If you are a male religious leader around the world, President Jimmy Carter has a very direct message for you: “Stop cherry-picking your sacred texts to justify the subjection of women and prop up male superiority.”
Carter says, “The presumption that men and boys are superior to women and girls . . . is supported by some male religious leaders who distort the Holy Bible, the Qu’ran, 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.”
This really has to stop, President Carter says, without equivocation, in his new book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power.
The president argues that this presumption of religious superiority on the part of men is the singular greatest factor in “perpetuating and expanding the trafficking in human slaves, body mutilation, and even legitimized murder on a massive scale.”’ Women are trafficked, enslaved, mutilated, raped and even legally murdered with the help of religion, even at the instruction of male-biased religious interpretation.
This book is not for the faint of heart. Carter covers deaths and injury to women in war, legal killing, rape, genocide of girls, slavery and prostitution, spouse abuse, honor killings, genital cutting, child marriage, dowry deaths, politics, unequal pay, and threats to maternal health. In every chapter, there is horrific detail — and also accounts of how women and male allies are working, sometimes with the very specific help of The Carter Center, to address this literal worldwide war on women’s bodies, minds and spirits.
The Carter Center has been addressing these issues for many years in its programs, but the question I asked myself many times in reading this book is, How does he know so many of the specifics that make up this perfect storm of violence against women?
An extraordinary thing about President Carter, and I speak from personal experience, is that he actually listens to women. When President Carter appeared on The Colbert Report recently, Colbert remarked to the president, “You’re not a Catholic yet.” Carter admitted as much, though allowed he was “thinking about it.” He said he could become a Catholic “[w]hen a female Catholic priest invites me to join her church.”
Note that while President Carter seems to think a lot of Pope Francis, he didn’t say he’d join the Catholic Church if the Pope asked him. No, he said he’s asking the Pope to ordain women, and then when the Catholic Church ordains women to be priests, he’d listen to a woman priest if she asked him to become a Catholic.
That’s pretty much how President Carter understands that last word in the title of his new book: power. There has to be a power shift in the relationship of men to women and a shift in how religion is deployed. Today, the president contends, religion is deployed to justify, even promote, violence against women. That has to be reversed. Religion must be deployed to promote equal human rights and dignity for women.
One really interesting aspect of this book is the relationship of interpretation of sacred texts and violence against women. For President Carter, as a Protestant evangelical, the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth are the interpretive key to his own faith commitment to promoting women’s human rights. But as he articulates his views, I found them close to those of Rosemary Radford Ruether, who, in Sexism and Godtalk, states, ‘The critical principle of feminist theology is the promotion of the full humanity of women. Whatever denies, diminishes or distorts the full humanity of women is, therefore, appraised as not redemptive.’” Ruether and Carter go about this very differently, of course, but I found there was a surprising overlap on this point.
Religion is a major source of power around the world, and Carter believes there needs to be a significant power shift in the way religion is interpreted regarding the full human rights and human dignity of women. All religions do have texts and teachings that can be deployed to support the full humanity of women, and religious leaders need to do that immediately.
I have worked for decades to confront religious justifications for violence against women and to promote Christian resources to help women who are being treated violently discover self-worth and their own agency. My work on this, especially “Every Two Minutes: Battered Women and Feminist Interpretation,” has been widely used for this purpose.
That article, as well as many other resources, was used at a 2013 forum held at the Carter Center, “Mobilizing Faith for Women: Engaging the Power of Religion and Belief to Advance Human Rights and Dignity.” Women and men from 15 countries around the world, including Iraq, Somalia, Liberia, Egypt, Senegal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and The Democratic Republic of the Congo gathered for two days and presented and discussed a wide range of issues affecting the kinds of violence in their countries that was impeding women’s rights and dignity. We also discussed how to mobilize religious resources to stop these abuses and how to counter religious texts and interpretations used to justify a wide range of violence against women.
The photo above is from a panel presentation I did with President Carter, Dr. Samira Al-Alaani, who is a pediatrician at Fallujah General Hospital and who treats and researches birth defects brought on by the Iraq war, and Jeremy Courtney of the Preemptive Love Coalition, an organization that trains Iraqi doctors to treat heart defects in children, a terrible consequence of the conflict in Iraq. War kills and maims women and children at very high rates. In modern war, the vast majority of those injured and killed are noncombatants, mostly women and children. Modern war is really an extension of the war on women in a wide range of violations.
You can see President Carter, in the photo above, listening so intently to a conference attendee asking a question. It is an extraordinary feeling to have the 39th President of the United States listen to you, and to dozens of other women, and to the male participants, at the conference. (The new book contains many quotations from women and men who attended the conference.)
But the thing is, President Carter doesn’t just listen and then talk about problems. He acts. That is surely why the book is titled A Call to Action.
There is a way forward, and that way must include, as the conference title indicated, “mobilizing faith.” There are 18 different recommendations in the book. Some involve putting pressure on religious leaders to speak out against abuses of women, some involve international human rights work and national work to restrain war, end the death penalty, stop human trafficking, remove sexual harassment cases in the military from the chain of command, insist that the United States Senate ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination and insist that the United States adopt the International Violence Against Women Act.
But the first one in the list is about listening to women and girls: “Encourage women and girls, including those not abused, to speak out more forcefully. It is imperative that those who do speak out are protected from retaliation.”
What all this means to me is that mobilizing faith to help end so many worldwide abuses against women will not work unless women themselves are heard in their own voices. This is, to me, a profound theological statement about how God works with the world.
Photo courtesy of Deborah Hakes/The Carter Center.