A Discussion with Farida Vahedi, Executive Director of the Department of External Affairs, National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of India

With: Farida Vahedi

March 2, 2011

Background: This discussion preceded the January 2011 consultation on faith and development in South and Central Asia in Dhaka, Bangladesh. A December 15 interview was conducted by telephone between Michael Bodakowski and Farida Vahedi, amplified through email correspondence with Katherine Marshall in March 2011. Ms. Vahedi describes the diverse programs, teachings, and initiatives of the Baha’i community in India and South Asia. She plays leading roles on many fronts; education and women’s equality particularly stand out. She highlights work on the intersection of religion, science, and development, and the significance for the Baha’i community's education programming. Ms. Vahedi is engaged with the government of India on several initiatives, including gender and education. She highlights gender inequalities in India and their complex economic and social causes. The Baha’i community’s interfaith work is a continuing focus, as are efforts to measure the spiritual attributes of development.

Can you briefly introduce the Baha’i community in India? What brought you to India?

India has been associated with the Baha'i Faith right from its inception in 1844. Today, over 2 million Baha'is representing the great diversity of the Indian nation live in every state of India, in over 10,000 localities. The central theme of the Bahá'í Faith is that humanity is one single race and that the day has come for its unification into one global society. The principal challenge facing the peoples of the earth, as perceived by Baha'u'llah (the prophet founder), is to accept their oneness and to assist the processes of unification of the entire human race and to thereby carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.

Towards this end, the Baha'is of India are actively engaged in seeking the betterment of society through the pursuit of processes of individual and social transformation. They are thus engaged, in consort with men, women, children and youth from the larger society, in a collective learning enterprise. The guidance and resources for all these activities are channeled through Baha’i governing councils at the local, regional and national levels. At present, there are seventeen regional and about 600 local councils functioning harmoniously in a spirit of non-adversarial consultation, under the aegis of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of India, which is the apex body looking after the affairs of the Indian Baha'i community. Through these efforts and in collaboration with a number of like-minded organizations, the Baha'is of India are learning to address the grave challenges facing present day society, such as the prevalence of caste and class prejudice, gender inequality, communal disharmony, illiteracy, lack of education, violence, poverty, corruption, and moral degradation. Baha'is of India follow a systematic pattern of human resource development, building capacities of individuals from different age groups and different walks of life to enable them to lead a life of service to society. The schools and other socio-economic development institutions in India that are inspired by the spiritual and social principles of the Baha'i Faith, have been recognized worldwide for their contribution towards the promotion of value based and value integrated universal education, the enhancement of the status of women and the initiation of community development projects.

In November 2000, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of India. in collaboration with the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity, organized a colloquium on science, religion and development which looks at the complementary role of science and religion in sustaining development. The Bahá'ís of India are thus engaged in collaboration with other civil society organizations, government agencies and academic institutions in promotion of public discourses such as the one on equality of women and men and on exploring a conceptual framework for transforming structures and processes that lead to effective governance.

My parents moved from Iran to India in 1975 and I have made India my home. It was their deep commitment to this process of empowerment of people, to initiate and sustain the dual process of individual and social transformation that brought them to India, where the need for socio economic development has always been so great. I am married and have two sons who study and work in the United States of America.

What brought you to the work you do today?

Though my first degree was a bachelor of science in chemistry and biology, I was attracted to the field of education from the start and pursued a B.A., and then an M.A. in education. I then worked for eight years in a rural school, with my husband, focusing on topics that included language instruction, vocational education, and values based education. We lived in that rural village for about six years. Then we moved to Delhi.

In Delhi, I worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for a few months. Because I am originally from Iran, I was able to help with language interpretation for Iranian refugees who were migrating to India. Meanwhile I was appointed by the Bahá'í agency in Asia to serve in an honorary capacity as a consultant for socio economic development programs in two Indian States. The National Assembly of Baha’i then asked me to join the national Baha’i office, and to work in the Bahá'í Office for the Advancement of Women. I was delighted to have this offer, and I joined the organization as a Director in 1996. This began my journey into the field of development. Since my appointment, and because of my keen interest in equality for men and women as a major tenet of the Baha’i faith, I have been invited to speak at women’s meetings and colleges and hostels all over India.

Being on the board of directors of a Bahá'í-inspired NGO in India called Foundation for Advancement of Science (FAS), I got to learn about FUNDAEC, a Bahá'í-inspired organization in Colombia. FUNDAEC is the acronym in Spanish for “The Foundation for the Application and Teaching of the Sciences.” It is a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization that has dedicated over 30 years to fostering processes of learning, training, and development in the rural areas of Colombia and an increasing number of countries in Latin America. I enrolled for a specialization course on Education for Development which was being offered by FUNDAEC. We completed four different modules, namely: Constructing a Conceptual Framework for Social Action, Science, religion and development, Evolution of Development Thought, and Educational Concepts.

Early in 1999, I was asked by the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity to coordinate the work of the secretariat for organizing a colloquium on science, religion and development in New Delhi in November 2000. From that time on, I became increasingly involved in working on issues of global prosperity and the interface of science and religion as two systems of knowledge and practice in that process. At the colloquium which had the active involvement of more than 150 development organizations in India, a number of speakers addressed the theme of science and religion in development and key among them were the presentations by Katherine Marshall from the World Bank, Prof. M. S. Swaminathan and Dr. Haleh Arbab, the rector of FUNDAEC. These presentations further reinforced my commitment to exploring the issue further and for promoting the discourse on science, religion and development in India and other parts of South Asia.

Meanwhile, the International Development Research Centre (Canada) had commissioned research on the theme of science, religion, and development, from the different perspectives of different faith communities. The research group involved in this project produced a book called The Lab, the Temple and the Market.

The focus of my work up to that point had been on the UN, government bodies, and NGOs in India that were working on the general theme of gender equality. However, in 1999 my focus became more inclusive in terms of the broader development discourse and also included academics. The broader focus gave the Baha’i community of India further opportunities to expand their interest in development projects and to further our involvement in the emerging discourse of science, religion, and development.

Can you elaborate on the work of the Baha’i community for India’s development?

India’s Baha’i community has been involved in development work for many years. We have organized and operated a number of educational institutions that promote value-based education; we also have an institute for rural women called BARLI Development Institute for Rural Women at Indore, Madhya Pradesh. There are a number of educational institutions that are inspired by the principles of the Bahá'í Faith and operated by individual Bahá'ís. The principles of equality of women and men and of universal education in spiritual values are increasingly applied in all community activities, socio economic programs and the learning generated is thus shared with development organizations and agencies in seminars, colloquia, etc. We have been trying to systematize the knowledge generated through the application of religious and spiritual principles in development work, from the grassroots level, all the way to the top and to share that learning from our experience, with others in the development community. Thus the Bahá'í community in India contributes to the discourse on development from both the aspects of principle and practice.

Over the years, we have had the opportunity to work with various communities, such as the rural, urban and tribal groups all over India, and we have interacted very closely with the people from these communities. In 1996, the Baha’i community in India became very involved with grassroots human resource development and started engaging in community capacity building. Drawing on the principles of the Baha’i religion and the methodology of science and education, we were able to initiate and sustain various activities for long-term social transformation. This was a very rich learning experience for us and as a result of this process, we were able to see the power and significance of empowering people through spiritual principles. We realized that to empower people, in addition to the necessary knowledge, you also need to bring spiritual insight to bring about long-term change. I saw the effects of spiritual integration as a necessary part of addressing issues of education, gender inequality, and caste discrimination, all of which are tearing this country apart. The challenge is great and there is a lot to be done yet, but the system is in place and that is very important.

Since 1996, we have managed to gather 14 years of experience in the area of grassroots engagement and education. We have students who come to us for spiritual education classes. They go through a very systematic spiritual youth empowerment training program and then participate in the institute courses for youth and adults. One of the direct results of the education we provided is that these youths have become engaged in acts of service in their own communities. They thus become deeply involved in development work, both spiritual and material. Today, some of them are running rural schools of their own. They are part of a growing network that is building relationships with people around them, awakening everyone to the sense of responsibility that everyone needs to shoulder in order to ensure that the rights of the most underprivileged and deprived are met. This is a grassroots movement that is becoming professional and scientific in its methodology and approach. They help to see that rural schools are well run. In some places community schools are also established.

Today I work as the executive director of the Department of External Affairs of the Baha’i community and work with government agencies, UN agencies, NGOs, the interfaith community, and religious leadership, academic institutions to discuss the issues of long term sustainable development in India. We are working to expand the discourse on science, religion, and development and we work to promote the equality of men and women, as well as the discourse on good governance and in the long run to influence programs and policies. Our activities in the area of public information also take us to some of our grassroots learning centers where we talk with the villagers and try to capture the changes that have taken place, in print and on video, as a result of the capacity building efforts of the village Bahá'ís themselves.

When I think about the entire process, it has been a rich learning experience, but we also know that challenges are many and we are truly in a learning mode trying to find out what would work the best and hence we look at our experience with an attitude of humility. As you know, change needs to be sustained and nurtured, and we need to be in a learning mode to ensure its continuity. There are always many changes and adjustments in the development process, and I believe that development is in a cycle of knowledge acquisition, consultation, reflection, progress, and change.

What networks do you belong to or do you know of and how are these helpful?

We belong to the network of individuals and organizations that are looking at the complementary role of science and religion in development thought and practice. This is a network that was principally created through the efforts of the secretariat for the Colloquium on science, religion and development and has been further expanding. We are also part of the network on child and women rights in India. We have been working with an online network called Solution exchange in India. We are also a member of the various interfaith forums in India that have a thematic development focus or on purely building better interfaith relations.

As part of the ongoing discourse on science, religion and development, the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity undertook a joint research project with Seva Mandir in Udaipur, Rajasthan. This was the outcome of the fact that the founder of this organization has been associated with the discourse right from 1999. The focus of the project was on applying spiritual principles and scientific method to development practice. The Institute has published the insights it has gained into the nature of development work that is cognizant of both the spiritual and material dimensions of reality on its website (www.globalprosperity.org). The report of this joint research project with Seva Mandir is titled, May Knowledge Grow in Our Hearts. The Department of External Affairs will be soon launching this book and inviting the members of its burgeoning network to understand in a more practical sense the implications of the harmonious interaction of these two systems of knowledge and practice in development of the grassroots. In pursuing the discourses on equality of women and men, we have in collaboration with Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity engaged the online development network “Solution Exchange” in reconceptualising the approach to the equality of the sexes and looking at its spiritual dimension. This generated a good discussion and subsequently resulted in the hosting of a seminar in March 2010. The paper developed on this theme by the Institute has been studied with a number of organizations such as Participatory Research Institute in Asia (PRIA), Centre for Social Research (CSR), Church Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA), Guild of Service, an NGO headed by Dr. Mohini Giri who was serving for many years as the Chairman of the National Commission for Women. Work for an action research project was also initiated with the Action for Food Protection (AFPRO), and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. A good deal of learning has been generated. We also work with the YWCA and YMCA. We are a founding member of the India Alliance on Child Rights and a member of the Global Network of Religions for Children. In the area of HIV/AIDS, we have been involved in an interfaith coalition called the India Interfaith Coalition on HIV and AIDS for the removal of stigma and discrimination. We are also part of the All India Conference of Religions for Peace.

Six months ago, I was appointed by the Ministry of Home Affairs to be a member the governing council of the National Foundation for Communal Harmony. This is a five year appointment. There is also a voluntary action network in India, VANI, which is working on a number of issues in the country and has a membership of close to 400 voluntary organizations in India. VANI is regularly invited by the Planning Commission of India for consultations on policy issues related to development work. I serve on its working committee. We have also worked with many Human Rights organizations. I am also involved in an interfaith coalition in India called the Global Foundation for Civilization Harmony (GFCH) with a number of faith organizations in membership through the Department of External Affairs.

What specific aspects of your faith motivate you to do the development work you do?

Absolutely every aspect of my Faith motivates me to engage in development work. My Faith teaches me that the purpose of religion and life is to initiate and sustain the process of individual and social transformation. It is such an integral part of my reality; my identity as a human being is infused with this idea. Every Baha’i today opens his or her home to friends and neighbors and engages in different kinds of activity to establish the bonds of love, unity and harmony. We have devotional meetings, we read prayers from different holy books, and we also have particular group studies where we go through carefully designed materials that draw on the spiritual insights of the Bahá'í Faith and use the principles of pedagogy of education to empower its participants to understand their inner reality, the purpose of life, the deepest roots of motivation, and realize that spirituality is to be rooted in action and in service to society and hence imbue the individual with the spiritual insight, knowledge and skills that are crucial for embarking on a life of service for the betterment of society. We try to understand what these holy books are saying and we try to discover the true meaning of God’s words. This means we go beyond the mere reading of the words in order to understand the applicability of the quotations. I think that in terms of real life application, this is the kind of motivation people need to bring about long term change in their communities and in society. Individual transformation is the key element to bring about social transformation in our communities; I do not think you can have one without the other.

How do you pass on your faith directly?

I speak about my Faith and its mission of creating a new race of men openly to everybody. The medium can be through face to face discussion, or through emails, or through articles, blogs, websites, etc. I also engage in hosting a devotional gathering in my home, organizing a group study on the books that aim at empowering individuals to transform themselves and society. I open my home for classes on spiritual education of children in the neighborhood . These children are from different backgrounds but they learn prayers, songs, and play cooperative games together. They get a chance to express their creativity in the form of art and dance. We also learn moral lessons through narratives and stories which I think are extremely beneficial to students.

We have a junior youth group for those aged 12 through 15 that is far more structured and systematic. We have level one, two, and three courses for each age till they reach the age of 15 and then they can continue their studies at our institute if they desire.

What do you see as the greatest development challenges facing India today? What are the faith dimensions of some of these issues, and how generally are faith-inspired actors responding?

There are many challenges. Perhaps the most serious are the extremes in wealth and poverty. There are roughly 400 million people living in absolute poverty, and the divide continues to deepen. The inequality between men and women is burgeoning, there are an extraordinary number of missing girls and cases of child labor, Corruption is one of the biggest challenges in India. Lack of access and equity in education as well as quality education are important. Caste discrimination is tearing this country apart. There are politically motivated people that purposely misuse religion for political gains and create communal riots throughout the country. Social disharmony is a major problem facing India.

The state of governance in India is very poor. Plans and policies are made, that is certain, and they are always very well articulated, but they are rarely well executed. There are problems with the budget; there are problems with the application of programs. However, when it comes down to it, the money and programs are not actually reaching people in need. I think that most of these programs and policies fail because of corruption and poor governance. I am not aware of any faith leaders who are addressing the issue of corruption in an effective and sustained manner; however I know that there are programs that focus on the importance of good governance for long-term sustainable development.

Can you speak more about the missing girls?

India has the problem of female infanticide and female foeticide. In spite of an act that was passed by the government that prohibits selective abortions and prohibits parents from discovering the sex of the fetus, this practice remains pervasive. The practice is so wide spread that in some of the most affluent states of India, such as Haryana and Punjab, there are 827 girls born for every 1000 boys. This is very abnormal since the usual ratio is that there are many more girls than boys. In these two states the ratio has changed drastically as families wanted boys rather than girls and now they are facing a number of other social problems.

Of course the issue of dowry is related to this. The girl’s family has to spend so much money in order for the daughter to find a good husband from a good family. There is also the continuous harassment of the daughter-in-law in so many families, which is a large source of domestic violence also related to dowry issues. But these issues are not just related to marriage but to the whole life cycle of a girl child. The girl’s family has to spend so much money on the daughter that she is made to feel like a social evil in the society, unwanted by family and others. Many parents do not want a girl child because they feel that she is a financial drain on the family and that she will not be able to support them and help them financially. Many families do not consider the girl child to be a resource for their family but they consider her to be a form of capital or financial resource for another family. They think they have to spend money on the girl child to give her to another family, so they do not invest in higher education for the girl and they do not take care of her health. Most of these issues are mentioned in the UNICEF reports on the preference of sons in this culture and they have statistics on the ratio of missing girls.

In the Baha’i community, through grassroots programs and through our understanding of the purpose of life and motivation, we have been able to address issues of gender discrimination in significant ways. In the Baha’i community, gender inequality is always relevant to our work and so we press the issue of son preference in rural families more and more frequently. In Hyderabad and in Northern India, women are controlled by their husbands and have no freedom. Often they only step out of the house when they are married and even that is looked down upon and they have to be fully covered and so forth. Through our own methods of teaching and our courses, we address issues of inequality. We discuss how the girl child is undervalued and that there is no difference between boys and girls.

I think that gender inequality has become a central component of the development agenda. I have seen this with Action for Food Production (AFPRO), with Church Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA), with Participatory Research Institute of Asia (PRIA), with Centre for Social Research (CSR), Seva Mandir, and of course with the Baha’i community; for all these organizations gender is an integral part of the development agenda.

What about the financial issues involved with gender inequality?

The country has taken steps towards a structural response to some of the financial issues related to the gender inequality and dowry issues. The legal framework in the country has passed the domestic violence act, and sex determination and dowry, either giving or taking, is illegal. But one thing that faith-inspired organizations have reiterated is that while structural and legal reforms are vital, they are not sufficient. These reforms in the legal framework will help in some cases only. We need to address the issues that are so deeply ingrained in the culture to solve the preconceptions, misconceptions, and mindsets which are now a way of life. We have to be able to understand the personal motivations of human beings in order to understand how they look at life and their value system before we can actually hope to bring about any type of long lasting reform agenda. This realization is growing within the government and among the decision makers which is a good thing.

The government of India wants civil society to implement government schemes and programs, but civil society does not want just to partner with the government at a discussion and implementation level. Civil society, individually and collectively, wants to be on par with the government in setting policies, decision making and program implementation. So this is a bit of a problem but the move is already on. Civil society does not want to be responsible for implementing government programs without the integration of their ideas in the planning and execution. There is a growing trend, for example, within the Planning Commission of India to hold consultations with civil society members. Now the government is heading into the consultation on the twelfth Five Year Plan, and the Planning Commission has held regional consultations in various parts of the country and has also gone online with this agenda.

One effective initiative is an online forum inviting comments from NGOS, development experts, women’s empowerments groups, nutritionists, health workers, and integrated child development specialists; the government uses feedback and comments to help improve its work. The UN in India also has programs on gender equality and HIV/AIDS information and education and their network is very good. We post the results every year and they are always very good.

Have you done work on migration issues?

Migration issues are concentrated in certain states of India. Bihar is a good example. For years the state has struggled with poor governance; there is very little law and order and plenty of insurgency and violence. Because of increased insecurity and insurgency in the area, the state was becoming poorer and much of the younger youth populations were migrating to bigger cities in search of better jobs. People get married at a much younger age in India than in other countries, so the married youth were moving away without their families to find jobs in other cities. These migrant workers ended up living in city slums and the social cohesion of the family was affected; those that migrated with their families faced the challenges of raising families in city slums; this began the urbanization of poverty.

One small experience of the Bahá'í community in the state of Bihar is good to mention. The process of human resource development began in one of the villages in Bihar. This resulted in the multiplication of a number of activities for junior youth and children in the village. The parents were also happy with the programme and the service project that the junior youth were getting involved with. In one of these families there was a financial issue which forced a youth to migrate from there to the state of Gujarat. This youth got in touch with his family after going to Gujarat and said that he wished to come back to the village and would rather work on the farm in the village and help the family and also study further while staying in the village and go to the city for his examination. The other parents in the village now feel that these spiritual empowerment programs which enable the junior youth to build a conceptual framework for social action and to build their own moral structures helps them to make decisions that are truly constructive and would benefit the whole family and village community. As a result they have asked that more youth of the village go through this process of transformation. So, the idea began circulating that the junior youth could continue their education further with the Baha’i.

The whole idea of focusing on both the spiritual and the material or secular education of the junior youth is to enable them to engage in work that will benefit the community.

What conflict or peacebuilding work are the Baha’i involved in?

The Baha’i community is very involved in these issues. In 1992, there was a serious problem caused by the demolition of the mosque in the city of Ayodhya which caused communal riots throughout the country. In response, the Baha’i community issued a statement that highlighted a central theme: “communal harmony—India’s greatest challenge.” In this statement, the whole issue of religious conflict and the importance of harmony and peacebuilding were emphasized in a 6 to 7 page statement written in English. This statement was later translated into most of the official languages of India. We distributed this to Ministers, bureaucrats, district county workers, the superintendent of police, NGOS, and faith communities. In that statement a line was taken from a judgment of the Supreme Court of India which cited the Baha’i faith as a neutral example of working with other religious groups to achieve harmony.

The efforts of the Baha’i community in conflict resolution and peacebuilding have been an ongoing and growing practice. In 2002, the Supreme Governing Council of the Baha’i (The Universal House of Justice) issued a message to the world religious leaders, and which was shared extensively with religious leaders in India. On the whole, the issue of peacebuilding and conflict resolution, whether it is addressed from the perspective of gender roles in peacebuilding or from the larger dimension of building societies that are free from violence, has been an ongoing effort of the Baha’i community throughout India. The community has approached the subject through various methods, including through seminars, workshops, and peaceful marches.

There is an organization called the All India Council of Religions for Peace (AICRP); it is actually an Indian branch of the World Conference of Religions for Peace. The Baha’is were very involved in consultations leading to the formation of the group. In addition, the Baha’i House of Worship, the Lotus Temple in Delhi, has daily prayer services dedicated to engendering harmony and peace between religious communities.

In September 2010, the Baha’i organized a conference on interfaith peace, entitled ‘Peace Conclave on Inclusive Faith,' to discuss the common ground that links all religions. What were the outcomes?

This conference was something that the community did in collaboration with the The Tej Gyan Foundation. The conference was centered on the notion of achieving peace through inclusive faith. We jointly invited the leadership of major faith organizations and faith leaders and tried to discuss the practical dimensions of building peace. All the major religions were present including Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Baha’i, and we had a presentation from the Tej Gyan Foundation. The entire program was well covered by the media. Following the presentations by the various religious representatives, we went to the beautiful marble prayer hall of the Temple and had a lovely multi-faith prayer service. In this particular conference at the Lotus Temple, I made a presentation on behalf of the Baha’i, and we tried to make suggestions to other religious leaders introducing a conceptual framework for interfaith discourse. We tried to write down certain principles as non-negotiables. Unless the interfaith community gets together and removes the prejudices that are sadly promoted in some religious circles peace cannot be achieved. All religions have the same spiritual principles. We see this common effort to reaffirm the principles as the most effective way to alleviate communal disharmony and conflict.

This conference was followed by two programs in Pune and Mumbai; there, together with other interfaith communities, the Baha’i’ participated in programs and seminars. In Kochin in September, there was another program looking at science and religion in development and the intersections of the two knowledge systems in development work. A Baha’i representative was present for this conference, and there was a special session addressing the role of religion in the promotion of Human Rights. We have a special interest in this particular topic because of the systematic persecution of the Baha’i in Iran.

What about regional actors who work across these issues?

We have been instrumental in organizing regional conferences on education and the equal rights of girls and boys. The colloquium we held on science, religion, and development was really regionally focused. Two conferences were done on a regional basis, and we had participation from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Our colloquium on science, religion and development was attended by Grameen Bank. BRAC participated in our South Asia conference on education.

What kinds of issues would you like to see addressed during the consultation? What do you see as the most important gaps in knowledge?

I suggest that we spend time discussing what are the best ways to influence policies. This is an important aspect. We can focus on documenting the learning and experiences that have been generated by faith-inspired organizations as they apply spiritual principles to long term sustainable development work.

I would also like to see a careful discussion about the role of spiritual principles and other elements that are not really “tangible” and cannot be measured in the same ways as other data. For example, there are aspects of our work that bring about unity in communities that are experiencing communal disharmony; it is very difficult to measure “unity.” Policy makers are very keen to have empirical data, but how much research is actually being conducted on these issues? Is there rigorous scientific research and has this research been successful? I am truly interested in looking at the spiritual dimension and not just the ethical and cultural measurement. Perhaps we need to be more specific in our methodology.

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