New Year: Some reflections

Sydney Baha'i Temple

Baha’i Temple, Ingleside, Sydney.

Today is New Year for millions of people around the world.  21 March marks the equinox and also one of the most ancient festivals still celebrated today – Naw Ruz.  This festival is celebrated throughout central, western and southern Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus.

The reason that I am celebrating it is because it is also a holy day for Baha’is.  It marks the end of the annual nineteen day fast. The Baha’i Fast is a period of spiritual reflection for Baha’is.  It is an opportunity to replenish one’s spiritual batteries.

I really felt that I needed the Fast this year and was looking forward to it so much that I started my reading for the Fast early.  During February I had become bogged down in my reading and probably a bit jaded at life.  I needed the spiritual boost that the Fast gives.

Aside from reading the Holy Writings, I read several books about the Baha’i principle of equality between women and men.

Women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God.”

Baha’u’llah

Baha’u’llah is the Founder of the Baha’i Faith.  As you can see from the above quote, the equality between women and men is a foundational principle of the Baha’i Faith.

It had been years since I had read extensively about this Baha’i principle and given that it has animated so much of my views on the subject and my participation in initiatives such as the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, I chose this to be the theme of my reading during the Baha’i Fast. I read three books, one of which I have read before, however it is the end of the Fast and I haven’t finished reading any any of them.  For this reason I hesitate to call this a book review.  Rather this post is a summary of my reading journal for the Fast.

Advancement of Women by Janet and Peter Khan

Cover of Book, Advancement of Women by Janet & Peter Khan.

Advancement of Women: A Baha’i Perspective, by Janet A Khan and Peter J Khan, (Willmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1998).

Religions don’t have a good reputation on the issue of equality between women and men.  Janet and Peter Khan in their book, Advancement of Women: A Baha’i Perspective, remark that the conduct of the Manifestations of God such as Jesus Christ and Muhammad towards women was not reflected in the behaviour and attitudes of some of Their followers in the ensuing centuries.

Thus it is important that Baha’is endeavour to put into practise the enlightened principles of Baha’u’llah.  Janet and Peter Khan emphasise that for the Baha’is themselves this principle is a work in progress.  Baha’is are part of the society around them and so can have attitudes and practices that do not uphold this principle.  It is through regular reading of the Holy Writings, constant effort to align behaviour to these instructions and communal discussion about the principle of equality of women and men that Baha’is will increasingly distinguish themselves in this regard.

In my last post I briefly mentioned that many of us have inconsistent attitudes and behaviour with regard to the status of women in society.  Several times I have caught myself out acting in a manner that undermines this principle – not good.  As is well recognised it is women as well as men that can act to undermine the status of women.  So I need to keep a watchful eye on myself!

Janet and Peter Khan closely examine the Baha’i approach to family life.  Both boys and girls are required to be taught about this principle.  They should see it enacted between husband and wife at home.  Men as well as women need to raise their voices to promote it and act consistently with this principle.

The book goes into much detail about Baha’i laws.  It is in the practice of matters such as marriage and divorce, financial conduct, formal roles within the religion and devotional practices that inequality can become entrenched.  It is this detail that the general reader may find difficult as it requires some background of Baha’i life and Scriptures.  However, it is important that in a matter like this that no stone is left unturned as it is inequity in these areas where injustice can cause great misery yet be hidden away from view through communities not wishing to discuss it.  I appreciate the Khans’ willingness to tackle difficult issues in this book.

I am about half way through this book and enjoying the chapter which looks closely at the lives of Baha’u’llah and His son, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and how they practised equality and showed respect for women.  Keep in mind that the Baha’i Faith has come from a region of the world where the status of women was particularly poor during the nineteenth century.  These principles were also espoused at a time when women in the west were agitating for the vote, who could not attend universities and whose lives in the public domain were very limited.

You can read a review of this book written for the One Country newsletter of the Baha’i International Community.

Prophet’s Daughter by Janet Khan

Cover of the book, Prophet's Daughter by Janet Khan

Prophet’s Daughter: The Life and Legacy of Bahiyyih Khanum, Outstanding Heroine of the Baha’i Faith by Janet A Khan (Willmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing, 2005).

I have written about the silence in the archives regarding the lives of women before in this blog.  I was talking about western women.  My eyes popped wide when I read Janet Khan’s book, Prophet’s Daughter, about the life of Baha’u’llah’s daughter, Bahiyyih Khanum.  Historians think that it is difficult researching the lives of women in the west.  Oh my goodness! Researching the life of a woman born in mid-nineteenth century Iran is nigh impossible!  It is important to read the appendix to this book where Janet Khan quotes a well-regarded Baha’i historian:

To enquire into the life of a woman was considered unethical, even insulting.  It was discourteous even to ask the name of someone’s wife… Within such a society historians (always male) usually could not invade the privacy of women by delving into their lives.  To do so would highly offend the men of the household.

Adib Taherzadeh, quoted in Prophet’s Daughter, p. 303.

It is out of such a society that the Baha’i Faith with its principle of equality between the sexes was born during the nineteenth century.

Women in this society were supposed to be invisible.  Yet Baha’u’llah lifted ‘the veil of concealment’ from his daughter and encouraged her to take on roles that Iranian men at that time would not have countenanced.

Bahiyyih Khanum’s life was far more public than were the lives of Iranian women at the time yet there Janet Khan was not able to find much information about her life at all until the late 1890s when the Faith was starting to draw the attention of people in the west.  Thus the first part of the book is largely an account of Baha’u’llah’s life and travails. His Family accompanied Him as He was banished from Iran and then shunted from place to place by the Turkish Sultan until He and His Family was were incarcerated in the penal colony of Akka in Palestine.

The section from the 1890s has far more detail about Bahiyyih Khanum herself as she took responsibility for managing the affairs of the Baha’i Faith in the Holy Land while her brother, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, toured Europe and North America prior to the war.  Given the attitudes during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries both in the east and west it is extraordinary to think that here was a religion that had a woman in such an important role.  I am looking forward to reading about Bahiyyih Khanum’s life between the time of the death of ‘Abdu’l-Baha in 1921 and her own death in 1932.  She had a significant role in the development of the Baha’i Faith during this period, at one stage she managed the world-wide affairs of the Baha’i Faith.  In a review of this book on the Baha’i World News Service Janet Khan is quoted as saying, “This meant that for the first time in history a woman was appointed to direct the affairs of a world religion…”

Recollections by Merle Olivia Heggie

Book cover of Recollections by Merle Heggie

Recollections: Sketches of Some Early Australian Baha’is, by Merle Olivia Heggie (Bundoora, Victoria: Baha’i Publications Australia, 2009).

I have previously read the third book I started reading during the Fast and thoroughly enjoyed it.  It is a family history focussing on those members who became Baha’is.  The Baha’i Faith first came to Australia in 1920.  Members of the Brooks family from South Australia became Baha’is in the 1930s.  This book is written by a member of the second generation of this family to become a Baha’i, Merle Heggie.  She is elderly now and thus few people alive today have the memories she has.

Hilda Margaret became a Baha’i in the early 1930s in Adelaide at the same time as her sister, Rose Elizabeth.  She was attracted by the Baha’i principle of equality between women and men.  She attended the talks given in Adelaide by visiting American Baha’i, Mrs Keith Ransome-Kehler with her sister and brother.  In all five siblings of the same family became Baha’is and many in the subsequent generations also became Baha’is.  Keep in mind that Baha’i children are not automatically enrolled in the Faith.  They are brought up as Baha’i children and when they turn fifteen they can choose their own spiritual path.  Membership of the Faith as an adult is a choice of each person, not an expected family tradition.

This is a book of vignettes. The first part of this book is about the first generation of the Brooks family to become Baha’is, the second generation is covered in the next section.  The brief memoirs of Merle Heggie’s deceased husband are in section three including his account of visiting the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa, Palestine while on service in World War II.  Photos, the family tree and an epilogue are at the back of the book.

I enjoyed this book. It felt like I was spending an afternoon with my grandmother sharing family stories over the kitchen table. Merle Heggie conveys her love and recognition of what her family did and explains to the reader the context of the times.  Various members of the Brooks family played an important role in the development of the Baha’i Faith in Australia. Hence this book gives an interesting account of some of the early Baha’i history in Australia.

Once again this book requires the reader to have some background in the Baha’i Faith.  It uses Baha’i acronyms and refers to some significant people in the Baha’i Faith who Baha’is would be familiar with.  However, it has brought my attention to the potential of family histories to be interesting to people who are not members of that family.

All three books were written by Australians demonstrating the depth of the history of the Baha’i Faith in this country and the interest among Baha’is on the issue of the equality of women and men. I will continue reading them over the coming weeks as well as reflecting on my actions with respect to the Baha’i teachings.

2 thoughts on “New Year: Some reflections

  1. Thanks for this – it’s a really good look at something I did not know about, and one of those things I didn’t know I didn’t know (if that makes sense?). Am bookmarking to come back and read it again in depth.

    • The world is large – there are so many things we don’t know that we don’t know. It is one of the delights in life to come across something that we have never encountered before. It is at those moments that we become re-injected with the wonder of life and are filled with a sense of humility at the depth of the world we are part of.

      While this is a blog about my professional interests I think that it is important to occasionally talk about my personal background as this naturally influences my outlook on life and my work. Reading these books and writing this post helped me to better understand why I do what I do.

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