In 1848, in the early days of the Bábi movement that led to the Bahá’í Faith, a 3-week conference was held in Badasht, Iran. It was attended by about 80 men and one woman, a courageous poet named Tahirih. In the course of that conference, to symbolically reinforce the new teaching of the equality of men and women, Tahirih removed her veil before the assemblage of men. The intense consternation and violent emotion this caused reverberated far beyond that time and place.
Although her unveiling was condemned by many, the youthful leader of the movement sweeping the country supported Tahirih in this action. The Báb’s followers would have to reconcile themselves with the new social teachings, disruptive or not. His successor, Bahá’u’lláh, who would found the Bahá’í Faith, was present at the conference and also supported Tahirih. In spite of the storm of chaos stirred up at Badasht, Bahá’u’lláh gave her the name The Pure One.
Exactly one hundred years later, in 1948, another conference stirred the conscience of the world. The then 58 sovereign states that made up the United Nations had gathered in Paris. The moving words that opened the newly penned Universal Declaration of Human Rights were a call for equality that would be adopted as an international agreement:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
Tahirih would no doubt have applauded the significance of that agreement. During the century that followed Badasht, humanity made huge strides in recognizing equality in gender, race and religion. Although progress has been uneven and much remains to be accomplished, it’s important to recognize that here and there across the globe, in fits and starts, we leap forward.
It’s also important to recognize that Tahirih’s act was not ultimately about wearing or not wearing a veil. It was symbolic of equality and the empowerment of women to make such choices. Whether in dress or action or opinion, promoting and safeguarding human rights will necessarily result in a range of self-expression. Human rights allow the freedom of choice to create diversity, and acceptance of diversity allows for a peaceful meritocracy of ideas and best practices.
What would Tahirih’s reaction be to modern ideas and practices, if she were alive now? No doubt she would be dismayed at the gross infringement of basic women’s rights that continues around the world. But perhaps she would be equally disturbed by the narrow view of emancipation produced by a materialistic lens.
Her fight would continue to be, I believe, for the recognition of all humanity as intrinsically spiritual beings, regardless of age or gender. This necessarily entails putting into perspective any superficial differences, which lie far beneath the enormously more important and non-negotiable values of human dignity and kindness.
Tahirih’s ideals were those of the Revelation of the Báb. “God desireth not to see… any soul deprived of joy and radiance,” the Báb proclaimed.Reminiscent of the well-known verse in the Quran, “There is no compulsion in religion,” he wrote that “the path to guidance is one of love and compassion, not of force and coercion. This hath been God’s method in the past, and shall continue to be in the future!”
A poem of Tahirih, translated from Farsi, echoes this sentiment:
“Let warring ways be banished from the world.
Let Justice everywhere its carpet throw.
May friendship ancient hatred reconcile.
May love grow from the seed of love we sow!”
Sheila Flood is a member of the Bahá’í community of Saanich and Chair of the Victoria Multifaith Society.
You can read more articles on our interfaith blog, Spiritually Speaking, HERE