“All the elements in this book concerning prejudice, discrimination, war, violence, distorted interpretations of religious texts, physical and mental abuse, poverty, and disease fall disproportionately on women and girls.”
That’s the first sentence of Jimmy Carter’s impassioned new book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power. Mr. Carter has done his research: he and his wife, Rosalynn, have visited “about 145 countries” and the Carter Center, his nonprofit, has active projects in over 70 of them. It’s a hard book to read, especially if you’re of a mind to think the Enlightenment–and the egalitarianism it trumpeted–occurred centuries ago. In Carter’s vigilant eyes, the world is still pretty dark. Carter bears repeated witness to discrimination against women—both the kind perpetuated by violence and the softer, but also perilous, unfairness of glass ceilings that stifle social and economic opportunity. His incomparable experience has shown him a “pervasive denial of equal rights to women…discrimination (that) results in tangible harm to all of us, male and female.” Many Westerners comfortably believe that most of this kind of rampant discrimination happens mainly in developing nations dominated by antiquated religious customs, and that the modernized world—while having a ways to go before, say, The New Yorker’s Table of Contents routinely features an equal number of female writers—has moved beyond the kind of ritualized, pernicious discrimination that afflicts women in countries like Afghanistan.
And there are degrees, surely: it would take some irresponsible moral relativism to equate the infringements on women’s freedoms that proliferate in India and Pakistan with those in the US, for instance. But Carter reminds us that “it is not confined to the poorest countries.” Mr. Carter blames primarily a set of religious beliefs and texts that are misinterpreted and exploited by men to claim a dominance over women, and to establish their gender inferiority. It’s important to remark that Mr. Carter is no atheistic reactionary against religious belief: he is himself a deeply religious man who regularly consults the scripture, notably drawing far different conclusions from the same texts than those men who see in them a right to gender-based superiority. Even in the West, Carter cautions, this superiority complex—though publicly condemned—tacitly informs too many of society’s interactions. If there is less overt violence against women here (and some will debate even this), there is nevertheless little equality. Carter asserts that today “the most serious and unaddressed worldwide challenge is the deprivation and abuse of women and girls.” There are many organizations (Freedom for All, GEMS, etc.) that do address it, however. One hopes that Mr. Carter’s stature as a world leader will lend a megaphone to these groups already on the ground and deeply engaged in trying to reverse one of history’s most horrible mistakes: the economically detrimental and morally repugnant supposition that women are children of a lesser god.