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Transcript of the talk given at the 5th annual Margaret Stevenson Memorial Dinner and Lecture, July 17 2004.
Miller-Muro is the Executive Director of the Tahirih Justice Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting women from human rights abuses through the provision of legal aid and social services. See bio and photo at Transcript checked and approved for posting by author. Distributed by Bev Watson, Executive Officer, Bahá'í Office of External Affairs.

Justice and Equality – a basis for change in our troubled world

by Layli Miller-Muro

We live at an historic time in human history. Some of you may be sensing this as you read the newspapers, as you watch television. We live in an historic time that requires us to make historic moral choices – about who we want to be and where we want to go. I’m here this evening to ask us to reflect. To ask us to pause, and to ask us to look at who we are and who we want to be. Because it is now that we are faced with critical choices that will determine for the rest of history who we are, particularly who we are relative to how we treat people, and especially those who don’t look like us. The United States is facing some of these questions in the wake of September 11 that are especially dramatic. And I know that New Zealand – and the rest of the world – is having to make decisions about how it treats people who come to its shores seeking justice, and how it treats people within its own borders.

As I look into the eyes of the Tahirih Justice Centre’s clients - the non-profit organisation I work with, where we provide free legal services to women and girls who are fleeing human rights abuses – I see the experiences of women who have fought amazing circumstances, who have overcome huge obstacles, and who have mustered up tremendous courage to make their way to foreign shores in order to seek protection. These are the conditions that many people are living in today and many people are fighting for justice in different ways. The world is in turmoil and its agitation is increasing every day. We are witnesses of historic events that are changing the fabric and the institutions of our society.

We have a tremendous opportunity before us. We can use recent events to promote compassion, justice and global concord or we can use recent events to promote fear, suspicion and separation. We have choices to make but we must be careful. We could make the wrong choices. We could fail to take advantage of the opportunities for progressive change which exist around us.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that one of the great liabilities of human history is that people have too often failed to remain awake through great periods of social change. We must be alert. Nothing would be more tragic than to live in these revolutionary times and to fail to achieve the new attitudes and approaches that a new reality demands.

You see, I believe that humanity is an ever-advancing civilisation and as a result we go through periods and stages of growth and evolution. If you look at human history, for example, you can see that we have gone through the stage of infancy, or complete dependence. We’ve also gone through the stage of childhood and we are currently in a stage of adolescence.

If you look around the world today, and if you think about the qualities of adolescence, I think that you can see how some of those qualities are reflected in the world today.

For example, adolescents are often striving for their identity, for a sense of independence. You hear a lot of "I can do it on my own," "I can do it myself." This is one of the qualities of adolescence. It’s not a bad quality. It’s a good quality that can lead to helpful things, but it is one of the qualities of adolescence. If you look at the world today you can see this quality being reflected. People, particularly over the past 50 years or so, have been striving in aggressive ways to maintain their identity, to establish their independence. You also hear things, particularly from countries like my own, that "we can do it alone," "we can do it ourselves," and these are qualities of adolescence.

Another quality of adolescence is a sense of invincibility or indestructibility - not quite realising, maybe, our own limitations. Again, these are qualities that may be used for good - many heroic acts have been done because of this sense of invincibility - but it can also be a liability. You can see in the world today that many countries – again, I think mine is a good example – are seeing themselves as invincible or indestructible and not fully appreciating their own limitations and the need to work with others in order to fully realise their own capacity and potential. Again, this is a quality of adolescence.

Another quality of adolescence is that an adolescent will have the physical capacities of an adult. You know, an adolescent has the physical ability to give birth. An adolescent also has the ability to take a life. An adolescent has the physical abilities but may lack, as of yet, the emotional, intellectual or spiritual maturity to use those physical capacities to their fullest. If you look around the world, you can see how humanity reflects those qualities. Humanity has tremendous physical, material capacity. We could, if we wanted to, feed the entire planet. We could, if we wanted to, annihilate the entire planet. We have tremendous material capacities. But we lack, as of yet, the emotional, the spiritual, the intellectual maturity to go along with those material capacities – to use them to their fullest.

The Bahá’í Writings state that the
long ages of infancy and childhood, through which the human race has had to pass, have receded into the background. Humanity is now experiencing the commotions invariably associated with the most turbulent stage of its evolution, the stage of adolescence, when the impetuosity of youth and its vehemence reach their climax, and must gradually be superseded by the calmness, the wisdom, and the maturity that characterise the stage of adulthood.
We are in this stage currently and there are certain lessons we have to learn, like any good adolescent, in order to mature eventually to the stage of adulthood.

One of the lessons we have to learn is the importance of justice. Without achieving justice we will not be able to enter into adulthood and fully reach our capacity. I had hoped, after September 11th, that we in the United States would learn that where there is injustice, then that means the entire world is at risk. You know Afghanistan was a place of tremendous injustice for many, many years, when half of its population was subjugated and suffered under a system of gender apartheid. It was my hope that we would learn from what had happened and know that, where there is an unjust society, odds are very good that that injustice will become infectious, contagious and afflict all of us in the world. We are not immune from things that happen across the planet – those things are all affecting us at home.

Now, I know that all of you in the room are very well educated people and so you are probably quite familiar with the status of the world, with regard to justice, but I do want to just share with you a few statistics.
  • About 1.6 million people die violently each year around the world, accounting for about 3% of all deaths. This is based on a World Health Organisation study released last year and it is a very, very interesting study. Most of the victims are men, half of them are suicides. That’s very interesting. More people die of suicide than war. 90% of those who die violent deaths live in poor countries.
  • 1.2 billion people in the world live on less than $1 per day. 2.8 billion live on less than $2 per day.
  • 1.1 billion people do not have access to safe water and 150 million children suffer from malnutrition.
  • Human trafficking - the sale of people - is the second most profitable illicit trade in the world, second only to narcotics. And it is slowly encroaching on narcotics, soon promising to be the largest illicit trade in the world.
  • In the US, 1% of the population controls 38% of all of its wealth, while the bottom 80% of the population controls only 17% of its wealth.
So, we live in a world where injustice is rampant, and that can be depressing. We can sit here and we can talk about how bad things are, all become very depressed, and then have our dessert and go home, but what I think is really much more interesting is to talk about what we can do about it.

Margaret Stevenson led the way in recognising the Bahá’í Faith and in bringing it to New Zealand, for the purpose of transforming humanity so that it could realise justice. Fundamental to the core concepts within the Bahá’í Faith is the concept of justice and its need to be established if humanity is to evolve and progress. So, I want to share with you a little about what the Bahá’í Writings have to say about justice and about how we can achieve it.

Before I do that, though, I want to offer a disclaimer. Those of you who are familiar with the Bahá’í Faith know that we do not have clergy, so what I will share with you right now is simply my humble interpretation of the Bahá’í Faith. In fact, maybe during the questions and answers, if other Bahá’ís have other views I would invite them.

But my understanding of the Bahá’í Writings is that in order to achieve justice we have to engage in a two-pronged process. We have to engage in a process that on the one hand involves societal transformation - a transformation of its institutions and of its laws. The second part of that process however, is the transformation of our hearts. It involves the transformation of our spirits, our beliefs, our values and our behaviours. Both of these things have to happen at once – one with out the other is ineffectual. I’m a lawyer, so obviously I like the laws and my job is to help promote them, but they have tremendous limitations.

Just to give you one example: in the US we had something in the 1960s called the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement was very successful in transforming the laws and the institutions within our society. If you didn’t know, or if you haven’t noticed, however, the United States has not eliminated racism, nor has it gotten rid of prejudice. So while we might have been good about putting rights into our legal documents; about putting laws into place that helped to eliminate racism, we were not good at transforming our hearts. Both of these things have to happen at once in order for us to have real justice.

But this process is not easy and so how do we go about achieving both social change and personal transformation in order to achieve justice?

Well, on the one hand we have to implement laws. This is something I work on primarily through the Tahirih Justice Centre where we seek to pass laws and advocate legally on behalf of women who are facing abuse. We do this in order to make sure that laws exist within society that protect them. I’ll just give you one example.

We had a very interesting discussion at our table during dinner about marriage and dating, and the subject of dating over the internet came up and it’s a fine way to meet people. I want to share with you, however, one example of the ways in which any medium within our societies, including internet, can be used for good or can be used for bad.

The Tahirih Justice Centre represents many women who have been abused through "mail order bride" agencies. Now mail order bride agencies are agencies that sometimes use the internet, although not always, and what they do, in the United States in particular, is that they market to men who are looking for subservient women. My favourite one is , which advertises having the most submissive women in the world. They market to men who are frustrated with current family structures, with current societal structures, who wish for an era that has long passed - and who are consciously looking for women who will make sure that dinner is ready on time, who will stay home with the children, and that kind of thing. Now that’s not bad in and of itself. It’s perfectly fine for people to have traditional marriages.

Where the problem lies, is that there are some predatory abusers who use the agencies to find their next victims. Many agencies specifically market that they have subservient women, but some go further and instruct men on how to keep their women subservient. Things like: don’t let them learn English, don’t let them have a job, make sure you know who all their friends are, follow them when they leave the house – all these kinds of things. Now this is a recipe for abuse and a recipe for disaster. And so it happens that there are very violent marriages that come about as a result of this.

The Tahirih Justice Centre for the past four years has been seeing an influx of mail order brides who are married to United States citizen men, and who find themselves in very abusive relationships.

We have brought legal action against an agency that had a "satisfaction guaranteed" policy –if you didn’t like the first one you got the next one for free. Our client was the 4th mail order bride of this particular gentleman who had been convicted of attempted murder.

When our client went to the agency saying that she was being abused, they told her that this was normal - that she was crazy and if she just had dinner ready on time these things wouldn’t happen. They also prescribed for her drugs that kept her in a more docile state.

And so we brought a suit against this agency designed to make an example of them and designed to show that they cannot get away with facilitating an abusive union.

We also have introduced into both the House and the Senate in the US Congress, legislation that would regulate the industry. Our legislation would do things like require the men to reveal their criminal backgrounds to the women before being paired up with them. It would also require US consulates throughout the world to give women information in their native language about their rights if they are faced with domestic violence in the U.S.

We had one client who was told by the agency that it would cost her $300 every time she wanted to dial the police and of course this isn’t true, so we wanted to make sure women had information about their legal rights.

This is just one example and there are many other kinds of issues that we work on at the Tahirih Justice Centre - dealing with the trafficking of women, dealing with female genital mutilation, other cultural practices and the long laundry list of abuses that happen to women throughout the world.

But that is just one very small example of the way in which we can try to pass laws that then promote justice and protect women from violence.

So that’s the legal side of things. But how do we achieve personal transformation? That is the harder question. How we achieve personal transformation is something that isn’t going to result in headlines; it’s not going to result in the passage of a clear law; it’s not going to result in the landmark winning case; it may not even result in clear statistics. This is the kind of change that isn’t pretty; that’s not particularly out there in the public; it’s grey, it’s fuzzy.

How do we know when we achieve personal transformation? It’s something that occurs between a husband and wife in the privacy of the home. These are the things that are really much harder, but these are the things that we have to accomplish in order to effect justice throughout the world.

How do we effect personal transformation? Well, some of the things we are told that can contribute to personal transformation are things like engaging in a process of consultation within the family, within the home and between individuals. This allows for a process of awareness, understanding and communication. We are also told to call ourselves to account each day. If we simply reflect on what we do in a day, what our behaviours are, we would make great strides towards transformation.

I think it’s important to be honest about the role of religion and the role of spirituality in creating transformation within ourselves.

People will do great things and will sacrifice heroically for a higher power, but not necessarily for the promise of a World Bank loan. We see throughout history how people have gone to great lengths; how people have transformed their behaviours and their attitudes in the name of a higher power, in the name of something that is greater than them. Religion is a motivating factor that has tremendous transformative capacity.

When I was in college I had the occasion to be in the Gambia in West Africa. I was there participating in a Bahá’í social and economic development project. When there, I was exposed to a United Nations officer whose job was to try to get people in the Gambia to boil their water. It seems like a simple enough thing. All he had to get them to do was boil their water. He’d been there for 10 years and he couldn’t do it. And he was complaining to me one day as we were driving to some event that he couldn’t get these people to boil their water. He was just complaining and complaining and he was saying "I’ve promised them loans, I’ve explained to them all the health consequences, I’ve told them of all the benefits, in one village we promised them television sets – we’ve done all of these things. Why on earth will they not boil their water?"

Then, I had the occasion to go to a woman’s village who worked for the family that I was staying with. She’d worked for westerners all her life so she knew the intellectual benefits of boiling water, and she always did it for the families that she was working for. I went out to her village to have lunch with her family and I noticed that she didn’t boil water for her own family. And I also knew that she had four children who had died from diseases that would have been prevented if she had simply boiled her water. I also noticed that she washed her hands and her feet five times a day before she prayed. Of course, that is a very hygienic practice. I asked her "why on earth will you not boil your water but you wash your hands and feet?" She looked at me and she said, "because you told me to boil my water, my God told me to wash my hands and my feet".

You know, I think that too often, in the West particularly, we think people are largely - mostly - motivated by material things. And that may be more true in the West. But in most of the world, people are motivated by a higher power, people are motivated by other things. So, if we want to advocate for justice, if we want to advocate for human rights, - then we have to look at peoples’ belief systems; we have to look at their value systems. And we have to call on that higher motivation that many people have that will often call them to do great things and to engage in what is sometimes a painful transformation, and an examination of their attitudes, their assumptions and their beliefs.

In order to engage in this dual process of transforming institutions within our societies as well as transforming our hearts, we have also necessarily to look at elevating the status of women. Now it was mentioned in my introduction, and I’ve shared with you already, the work that I do in elevating the status of women, and that’s just one sub-set of justice. Justice relates to many, many subjects and the status of women is only one of them. But the status of women is a compelling issue that the world must address.

In the Bahá’í Writings we are told that until we achieve the equality of women and men, humanity will be unable to progress and will be unable to evolve to its fullest potential. There is an analogy that I like very much in the Bahá’í Writings, which is that humankind is like a bird. The bird has two wings – one is male, the other is female. And until both wings are equally strong, this bird of humanity will be unable to fly or to soar to its fullest potential.

And so through this analogy you can see – you’ll notice if you’ve ever tried – that you can’t stick the right wing of the bird on the left side; and you can’t stick the left wing of the bird on the rights side. They are unique wings, but they have to be equally strong in order for the bird to fly.

Also through this analogy we can see that the equality of women and men is not just a women’s issue – it’s a men’s and a women’s issue because. We are all attached to the same bird and we are all handicapped by the lack of equality of women and men. So it’s something that we need to care about. We should also care about it because it’s a problem. I want to share with you some statistics that I think are very compelling.
  • Of the worlds 1 billion illiterate adults, two-thirds of them are women.
  • In the United States, one out of every five women have been raped
  • In Peru, 70% of all crimes reported to police are of women being beaten by their husbands
  • In India, one out of every five deaths among women was reported to be a case of "accidental burns"
  • In NZ, only 13% of all law partners are women
  • In Pakistan, a woman’s word is worth one-third of a man’s word in a court of law
  • female genital mutilation is inflicted on at least two million girls each year - that’s 6,000 girls per day, or five girls every minute
  • In Canada, in 1987, 62% of women murdered died at the hands of their spouses
  • and finally, at the current rate of progress, women will reach equality with men in decision-making positions only around the year 2490. That’s according to the United Nations. So we have a long, long way to go.
So we need to care about the equality of women and men because it’s a problem; because people are dying; because grave injustice is occurring; because of the violence.

We should also care about the equality of women and men for purely selfish reasons. There are some amazing statistics that demonstrate that when women and girls are educated; when their status is elevated, the entire community improves.

When I was working at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Centre in Atlanta I had the occasion to hear a speech being given by a man by the name of Dr William Foege. I don’t know if any of you have heard his name: if you’re involved in public health you may know who he is. He’s largely credited with eradicating smallpox and he’s an amazing public health advocate. I heard a presentation he was giving to some United Nations aid workers. I attended thinking he would talk about theories of development. But what he focused on was that if there was one thing that a development worker could do before leaving a country – one thing that would have the most wide-reaching impact – it would be to educate the women and the girls. He had these statistics that showed when women and girls are educated, infant mortality decreases; when women and girls are educated, the agricultural output of the community improves; when women and girls are educated, the educational level of the entire family tends to elevate. When men were educated in a family, that education did not necessarily translate to the next generation, but women are the first educators of their children, and when they are educated, that education then transfers from generation to generation. He shared very compelling statistics about the value of the status of women - particularly with regard to the education of women and girls.

His talk showed that we should care about the equality of women not simply because we know it is wrong, or because we know there are injustices, or that violence is taking place. We should care because if we want to elevate our society, if we want to improve, then we must care about the status of women and through that we will all benefit.

As we work on the achievement of the equality of women and men, and as we work on the achievement of justice, what we’re really enabling is greater trust within our societies. And trust is something I want to talk about just a little bit.

I don’t know if anybody here is familiar with Francis Fukiyama – he’s a political science theorist who has written some very interesting books. But one of the most interesting books I think that he’s written is a book called "Trust". In this book, he examined I think it was about 13 different societies and he ranked them according to whether they were high trust or low trust societies.

The way he defined it was that he looked at their locus of trust. So for example a low trust society would primarily trust only their immediate family. The next level of trust is the extended family, which might look more like a tribal society. The next level of trust extends to the state and then to the nation and then hopefully to the world.

He ranked these societies according to their level of trust and what he found was that there was a direct correlation between the degree of trust in a society and its economic development.

I find this to be very interesting because in the Bahá’í Writings we are told that trustworthiness is the foundation of all human virtues and that progress is enabled through trust. It was very interesting for me to listen to this economic and political theorist prove it. It’s not rocket science if you think about it. If I can trust that you’re going to adhere to a contract, odds are much better that I will enter into a business relationship with you. If I can trust that if something goes wrong in that business relationship, that there is a system of laws and institutions of justice that I can turn to that are impartial and fair, then odds are that I’m going to invest in that country and that society. So it’s no wonder that where there is greater trust, there are more opportunities for economic development.

But I think it’s something that we have to think about not just in pure economic terms but also in spiritual terms. The ability to gain trust is directly dependent upon whether there is justice. People have grave distrust where they have seen grave injustice. So this is something that if we want to remedy we have to look at from a justice perspective.

I’ve given you many thoughts about how we have to achieve justice, and some of the things we need to work on as a society in order to achieve it: achieving the equality of women and men and looking at our level of trust. I hope that you have come away from what I’ve said with an understanding that I believe that our evolution as a society absolutely depends on our ability to achieve these things.

New Zealand in my view has a leg up on achieving justice from much of the world. As we’ve been here for the past two weeks, we’ve been incredibly impressed with New Zealanders as individuals, but also New Zealand as a society. Your example in giving the first women the right to vote; in graduating the first woman from higher education; in having a long legacy of women prime ministers; is incredibly impressive and you provide leadership to the world. So being here gives me great joy because I feel like New Zealand has such amazing capacity to provide - as it has already - future and continued leadership to the world in achieving the equality of women and men and in achieving justice.

I want to share with you a quote from the Bahá’í Writings that I hope will help you feel good about what all of you here in this room are doing – many of you are committed to human rights – and also New Zealand as a whole.
And the honour and distinction of the individual consists in this, that he among all the world’s multitudes should become a source of social good. Is there a larger bounty conceivable than this, that an individual, looking within himself, should find that by the confirming grace of God, he has become the cause of peace and wellbeing, of happiness and advantage to his fellow men? No, by the one true God, there is no greater bliss, no more complete delight.
Now I just want to close with one thought. Many of the issues that I’ve talked about are a little depressing – the abuse of women, the level of injustice that exists in the world – these are very, very depressing things. I acknowledge that, and working in the area that I work in - and the areas that I know many of you work in - can be very depressing and there’s kind of no way around that. We live in a world where we are seeing many things that can upset us very, very easily. But I think that if we understand this larger process that we’re all part of - this larger process of evolution and change - then the injustice that we see, the violence that we see, and those things that we witness that can make us depressed; these can all be put into a context. And can all be put into a context that, on balance, makes us feel that we are in fact evolving, and that we are making progress.

If you all will bear with me for just one moment in order to make this point, I want you to imagine for a minute that you’re not human. Okay, it’s hard, I know, because you are human. But just imagine for a minute that you know nothing about the human body; you don’t know how it works; you don’t know anything about it.

You’re from Mars. And Martians have decided to send you down to earth to study humans. But they haven’t prepared you very well - they haven’t given you any training - so you don’t know anything about the human body. And in their wisdom, the Martians have decided to beam you – because that’s what Martians do – they beam you into the middle of a hospital, into the middle of a maternity ward, into the middle of a labour. Now, you don’t know anything about the human body and so you do not know what you are witnessing. What you witness will confuse you. It may distress you. It may make you think that nothing could possibly be worth this, because what you will see will be pain, you will see anguish, you will see effort, you will see failure, you will see success. You may see blood, and you may see sweat, and you may see tears.

But if you understand the process, then you understand that actually, the more the pain increases, the more effort you see, the more difficulty you bear, the closer you are to the birth of something wonderful. So if you understand the process, then rather than becoming depressed or despondent, you will rejoice. You will find yourself filled with joy because you know that the more intense it becomes, the more frequent it is, the closer you are to the birth of something wonderful.

And so I invite you to all act as midwives to this global process of birth. I do have faith that we are witnessing the birth of something wonderful that will eventually result in our entering adulthood, that will result in justice, and that will result in the equality of women and men.

Thank you so much for being with us tonight.
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