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From 1918 to 2018 - Women's Rights

June 20, 2018

‘Yes, yes, of course I do,’ was the answer given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha'i Faith in the autumn of 1911.

 

The question, posed by the leader of a woman’s suffrage society in London, sought to clarify whether this elderly gentleman from the East really approved of giving women the vote?

 

Were the women delighted? apprehensive? incredulous?

 

‘Abdu’l-Bahá elaborated:

 

‘In all questions which concern the welfare of a nation, is not a woman's view as important as the man’s, if one would get a just and true consideration of all sides of that question? Therefore I am in favour of votes for women on every subject. This great woman's movement which is stirring and vibrating all round the whole world is a sign of spirit awakening.’ [1]

 

Possibly what the women yearned for, but had little hope of achieving, was not only the right to vote in political elections, but full equality with men. They wanted opportunities for education and employment, and to exercise decision-making and leadership at every level, in every field of endeavour. They were determined to build their capacity in the economic, social, intellectual, cultural, spiritual, and moral aspects of society.

 

Less than six years after this encounter, on 6 February 1918, the awakening spirit which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá referred to enabled women, and men, to celebrate the passage of the Representation of the People Act 1918. On that day, approximately 8.4 million British women over the age of 30 gained the right to vote.

 

This right was hard won. Today, in a world cluttered with political and advertising slogans, the suffragist rallying cry ‘Votes for Women’ would likely pass without remark. But in the early 20th century, it was a brazen call to battle – alarming, thrilling, utopian. Women, and men, had been perturbed by the founding in 1867 of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. Questions had been raised as to whether the equality of women with men was desirable. What would equality mean for social systems locally, nationally and furthermore within the Empire?

 

Landmark legislation in the British parliament such as the 1907 Qualification of Women Act allowed women to be elected onto borough and county councils, and even to be elected mayor. The short 1918 Parliamentary Qualification of Women Act, which simply stated that a ‘woman shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage for being elected to or sitting or voting as a Member of the Commons House of Parliament’, enabled women from 21 years old to be elected to office but not to vote. It took another ten years before women, in 1928, gained equal voting rights with men. A further year was needed until women became ‘persons’ in their own right by order of the Privy Council. It was in 1929 when all British women were able, for the first time, to vote in a general election.

 

A parallel process for enabling women to own and inherit property, to work and to earn a minimum wage was launched in 1870 with the passage of the ‘Married Women’s Property Act’, which went some way towards changing the social environment for women. Interestingly, Bahá’u’lláh, writing around the same time, made it very clear that both women and men could, individually, own property and bequeath it to anyone they chose.

 

And, as 'Abdu’l-Bahá had noted, there was also at this time a great movement of women, who formed themselves into activist groups such as the Cooperative Women's Guild in 1883, the Women's Social and Political Union in 1903, and other organisations pressing for more pay and better working conditions.

 

A hundred years after the Representation of the People Act 1918 women have the vote, the right to buy, own, sell and bequeath property, to enter into contracts, and to be elected into Parliament and other agencies of government. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá foresaw, women are participating in the ‘affairs of the world’, if not quite ‘fully and equally,’ and they have entered ‘the great arena of laws and politics’. [2]

 

However, the fundamental truth of the equality of women and men, the foundational principle of the ‘ever-advancing civilization’ which every human must strive to ‘carry forward’ [3], has yet to be fully accepted, fully realized, and fully implemented. Thus the marginalization of women and girls is perpetuated, as is violence against them, the gender pay gap, their sexual abuse and harassment in work places, and their trafficking into the UK and elsewhere as modern-day slaves to provide sexual entertainment, domestic servitude, and the workforce for the glamour industry.

 

And yet there is good reason to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of women in Britain getting the vote. Undoubtedly it marked a turning point in the consciousness of a nation that women are half the world, not a minority, and that ‘the right to vote is the inalienable right of women’ which ‘no soul can retard or prevent’ [4]. With that turning point came the realization that women must be included and their voices heard.

 

As in 1918, so in 2018. Women are standing up for each other, using the tools of the 21st century to forward movements such as #MeToo, Press for Progress, HeForShe, and Time’s Up, joining with men, friends, colleagues, and whole communities to take rapid steps to the full implementation, at every level, and in every space, of the equality of women and men.

 

 

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[1] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, quoted in Constance Maud, ‘Abdul Baha’, in Fortnightly Review (London), Apr. 1912 (91:544).

[2] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982, (51:6).

[3] Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1983 (109:2).

[4] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1995.

 

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Wendi Momen is a Magistrate and Lay Family Judge

 

 

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