:
O ye Men of Justice! (rijal al-‘adl) Be ye in the realm of God shepherds unto His sheep and guard them from the ravening wolves that have appeared in disguise, even as ye would guard your own sons. Thus exhorteth you the Counsellor, the Faithful. [11]

There are other references in the Kitab-i-Aqdas to the House of Justice (bayt al-‘adl) or the Place of Justice (maqarr al-‘adl) which define its function and fix some of its revenues. In most cases, these references are not specific but refer to the general concept of a House of Justice rather than a particular institution. The Universal House of Justice has explained:
In the Kitab-i-Aqdas Baha’u’llah ordains both the Universal House of Justice and the Local Houses of Justice. In many of His laws He refers simply to “the House of Justice” leaving open for later decision which level or levels of the whole institution each law would apply to. [12]

Although the Kitab-i-Aqdas was revealed in ‘Akka in 1873, it was withheld for some time by Baha’u’llah before it was distributed to the Baha’is of Iran. [13]

It appears that it was not until 1878 that the Baha’is of Tehran received copies of the book and began to implement some of its laws in their personal lives. Upon reading the Kitab-i Aqdas, Mirza Asadu’llah Isfahani, a prominent Baha’i teacher living in Tehran, was particularly struck by the command of Baha’u’llah that a House of Justice should be established by the Baha’is in every city.

Mirza Asadu’llah is an important figure in Baha’i history: he eventually married the sister of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s wife; he was (as we shall see) one of the earliest Baha’i teachers sent to America by ‘Abdu’l-Baha to instruct the new Western believers and he later accompanied ‘Abdu’l-Baha on his travels in Europe. In any case, in 1878 he was the first to undertake the organization of a local House of Justice in Iran. He took the initiative to invite eight other prominent believers to form a body, responding to the laws of the Kitab-i Aqdas, which they referred to as bayt al-‘adl (House of Justice) or bayt al-a’zam (the Most Great House).

The organization of this first House of Justice was kept a secret, even from the believers. However, it met sporadically in the home of Mirza Asadu’llah for a couple of years. After consulting with this body, the prominent Baha’i men who had been invited to attend its meetings would seek to take action as individual Baha’i teachers that would implement its decisions.

Around 1881, the Tehran House of Justice was reorganized and more members were added. The House adopted a written constitution and pursued its activities with more organization and vigour than before. The constitution mandated, however, that the meetings remain strictly confidential, hidden from the body of the believers.

This constitution also assumes that the members of the House would all be men (aqayan). Naturally, considering the social conditions in Iran at the time, no other arrangement was possible.

Some of the minutes of this early House of Justice survive today. It was a gathering of the older and more prominent Baha’i men of Tehran. Meetings were attended by invitation only, and at times included fourteen members or more. Eventually, this meeting came to be called the Consultative Gathering (majlis-i shur), while the house where the body met was referred to as the House of Justice (bayt al-‘adl).

These meetings sought to assist and protect the Baha’is through consultation on various problems. The House in Tehran sent Baha’i teachers to other cities in Iran to organize Houses of Justice there. Again, the decisions of the House were always carried out by individuals, and the consultations remained secret.

The organization of this body eventually met with some controversy. One important Baha’i teacher, Jamal-i Burujurdi, who later – in the time of ‘Abdu’l-Baha – would become a notorious Covenant-breaker, objected strongly to the organization of a House of Justice in Tehran. Because of these objections, the Baha’is involved on the House appealed to Baha’u’llah for guidance. Baha’u’llah replied with a Tablet in which He approved of the House of Justice and strongly upheld the principle of consultation in the Baha’i Faith. [14]

Early Organisation in America
When the first rudimentary local Baha’i institutions were organized in the United States, their membership was also confined to men. Later, as various forms of Baha’i organization at the local level became more common, men and women served together. But it was the understanding of the Baha’is at the turn of the century that consultative bodies in the Baha’i community should be composed of men. This understanding became firmly institutionalized in the largest Baha’i communities of New York, Chicago, and Kenosha, Wisconsin, and was sanctioned by ‘Abdu’l-Baha.

A scholarly history of the beginnings of Baha’i organization in America has yet to be written. Many of the details of these events have yet to be uncovered. However, it appears that the early American Baha’is were moved to form local councils for the first time in 1900, as a consequence of the defection of Ibrahim Kheiralla from the community. Kheiralla, a Lebanese Christian who had been converted to the Baha’i Faith in Egypt by a Persian Baha’i, ‘Abdu’l-Karim Tihrani, had brought the Baha’i teachings to America and had acted as the head of the Faith in the West until that point. His repudiation of ‘Abdu’l-Baha as the rightful leader of the Faith and chosen successor to his Father caused a temporary rift among the Baha’is.

In the fall of 1899, Edward Getsinger, a leading American Baha’i, appointed five men as a “Board of Counsel” for the Baha’is of northern New Jersey. [15] Isabella Brittingham was made the honorary corresponding secretary, but was not a member of the body. Later, in a letter dated March 21, 1900, Thornton Chase wrote from Chicago:
“We have formed a ‘Board of Council’ with 10 members.”

In this letter, Chase lists the names of nine of these members, all of whom were men. [16]

In June of 1900, however, it appears that the Chicago Board was reorganized. ‘Abdu’l-Karim Tihrani had travelled to America at the request of ‘Abdu’l-Baha and had arrived in Chicago at the end of May. The Baha’is of Chicago immediately asked him to draw up rules and regulations that would govern the affairs of their Board. [17] As a result, the Board of Counsel was expanded to nineteen members, some of whom were women. In a statement to the press the Baha’is indicated that this Board was being organized to replace Ibrahim Kheiralla, whom they repudiated as the leader of the Faith. [18]

Although ‘Abdu’l-Karim remained in Chicago for only a short time, his nineteen-member Board appears to have functioned for about a year. However, on May 15, 1901, a nine-member, all-male House of Justice was elected in Chicago to replace it. This was done at the direction of Mirza Asadu’llah Isfahani, who had been sent to America by ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Writing to the House of Justice in New York that had already been established, the Chicago House wrote:
Recently His Honor, Mirza Assad’Ullah, received a Tablet from the Master, Abdul-Baha, in which He has positively declared to be necessary the establishment here of the House of Justice by election by the believers with order and just dealing. According to this blessed Announcement, our believers have elected those whom they deemed best fitted, and thus The House of Justice was established. [19]

It was Mirza Asadu’llah who instructed the Baha’is of Chicago that the new House of Justice should be composed only of men. He and his company appear to have regarded the nineteen-member Board as illegitimate, possibly because women served as members.

The change to an all-male institution was not accomplished without anguish. Writing years later, Fannie Lesch, who had served on the Board of Counsel, wrote:
We had a Council Board of men and women after Dr. Kheiralla left us…
Mirza Assad’Ullah ignored us, although they were all invited to meet with us, and he established a House of Justice of men only…
[20]

Only days after the election of the Chicago House of Justice, a Ladies’ Auxilliary Board was organized at the suggestion of Mrs. Ella Nash and Mrs. Corinne True. This Board was later to be known as the Women’s Assembly of Teaching. It appears that the Ladies’ Auxilliary was able to maintain control of the funds of the Chicago Baha’i community despite the election of the House of Justice. [21]

Men of Justice
The belief that women were not eligible for service on local Baha’i institutions was based on the language of certain passages of the Kitab-i Aqdas which refer to the House of Justice. Of course, as we have noted above, these passages do not make a distinction between local, national, and international bodies. The institution as a whole is addressed. Baha’u’llah twice uses the Arabic word rijal (gentlemen) to refer to the members of the Houses of Justice. He says:
O ye Men (rijal) of Justice! Be ye in the realm of God shepherds unto His sheep… [22]

And:
We have designated a third of all fines for the Place of Justice (maqarr al-‘adl), and exhort its members (rijal) to show forth perfect equity… [23]

The word rijal (plural; singular is rajul) is exclusively masculine in Arabic. A dictionary would render an English definition of rajul as: man, gentleman; important man, statesman, nobleman. (A related form of the word, rujula or rujuliyya, would be translated as: masculinity; virility.) Since Baha’u’llah addressed the members of the Houses of Justice using this term, it appears that it was universally assumed that only men were eligible for service on such institutions.

The word rijal, meaning men, is used in the Qur’an and is part of an important passage which establishes the relationship between men and women in Islam (Qur’an 4:34):
Men (rijal) are superior to women (nisa’) on account of the qualities with which God hath gifted the one above the other, and on account of the outlay they make from their substance for them.

However, Baha’u’llah has in His Writings clearly established the principle of the equality of men and women. It is therefore possible that when He used the word rijal He did not intend its normal meaning.

Although rijal is the normal Arabic word for men (as opposed to women), there are passages in the Writings of Baha’u’llah that indicate that He may have used the term in a special sense. Such passages suggest that, in a Baha’i context, the word may be understood to include women. Baha’u’llah has stated that women in His Cause are all to be accorded the same station as men – and He has used the very term rijal to make this point. For example, He writes:
Today the Baha’i women (lit., the leaves of the Holy Tree) must guide the handmaidens of the earth to the Lofty Horizon with the utmost purity and sanctity. Today the handmaidens of God are regarded as gentlemen (rijal). Blessed are they! Blessed are they! [24]

And in another passage:
Today whoever among the handmaidens attains the knowledge of the Desire of the World [i.e., Baha’u’llah] is considered a gentleman (rajul) in the Divine Book. [25]

And in another place:
…many a man (rajul) hath waited expectant for God’s Revelation, and yet when the Light shone forth from the horizon of the world, all but a few turned their faces away from it. Whosoever from amongst the handmaidens hath recognized the Lord of all Names is recorded in the Book as one of those men (rijal) by the Pen of the Most High. [26]

Likewise, ‘Abdu’l-Baha in one of his Tablets has made the same point:
Verily, according to Baha’u’llah, women are judged as gentlemen (rijal). [27]

However, such passages were not raised as an issue at the time, either because the believers were not aware of them, or because they did not find them applicable. Certainly, the American Baha’is had no access to these texts and had to rely on the understandings of the Persian teachers who were sent by ‘Abdu’l-Baha to guide them.

Names and Terminology
In any case, it was the goal of Mirza Asadu’llah to establish a House of Justice among the believers in Chicago, as he indicated to the Baha’is that ‘Abdu’l-Baha had instructed him to do. He had been at the centre of the organization of the first House of Justice in Tehran, and he assumed a similar role in Chicago. At his direction, the Baha’is in Chicago elected nine men by ballot to a new institution. Those elected were: George Lesch, Charles H. Greenleaf, John A. Guilford, Dr. Rufus H. Bartlett, Thornton Chase, Charles Hessler, Arthur S. Agnew, Byron S. Lane and Henry L. Goodall. [28]

At its first meeting, the House of Justice decided to raise the number of its members to twelve. The body appointed three additional Baha’i men to serve. The minutes of the meeting read:
Motion made and seconded that Messrs. Ioas, Pursels and Doney be selected as add’n [additional] members of this Board of Council. Said motion approved by Board. Secretary instructed to notify said members. [29]

This action was taken, no doubt, in accordance with the statement of Baha’u’llah in the Kitab-i Aqdas that the minimum number of members for a House of Justice is nine, “and should it exceed this number it does not matter.” [30]

It is instructive to note that, in its first minutes, the secretary of the House of Justice refers to it as a “Board of Council.” This illustrates the fluidity of terminology that was used for Baha’i meetings and institutions at the time.

Standard terms for the Baha’i institutions did not become fixed and universal until well after the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Today, the elected local and national Baha’i institutions are known as “Spiritual Assemblies,” while the term “House of Justice” is reserved exclusively for the supreme, international institution. In the early years of this century, however, though these same terms were in use among the Baha’is, they were not used in the same ways. ‘Abdu’l-Baha himself confirmed the legitimacy of the election of the first Chicago House of Justice. A Tablet, probably received in September 1901, is addressed from ‘Abdu’l-Baha “To the members of the House of Justice, the servants of the Covenant, the faithful worshippers of the Holy Threshold of the Beauty of El-Abha.”

Two such Tablets addressed to the House of Justice of Chicago are translated in the compilation
Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas. [31]

Shoghi Effendi, writing much later in 1929, has discussed the significance of these Tablets. He says:
That the Spiritual Assemblies of today will be replaced in time by Houses of Justice, and are to all intents and purposes identical and not separate bodies, is abundantly confirmed by ‘Abdu’l-Baha Himself. He has in fact in a Tablet addressed to the members of the first Chicago Spiritual Assembly, the first elected Baha’i body instituted in the United States, referred to them as members of the “House of Justice” for that city, and has thus with His own pen established beyond any doubt the identity of the present Baha’i Spiritual Assemblies with the House of Justice referred to by Baha’u’llah. For reasons which are not difficult to discover, it has been found advisable to bestow upon the elected representatives of Baha’i communities throughout the world the temporary appellation of Spiritual Assemblies, a term which, as the position and aims of the Baha’i Faith are better understood and more fully recognised, will gradually be superseded by the permanent and more appropriate designation of House of Justice. [32]

This “temporary appellation” was assumed at the instruction of ‘Abdu’l-Baha about a year after the election of the Chicago House of Justice. The minutes of the House of Justice for May 10, 1902, read:
Mr/ Greenleaf stated that he was instructed by Mirza Assad Ullah to inform this Body that here after and until otherwise informed it shall be known as the “House of Spirituality,” in accordance with a Tablet recently received from our Master.
Motion made and seconded that the command of Master changing name of this Body as transmitted by Mirza Assad Ullah be entered upon our records.
Approved by House.
Motion made and seconded that a copy (translation) of that portion of tablet setting forth the change as above mentioned be procured and placed on file.
Approved by House.
[33]

Extracts from this Tablet were indeed translated for the House of Justice, now the House of Spirituality. The heading to the translation indicates that the Tablet was received in Chicago by Mirza Assadu’llah on May 3, 1902. One extract reads:
The House of Justice of Chicago should be called “the House of Spirituality” (or the Spiritual House).
In short, no one must hurt the weak ones, there, but must treat them in kindness. Because now is the cycle of kindness and forgiveness to all people.
[34]

In what is apparently a second Tablet on the subject, ‘Abdu’l-Baha explained the reasons for the change. This Tablet was, some time later, translated and published:
The signature of that meeting should be the Spiritual Gathering (House of Spirituality) and the wisdom therein is that hereafter the government should not infer from the term “House of Justice” that a court is signified, that it is connected with political affairs, or that at any time it will interfere with governmental affairs. Hereafter, enemies will be many. They would use this subject as a cause for disturbing the mind of the government and confusing the thoughts of the public. The intention was to make known that by the term Spiritual Gathering (House of Spirituality), that Gathering has not the least connection with material matters, and that its whole aim and consultation is confined to matters connected with spiritual affairs. This was also instructed (performed) in all Persia. [35]

At the same time, and in the original Tablet received on May 3, ‘Abdu’l-Baha had instructed that the name of the Women’s Assembly of Teaching be changed to the “Spiritual Assembly.” He instructed that “Spiritual Assemblies” should be organized in every place.
However, although the change of name for the House of Justice was effected immediately, the instruction to change the name of the women’s institution was ignored. This is probably because the translation of this command into English was so poor as to render it incomprehensible. [36]

And so we read the following in the minutes of the House of Spirituality three years later (July 29, 1905):

Mr. Windust read portions of the Tablet received from the Master in May, 1902 authorizing change of name of this body from “House of Justice” to “House of Spirituality”; as it also stated in said Tablet that the name of the Women’s “Assembly of Teaching” be changed to “Spiritual Assembly.” It was decided that this matter be spoken of at some future joint meeting [with the women’s group], as it had evidently been overlooked. [37]

As we have seen in the Tablets quoted above, in the first year after the election of the Chicago House of Justice, ‘Abdu’l-Baha Himself used various terms to refer to that body. (Of course, we have quoted His Tablets in translation – the translations available to the Baha’is at the time.) These Tablets reflect the use of at least three different designations during this period: House of Justice (bayt al-‘adl) in the earliest Tablets, House of Spirituality (probably, bayt-i rawhani) in one Tablet, and Spiritual Gathering (mahfil-i rawhani) in another.

This last term, mahfil-i rawhani, can also be translated as “Spiritual Assembly.” However, it was usually translated as “House of Spirituality” in the publications and translations made at this time, even though this translation was in error. The Chicago body came to be known as the House of Spirituality from 1902, and so the translators rendered ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s references to it in these words, even if the original Persian did not warrant such a designation. This was because the term “Spiritual Assembly” had no fixed meaning in the early community and could refer to a number of different Baha’i meetings.
‘Abdu’l-Baha had asked, for example, that the term be used for the Ladies’ Auxiliary. It was also used by the Baha’is of this time to refer to any Baha’i community as a whole, some weekly teaching meetings, any consultative body, or any gathering of believers.

Terms used to designate the local administrative body were also fluid in ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s writings. In addition to the three designations above, the following additional names can be found: mahfil-i shur (Assembly of Consultation), mahfil-i shur rawhani (Spiritual Assembly of Consultation), bayt al-‘adl rawhani (Spiritual House of Justice), anjuman (Council), anjuman-i adl (Council of Justice), and marakiz-i ‘adl (Centres of Justice). [38]

The Women’s Struggle
The election of an all-male House of Justice in Chicago was a development to which some of the women in the Baha’i community were never reconciled. It is Corinne True in particular who stands out in the struggle to overturn the exclusion of women from that body. After the election, she immediately helped to organize the Women’s Assembly of Teaching which worked side by side with the House – and not always harmoniously – for over a decade. Beyond this, she appealed directly to ‘Abdu’l-Baha, asking that women be elected to the House of Justice.

Mrs. True’s letter, which has recently come to light, indicates clearly that the change to an all-male body was the cause of some dispute. She writes to ‘Abdu’l-Baha:
There has existed a difference of opinion in our Assembly [that is, the Chicago community] as to how it should be governed. Every believer desires to carry out the Commands of the Blessed Perfection [Baha’u’llah] but we want to know from our Lord himself [that is, ‘Abdu’l-Baha] what these Commands are, as they are written in Arabic and we do not know Arabic. Will Our Lord write me direct from Acca and not have it go through any Interpretor [sic] in America and thus grant me the Authority to say the Master says thus & so, for he has written it to me…
Many in our Assembly feel that the Governing Board in Chicago should be a mixed Board of both men & women. Woman in America stands so conspicuously for all that is highest & best in every department and for that reason it is contended the affairs should be in the hands of both sexes.
[39]

She was, however, disappointed when the Master would not support her point of view. He confirmed the practice of electing only males to the Baha’i governing board of Chicago, admonishing her to be patient. She appears to have received her reply from ‘Abdu’l-Baha in June of 1902, but refrained from sharing this Tablet with the Chicago House until the fall of that year.

The Tablet is a famous one and reads in part (in modern translation):
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. That is, men and women alike are the revealers of His names and attributes, and from the spiritual viewpoint there is no difference between them. Whosoever draweth nearer to God, that one is the most favoured, whether man or woman. How many a handmaid, ardent and devoted, hath, within the sheltering shade of Baha, proved superior to the men, and surpassed the famous of the earth.
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.
As to you, O ye other handmaids who are enamoured of the heavenly fragrances, arrange ye holy gatherings, and found ye Spiritual Assemblies, for these are the basis for spreading the sweet savours of God, exalting His Word, uplifting the lamp of His grace, promulgating His religion and promoting His Teachings, and what bounty is there greater than this?
[40]

Since ‘Abdu’l-Baha had confirmed that women should be excluded from the Chicago House of Justice (later, House of Spirituality), this practice continued for some time, in Chicago and elsewhere. We might assume that the belief that women were to be permanently excluded from local Baha’i executive bodies was widespread, at least amongst the men. Women were to be involved in forming women’s groups, which ‘Abdu’l-Baha had named “Spiritual Assemblies” in one Tablet.

That did not end the issue, of course. It appears that American Baha’i women continued to discuss the possibility of membership on governing boards, with Corinne True being prominent among them. In 1909, Mrs. True received a Tablet from ‘Abdu’l-Baha in response to her insistent questioning. It reads, in part:
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 Universal House of Justice [bayt al-‘adl ‘umumi], for, as hath been stated in the text of the Book, both the head and the members of the House of Justice are 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. [41]

This new Tablet from ‘Abdu’l-Baha to Corinne True appears to have opened up a nationwide controversy over the rights of women to serve on Baha’i institutions. The use of the term “Universal House of Justice” in this Tablet caused some confusion. Corinne True and others assumed that ‘Abdu’l-Baha intended by this Tablet that women were now to be admitted to membership on local Baha’i bodies, and more particularly to membership on the Chicago House of Spirituality.

Thornton Chase related the controversy which erupted in Chicago in a letter written a few months later (January 19, 1910):
Several years ago, soon after the forming of the “House of Justice” (name afterward changed by Abdul-Baha to House of Spirituality on account of political reasons – as stated by Him – and because also of certain jealousies) Mrs. True wrote to Abdul-Baha and asked if women should not be members of that House. He replied distinctly, that the House should be composed of men only, and told her that there was a wisdom in this. It was a difficult command for her to accept, and ever since (confidentially) there has been in that quarter and in those influenced by her a feeling of antagonism to the House of Spirituality, which has manifested itself in various forms …
… Mrs True received a Tablet, in which it was stated (in reply to her solicitation) that it was right for women to be members of all “Spiritual Gatherings” except the “Universal House of Justice”, and she at once construed this to mean, that women were to be members of the House of Spirituality and the Council Boards, because in some of the Tablets for the House, it had been addressed as the “Spiritual Assembly” or “Spiritual Gathering”. But the House of Spirituality could not so interpret the Master’s meaning…
[42]

The difference of opinion was deep and serious. It took place within a wider context of gender tensions within the American Baha’i community at the time. The Chicago House of Spirituality consulted on the new Tablet to Corinne True at its meetings on August 31, 1909, and September 7, 1909. While it seemed clear to them that the Tablet did not admit women to membership on the House of Spirituality, they decided to write to ‘Abdu’l-Baha for a clarification of His meaning. [43]

It appears that no record of a reply to the House on this point has survived. But, in the event, the practice of excluding women from membership did not change. The men of Chicago assumed that ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s reference to the “Universal House of Justice” intended the local Chicago institution. This is a reasonable assumption, given the lack of fixed terminology at the time.
The word ‘umumi, with which ‘Abdu’l-Baha qualified His reference to the House of Justice in Arabic, means public, general, or universal. Since it was known that Corinne True had asked about women’s service on the Chicago House – which was understood to be a House of Justice, even if designated a House of Spirituality for various reasons – His reply seemed to indicate that only men could serve on the general (or universal) body, while women could serve on all subordinate bodies, such as the Assembly of Teaching, the Philanthropic Association, and so forth. And this is the interpretation of the Tablet that would stand for some years to come.

In May of 1910, Thornton Chase wrote to a believer about this question, which was still being debated:
As to women being members of the House, there is no question at all. ‘Abdul-Baha’s reply to Mrs True years ago, settled that, viz, that the members of the House should be men, and that the time would come when she would see the wisdom of that. This was in direct answer to her question to Him as to this matter. He has never changed that command, and He cannot, because it is the command of Baha’o’llah also, as applied to such bodies of business controllers.
But, in a Tablet to me, ‘Abdu’l-Baha said “The House of Spirituality must encourage the women as much as possible”. There is the whole procedure. “Encourage the women as much as possible”. That is what He does: that is what we should do. Not to be members of the H. of S., but to all good works in the Cause, which they can possibly accomplish. It seems to me that the matter of membership in H. of S. should be simply ignored, not talked about, but if it obtrudes itself too strongly, just get out that Tablet to Mrs. True and the one to me (just mentioned) and offer them as the full and sufficient answer.
[44]

Chase’s views are undoubtedly representative of the understandings of the majority of Baha’is at the time. It was the common understanding that the Chicago House of Spirituality was properly composed of men only, and that ultimately all local Baha’i boards should be similarly composed. This was a position which was repeatedly sustained by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, but which was never fully accepted by some Baha’i women.

In Kenosha, which had had an all-male “Board of Consultation” for some years, the issue of women’s service on the Board became a matter of dispute in 1910, as a result of Corinne True’s 1909 “Universal House of Justice” Tablet. On July 4, 1910, the Kenosha Board wrote to the House of Spirituality in Chicago asking if they had any Tablets from ‘Abdu’l-Baha which instructed that women should be elected to local institutions. They explained that two of the Baha’i ladies in their community had insisted that such Tablets existed. [45]

The reply from the House of Spirituality, dated July 23, 1910, is very instructive. [46] The House was able to find three Tablets from ‘Abdu’l-Baha which had bearing on the subject. One was the 1909 Tablet to Corinne True which had opened the controversy. Two others had been received from ‘Abdu’l-Baha in 1910, in reply to more inquiries.

In a Tablet to Louise Waite (April 20, 1910), ‘Abdu’l-Baha had instructed:
The Spiritual Assemblies which are organized for the sake of teaching the Truth, whether assemblies for men, assemblies for women or mixed assemblies, are all accepted and are conducive to the spreading of the Fragrances of God. This is essential. [47]

‘Abdu’l-Baha goes on to state that the time had not come for the establishment of the House of Justice, and he exhorts the men and the women to produce harmony and conduct their affairs in unity.[48]

In another Tablet directed to the Baha’is of Cincinnati, where the question of women’s participation in local organization had also become an issue, ‘Abdu’l-Baha wrote something similar:
It is impossible to organize the House of Justice in these days; it will be formed after the establishment of the Cause of God. Now the Spiritual Assemblies are organized in most of the cities, you must also organize a Spiritual Assembly in Cincinnati. It is permissible to elect the members of the Spiritual Assembly from among the men and women; nay, rather, it is better, so that perfect union may result. [49]

The House of Spirituality concluded from these Tablets that:
…in organizing Spiritual Assemblies of Consultation now, it is deemed advisable by Abdul-Baha to have them composed of both men and women. The wisdom of this will become evident in due time, no doubt. [50]

By this time, Baha’is in different parts of the United States had established a variety of boards and committees as a means of local organization. Women had served on the Washington, D.C., “Working Committee” since its formation in 1907. They had been a part of the Boston “Executive Committee” from its beginning in 1908. Women also acted as officers of communities in places where Baha’is had elected no corporate body. But these were regarded, for the most part, as temporary, ad-hoc organizations not official Baha’i institutions, which were thought to be properly all male.

‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Tablets recognized all of these local bodies as “Spiritual Assemblies” (or Spiritual Gatherings, mahfil-i rawhani) and by 1910, He was urging that these Assemblies consist of both men and women. The House of Spirituality in Chicago was obviously puzzled by this command, though it expressed confidence that the wisdom of mixed Assemblies would “become evident in due time.”
However, since it knew that the Kenosha Board of Consultation had been established as an all-male body in accordance with earlier instructions from ‘Abdu’l-Baha, the House of Spirituality suggested that the Kenosha Baha’is might wish to take a vote to determine whether a majority of believers would be in favour of a change. [51]

Rather than do this, however, the Kenosha Board of Consultation submitted the question to ‘Abdu’l-Baha. The “supplication” (as they termed it) was signed by all of the men of the Board. It asked if the Board should be dissolved, to be reelected with women as members. The Board members pledged to the Master that if it was His wish they would dissolve, but they stated that their intentions had been pure at the founding of the Board and that it had been established in accordance with a Tablet that had been revealed for the House of Spirituality some years before. [52]

‘Abdu’l-Baha, however, would not support the idea of dissolving the all-male Board.
His reply, received March 4, 1911, explains:
Now Spiritual Assemblies must be organized and that is for teaching the Cause of God. In that city you have a spiritual Assembly of men and you can establish a spiritual Assembly for women. Both Assemblies must be engaged in diffusing the fragrances of God and be occupied with the service of the Kingdom. The above is the best solution for this problem … [53]

As in other Tablets, He stated that conditions for the establishment of the House of Justice did not yet exist, and He urged unity between the men and women of the Baha’i community. And so, through 1911, the status quo that had been established by Mirza Assadu’llah in Chicago in 1901, with the election of the first American House of Justice, held firm.

All-male institutions continued to function in the most important Baha’i communities. These were supplemented by parallel women’s groups. A variety of committees and boards had been established in smaller Baha’i communities that included women as members, but these were regarded by most Baha’is as only informal groups. While ‘Abdu’l-Baha was urging that new “Spiritual Assemblies” include both men and women, He would not sanction the reorganization of the longer-established male bodies. Baha’i women in various parts of the country continued to discuss the need for change.

The Change Comes
It was not until 1912, during the visit of ‘Abdu’l-Baha to America, that a decisive change was finally made. While ‘Abdu’l-Baha was in New York, He sent word to the Baha’is of Chicago that the House of Spirituality should be reorganized and a new election held. He chose Howard MacNutt, a prominent Baha’i from Brooklyn, to travel to Chicago as His personal representative. MacNutt was instructed to hold a new election for a “Spiritual Meeting” (probably mahfil-i rawhani) of the Baha’is of Chicago. For the first time, women were eligible for election to this body.

MacNutt arrived in Chicago on August 8, 1912. At ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s instructions, a feast was held on August 10, at the home of Mr. and Mrs. George Lesch, where the entire Chicago Baha’i community was invited to be the guests of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. MacNutt delivered to the community ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s message of unity and love. The election was held the following day on August 11.
The Baha’i magazine, Star of the West, carried this account of that historic election:
On Sunday evening, the 11th, the Chicago Assembly [meaning here, the whole Baha’i community] selected a “Spiritual Meeting” of nine, composed of men and women, whose service – according to the wish of Abdul-Baha – is, first, to promulgate the teachings of the Revelation, and, second, to attend to other matters necessary to the welfare of the assembly. Mr. MacNutt was present and gave an inspiring address. [54]

A long struggle had ended.

Baha’i Institutions in the East
From the time of the dissolution of the Chicago House of Spirituality and its reelection, service on local Baha’i institutions has always remained open to women in America. ‘Abdu’l-Baha had made it perfectly clear that the restrictions placed on women in this regard were intended to be only temporary ones. From that point forward, women were fully integrated into the emerging Baha’i Administration erected in the West.

The same was not true in the East, however. In Iran and in the rest of the Muslim world, social conditions made it impossible for the restriction on women’s participation on local institutions to be lifted for some time. Local and National Spiritual Assemblies in Iran were limited to male membership during the entire period of the ministry of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and for most of the ministry of Shoghi Effendi. Again, the principle of gradualism was at play.

Of course, there were Baha’i women in Iran, as well in the United States, who campaigned for a greater role for women in the Baha’i community. Their concerns were not only with participation on local Houses of Justice, but also with the elimination of other social restrictions, such as the use of the veil in public. In a Tablet to one such woman activist, ‘Abdu’l-Baha urged restraint and recommended a gradual approach:
The establishment of a women’s assemblage (mahfil) for the promotion of knowledge is entirely acceptable, but discussions must be confined to educational matters. It should be done in such a way that differences will, day by day, be entirely wiped out, not that, God forbid, it will end in argumentation between man and women. As in the question of the veil, nothing should be done contrary to wisdom. …
Now the world of women should be a spiritual world, not a political one, so that it will be radiant. The women of other nations are all immersed in political matters. Of what benefit is this, and what fruit doth it yield? To the extent that ye can, ye should busy yourself with spiritual matters which will be conducive to the exaltation of the Word of God and of the diffusion of His fragrances. Your demeanour should lead to harmony amongst all and to coalescence and the good-pleasure of all…
I am endeavouring, with Baha’u’llah’s confirmations and assistance, so to improve the world of the handmaidens [that is, the world of women] that all will be astonished. This progress is intended to be in spirituality, in virtues, in human perfections and in divine knowledge. In America, the cradle of women’s liberation, women are still debarred from political institutions because they squabble. (Also, the Blessed Beauty has said, “O ye Men [rijal] of the House of Justice.”) Ye need to be calm and composed, so that the work will proceed with wisdom, otherwise there will be such chaos that ye will leave everything and run away. “This newly born babe is traversing in one night the path that needeth a hundred years to tread.” In brief, ye should now engage in matters of pure spirituality and not contend with men. ‘Abdu’l-Baha will tactfully take appropriate steps. Be assured. In the end thou wilt thyself exclaim, “This was indeed supreme wisdom!”
[55]

Baha’i women were not admitted to service on the institutions of the Faith in Iran until 1954. But this restriction was understood to be temporary, to be removed as soon as circumstances would permit. As Iranian society allowed a greater role for women in general, and as Baha’i women became more educated and more prepared for administrative service, this restriction was lifted. The Guardian eventually made women’s participation on Baha’i institutions in the East one of the goals of the Ten Year World Crusade (1953-1963). His hopes were rewarded by the signal distinction which some Baha’i women have achieved as administrators on local Assemblies and on the National Assembly of Iran.

The International House of Justice
The only remaining body within the Baha’i Faith whose membership continues to be limited to men is its supreme institution, the Universal House of Justice. First established in 1963, the Universal House of Justice is elected by the members of the National Spiritual Assemblies of the world. Naturally, the electors include many women. But the members of the House of Justice itself, from its inception, have all been male.

Shoghi Effendi anticipated that the Universal House of Justice would be established as an all-male body, even though he passed away before he could see this implemented. He did not comment generally on the subject, and he does not seem to have devoted a great deal of time to the issue. But in answer to questions from individual Baha’is, some letters were written on the Guardian’s behalf by his secretaries which comment on the composition of the yet-to-be-formed House of Justice. For example, his secretary writes:
As regards your question concerning the membership of the Universal House of Justice, there is a Tablet from ‘Abdu’l-Baha in which He definitely states that the membership of the Universal House of Justice is confined to men, and that the wisdom of it will be fully revealed and appreciated in the future. In the local, as well as national Houses of Justice, however, women have the full right of membership. It is, however, only to the International House that they cannot be elected. [56]

And in another letter:
As regards the membership of the International House of Justice, ‘Abdu’l-Baha states in a Tablet that it is confined to men, and that the wisdom of it will be revealed as manifest as the sun in the future. [57]

Again:
Regarding your question, the Master said the wisdom of having no women on the International House of Justice, would become manifest in the future. We have no indication other than this… [58]

Again:
People must just accept the fact that women are not eligible to the International House of Justice. As the Master says the wisdom of this will be known in the future, we can only accept, believing it is right… [59]

The remarkable similarity of these letters to individual believers should be noted. In each case, the Guardian directed his secretary to refer to the Tablet of ‘Abdu’l-Baha to Corinne True which was written in reply to her petition that women be elected to the Chicago House of Justice. This Tablet explains that the reason for the exclusion of women will become manifest in the future.

Subsequent events demonstrated that ‘Abdu’l-Baha had intended that this exclusion be only temporary – an exclusion that would be followed by the full participation of women on this body.

The exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice today is observed by the Baha’i community primarily in obedience to these letters of the Guardian. Most Baha’is assume that this exclusion was intended to be a permanent one. However, since this instruction of the Guardian is tied so closely to the meaning of the one Tablet of ‘Abdu’l-Baha which promises that the wisdom of the exclusion of women will become manifest in the future, and since it is known that the meaning of the Tablet was that women should be excluded only temporarily from the Chicago House, the assumption that women will be permanently excluded from the current Universal House of Justice may be a faulty one. A temporary exclusion may be intended.

The answer to this question, as with all other questions in the Baha’i community, will have to be worked out over time. The elements of dialogue, struggle, persistence and anguish which are so evident in the history of the gradual participation of women on local Baha’i administrative bodies will, no doubt, all attend the working out of that answer in the future. These elements are all present today.

A Tablet of Assurance
‘Abdu’l-Baha repeatedly assured Baha’i women in His writings that the women of the future would achieve full and complete equality with men. In one of these Tablets He refers to the composition of the House of Justice. The Tablet is dated August 28, 1913, and it appears to have been written to a Baha’i woman in the East. In it, ‘Abdu’l-Baha repeats His promise:

In this Revelation of Baha’u’llah, the women go neck and neck with the men. In no movement will they be left behind. Their rights with men are equal in degree. They will enter all the administrative branches of politics. They will attain in all such a degree as will be considered the very highest station of the world of humanity and will take part in all affairs.

Rest ye assured. Do ye not look upon the present conditions; in the not far distant future the world of women will become all-refulgent and all-glorious, For his Holiness Baha’u’llah hath willed it so! At the time of the elections the right to vote is the inalienable right of women, and the entrance of women into all human departments is an irrefutable and incontravertible question. No soul can retard or prevent it…

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!” But when its members are to be elected, the right which belongs to women, so far as their voting and their voice is concerned, is indisputable. 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. Be ye confident on these accounts. His Holiness Baha’u’llah has greatly strengthened the cause of women, and the rights and privileges of women is one of the greatest principles of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Rest ye assured! [60] (Final emphasis added.)


Notes

1. Nabil-i A’zam, The Dawn-Breakers, Wilmette, Ill.: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1932, pp 80-81, 270-71.

2. See, for example, Ruhiyyih Rabbani, The Priceless Pearl, London: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1969, pp 39-42 and 57-58; Baha’i Administration, Wilmette, Ill.: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1928, pp 25-26.


3. The Universal House of Justice, A Synopsis and Codification of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Most Holy Book of Baha’u’llah, Haifa: Baha’i World Centre, 1973, p 5.


4. Ibid., pp 3-7.


5. ‘Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, Wilmette, Ill.: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1922-25 (1982), pp 136-37.


6. Ibid., pp 136-37.


7. ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, London: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1912, p 161.


8. Promulgation, p 174.


9. Ibid., p 375.


10. Synopsis, p 13.


11. Ibid., p 16.


12. Ibid., p 57.


13. Ibid., pp 5-6.


14. All information in this section concerning the first House of Justice of Tehran is based on Ruhu’llah Mihrabkhani, Mahafil-i shur dar ‘ahd-i Jamal-i Aqdas-i Abha, (Assemblies of consultation at the time of Baha’u’llah) in Payam-i Baha’i, nos. 28 and 29, pp 9-11 and pp 8-9 respectively.


15. Minutes of the North Hudson, N.J., Board of Counsel, National Baha’i Archives, Wilmette, Ill.


16. Chase to Blake, 21/3/00, Chase Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


17. Regulations relating to the Chicago Board of Council (Abdel Karim Effendi), Albert Windust Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


18. Kenosha Evening News, 29/6//00, p 1.


19. House of Justice in Chicago to House of Justice in New York 23/5/01, House of Spirituality Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


20. Fannie Lesch, “Dr. C. I. Thatcher, Chicago, Illinois”, (an obituary), Albert Windust Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


21. Minutes of the House of Justice (Chicago), 26/1/02 and 28/6/01. House of Spirituality Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


22. Marzieh Gail and Fadil-i Mazandarani (trans.), typescript translation of the Kitab-i Aqdas.


23. Ibid.


24. Quoted in Ahmad Yazdani, Mabadiy-i Ruhani, Tehran: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 104 Badi’, p 109.


25. Ibid


26. Women: Extracts from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi, and the Universal House of Justice, comp. by The Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, Thornhill, Ont.: Baha’i Canada Publications, 1986, #7, p 3.


27. Quoted in Ahmad Yazdani, Maqam va Huquq-i Zan dar Diyanat-i Baha’i, vol. 1, Tehran: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 107 Badi’.


28. Minutes of the House of Spirituality, 24/5/01, House of Spirituality Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


29. Ibid., 20/5/01.


30. Synopsis, p 13.


31. Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas, Chicago: Baha’i Publishing Society, 1909, vol 1, p 3.


32. Shoghi Effendi, World Order of Baha’u’llah, Wilmette, Ill.: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1938, p 6.


33. Minutes of 10/5/02, House of Spirituality Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


34. Extract from the Tablet of the Master, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, to Mirza AssadUllah, received in Chicago on the 3rd of May, 1902. House of Spirituality Papers. National Baha’i Archives.


35. Tablets of Abdul Baha Abbas, p 6.


36. The translation reads “We named the assemblies of teaching in Chicago the Spiritual Assemblies; you should organize spiritual assemblies in every place”; ( extract from the Tablet from the Master, se note 35 above).


37. Minutes, 29/7/05, House of Spirituality Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


38. See various published Tablets and public talks of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, including: Kitab-i baday ‘u’l-athar, Bombay, 1921, vol.1, pp 65, 119, 120, 251; and


39. True to ‘Abdu’l-Baha, 25/2/02, Document 11137, International Baha’i Archives, Haifa, Israel.


40. Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Haifa: Baha’i World Centre, 1978, pp 79-80.


41. ‘Abdu’l-Baha to Corinne True, 24/7/09, microfilm, National Baha’i Archives. [JustaBahai addition:] The original translation by Ameen Fareed was made on July
29, 1909. There is a later translation of this tablet in The Baha’i Faith in America, Volume
Two, by Rob Stockman, page 323 made by the Baha’i World Centre for the book.


42. Chase to Remey, 19/1/10, Chase Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


43. Minutes, 31/8/09 and 7/9/09, House of Spirituality Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


44. Chase to Scheffler, 10/5/10, Chase papers, National Baha’i Archives.


45. Bahai Assembly of Kenosha to House of Spirituality, 4/7/10, House of Spirituality Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


46. House of Spirituality (Albert R. Windust, LIbrarian) to Board of Consultation, Kenosha, Wis., 23/7/10, House of Spirituality Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


47. Ibid.


48. Ibid.


49. Ibid.


50. Ibid.


51. Ibid.


52. Ibid. Kenosha Assembly to Albert Windust, 16/5/11, House of Spirituality Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


53. Ibid. ‘Abdu’l-Baha to the members of the Spiritual Assembly and Mr. Bernard M. Jacobsen, Kenosha, Wis., 4/5/11, House of Spirituality Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


54. Ibid. Star of the West, vol. 3, no. 10 (August 20, 1912) p 16. See also, ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s instructions to Howard MacNutt, August 6, 1912, microfilm collection, National Baha’i Archives.


55. Ibid. Women, #11, pp 6-7.


56. Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, dated July 28, 1936, Baha’i News, No. 105 (February 1937) p 2.


57. Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, dated December 14, 1940, quoted in Dawn of a New Day (New Delhi: Baha’i Publishing Trust, n.d.) p 86.


58. Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, dated September 17, 1952, Baha’i News, No 267 (May 1953) p 10.


59. Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, dated July 15, 1947, quoted in “Extracts on Membership of the Universal House of Justice” (an unpublished compilation of the Universal House of Justice).

60. Quoted in Paris Talks (London: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1912) pp 182-83.

Editor’s Note: This paper was written in Los Angeles in 1988; many of the authors were young academics and intellectuals associated with dialogue Magazine. It was presented at an Association for Baha’i Studies conference in New Zealand the same year and was immediately suppressed by the Baha’i authorities, and its authors were forbidden to circulate it in any way.

Mirrored (with the addition on footnote 41) from http://www.h-net.org/~bahai/docs/vol3/wmnuhj.htm

This is the 2007 letter:

THE UNIVERSAL HOUSE OF JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OF THE SECRETARIAT
18 October 2007

Transmitted by email:
Mr. Romane Takkenberg
Australia

Dear Bahá’í Friend,
Your email message of 23 September 2007 has been received by the Universal House of Justice, which has asked us to respond as follows.

The document to which you refer, prepared by Mr. Anthony A. Lee and others, was circulated informally in the United States in the latter part of the 1980s and attracted some attention from those who studied it because of its statements about the possible future participation of women in the membership of the House of Justice.

TIt was then presented at a Bahá’í Studies conference in New Zealand, at which time it was brought to the attention of the House of Justice.

On 31 May 1988, the House of Justice wrote to the National Spiritual Assembly of New Zealand clarifying the issues raised in that paper. A copy of this letter is enclosed for your information.

The House of Justice is not aware of any attempt to restrict the circulation of the paper. However, it might reasonably be expected that it would not be accepted for publication in a reputable Bahá’í journal or as part of a compilation of papers in view of the clarification provided in the aforementioned letter of 31 May.

With loving Bahá’í greetings,
Department of the Secretariat




Some have argued that because Abdul-Baha changed the name (intended to be a temporary measure) in 1902 from House of Justice to a term without the word Justice in it, that this means that one day when the name Baha’u’llah gave them, House of Justice, is returned, then women will no longer be able to serve on them. However in 1912 when Abdul-Baha allowed women to be elected to the local House of Justice this meant in affect that he was interpreting Baha’ullah’s reference to ‘rijal’ as applying to women as well.

So where did the idea come from that women could not serve on the UHJ? The only source I can find for this are in the 4 letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi (1936, 1940, 1947, 1952) referred to in the paper above and all these letters seem to refer to Abdul-Baha’s 1902 Tablet because of their wording. My guess is, that the secretary was unaware that the context for Abdul-Baha’s 1902, 1909, and 1911 tablets were the all male membership of Local Spiritual Assemblies. The 1909 reference to ‘Universal’ seems to me to distnguish the administrative committee from the teaching and other committees women were members of referred to in the second part of the same tablet. The 1910 tablet addressed to the Bahais of Cincinnati encourages them to elect both men and women to a committee called the “Spiritual Assembly” where the context shows that this was not the ‘general local Assembly’, while a 1911 tablet informs the Bahais of Kenosha not to disband their all male “Board of Consultation”. Labels for the various local committees were fluid (explaining why the 1910 Cincinnati “Spiritual Assembly” was not the same as the ‘general’ or ‘universal’ administrative body) and that explains to me why Abdul-Baha used term ‘Universal’ to distinguish the various local committees from the main local administrative committee (known today as the Local Spiritual Assembly) which until 1912 could only have male members on them.


I have no idea if the UHj might ever decide that women will be allowed to be members but it seems as clear as the noon day sun to me that in 1912 Abdul-Baha either changed his interpretation of the word ‘rijal’ or saw that this was the time for implementing gender equality within the Bahai administration when he asked to have the Chicago Assembly disband its all male membership and then elect from the women and men in the community. And if Shoghi Effendi did not have the authority to dictate the membership of the UHJ, then surely any letters written on his behalf would have a lesser authority to do so:
“… the Guardian … He is debarred from laying down independently the constitution [of the Universal House of Justice] that must govern … and from exercising his influence in a manner that would encroach upon the liberty of those whose sacred right is to elect the body of his collaborators.” World Order of Baha’u’llah, p 150

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Do Indigenous Prophets Count?

March 27, 2018

Recently in response to the article, Recognizing and Respecting the Sacred Lakota Traditions by Christopher Buck + Kevin Locke on the BahaiTeachings blog a Baha’i objected to the idea that White Buffalo Calf Woman could be a Prophet of God for the Lakota in line with the Baha’i teaching that God has sent many prophets of God throughout time and to differing peoples.

One of the objections that this Baha’i made was that he said that there were only 9 existing religions and hence only 9 messengers of God were therefore possible. This Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi supports this: “The number nine which in itself is the number of perfection is considered by the Bahá’ís as sacred because it is symbolic of the perfection of the Bahá’í Revelation which constitutes the ninth in the line of existing religions, the latest and fullest Revelation which mankind has ever known. The eighth is the religion of the Báb, and the remaining seven are: Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the religion of the Sabeans. These religions are not the only true religions that have appeared in the world, but are the only ones still existing. There have always been divine Prophets and Messengers, to many of whom the Qur’án refers. But the only ones existing are those mentioned above.”
(From letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer, July 28, 1936: Bahá’í News, No. 105, February 1937, p. 2, Lights of Guidance, p. 414)

We could argue that the secretary who penned this letter in 1936 didn’t know of the existence of the Lakota people or that the secretary thought that the Lakota didn’t have an existing belief system or we could argue that this letter was intended as advice to the addressee (see: “when he gives advice” (1944)). “(S)ometimes one statement is exactly the right for one type of mind and wrong thing another.” (see the letter below) Perhaps if we saw the question that was asked, the intention might be clearer.

There is a later letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which also states that there are only 9 religions and hence only 9 Prophets of God possible: “First, regarding the significance of the number nine; its importance as a symbol used so often in various connections by the believers lies in three facts: first, it symbolizes the nine great world religions of which we have any definite historical knowledge, including the Bábí and Bahá’í Revelations; second, it represents the number of perfection, being the highest single number; third, it is the numerical value of the word ‘Baha'”
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, July 9, 1939, Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 414.)

And there is also a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which states the number nine refers to the numerical meaning of the word Baha “…In telling people of the 9 religions of the world, that is, existing religions, we should not give this as the reason the Temple has 9 sides. This may have been an idea of the architect, and a very pleasing idea, which can be mentioned in passing, but the Temple has 9 sides because of the association of 9 with perfection, unity and ‘Baha’.

“The Guardian feels that with intellectuals and students of religion the question of exactly which are the existing religions is controversial, and it would be better to avoid it. He does not want the friends to be rigid in these matters, but use their judgement and tact, sometimes one statement is exactly the right for one type of mind and wrong thing another.

“Strictly speaking the 5-pointed star is the symbol of our Faith, as used by the Báb and explained by Him. But the Guardian does not feel it is wise or necessary to complicate our explanations of the Temple by adding this.”
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, October 28, 1949, Lights of Guidance, p. 415)

I have pasted the 1949 letter in the same formatting as can be found in the 1983 book of compilations, Lights of Guidance. This letter is also in the book, Directives from the Guardian but there the dating of letters is not clear whereas in Lights of Guidance it is clear and so I would assume that the editor made the spacing for a reason – to show that the gaps were in the original letter or that the excerpts come from parts of a longer letter.

So what do I do as a Bahai? I go to the Bahai Scripture and see what is written there. I didn’t find any number for how many prophets of God there have been. Here is Baha’u’llah: “A divine Manifestation Who hath extolled and magnified the one true God, exalted be His glory, Who hath borne witness to His knowledge and confessed that His Essence is sanctified above all things and exalted beyond every comparison — such a Manifestation hath been called at various times a worshipper of the sun or a fire-worshipper. How numerous are those sublime Manifestations and Revealers of the Divine of Whose stations the people remain wholly unaware, of Whose grace they are utterly deprived, nay, God forbid, Whom they curse and revile!”
(Baha’u’llah, Tabernacle_of_Unity)

I found not only the word “numerous” but also the idea that all these messengers have equal importance.
“…all the Prophets and Messengers of God as one soul and one body, as one light and one spirit, in such wise that the first among them would be last and the last would be first. For they have all arisen to proclaim His Cause and have established the laws of divine wisdom. They are, one and all, the Manifestations of His Self, the Repositories of His might, the Treasuries of His Revelation, the Dawning-Places of His splendour and the Daysprings of His light. Through them are manifested the signs of sanctity in the realities of all things and the tokens of oneness in the essences of all beings. Through them are revealed the elements of glorification in the heavenly realities and the exponents of praise in the eternal essences. From them hath all creation proceeded and unto them shall return all that hath been mentioned. And since in their inmost Beings they are the same Luminaries and the self-same Mysteries, thou shouldst view their outward conditions in the same light, that thou mayest recognize them all as one Being, nay, find them united in their words, speech, and utterance.”
(Baha’u’llah, Gems of Divine Mysteries, p. 34-35)

So we have one letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which states “the question of exactly which are the existing religions is controversial, and it would be better to avoid it. … sometimes one statement is exactly the right for one type of mind and wrong thing another.” (October 28, 1949) and we have two other letters which state that there are only 9 existing religions.

Because these letters have a lesser authority, I am not thrown into confusion about which letter is correct. If the idea that there are only 9 religions is only expressed in a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi and nowhere else in Bahai Scripture, then that is not enough of an argument as far as I am concerned to make this a Bahai Teaching. A letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi cannot create a Bahai Teaching because Shoghi Effendi assigned a lesser authority to these letters than his own authority as official interpreter (See my blog Does a letter from a secretary create a Bahai Teaching?). Bahais can and do interpret Baha’u’llah’s words more or less inclusively. Personally I think interpreting what Baha’u’llah writes more inclusively makes more sense because this approach is endorsed by other Bahai Writings that stress unity in diversity as a teaching for the world and not just parts of the world.

If the Universal House of Justice were to state that Bahai communities were only allowed to accept 9 religions, then this would be policy they have the authority to make, and Bahai communities would have to obey this but the Universal House of Justice cannot tell us, individually, how to interpret the word “numerous” Baha’u’llah uses. The Universal House of Justice has the authority to make policy based on their own understanding of Baha’u’llah’s Texts as well as any other texts that are relevant to the policy they are making. If it were to be found, for example that there was no finite number stated by Baha’u’llah, then a later Universal House of Justice is free to make differing policy based on differing understanding or because this new policy is the best policy of the conditions of the times. This is all hypothetical because as far as I know there is no policy from the Universal House of Justice making any sort of statement on the number of world religions. There is a 1996 letter from the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice responding to a request to make a statement that Prophets of God appeared in the Americas: “The Bahá’í Teachings do not explicitly confirm, nor do they rule out, the possibility that Messengers of God have appeared in the Americas.”
(Excerpt from a Memorandum from the Research Department addressed to the Universal House of Justice dated 16 May 1996)

So if there is nothing in Bahai Scripture to state that there are a finite number of religions then the next thing would be to look and see how the Manifestations of God are spoken of, to see whether White Buffalo Calf Woman could possibly be counted as one of these “numerous … Revealers of the Divine”

“… consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship, to proclaim that which the Speaker on Sinai hath set forth and to observe fairness in all matters. They that are endued with sincerity and faithfulness should associate with all the peoples and kindreds of the earth with joy and radiance, inasmuch as consorting with people hath promoted and will continue to promote unity and concord, which in turn are conducive to the maintenance of order in the world and to the regeneration of nations. Blessed are such as hold fast to the cord of kindliness and tender mercy and are free from animosity and hatred.” (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, pp. 35-36)

I found a number of texts that express “all religions” or all beliefs but none that limit where these prophets come from. However this Bahai made the argument that all prophets of God could only originate in countries “from the Orient,” which is based on unauthentic text attributed to Abdul-Baha and I will look at that in my next blog.

 

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Does this mean that one may not express critical thought?

March 19, 2018

Freedom of Speech cartoon found on a blog possibly by a Russian cartoonist. The initials are AZ.

Cartoon found on this blog,
possibly by a Russian cartoonist
by the name of Azim or AZ where I have
changed the texts.

Recently in a discussion a Baha’i wrote:
“We as Baha’is I believe should look at each quote and prescribe it to ourselves. This is one I take very much to heart”.
“To accept the Cause without the administration is like to accept the teachings without acknowledging the divine station of Bahá’u’lláh. To be a Bahá’í is to accept the Cause in its entirety. To take exception to one basic principle is to deny the authority and sovereignty of Bahá’u’lláh, and therefore is to deny the Cause. The administration is the social order of Bahá’u’lláh. Without it all the principles of the Cause will remain abortive. To take exception to this, therefore, is to take exception to the fabric that Bahá’u’lláh has prescribed; it is to disobey His law.”
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada, May 30, 1930: Bahá’í News, No. 43, August 1930, p. 3)

This Baha’i was using this quotation to imply that “to exception to” meant that no one is allowed to disagree with any policy of the head of the Bahai Administration, The Universal House of Justice. I then looked for the context to this letter because I think Baha’is are free to express their personal opinions on the topic of equality for the LGBTQ community or same sex marriage. This was the context for the sharing of that quotation.

It is my view that one of the most basic of the Bahá’í principles is that each individual has the right and duty to seek out the truth which means the individual’s right to free expression, but I also believe that the context for how one expresses one’s views is just as important and sometimes silence might be better than causing pain or suffering. That is how I interpret Baha’u’llah’s text: “Say: Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation. As to its influence, this is conditional upon refinement which in turn is dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure. As to its moderation, this hath to be combined with tact and wisdom as prescribed in the Holy Scriptures and Tablets.” (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 143)

Sometimes silence is best and sometimes speaking up is best. So are there rules for Bahais in relation to freedom of speech?

Shoghi Effendi wrote:
“At the very root of the Cause lies the principle of the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression, his freedom to declare his conscience and set forth his views. If certain instructions of the Master are today particularly emphasized and scrupulously adhered to, let us be sure that they are but provisional measures designed to guard and protect the Cause in its present state of infancy and growth until the day when this tender and precious plant shall have sufficiently grown to be able to withstand the unwisdom of its friends and the attacks of its enemies.” (Bahai Administration, p. 63)

The second sentence does not refer to limiting the freedom of expression of the individual. It refers to “prepublication literature review” which Abdul-Baha brought in as a temporary measure. This means that Bahais are not allowed to publish any book, paper or article without a committee approving the contents of this. However the UHJ has stated clearly that blogs or websites are free from this as long as the author makes it clear that what they write is just their own understanding.
“In general, at this stage in the development of the World Wide Web, the House of Justice feels that those friends desiring to establish personal homepages on the Internet as a means of promoting the Faith should not be discouraged from doing so. It is hoped that the friends will adopt etiquettes consistent with the principles of the Faith, including clearly indicating what materials constitute their own interpretations. While it is inevitable that some attempts will be found wanting, the House of Justice has not formulated guidelines or policies specifically addressed to Internet sites.” (The Universal House of Justice, 1997 Apr 24, Personal Web Pages Promoting the Faith Approved)

So what does “to take exception to one basic principle” refer to in that letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi? And how might it have been perceived by the readers in 1930?

I found that “to take exception to the fabric that Bahá’u’lláh has prescribed; it is to disobey His law” refers to rejecting the idea of a Bahai administration.

Some background
From 1914 onwards some Baha’is thought that the reference in Baha’u’llah’s Kitab-i-Aqdas to Houses of Justice was about a form of parliament and that the Baha’i community was not to have any form of administration. In fact the number of references to the idea that the “Bahai Movement is not an organization…” suggests that it was a common idea among various Bahais of the times (See a circa 1917 publication) as it was attributed to Abdul-Baha via a pilgrim’s note. See Sen McGlinn’s blog (“You can never organize the Bahai Cause”) where he shows more context for this.

The text is not authentically Abdul-Baha. Page 4 of the booklet, Some Vital Bahai Teachings by Charles Mason Remey, published circa 1917

NOTE: The text is not authentically Abdul-Baha. Page 4 of the booklet, Some Vital Bahai Teachings by Charles Mason Remey, published circa 1917. See the booklet here


Then in March 1922, in the magazine Star of the West there was a 5 page essay called ‘Baha’i Organization: Its basis in the revealed word,’ written by Louis G. Gregory, Agnes S. Parsons and Mariam Haney at the request of the National Spiritual Assembly to counter this pilgrim’s note.
To paraphrase from Sen McGlinn’s blog: This begins by pointing to a generalised distrust of all organization, as an infringement on liberty and then refers to the Bahai Writings that specify the establishment of Bahai Houses of Justice in every town, and cites briefly a tablet from Abdu’l-Baha on religious law and the House of Justice, (Sen has translated this tablet by Abdul-Baha here).Then it switches to a discussion of the International Court, a different institution, to be organized by the Governments of the world (p 324), before switching back to citing Abdu’l-Baha’s instructions to organize spiritual assemblies. Then it states, “It is known that some misapprehension exists as to the need of organization in the Cause. This has grown out of a widely circulated statement, attributed to Abdul baha, that the Bahai Cause could never be organized. The true statement was, as corrected by Abdul Baha, that the Bahai Cause can never be rigidly organized; it can never be confined to an organization. The context of the statement tells why, namely: “It is the Spirit of the Age, the essence of all the highest ideals of the century.”
At Haifa, Syria, in 1920, the following question was asked Abdul Baha by some American pilgrims:
“It is misleading, is it not, to say that the Bahai Cause cannot be organized?”
Abdul Baha replied: “How is it possible that there should be no organization?
Even in a household if there is not organization there will be hopeless confusion. Then what about the world? What is meant is that organization is not rigid! In ancient times it was rigid. In the Torah all the political affairs were rigidly fixed, but in this Cause they were not. In this Cause there is political freedom i.e., in each time the House of Justice is free to decide in accordance with what is deemed expedient. This is a brief explanation of the matter.” (Star of the West, Volume 13, no. 12, March, 1923, p. 325)

After the death of Abdu’l-Baha in 1921, Ruth White, an American Bahai who also challenged the authenticity of Abdul-Baha’s Will appointing Shoghi Effendi as the Guardian of the Bahai Faith, produced a pamphlet called, The “Bahai Organisation, the enemy of the Bahai Religion,” where on page 5 she wrote of a recollection from 9 years earlier, “when I visited Abdul Baha at Haifa, Palestine, in 1920. … one day when he very opportunely spoke of certain conditions existing in America among the Bahais, I mentioned to him that I had never belonged to the Bahai organization (Spiritual Assemblies). His face beamed with happiness as he replied:
Good, very good. The organization that the Bahais have among themselves has nothing to do with the teachings of Baha’ollah. The teachings of Baha’o’llah are universal and cannot be confined to a sect.
The same thought runs through all the writings of Baha’o’llah and of Abdul Baha. It is expressed in many different ways, ranging from the above, and the following unequivocal statement: “The Bahai Religion is not an organization. You can never organize the Bahai Cause,” to the less obvious way of saying the same thing. For instance, Abdul Baha says that it will be impossible to create any schism in the Bahai Religion. The Bahais have interpreted this as meaning that two Bahai organizations cannot be formed when, as a matter of fact, both Baha’o’llah and Abdul Baha show that no organization can be formed” (on h-net.org)

In February 1929, a month after Ruth White’s pamphlet was published, Shoghi Effendi wrote to the members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States and Canada stating:
“It should be remembered by every follower of the Cause that the system of Bahá’í administration is not an innovation imposed arbitrarily upon the Bahá’ís of the world since the Master’s passing, but derives its authority from the Will and Testament of `Abdu’l-Bahá, is specifically prescribed in unnumbered Tablets, and rests in some of its essential features upon the explicit provisions of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. It thus unifies and correlates the principles separately laid down by Bahá’u’lláh and `Abdu’l-Bahá, and is indissolubly bound with the essential verities of the Faith. To dissociate the administrative principles of the Cause from the purely spiritual and humanitarian teachings would be tantamount to a mutilation of the body of the Cause [emphasis added), a separation that can only result in the disintegration of its component parts, and the extinction of the Faith itself.” (World Order of Baha’u’llah by Shoghi Effendi)

So the similarity of the words in the 1930 letter by the secretary to the 1929 text above indicates that in context “one basic principle” in the 1930 letter refers to the existence of a Bahai Administration and not freedom of speech regarding policies of the day. Perhaps there is more context to this 1930 letter that one day someone else can provide.

I read the text “To take exception to this, therefore, is to take exception to the fabric that Bahá’u’lláh has prescribed; it is to disobey His law.” in the way Shoghi Effendi wrote “To dissociate the administrative principles of the Cause from the purely spiritual and humanitarian teachings would be tantamount to a mutilation of the body of the Cause …” Not that this means Bahais may only express their own interpretations of the Bahai Writings if these are in agreement with the policies of the Baha’i Administration.

It would be a different story if the Universal House of Justice stated that it was a Bahai law that Bahais were not allowed to express their own views, understandings or perspectives or if the Universal House of Justice announced that Bahais were not allowed to discuss the topic of homosexuality. They have not. So individual Bahais cannot then imply it is disobedience to “His law” if Bahais do interpret the Writings for themselves or express their own views or even discuss the topic of homosexuality. It isn’t a closed case nor a taboo subject.

A lesson I learnt from looking at Ruth White was that she was both the victim of her own misunderstanding and stuck with an idea of the Bahai community as static – as she first experienced and understood it during the lifetime of Abdul-Baha. The establishment of the House of Justice is clear in the Bahai writings and the development of an international tribunal is also clear. But a footnote in the 1908 English translation of Some Answered Questions asserted that these were the same thing. If the House of Justice was just another word for the supreme tribunal, which was to be elected by the nations and solve political questions, then you can see how she might think that there was no provision in the Writings for an administration of a Bahai community by Bahai institutions. Then there was the widely circulated pilgrim’s note saying “you cannot organize the Bahai movement…” So perhaps because Shoghi Effendi was working on the establishment of the Bahai Administration, something that she saw as false, made her assume that the Will and Testament was a fake – an idea she pursued in the face of all evidence. [See Sen’s 2009 blog, “Mitchell’s mistake”]

So as I see it we always need to be open to the idea that our own interpretation of the Bahai Teachings might be wrong and we need to remain open to change if evidence shows new information or to keep the Bahai Administration “in the forefront of all progressive movements.” (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 22)

That’s why, sometimes, I hammer on about only authentic Scripture, being what counts, not what a Bahai or even 99% of Bahais might say to me. Perhaps somewhere there is a text penned by Baha’u’llah that does restrict marriage to only be possible between a man and a woman? I will keep writing that it is my belief that there is nothing in Bahai Scripture that supports discrimination against lesbians or gays until someone shows me some evidence. Even if I should be wrong – on the topic of freedom of expression the Universal House of Justice – wrote:
“Because the Most Great Peace is the object of our longing, a primary effort of the Bahá’í community is to reduce the incidence of conflict and contention, which are categorically forbidden in the Most Holy Book. Does this mean that one may not express critical thought? Absolutely not. How can there be the candor called for in consultation if there is no critical thought? How is the individual to exercise his responsibilities to the Cause, if he is not allowed the freedom to express his views? Has Shoghi Effendi not stated that “at the very root of the Cause lies the principle of the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression, his freedom to declare his conscience and set forth his views”?
(Addressed to the NSA of the USA, 29 Dec., 1988)

So while some Bahais might think that no Bahai is allowed to express any view, or write anything that is not in agreement with the policies of the Universal House of Justice, such as their current policy which does not allow gays or lesbians to marry in countries where this is legal, I think that the Universal House of Justice does allow individuals such as myself to express their views. I certainly do understand that raising this topic at a Bahai event might not be appropriate but a Bahai such as myself may express my views on my own blog where it is clear that my views are just my own.

Another Bahai wrote in that same discussion:
Abdul-Baha last will and testament: “To none is given the right to put forth his own opinion or express his particular conviction. All must seek guidance and turn unto the Center of the Cause and the House of Justice. And he that turneth unto whatsoever else is indeed in grievous error”

This isn’t the first time this selectively cut quotation has been presented to me. Without any further context it appears that Abdul-Baha is saying that our own opinion or expression is not allowed, however what Abdul-Baha was referring to at the end of the Will and Testament was to avoid the schisms and infighting after the death of Baha’u’llah. Abdul-Baha meant that we (Bahais) must accept Shoghi Effendi as Centre of the Cause.

“O ye the faithful loved ones of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá! It is incumbent upon you to take the greatest care of Shoghi Effendi, the twig that hath branched from and the fruit given forth by the two hallowed and Divine Lote-Trees, that no dust of despondency and sorrow may stain his radiant nature, that day by day he may wax greater in happiness, in joy and spirituality, and may grow to become even as a fruitful tree.
For he is, after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the guardian of the Cause of God, the Afnán, the Hands (pillars) of the Cause and the beloved of the Lord must obey him and turn unto him. He that obeyeth him not, hath not obeyed God; he that turneth away from him, hath turned away from God and he that denieth him, hath denied the True One. Beware lest anyone falsely interpret these words, and like unto them that have broken the Covenant after the Day of Ascension (of Bahá’u’lláh) advance a pretext, raise the standard of revolt, wax stubborn and open wide the door of false interpretation. To none is given the right to put forth his own opinion or express his particular convictions. All must seek guidance and turn unto the Center of the Cause and the House of Justice. And he that turneth unto whatsoever else is indeed in grievous error.”
(Abdu’l-Baha, The Will and Testament, p. 25)

I elaborate on this in my 2015 blog “Is Criticism Allowed” here.

So back to the beginning, the above and the first quotation assert the importance of the authority of the Universal House but when you see the context of each, this authority doesn’t infringe on the duty of each of us to express our views, hopefully with wisdom and tact.

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Letter from a gay former Baha’i

August 12, 2017

Lord, why do you pile all these troubles upon us? It is because of the gays, isn't it?

Lord, why do you pile all these troubles upon us? It is because of the gays, isn’t it?


In 1963 I joined the Faith at 15 in a European country. After 20 years of serving on committees, assemblies, pioneering to goal districts, holding firesides, praying, fasting, teaching and all the rest, I realised that to be forbidden to grow in love with another man was intolerable.

The idea of growing old emotionally alone felt positively dangerous to my mental health. Having accepted my being gay since early adolescence I decided I had to be with other men like myself. I thought then that I could possibly continue to serve and also find mutual love with another guy—just being discrete about it. Love not sex, please note, because Bahai’s always, always, confuse the two.

I met some great guys and quickly realised that these guys were just as normal as me. In fact, they were really attuned to human differences and the complexity of being the “other” in an intolerant society. It was a paradox that, in many ways, they showed more open and honest Bahai characteristics than many in my own local community. Time spent in their company became far more enriching and emotionally rewarding than sitting on an Assembly reading ever more jargon-ridden letters from the Institutions. I had shared the pain with dear friends who were marginalized for their academic research and writing, and who suffered vile abuse from some Bahais, still happening today. I felt the cruelty of the absence of a warm, fulfilling community life with other Baha’is.

Then a truly decent gay Baha’i acquaintance, on one of his sexuality guilt trips, outed me to an ABM as gay. [Note: ABM is a Bahai appointed to counsel Bahai communities at a regional level. Their role is advisory but local communities often accord them greater authority.] This ABM, a doctor working in a hospital which had done ECT on gays, wrote offering me a weekend of therapy which would cure me of these unhealthy and unacceptable urges. I declined, rather impolitely. I regret not being more diplomatic. Now outed, I decided to come out to close friends in the community. My closest friend of many years told me of his shock and how he never wanted to speak with me again and could not bear to even shake my hand. I haven’t seen him since, and still miss him. Another told me he would never leave his son in a room alone with me. Another dear friend could not bear to meet or hear about the man with whom I had fallen in love. On and on it went. I wondered how I could continue to serve on Institutions with these people. It simply was impossible. I chose to become inactive. Assembly members then called my home to tell me I was sick in the head.

I decided to leave the Faith one evening in a restaurant. I was having dinner with a gay friend—a dear, kind, sweet, lovely guy battling cancer, who would have been a credit to any community, may he rest in peace. Into the cafe came a party of Baha’is, including some who had served on an Assembly with me. They sat two tables away, in full view of me, and pointedly ignored me. I sat chatting to my friend and thought, who do I prefer to share my life with? Did I want a life with these Bahai’s, supposedly modelling themselves on the Master, or with truly decent people like my friend? It was a no-brainer. I withdrew. That was 1983.

I have now shared my life for over 34 years with one man, the love of my life. We are married. We created a home, a life and a business together, and I have never much regretted leaving the Bahai community. Whatever excuses people make, however they quote scripture, or the Guardian’s letters, it will never change. The community itself is homophobic from top to bottom. It is beyond change. I saw so many closeted gays in the Baha’i community twisting themselves into knots over their sexuality, living lonely single lives, or in sterile marriages, having kids to prove they are devout and casual sex with strangers as a release. One guy got married and on his honeymoon confessed he was gay. That revelation was followed by a speedy divorce. So much unhappiness dealt out along with heaps of intolerance to gays who could truly show many Baha’is the depth of real human compassion and love. The Faith, devoid and deprived of this segment of humanity, seems so utterly sterile. It hardly deserves a future.

The Baha’i community here is no bigger now than in 1983—it just has more committees and institutional bodies, it is still largely unknown to the public. It has apparently had no impact of any kind of depth on this wider society. It has many fine people trying their best, but on this issue don’t waste your emotional or spiritual energy. It is not worth it. Move on honourably and decently and leave them to their understanding of a prejudice-free world order. Keep your love for aspects of it and its Founders, by all means. I have no bitterness and wish my former friends no ill will at alI. Time will tell if I am wrong. Perhaps after all they will in fact create their frightening new world order, but be assured: gays will never be a fully-accepted people within it. That bet I think I will win.

In more recent years I wondered sometimes how things stood with my former Baha’i community. The internet is a great channel to look at this, and I quickly realised little had changed over the years. Reading your blog and others, I feel a great sense of hope reading so many expressions of positivity by so many people, but also of sadness and exasperation on two broad levels. The first is for those young people who have still have to hide their sexuality within the community and cope with all the negativity about them being somehow deformed human beings. The slightly softer line recently from the UHJ seems so obviously to be a concern for avoiding legal conflicts with civil societies who have accepted equal rights, same sex marriage, etc., rather than any ditching of institutional homophobia. They are in no way unique; this is all too common. Shunning those who have withdrawn now seems accepted practice in this part of the world.

Not far from here is a small, pretty lake with a lovely, tree-covered island. Years ago, a teacher who had been outed to his workmates, family, church and friends as gay rowed himself across the lake, past the swans, to the island where he took a rope and hanged himself from a tree. He had done no wrong, but his future had been taken from him by intolerance and hate. Going past the lake I think of how lonely and awful that he had no one to turn to, and that he may have found hanging less awful than drowning. The kind of prejudice which drove him to act as he did is what I saw and heard in the Baha’i community. Times have changed, thankfully, so that people are more prepared to say “No, I won’t be treated as inferior, mentally or spiritually deformed.” I left without too much regret, though I saw a big chunk of my social world suddenly vanish away. Others may decide to stay and brave it out, and good luck to them. I worry about their long-term mental/spiritual health, but wish them well.

My second source of sadness is to see the Baha’i community continue to deprive itself of all the really positive aspects of so much of gay sensibility. It may be cliched, but the creativity at so many levels, the humour, the empathy and understanding of otherness—of being discriminated against within a larger group—the deep honesty about society, and the genuine tolerance of differences: these are all attributes that the Baha’i community could use. Instead, it deprives itself of so much talent. This year I found myself in that city on the day of the Gay Pride march. It was a very positive and uplifting experience, particularly to see how many young straight couples had brought their toddlers and children to wave rainbow flags and cheer on the marchers. For them it was a fun, carnival-like family day out and they were supporting people they knew. Gays were not shadowy, sad, tortured weirdos, as in Shoghi Effendi’s day. They had names, life stories, families, workmates, a three-dimensional reality—in other words: ordinary people. I wondered what it would be like for Bahai’s to go in there delivering the message to these straight families about how sick these gays were, how this was wrong to God?

Recently the Republic of Ireland, despite opposition from the usual religious groups, had a referendum to allow constitutional change allowing same sex marriage. It passed by a huge majority and was implemented, and lo and behold the sky has not fallen. People have taken it in their stride, though older people like me still find it odd to describe my partner of 34 years as my husband. Where I live we have yet to introduce same-sex marriage. Bahai’s show themselves to be out of step with the wider society which seems sad to me, for all parties. But I comfort myself with Julian of Norwich’s great declaration, “All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.”