Friday Conversation
8:13 am
Fri April 4, 2014

Former President Jimmy Carter: Religions Have A Role In Abuse And Degradation Of Women

Jimmy Carter is on a mission. The 89-year-old former president has issued a blunt manifesto in book form titled A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power. In today’s Friday Conversation, President Carter talks with KERA’s vice president of news, Rick Holter, about what he calls “the human and civil rights struggle of our time” – how religions have systematically denigrated women, leading to prejudice, infanticide and horrific violence.

The KERA Friday Conversation.

Interview Highlights: Jimmy Carter

… on the abuse of women being the most unaddressed challenge worldwide.

"There were about 40 million people in the world that were killed in the Second World War --  that’s the worst conflict we’ve ever had. And four times that many girls have been strangled by their parents or either aborted when they find out the fetus is going to be female. Also, we have a very serious problem, especially in the United States, of sexual slavery. The State Department reported that last year, over 100,000 girls in the United States were sold into sexual slavery, so these things go on and nobody knows about it and nobody seems to care much."

… on unreported sexual abuse on college campuses.

"It’s very serious for the president of the college or the deans to admit that they have rampant sexual abuse on a campus. So when a girl is raped or when she comes and reports it to the officials, they immediately discourage the girl from making a legal case out of it. ... When I was the governor of Georgia, I had a young woman visit me in the governor’s mansion and she was raped. Even though I was governor, I couldn’t get the prosecuting attorney or the sheriff to prosecute the boy because they said it was almost impossible to find one guilty."

… on where he sees women’s rights improving.

"The finest country in the [Western] hemisphere, according to the World Economic Forum ranking, is Nicaragua. One of the reasons is when Nicaraguans fought their revolution, back in 1979 and 1980, women played an equal role in the military. When they wrote the new laws after the revolution, they prescribed themselves equal treatment. " 

Read an excerpt of A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power:

I saw the ravages of racial prejudice as I grew up in the Deep South, when for a century the U.S. Supreme Court and all other political and social authorities accepted the premise that black people were, in some basic ways, inferior to white people. Even those in the dominant class who disagreed with this presumption remained relatively quiet and enjoyed the benefits of the prevailing system. Carefully selected Holy Scriptures were quoted to justify this discrimination in the name of God.

There is a similar system of discrimination, extending far beyond a small geographical region to the entire globe; it touches every nation, perpetuating and expanding the trafficking in human slaves, body mutilation, and even legitimized murder on a massive scale. This system is based on the presumption that men and boys are superior to women and girls, and it is supported by some male religious leaders who distort the Holy Bible, the Koran, and other sacred texts to perpetuate their claim that females are, in some basic ways, inferior to them, unqualified to serve God on equal terms. Many men disagree but remain quiet in order to enjoy the benefits of their dominant status. This false premise provides a justification for sexual discrimination in almost every realm of secular and religious life. Some men even cite this premise to justify physical punishment of women and girls.

Another factor contributing to the abuse of women and girls is an acceptance of violence, from unwarranted armed combat to excessive and biased punishment for those who violate the law. In too many cases, we use violence as a first rather than a last resort, so that even deadly violence has become commonplace.

My own experiences and the testimony of courageous women from all regions and all major religions have made it clear to me that as a result of these two factors there is a pervasive denial of equal rights to women, more than half of all human beings, and this discrimination results in tangible harm to all of us, male and female.

My wife, Rosalynn, and I have visited about 145 countries, and the nonprofit organization we founded, The Carter Center, has had active projects in more than half of them. We have had opportunities in recent years  to  interact  directly  among  the  people,  often  in  remote  villages in the jungles and deserts. We have learned a  lot  about  their  personal affairs, particularly that financial inequality has been growing more rapidly with each passing decade. This  is  true  both  between  rich  and poor  countries  and  among  citizens  within  them.  In  fact,  the  disparity in net worth and income in  the  United  States  has  greatly  increased since my time in the White House. By 2007 the income of the middle 60 percent  of  Americans  had  increased  at  a  rate  twice  as  high  as  that of the bottom 20 percent. And the rate of increase for the top 1 percent was over  fifteen times  higher, primarily because  of the undue  influence of  wealthy  people  who  invest  in  elections  and  later  buy  greater  benefits for themselves in Washington and in state capitals. As the conservative columnist George Will writes, “Big government inevitably drives an upward distribution of wealth to those whose wealth, confidence and sophistication enable them to manipulate government.”

Yet although economic disparity is a great and growing problem, I have become convinced that the most serious and unaddressed worldwide challenge is the deprivation and abuse of women and girls, largely caused by a false interpretation of carefully selected religious texts and a growing tolerance of violence and warfare, unfortunately following the example set during my lifetime by the United States. In addition to the unconscionable human suffering, almost embarrassing to acknowledge, there is a devastating effect on economic prosperity caused by the loss of contributions of at least half the human beings on earth. This is not just a women’s issue. It is not confined to the poorest countries. It affects us all.

After focusing for a few years on the problem of gender discrimination through our human rights program at The Carter Center, I began to speak out more forcefully about it. Because of this, I was asked to address the Parliament of the World’s Religions, an audience of several thousand assembled in Australia in December 2009, about the vital role of religion in providing a foundation for countering the global scourge of gender abuse. My remarks represented the personal views of a Christian layman, a Bible teacher for more than seventy years, a former political leader.

I reminded the audience that in dealing with each other, we are guided by international agreements as well as our own moral values, most often derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Bible, the Koran, and other cherished texts that proclaim a commitment to justice and mercy, equality of treatment between men and women, and a duty to alleviate suffering. However, some selected scriptures are interpreted, almost exclusively by powerful male leaders within the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and other faiths, to proclaim the lower status of women and girls. This claim that women are inferior before God spreads to the secular world to justify gross and sustained acts of discrimination and violence against them. This includes unpunished rape and other sexual abuse, infanticide of newborn girls and abortion of female fetuses, a worldwide trafficking in women and girls, and so-called honor killings of innocent women who are raped, as well as the less violent but harmful practices of lower pay and fewer promotions for women and greater political advantages for men. I mentioned some notable achievements of women despite these handicaps and described struggles within my own religious faith. I called on believers, whether Protestant, Catholic, Coptic, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or tribal, to study these violations of our basic moral values and to take corrective action.

"No matter what our faith may be, it is impossible to imagine a God who is unjust." -- Zainah Anwar, Founder of Sisters In Islam, Malaysia

In the following pages I will outline how I learned more and more about these issues, as a child, a submarine officer, a farmer, and a church leader during the civil rights struggle, as a governor and a president, as a college professor, and in the global work of The Carter Center. During the nine decades of my life I have become increasingly aware of and concerned about the immense number of and largely ignored gender-based crimes. There are reasons for hope that some of these abuses can be ended when they become better known and understood. I hope that this book will help to expose these violations to a broader audience and marshal a more concerted effort to address this profound problem.

I will explore the links between religion-based assertions of male dominance over women, as well as the ways that our “culture of violence” contributes to the denial of women’s rights. I maintain that male dominance over women is a form of oppression that often leads to violence. We cannot make progress in advancing women’s rights if we do not examine these two underlying factors that contribute to the abuse of women.

In August 2013 I joined civil rights leaders and two other American presidents at the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered there in 1963. As I looked out on the crowd and thought about the book I was writing, my thoughts turned to a different speech that King made, in New York City four years later, about America’s war in Vietnam, in which my oldest son was serving. King asserted, “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.” King went on to ask that we Americans broaden our view to look at human freedom as inextricably linked with our commitment to peace and nonviolence.

Using this same logic, it is not possible to address the rights of women, the human and civil rights struggle of our time, without looking at factors that encourage the acceptance of violence in our society— violence that inevitably affects women disproportionately. The problem is not only militarism in foreign policy but also the resort to lethal violence and excessive deprivation of freedom in our criminal justice system when rehabilitation alternatives could be pursued.  Clearly, short-term political advantages that come with being “tough on criminals” or “tough on terrorism” do not offer solutions to issues like persistent crime, sexual violence, and global terrorism.

I realize that violence is not more prevalent today than in previous periods of human history, but there is a difference. We have seen visionary standards adopted by the global community that espouse peace and human rights, and the globalization of information ensures that the violation of these principles of nonviolence by a powerful and ad- mired democracy tends to resonate throughout the world community. We should have advanced much further in the realization of women’s rights, given these international commitments to peace and the rule of law. Instead many of the gains made in advancing human rights since World War II are placed at risk by reliance on injury to others as a means to solve our problems.

We must not forget that there is always an underlying basis of moral and religious principles involved. In August 2013 Pope Francis stated quite simply that in addition to the idea that violence does not bring real solutions to societal problems, its use is contrary to the will of God: “Faith and violence are incompatible.” This powerful statement exalting peace and compassion is one on which all faiths can agree.

In June 2013 The Carter Center brought together religious leaders, scholars, and activists who are working to align religious life with the advancement of girls’ and women’s full equality. We called this a Human Rights Defenders Forum. Throughout this book I have inserted brief statements from some of these defenders that offer a rich array of ideas and perspectives on the subject.

A Call to Action © 2014 by Jimmy Carter. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.