Jun 27th, 2008
Rend the veils asunder in My name and through the power of My sovereignty that ye may discover a path unto your Lord. Bahá’u’lláh, Baha’i writings
Had you wished to travel to a cutting edge event in the summer of 1848 – 160 years ago – where would you have gone? To California to cash in on the beginning of the gold rush? Perhaps to one of the European countries that were swept up in political revolution. Unlikely choices would have been a tea party in Waterloo, New York and a conference in a Iranian garden. You would have probably dismissed both as ordinary and unpromising as harbingers of world change.
Only five people attended the tea party and they were all women. The garden event had rather more people – 81 – but very few women, by all accounts. The people attending one event probably knew absolutely nothing about the other event. But they shared a common problem: curtains.
The conversation at the tea party, held on 13 July, centred on the situation of women in the relatively new republic of the United States. One guest was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a 32 year old housewife, mother and activist who had spent her honeymoon at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. There, she and the six other women delegates were denied their seats and prevented from speaking. They had to sit behind a curtain in the visitors’ gallery and listen while the London credentials committee explained that they were `constitutionally unfit for public and business meetings’. And things were no better in the United States, Stanton complained to the others at the tea party. Even in this new country dedicated to equality women played no significant role in governance or decision-making.
Her friends agreed. The could have continued to grumble about things. Instead, they decided to hold a convention. And why wait? They could do everything in a week. One of the party was Lucretia Mott, a Quaker in the American abolitionist movement, who was also annoyed by the lack of women’s rights. She could be the featured speaker. So they put an ad in the local paper and planned the conference.
On the other side of the world, another young woman, Fatimih Baraghani, was having trouble with curtains too. Born into a Shi`i Muslim family, her father, a cleric, was enlightened enough to educate her but she had to sit silently behind a curtain to listen to the discussions of the other – male – students. Her father often regretted that she was not a boy, so that she could have succeeded him. As was the custom, she was married at the age of 11 to her cousin and they had three children.
Fatimih’s life changed, however, when she read the works of a scholar who was teaching that a new revealer of God’s word was about to appear who would revolutionize the fortunes of humanity with a revival of the great spiritual teachings and new social principles. Secretly she began to correspond with him and, very soon, she was converted. She journeyed to meet him only to discover that he had died only a few days before her arrival. But he had left instructions for his students to search for the new teacher from God and Fatimih fasted and spent her nights in prayer vigils to be guided to Him. One night she dreamt of a young man wearing a black cloak and a green turban who was standing in the air, reciting verses and praying. She memorized one of the verses and wrote it down in her notebook when she awoke.
Some time later, Fatimih read a section of a longer text written by the Bab, who claimed to be the promised new teacher from God, and she came upon the verse which she had noted down from the dream. Recognizing it immediately, she accepted that the message of the Bab was true. She threw her lot in with His followers and began vigorously – though from behind a curtain – to teach the new religion to all who would listen.
Back in the United States, Cady Stanton and her friends drafted a `Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions’ based on the American Declaration of Independence. The Declaration stated that, `all men and women are created equal’ and `are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights’ which belonged to women and men. Among the injustices perpetrated against women they enumerated were that women were denied access to higher education and to the professions, that they did not receive equal pay for equal work and that married women had no property rights and even no right of custody of their own children. A key injustice was that women were denied the right to vote. Basically, Cady Stanton and her friends wanted to get rid of the curtains that prevented women from advancing and using their talents and potential.
In Iran, just a few weeks before this, in June of 1848, the followers of the Bab faced major challenges. The Bab was imprisoned by the government for spreading His teachings; the first to believe in Him was also in difficulty. Fatimih’s fiery talks from behind the curtain had aroused the fury of the clerical leadership and she was persecuted by them. She had even been accused of killing an uncle who had opposed her new religion and she had spent much time under arrest. The Bab sent out a message for his followers to gather at a conference to move things forward: it was time to establish the religion of the Bab independently of its Islamic roots, to proclaim its new laws and to embed its new principles.
Baha’u’llah, at this time the foremost among the followers of the Bab, made the arrangements. He rented three gardens – one for Himself, one for Quddus (a prominent Babi leader) and one for Fatimih. On or about 26 June 1848, 78 other Babis pitched their tents in the field between the three gardens and the 22-day conference of Badasht began.
Although the meeting in New York was being organised by women for women, it was a step too far to have a woman chair it, so Lucretia’s husband, James Mott, agreed to do so. On the first day of the two-day Seneca Falls Convention, 19 July 1848, some 260 women and 40 men turned up. On the second day, after hours of speeches and debate, 68 women and 32 men signed the final draft of the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions. The women’s movement was born.
In Iran, a very different convention was unfolding. Every evening, Baha’u’llah, Quddus and Fatimih met to discuss plans. Every day one of the Islamic laws was abrogated; every day a new law was promulgated. Every person received a new name from Baha’u’llah. Fatimih’s name was confirmed as Tahirih, the Pure One, a name originally given to her by the Bab.
One day Baha’u’llah becamel ill. Quddús went to Baha’u’llah’s tent and expected Tahirih to come as well. But Tahirih sent message saying that owing to Baha’u’llah’s illness, Quddús should visit her garden instead. Quddus firmly invited her to Baha’u’llah’s garden.
So Tahirih left her tent and went towards the tent of Baha’u’llah, shouting aloud: `The Trumpet is sounding! The great Trump is blown! The universal Advent is now proclaimed!’ However, it was not her words that drew attention – it was her face. More daring than Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, who had given over the chairmanship of their meeting to a man, Tahirih had throw off the veil she had worn all her life when in the presence of men to proclaim in a dramatic and unforgettable way that in this, the new age, women were the equal of men.
This act is akin to a woman standing on the steps of St Paul’s cathedral in London in the nude and proclaiming that Christ has returned. As you can imagine, the believers gathered in the tent were panic struck. One cut his own throat with a razor, while some fled, and each one asked himself, `How can the Law be abrogated? How is it that this woman stands here without her veil?’
Tahirih delivered a fiery speech to the remaining Babis: `I am the Word which the Qa’im is to utter, the Word which shall put to flight the chiefs and nobles of the earth.’ Baha’u’llah ordered the Surah of the Inevitable be read: `When the Day that must come shall have come suddenly . . . Day that shall abase! Day that shall exalt! . . .’ A new religious dispensation – and a new movement of women – was born.
Have we yet achieved what these women set out to do 160 years ago today? The British government this week announced that it will take even firmer measures to give equal pay to women – they currently receive 87 per cent of what a man earns for doing the same job. The legislation was enacted 50 years ago.
And let’s see, in Tahirih’s homeland, what is the status of women? Are they sitting behind a curtain, are they still veiled?
Almost 160 years to the day after the beginning of the Conference of Badasht, on 20 June 2008, the international governing council of the Baha’i community, the Universal House of Justice, wrote to the Baha’is in Iran – persecuted, imprisoned, denied access to education and unable to practice their beliefs – and told them this:
Surely there are many pressing issues that preoccupy your fellow citizens as they strive to promote the prosperity and well-being of your nation. Foremost among these is, no doubt, the critical need to remove the barriers hindering the progress of women in society.
For you, the equality of men and women is not a Western construct but a universal spiritual truth about an aspect of the nature of human beings . . . It is, above all, a requirement of justice . . . As `Abdu’l-Baha explained: `The world of humanity has two wings — one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. Should one wing remain weak, flight is impossible. Not until the world of women becomes equal to the world of men in the acquisition of virtues and perfections, can success and prosperity be attained as they ought to be. ‘
In this matter you are particularly qualified to be of assistance.
Tahirih, that peerless heroine of Iranian history, courageously advocated the emancipation of women in 1848, at a time when activity related to this principle was only beginning to gather momentum in parts of the world. From that time on, you have raised generation after generation of your children — both boys and girls — to value and express in every facet of their lives this
fundamental tenet of the Faith. In 1911, nearly a century ago, you founded the Tarbiyat School for Girls in Tihran, thereby making an indelible mark on society by providing to girls of all backgrounds the opportunity for education and enlightenment. For almost half a century now, Baha’i women have participated fully in all the administrative affairs of your community at the local, regional, and national level. And decades ago, you effectively eliminated illiteracy among Baha’i women under the age of forty.
Yet you are keenly aware that you cannot be content with your achievements to date and must continue your efforts to transcend those cultural practices that impede the progress of women. The goal of true equality is not easily attained; the transformation required is difficult for men and women alike. To this end, we warmly encourage you to continue to enhance your understanding of this principle and to strive to uphold it more fully in your families and in your community. You can, in addition, draw upon your experience to discuss with your friends, neighbours, and co-workers challenges and effective solutions and participate in projects that have this same worthy aim . . .
That is – curtains to curtains!
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