Women of the House

One of the best-known controversies in the Bahá'í Faith is rooted in the exclusion of women from the Guardianship (the individual office of the Guardian) and the Universal House of Justice (UHJ). This is just one of many examples in the Bahá'í Book of Laws (Kitáb-i-Aqdas) which discriminates against women, but it is the most controversial.

Many Bahá'ís have addressed the controversy in various ways, but the most complete treatment appears to me to be in Juan R. I. Cole's " Women's Service on the Universal House of Justice."

In the 1996 paper, Professor Cole attempts to weave together many disparate scriptural passages and historical events into a cohesive interpretation of the exclusion of women from Bahá'í offices. Cole concludes, after thoroughly examining the evidence, that women should eventually be permitted in the UHJ conditional upon their equality to men in society:

... I have argued that [service of women on elective institutions] was seen as requiring spiritual masculinity, which both women and men might attain, but which was rare among Eastern women in the nineteenth century. `Abdu'l-Bahá recognized spiritual masculinity in Western women in 1909 or 1912 by allowing them to serve as rijal or "men" on local houses of justice. Shoghi Effendi bestowed this status on Iranian women in 1954 with regard to the local and national houses of justice. Since the Universal House of Justice is a world institution, service on it by women required that world-wide standards of women's literacy, education, experience with administration and politics, and other aspects of "spiritual masculinity" be met before they could be admitted to it. - Juan Cole

Cole's argument hinges on numerous questionable maneuvers:

1. Cole uses "the seemingly contradictory texts" to introduce gray areas wherein he forges his hypothesis. Because Cole is a believer in the infallibility of these texts (and `Abdu'l-Bahá's guidance), he proceeds upon the implicit premise that all contradictions are merely seeming. He does not appear to recognize the striking lack of clarity that all these gray areas impose upon the issue. How many "seeming" contradictions does he require before he drops the "seeming"? This hair-splitting seems inappropriate for what should be a very clearly resolved issue.

Much of the confusion that Cole addresses regards:

a) Were the representatives of `Abdu'l-Bahá representing his intentions when they excluded women from serving in the Chicago LSA, or were they subject to traditional Iranian prejudices?

b) In his 1902 message, did `Abdu'l-Bahá intend to exclude women from serving in the Chicago LSA, or did he intend to exclude them from serving in the UHJ? Did he understand their question?

c) In his 1909 message, did `Abdu'l-Bahá intend to exclude women from serving in the Chicago LSA, or did he intend to exclude them from serving in the UHJ?

In all three cases, the Chicago LSA thought that he meant to exclude women from membership on the LSA. In 1912, `Abdu'l-Bahá made it clear that women ought not be so excluded, and made no statement with regard to their evolving status.

Given these events, it appears that miscommunication was the prime culprit, and there are other possibilities.

Cole comes to the conclusion, contrary to the official Bahá'í line, that `Abdu'l-Bahá was referring to the Chicago LSA as the "House of Justice" in both 1902 and 1909, and that in 1912 he had determined that women were now prepared to served in the Local Assembly.

Plausible, I suppose, but why didn't he ever speak of this evolutionary process in 1902 or 1909? Why was his language so absolute?

2. Cole questions Shoghi Effendi's conclusion with regard to the exclusion of women from the UHJ, claiming (a) that it was unlikely that the Guardian had the 1909 letter at his disposal, and (b) that the Guardian's secretaries misunderstood the context of the 1902 letter:

But we must remember that Shoghi Effendi does not appear ever to have seen the 1909 letter to Chicago about women's exclusion from the `umumi house of justice. When he was asked about the subject, his secretaries in their replies cited the 1902 letter as excluding women from the Universal House of Justice. In fact, the 1902 letter appears mainly to have been about excluding them from the Chicago local house of justice, though the generic phrase "house of justice" would cover the universal one, as well. The stance taken by the Guardian's secretaries on this issue therefore appears to have been based on inadequate contextual information about the text they cited as probative.

- Juan R.I. Cole

It's quite clear to me that a document of such great importance as the 1902 letter would not be presented to the Guardian's secretaries without being interpreted to some degree by the Guardian. If anyone misjudged the context of the message, it would have had to be the Guardian, and that seems unlikely to me.

The question as to whether the Guardian had seen the 1909 letter is more valid:

Since Shoghi Effendi himself said he was not omniscient and depended in his rulings on the information at hand, this is not a problem per se.

- Juan R.I. Cole

True, if Shoghi Effendi had not been aware of an authoritative document that might have unequivocally pointed out that women may someday be eligible to serve on the UHJ, he was perfectly within his rights to reverse his stance on the issue.

On the other hand, it seems mighty peculiar that the Guardian, having so many sources of information, and having such a profound understanding of Bahá'í administration, could be so easily turned about on such a basic principle of the Bahá'í Faith.

3. The document which Cole claims the Guardian had no access to is, furthermore, easily read as supporting the Guardian's stance on the matter. Professor Cole invokes plausible alternative meanings to suggest that the Guardian might have read it in Cole's way.

Cole's interpretation of the 1909 letter appears to be that the letter's reference to the [`umumi] House of Justice applied to the Chicago LSA, since it was in response to concerns regarding membership in the Chicago LSA:

In 1909 Corinne True pressed the issue yet again, writing to `Abdu'l-Baha. He replied that women could not serve on the `umumi (general) house of justice, but could serve on spiritual assemblies and committees:

According to the ordinances of the Faith of God, women are the equals of men in all rights save only that of membership on the [`umumi] House of Justice, for, as hath been stated in the text of the Book, both the head and the members of the House of Justice must be men. However, in all other bodies, such as the Temple Construction Committee, the Teaching Committee, the Spiritual Assembly, and in charitable and scientific associations, women share equally in all rights with men.

(Stockman, Baha'i Faith in America, vol. 2, p. 323).

Robert Stockman and the Haifa Research Department, believe that the phrase "`umumi house of justice" refers to the Universal House of Justice. This rendering would require that `Abdu'l-Baha here changed his stance from the 1902 Tablet, and was now allowing women on the Chicago LSA, but reserving the Universal House of Justice for men.

How could this message compel the Guardian to reverse his position on the issue? The letter clearly indicates that the [`umumi] House of Justice must be exclusively male, and that the Spiritual Assembly (and other groups) may be of mixed gender.

One might make a plausible argument, such as Cole does, that the "Spiritual Assembly" does not refer to "LSA" as it is now known, and that `umumi does not equate to "universal" or "international" but rather houses of justice in the broad, "general" sense. But is this argument compelling, or even probable?

The Universal House of Justice has presented an argument in response to this contention which seems reasonable enough for me to accept. Of course, it does not explain `Abdu'l-Bahá's lack of clarity with respect to the question that was put to him.

4. Cole places great importance on statements by Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá which appear to say "when I say men, I mean to include very accomplished women." Cole's entire argument depends on this ambiguity of gender. However, `Abdu'l-Bahá clearly puts this argument aside in one of the messages cited by Cole:

Know thou, O handmaid, that in the sight of Bahá, women are accounted the same as men, and God hath created all humankind in His own image, and after His own likeness . . . from the spiritual viewpoint there is no difference between them . . . The House of Justice, however, according to the explicit text of the Law of God, is confined to men; . . . (Stockman, Baha'i Faith in America vol. 2, p. 75)

5. Cole's suggestion is that the society of women as a whole must advance before any one woman is allowed on the UHJ. If this is what Bahá'u'lláh means to be telling us, Bahá'u'lláh is suggesting that individual women are limited by the mean, median, or lowest common denominator of women, that somehow a woman of great accomplishment should not be elected to the UHJ because the underdeveloped status of women worldwide renders her incapable. Or could it be that Bahá'u'lláh feared the Bahá'í electorate might elect an incapable woman if there were enough incapable women in the world? Where is reason in all of this supposed scholarship?

6. Cole uses a plausibility defense at several points, thus geometrically magnifying the margin of error applicable to his conclusions.

I think that the Master's terminology in this period is elastic, and that by `umumi house of justice he probably meant the Chicago LSA, as a major or general Baha'i governing body. "Spiritual assembly" in this period often simply meant the entire community, or the women's steering committee.

In this passage, Cole is reducing the clarity of terms to to the level of triviality. He makes a fair case for each term, but his lack of conclusiveness weakens the foundations of his argument.

`Abdu'l-Bahá was so unclear about Bahá'í administration that nobody can tell for sure which administrative body he was speaking of!

7. Cole fails to address the exclusion of women from the Guardianship, which certainly serves as a precedent for excluding women from the UHJ. Stranger still that `Abdu'l-Bahá makes no mention in these passages of the exclusion of women from the Guardianship, which was at the time the chain of inheritance of which `Abdu'l-Bahá was himself a part.

Professor Cole is bending over backward to arrive at a conclusion that permits sexual equality in his religion (to avoid scriptural contradiction and appease Western tastes) and at the same time diplomatically allows the Bahá'í authorities a way to change while saving face.

How fortunate that Professor Cole should weather all those "seeming contradictions" to finally arrive at a conclusion so favorable to his beliefs at the outset!

This is a crafty example of Bahá'í Scholarship, but it is too partial and ambiguous. It does, nonetheless, serve up compelling evidence that the whole issue of UHJ membership is mired in ambiguity and contradiction.