July 16, 2010

The Role of Women – by Hand of the Cause Ruhiyyih Khanum

A talk given at Women’s Teacher Training College, Tamale, Ghana, 15 February, 1971

I am very honoured to be here. This is an unexpected pleasure. I didn't know that I was going to have the honour of addressing the girls in this school, and I can't think of any audience that I would rather speak to than young people, and especially young women, and I am very grateful for this opportunity.

The role of women is something that is very important in the Baha'i Faith and it is a subject that interests me very much. We say nowadays that men and women should be equal, and in the Baha'i Faith we say that humanity is like a bird, that a bird flies with two wings, one wing is men and one wing women. If the two wings don't fly evenly together, the bird cannot soar, it cannot go high in the sky. So we attach the greatest importance to women having an equal position in society with men.

Now an equal position does not necessarily mean that they have to do the same things. You know, I come from the United States and Canada and in our part of the world we have the idea that anything that a man does, a woman can do. If a man is going to drive a truck, a woman can drive a truck; if a man is going to be President of the United States, the woman says: why shouldn't I be President? Every single thing that a man does nowadays, a woman wants to do too. Well, all right, if a woman like Indira Gandhi is the Prime Minister of a great country like India, or like Golda Meir of Israel - whom I have met and who is a wonderful woman, a very distinguished woman – that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean every single one of us has to be a Prime Minister or has to be a truck driver or has to be a President! Equality is not in doing exactly what your husband does, equality is that your husband should consider that you are a human being with exactly the same rights that he has, this is real equality. And women have a part to play in society that we Baha'is believe is perhaps more important than men's, and in a moment I will tell you what that is.

You know we sometimes say in the West, particularly, that women and men have never been equal in history. Well, this is nonsense. Take, for instance, your own tribal life in Africa. In many parts of Africa the tribe was based on a matriarchy, which means that the mother is the centre of the tribal inheritance, that you trace your ancestors through your mother and not through your father. If it is a society that is based on the man it is called patriarchy, and if it is a woman it is called matriarchy, and in Africa there have been many societies throughout history that were based on matriarchy. The woman was the strong element in the tribe. You have had African queens, you have had African rulers. If you take, for instance, the history of ancient Egypt, which is one of the oldest cultures in the world and which was in the northern part of the African continent, women played a great role in its history; it's very hard to see that the women were ever inferior to the men. You see the pictures: the King and the Queen sitting side by side, they are holding hands, it's very sweet. You see that, for instance, one of the great Egyptian rulers was a woman and she put on the crown of the King and she ruled as a king, although she was a woman. Now this was over three thousand years ago; that's quite a long time ago and yet a woman seems in that society to have been equal to the men.

This is true in many, many, many societies of the world; in many of the countries where we think women have been very suppressed and very abused, it is not true. In the society, for instance, of India, where my friend and I travelled for seven months and lived in the villages and knew nothing really but Indian people, we were surprised; the woman has such a high position in the family, the love between the husband and wife is so great. She is so respected as the mother and the wife that it is a very beautiful thing to see, and as I say, Indira Gandhi is the Prime Minister of this country, one of the greatest countries in the whole world, and of course she is a woman. So we must remember that woman has had a great role in the past and in some countries.

You know, of course, that there are places, including many places in Africa amongst both the animists and the Muslims, where the men can have more than one wife. This was the custom and it still is the custom. But do you know that there have been societies where the woman could have more than one husband? InTibet, a woman could have two or three husbands and those were her legal husbands, so it is not always the man that has had a number of wives. Sometimes the woman lived in a society where she was the one who had a number of husbands, so it shows how strong the women were. We needn't think that we have always been downtrodden and abused and insignificant, because we have not been --but in many places and in many ways, women of course have been very badly treated and are still being very badly treated and don't receive, for instance, equal pay for equal work, or don't receive the respect and consideration that they should have; they don't have perhaps the same civil rights as their husbands. Generally speaking, woman has had a very wonderful place throughout history, and she has played a great role in the history of different continents, including your own continent of Africa.

In the Baha'i teachings we have something which I think is unique; I have never heard of it anywhere except in the Baha'i Faith. We attach so much importance to women that we say (now mind you, you are not obliged, this is advice, this is not a law, but in our own teachings we are advised) that supposing you have a son and a daughter and you can only really pay to have one good education, you can't afford two - give it to the girl, not the boy. Now this is very unusual, and the reason for it is because the girl is the mother, the girl is the educator of the next generation. The first things that a child learns are from its mother. It's no use talking about the father; they love their fathers, the fathers love them, the fathers try and help all that they can with the children, but a man is always busy with something else, it is not the man that gives birth to the baby and carries it for nine months, it is not the man that is the one who is going to nurse it for a year and sometimes in some countries maybe two years and a half. It is not the man who is going to teach that child its first words and its first actions and say, “This is good, do this, don't do that" - it's the mother. The mother is the first educator in the whole world, and if the mother is enlightened, the child, all the children, will be enlightened.

You know yourselves that if the mother is a good woman, the house will have a different atmosphere. I know many of you come from villages, and I myself have been in many villages, not to mention towns. You know, you say, this poor man, he has an awful wife and there is always trouble, because she is a troublemaker, she backbites, she gossips, she scolds, she shrieks, she is dirty, maybe she is immoral, and the whole family is upside down and the village is very troubled by this woman. And then you look at another woman, and she is upright and she is decent and she is a moral woman, and she is a clean woman and a kind woman and she has a good tongue, and she speaks softly to her family; everybody admires this woman. They say, look at this woman, she is a good woman, isn't he lucky that he has this woman for a wife, or isn't this family lucky that they have a daughter-in-law like this in the house. We all know the difference between one kind of a woman and another kind of a woman. And a woman can make all the difference in the life of the home.

You young people, you are going to go out, some of you are going to have careers, but some of you inevitably will marry and start having your own family and become busy with your home and your children and probably will give up teaching after a certain period of time, at least that's what the girls do in my part of the country. So perhaps you will do the same thing. Now isn't the education that you are having here going to help you in your life? Isn't it going to make you able to teach your children more about hygiene, more about health, more knowledge, more understanding, more tolerance -- all of these things that you have received in your education here? Each one of you, aside from being a schoolteacher in the future, each one of you is going to be an information centre of knowledge, because of the training that you have had. And you can have more effect -- I really believe this with all my hean – you young women can have more effect on society than if you were a group of young men that I am speaking to in this room. Because of the very nature of a woman, because of what her role is in life, she can influence society more than the man.

If a woman has very high moral values, she will hold her husband on the right course. We have all seen this. Supposing that a man is tempted, he wants to do something. We are all tempted - all of us; every day of our lives something is happening that is a temptation of one kind or another, something that will take us away from a higher standard to a lower standard, and often men are subjected to great temptations. They are tempted, for instance, to be dishonest, they are tempted to lie, they are tempted because of their own ambitions to be unkind or unjust to somebody else, to try and get another man's job, or to get another man's cow or another man's fields -- something. This is the nature of the world, this is not a very nice world. And then if the woman believes in God and loves God and has a pure heart, she will help her husband to live a good life. She will say to him, “No, my husband, don't do that, this is not good, we are poor but if we get money this way we will not be blessed. Our good name is more important. Don't spoil our reputation by you doing tricky things, you being dishonest, you doing things that are not good for our name, for our village, for our town, for our country."

In every walk of life, the woman can be the voice of the conscience of the man. This is a tremendous responsibility, this is a wonderful, wonderful role for women. And I think when young women like you are more conscious of this and you go out into this world when you graduate, and you think about these things and you are aware of your own spiritual and moral importance, you people can change Ghana quicker than the men.

After all, this is a new country. Africa is full of new countries, they have a great destiny. The continent of Africa, I think, has a star that is rising all the time. Asia is very old; it has great wisdom to give to the world, but it is a very old culture, it is almost, you might say, static; and the New World, the part of the world I come from, Europe and North America, to some extent South and Central America and the Latin American republics, this is the centre of modern civilization, but the modern civilization has gone too far. I can't go into that, that's another subject, but believe me it has gone too far. Many, many wise people in our own part of the world realize it, that our materialism now is bad instead of good, that material values are good to a certain point, but then they become dangerous because we lose spiritual values.

Now Africa is young, she is a continent of deeply spiritual people and she has this great vitality that has come with the independence of her nations (because most of the nations in Africa are independent), and this vision that you have, this striving of your leaders to bring up your countries and to develop something that is African, is the promise, I believe, of a great part of the future of the human race, and I say this from the bottom of my heart. I have been saying this in my lectures in North and South America. I think Africa is coming to the fore in the immediate future of the human race and she is going to contribute to the destiny of the nations and the planet. But you women can contribute even more, because you are the ones, as we say in the Baha'i teachings, who are the educators of the next generation. Your liberality, your spirituality, your morality, your vision to always see the great things, the good things, the best things, and cling to them, this can have an effect on your country and on your people, your villages and your towns. And it is a very wonderful thing that you have this possibility.

I was reading a book before I came here; this Kingsway has a lot of very interesting pocket books, and we went there and saw so many nice books that we hadn't seen for such a long time, we bought a number. One of them was a book of herbs, and it had recipes for different kinds of cakes and drinks and things. I was just looking at it this afternoon and I thought, my mother used to teach me how to do things and to this day -- now I am 60 years old -- I am doing what my mother taught me. You know we are all like this. We say, my mother said: my mother said to take care of the baby this way; my mother said if you have fever, this is a good thing to take; my mother said if you have an earache you should do this; my mother told me don't do that, this is dirty, this is naughty, you musn't do it. As we grow older, till the end of our lives, the words of our mothers are ringing in our ears. So you see how tremendously important is the role of women, and as I said before, I really believe that you have a very great destiny ahead of you and a very great future; but like everything else you have to be aware of it, you have to think about it.

History is never made up of a lot of people. A lot of people are influenced at one time, but if you think back in your minds to your studies, what you are learning here; everything has been done by individuals. It is one person that has made a reform in society. It was for instance Florence Nightingale, one woman, who started modern nursing. It was not thirty-five people or a club that wrote the plays of Shakespeare. It was one man, only one -- but look what he has meant for the English language. So each individual has a very great power. We don't know the power of the individual, and modern psychology teaches us that we don't use our powers. We have so much power in our minds, so much force inside the human being, that if we used it a hundred per cent we would be astonished at what we could do; we use it maybe twenty or thirty per cent. This is scientific fact, this is not something I am saying, this is something that is agreed upon by psychologists, so there is almost nothing that we cannot do if we decide we are going to do it and if we pray that God will help us do it. We must want to do it, we must have the vision. We must pray to God to strengthen us and help us to do the right thing and then we must work hard to do the right thing. And I think in this sense that you young women can do wonders for your country; and I hope that you will grow up to be shining lights, so that your Principal will look at you and say, "Look at the girls I sent forth from this training college, what an honour they are to us, what an honour they are to their homes and to their country," and that at the end you will be proud of yourselves. You will say, "Well, we didn't waste our lives, the world is better and Ghana is better because of what we made of ourselves." (The Great African Safari – The Travels of Amatu’l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum in Africa 1969-73, by Violette Nakhjavani, pp. 549-555)