The Role of Religion in Promoting the Advancement of Women

Written statement to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, distributed officially to all participants.

Beijing, China
13 September 1995

A bold and courageous plan for the advancement of both men and women, the Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women stands on solid ground. It sets out an Agenda for Equality which stresses women's rights as human rights, emphasizes shared responsibility and partnership between women and men, and calls for immediate action to create a peaceful, developed and just world, based on the principle of equality and built on the strength of women's knowledge, energy, creativity and skills. Thus the Platform for Action addresses the advancement of women from the standpoint of moral principle, as distinct from pure pragmatism.

The Bahá'í International Community is encouraged by and applauds this principled approach, but we feel it must go much farther. If the Platform for Action is to win the worldwide support it requires for successful implementation, the principle on which it is founded, the equality of men and women, needs to be understood as an essential aspect of an even broader principle: the oneness of humanity. Properly understood in the context of the oneness of humanity, equality of the sexes must be embraced not only as a requirement of justice but as a prerequisite for peace and prosperity. Nothing short of a compelling vision of peace, and commitment to the values on which it must be based, will have the power to motivate the revolutionary changes in individual behavior, organizational structures, and interpersonal dynamics called for by the Platform for Action.

Traditionally, religion has been one of the most powerful sources of both vision and values. Every religion, particularly in its early stages, has evoked a new vision for society, articulated values consonant with that vision, and inspired both personal and institutional transformation. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that religion has also been a source of division and social fragmentation. Indeed, the record of religions in promoting the advancement of women has been uneven. While, typically, in the early years of their existence, religions have tended to encourage the participation of women, historical evidence suggests a gradual tendency among religious institutions over time to establish practices and support attitudes that impede the development of women's potential.

Because religion is such a potentially powerful force for progress, religious leaders and people of faith everywhere are urged to step forward as lovers of humanity to promote those eternal, unifying principles -- or spiritual values -- that can inspire in both individuals and governments the will to implement the Agenda for Equality.

Foremost is the principle of the oneness of humankind. It lies at the heart of the exhortation that we should treat others as we ourselves would wish to be treated, an ethical standard upheld in some form by every religion. To establish justice, peace and order in an interdependent world, this principle must guide all interactions, including those between men and women. If the treatment of women were scrutinized in the light of this ethical standard, we would doubtless move beyond many traditional, religious and cultural practices.

The personal transformation required for true equality will undoubtedly be difficult for men and women alike. Both must relinquish all attachment to guilt and blame and courageously assume responsibility for their own part in transforming the societies in which they live. Men must use their influence, particularly in the civil, political and religious institutions they control, to promote the systematic inclusion of women, not out of condescension or presumed self-sacrifice but out of the belief that the contributions of women are required for society to progress. Women, for their part, must become educated and step forward into all arenas of human activity, contributing their particular qualities, skills and experience to the social, economic and political equation. Women and men together will ensure the establishment of world peace and sustainable development of the planet.

Religious leaders and people of faith everywhere have a special responsibility to reaffirm those eternal spiritual principles that unite and bind together the hearts and release the capacities of every soul. Galvanized by the spirit and vision of the oneness of the human family, women and men together can, in the spirit of the Agenda for Equality, create a peaceful, just and prosperous world in which to nurture the generations to come.

BIC Document #95-0913
UN Document #NGO/98