Welcoming Communities: Women!
We all want to be a part of friendly and encouraging communities, but it’s important to stop and check ourselves. How well are we doing? What could we do better? And how do we bridge the gaps between what we know and believe and how we act?
But first, a quote from ‘Abdu’l-Baha:
“Know thou, O handmaid, that in the sight of Baha, women are accounted the same as men, and God hath created all humankind in His own image, and after His own likeness. That is, men and women alike are the revealers of His names and attributes, and from the spiritual viewpoint there is no difference between them.” –A Compilation on Women
In my conversations with folks about the equality of women and men, I sometimes hear the refrain “equality doesn’t mean sameness.” I bet that phrase means different things for different folks, but it’s clear enough that each individual has their own unique talents and natural abilities—and sometimes those gifts might appear gendered. It’s also clear from the Baha’i writings that when we value the unity of the group, we must also value difference, not erase it. Science and sociology are still teaching us a lot about gender, so stay tuned. But in the meantime, I like to keep in mind that while equality might not mean sameness—it always entails respect!
Even with the best intentions, we can all do more to examine our assumptions, attitudes, and actions. Here’s a checklist I’ve put together that might be helpful. Keep in mind, I’m a white, American, married woman living in New York, so I come along with my own baggage, just like everyone else! Use this list like you’d use any other Internet resource—as a jumping-off point to do your own exploring.
1. Do you have a lot of girls in your community? And are “girls” any females between the ages of, say, 1 and 47 years old? Wait a minute—hold up! It’s wonderful to have girls in the community but it’s also ok for them to grow up! Girls are awesome—hey, I used to be one—but, now I’m a woman and it’s OK for folks to acknowledge that—really, I won’t be offended. After all, I’ve surpassed the age of maturity, I’m no longer a minor by US law, and I’m old enough to vote in Baha’i elections and serve on a local spiritual assembly.
Linguistics matter. Women are all different (but you knew that!); some women may find the term “girl” a little offensive, some might not mind, and some might use the term to describe themselves and their female friends. But it’s important to consider that the words we use connote respect, or a lack of it. If you find yourself calling the woman who teaches children’s classes each Sunday “a girl”—and referring to the man who works with junior youth each Thursday as “a man,”—you might need to ask yourself why that is—and whether or not referring to two adults by inconsistent terms is compatible with your true intentions. No matter your best intentions, using the word “girl” to describe an adult woman can be considered less than respectful and infanticizing. Your words may convey that you see her as less mature or valuable than her male peer. So examine your words and see if how you refer to folks mirrors the respect you truly feel for them.
2. Letter for John Doe and Family! I imagine this is increasingly less common in a post-Emily Post world, but it bears inclusion. If your community newsletters or official mail is addressed to married folks as Mr. and Mrs. John Doe, you might want to consider buying a new edition of your etiquette book. Similarly, John Doe and Family might raise eyebrows among partners—unless Family is a hot new first name.
Not long after my husband and I married, I began receiving correspondence for Michael Castelaz & Family. Now, we didn’t really have what most people would call a “family”—no kids, one cat, a couple houseplants, you know. Nevertheless, there it was in big, bold ink. “& Family.” Apparently, by marrying a man I’d been relegated to life as an ampersand—and let me tell you, I wasn’t thrilled.
In an era when men may or may not be the sole breadwinner and head of household, and women may or may not like to have their name included on mail, it might be best to rethink outdated envelope etiquette. And, if not, there’s always email! Which brings us to…
3. Email. If you’d like to get a message to a married woman, feel free to contact her directly through email… instead of directly through her husband’s email—and to be fair, this is just as applicable when contacting men. If you’d like to invite Jane Doe to tutor a class or invite her to sing at the Holy Day observance, go ahead and ask… her… directly. If you’re closer friends with Husband Doe, it might seem easier to ask him if she can participate—but you might hit a couple snags. First, your message might not make it’s intended destination. Oops—marriage is hard and spouses aren’t always the best carrier pigeons. Second, if you already have her email address, she might wonder why you didn’t just touch base directly and save all the trouble. And she might take it personally. While we don’t really have any control over how people perceive what we do, it’s always nice to show people respect by speaking to them face-to-face, or email-to-email, as it were.
4. Books—for women. With the wide variety of reading material available today, it’s always enjoyable to stop by a Baha’i book store. And a well-organized book store is very important to quickly find prayers and authoritative texts, children’s books, histories, study materials, and—wait, women? If your book store has a women section, ask yourself what purpose it’s serving. If it’s a collection of books about Tahirih, Bahiyyih Khanum, and other historical women, could those books just as easily be shelved with the other biographies? If your book store has a women section with texts examining the equality of men and women, are they just as suited alongside books that deal with racial unity, the harmony of science and religion, and other core Baha’i principles?
The idea isn’t to make books harder for folks to find—on the contrary! But as a reader and a writer, my main question when arranging a book store is: Who do you want to read this? If I’m a man, I might not spend a lot of time in the women’s book section. And if the books in that section serve to educate or entertain men and women, both, that’s a loss. Gender equality and the Faith affects men as well as women, and the lives of historical Baha’i women can teach us as much as the lives of historical Baha’i men. If everyone’s already flocking to your women’s book shelf, then who am I to knock it—but if you’ve never seen a man walk out with a copy of Prophet’s Daughter, it might be time to start asking why.