A gathering held recently by the Bahá’ís of India looked at the need to reconceptualize the institution of the family based on the principle of equality between women and men. Among the attendees of the gathering were organizations concerned with the issue of gender equality, academics, and school teachers.

“The challenges women face within the family have become a most pressing issue during the pandemic in many societies. In some cases, education has come to an end for many girls. There are a lot of child marriages taking place because families see no other path for their daughters during this crisis. At the same time there are many organizations that are trying to reach out and help out,” says Carmel Tripathi of the Indian Bahá’í Office of Public Affairs.

“We felt it was timely,” she continues, “to create a space for various segments of society to explore together the kinds of changes that the family as an institution must undergo.”

This gathering is among numerous other efforts of the Indian Bahá’í community over the past decades to contribute to the discourse in society on gender equality.

Anshu Gupta, a panelist at the gathering and founder of the relief organization Goonj, spoke about the effects of culture and tradition on the family environment, asking: “What is tradition? It is something you keep following. To stop taboos, we have to talk about them … in a common language. So we create dialogue and stop claiming that we have to do certain things because it is tradition.”

Commenting on the significance of the meeting, Ms. Tripathi explains that people often hold back from a deeper exploration of the role of family in contributing to gender equality. “There is a tendency to think of the family as something isolated from society and very private. In reality this should be discussed openly because this is where patterns of thought and behavior that are associated with being a man or women are learned and practiced.”

In a paper prepared for the discussion and distributed to participants at the gathering, the Bahá’í Office of Public Affairs highlighted several themes, including “Sharing the functions of nurturance and care-giving” and “Consultation as the basis for decision-making.”

The paper reads in part: “If decision making in a family is not to be an outcome of arbitrary and dictatorial authority, members of the family will need to learn to communicate with each other with respect and openness drawing on a whole range of qualities such as love, humility, tact, empathy, courtesy and moderation. The capacity to consult in a loving, considerate and yet frank manner in arriving at collective decisions is an art whose value humanity is only beginning to appreciate.”

Murari Jha, a panelist and an educator in Delhi government schools, spoke about the need for greater rigor when analyzing social progress, stating: “We need to be vigilant of misunderstandings. When you look at what was mentioned in the seminar paper about decision making within the family, the real measure of gender-equal practices is who is making the decisions, such as whether and whom to marry. If we are not allowing our daughters, our sisters… to be part of important decisions, then the act of sending them to school is not really the symbol that we are practicing equality.”