Mother’s Name Unknown

marble woman2

“…He Who is the Mother, the Soul, the Secret,

and the Essence…”

~ Baha’u’llah

Lā ʾilāha ʾillā-llāh. There is no God but God.

In Islam, there is one God, Allah, who is said to have ninety-nine names. Each name is an attribute of the divine essence, a facet of ultimate reality.

In the Baha’i Faith, not only is there one God, but God is One: a unity that is constant through all faiths and times. As in Islam, this oneness is revealed through many beautiful and powerful names…

We sit at a long banquet table, in an office in downtown DC. An intense blue sky is just visible through the venetian blinds.

There are three of us, all women, talking about the evolution of women’s presence and equality in Iran.

PastedGraphic-002At the head of the table, historian Baharieh Rouhani-Maani speaks with soft steel. Her short black hair and lithe frame are ageless, giving you the impression of a much younger woman. Yet her words are full of impassioned knowledge, gained over decades of life and research.

When asked how she grew interested in recording history’s forgotten women, Baharieh takes us back to her childhood, when she first noticed the “sub-human” treatment of men toward women. She began questioning, and – remarkably for that time and place – speaking up. Needless to say, she encountered stiff resistance. In those days, “It was not socially acceptable for a young woman [to critique men’s behavior].”

During our conversation I am struck by her fluid blend of revolutionary fire and evolutionary practice. In her words: “Transformation has to be progressive in order to be effective.”

One story in particular makes me catch my inner breath.

Baharieh talks about an encyclopedia project she was part of. She was asked to compile biographies of prominent Iranian Baha’is. She told the editors that she would do this – under one condition: In each entry, the name of the person’s mother must be included.

It was a bold request, for several reasons. First, fathers’ names were the standard way of identifying a lineage (e.g. Farzad Shirazi, son of Muhammad Shirazi…) and were kept with due diligence. But mothers’ names were rarely if ever included in official histories.

Second, Baharieh discovered that not only were mothers’ names excluded from history. They were, in fact, erased. Considered unimportant, they went unrecorded. As she worked her way through the list of prominent individuals, one phrase kept recurring:

Mother’s name unknown.

Returning to her editors, Baharieh insisted on including this phrase in all encyclopedia entries – a quiet memorial to these forgotten women, and an indictment against inequality.

Mother’s name unknown.

Mother’s name unknown.

Mother’s name unknown.

Baharieh’s story reminds me of two of the most paradoxical names of God, the Manifest and the Hidden.

The Manifest aspect is present in the son – the man of action or intellect whose name is remembered, whose life is recorded.

The Hidden aspect is present in the mother, whose name is lost, whose joys, hurts, loves, and subtleties are concealed behind a permanent veil.

A veil.

One cannot speak of Iran without mentioning the veil.

veiled woman

Baharieh tells us of the most revolutionary acts of 19th and early 20th century Iranian women. So often, these acts involve unveiling in some way. The most famous example is that of Tahirih Barghani (d. 1844), a fiercely principled poet and scholar, who shocked Iranian society by publicly unveiling herself before a gathering of noted intellectuals. Her act shattered cultural norms, and Tahirih was later strangled to death – with her own veil.

(Side-note: In the Wikipedia entry on Tahirih, her father’s name is recorded several times. Her mother’s name is not.)

Other groups of women targeted the “collective veil” – a curtain separating the sexes at social gatherings. By pulling  this curtain aside, women included themselves in the sphere of power and visibility.

Revelation has always been considered the domain of male prophets and messengers. But through these stories, we are learning that women – for all their hiddenness – are revealers too. Whether through self or social unveiling, women have initiated literal acts of “Revelation” (from Latin revelare “unveil, uncover, disclose.”)

As these hidden souls step into our line of sight, they bring truths gained through unsung hardships and the silent breaking-open of the heart.

I open a book. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and I’m sitting in a round room, its colors blue-grey and warm brown.

The winter sun is rain-tinged, and words drip soundlessly onto the surface of my mind.

All is at peace. Until my brain crashes into a single line:

“…He Who is the Mother, the Soul, the Secret,

and the Essence…”

This quote is from the Kitab-i-Iqan, or Book of Certitude, a core text of the Baha’i Faith. It is my first time reading this book, and there are many passages to contemplate and come to my own understanding of.

But this phrase knocks me back. In all the Abrahamic religions, we are used to speaking of God in the masculine. He is the Father after all!

So to glimpse a reference to God as Mother – with the added twist of the male pronoun (He) – is stunning.

The words that accompany this phrase are potent too. For “God as Mother” is further deepened into God as Soul, as Secret, and as Essence.

Again, I recall the Hidden and Manifest aspects of the divine. It now occurs to me that these are not, as I thought before, paradoxical and opposed attributes.

As a friend recently remarked, “It seems to me, in human existence, wholeness and brokenness are two faces of the same reality.”

In our lives, wholeness is broken into new wholes. Mirror shards reflect a total unity.

Can the same be said of the hidden-becoming-manifest?

The concealed reveals what can never be seen!

If these paradoxical concepts are in ongoing dialogue, couldn’t the same be said of Mother and Father, male and female?

They are integrities, yes. But what we see as opposites are not only compliments. They are distinct and integrated facets of the selfsame soul.

I close the book.

Yes, God is the Mother whose name is Unknown.

sun woman

“Let the future disclose the hour when the Brides of inner meaning, will, as decreed by the Will of God, hasten forth, unveiled, out of their mystic mansions, and manifest themselves in the ancient realm of being.”

~ Baha’u’llah

Once, I thought I knew

my mother’s many names.

I found her meanings in old books

and from family stories told in the half-dark

around the ample, white-spread bed.

I thought I was taught to know and honor

the women in my life – the elegant matriarchs,

camp survivors and farmers’ wives –

women like my grandmother, Alma,

whose mind flashed like scissors

cutting rose stems in the morning sun,

and who left school at age ten

to pick rocks in the fields.

But now I see I do not know, or even begin

to understand their fragrant inner meaning,

swaddled as I am in their mysterious

half-smiles and wise silences,

born of their hidden sacrifice –

which they would never name sacrifice

but would call instead harvesting the fire

or swallowing the flood.

Oh women of mine – who are forever

disappearing from the book of names –

take heart:

you who wear the sun’s veil

are a secret whose time has come.

(c) Andreana E. Lefton 2015

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