I never thought I’d read a book by Jimmy Carter, since I still have vivid memories of those gas lines and hard times while I was in college. We had to get gas for our cars according to the last digit on our license plates, which makes me think that there were no vanity plates in those days. Besides that, David and I married while he was still president, and I bought my first car at a 16% interest rate. It was not the best of times; it was the worst of times. Then again, this man is ninety years old this year, and he’s still traveling around the world on mission trips and swinging a hammer for Habitat for Humanity. He’s sharp as a tack, and he and Rosalynn have racked up 145 countries on their passports. Pretty impressive. So, I think he’s earned the right to be heard.
The subtitle of the book is Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, and although most of the topics relate back to the oppression of women, they may not always do so all at the same time. However, the former president has been a witness to a lot of violence and suffering around the world, and he brings many of those cases to us in this short book. Mr. Carter opines that women are the most oppressed people group across all the nations of the earth, even though they make up a majority of the global population. Without regard to his own culture or beliefs, he sets out to delineate the many ways that women are subjugated or even persecuted in different places. Right now, in our country, we are seeing news stories about the lower pay scale for women, right up to the fact that the women White House staffers are paid only 88% as much as male staffers. In my own profession, even though all librarians have Master’s degrees and about 83% of all librarians are women, they account for only 65% of public library directors and make about 4% less than men overall, according to the American Library Association.
Yet this small frustration in the west pales in comparison to the genital mutilation and honor killings that we see in other parts of the world. For some reason, older women are often the ones encouraging cutting girls’ genitals in many parts of Africa, because of the belief that they are “purifying” them. The statistics are shocking: 98% percent of the women in Somalia and 96% of the women of Guinea have been mutilated, with similar numbers all over the continent. (p. 156) Furthermore, often the same countries encourage the idea that girls should be killed when they do anything to shame their families, particularly if the girl does not wish to marry the man her family has chosen. In Egypt, it is reported that 16% of all the homicides in 2000 were “family killings to ‘wipe out shame.’” (p. 153)
Just this week in the U.S., Brandeis University refused to award a planned honorary doctorate to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a well-known advocate for women’s rights in Islamic countries. Ms. Ali experienced genital mutilation as a child in Somalia, but escaped to the Netherlands as an adult and has worked against persecution and honor killings ever since. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has convinced Brandeis to withhold the degree because they feel that she is spreading hatred against Muslims. Lest we believe that honor killings are solely a Muslim practice, however, Mr. Carter states that “[s]uch killings have also been committed in Hindu and Sikh communities in India, and by Christians within highly patriarchal cultures.” (p. 153)
Mr. Carter does not spare the Christian churches of which he is an adherent, either. He draws a distinction between the Biblical teachings of Jesus and Paul in regards to women. He considers Jesus to be the most feminist person in the Bible, treating women on a par with men in a manner that was highly unusual in that time. However, he feels that Paul is speaking to the surrounding culture, and that his instructions to one group conflict with his words to another church. The former president believes that Christian churches have wrongly emphasized Paul’s teachings, even interpreting them inappropriately. Whether one agrees with him or not, it is remarkable that Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter left their lifelong affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention over this issue, although they are still active in their local church.
President Carter covers many other pertinent topics in this short book, including rape, female genocide, child marriage, human trafficking, and other shameful reminders that women’s oppression is both worldwide and ongoing. It is hard to imagine that one person could have such a depth of knowledge on all of these subjects, but Mr. and Mrs. Carter travel for the Carter Center and have leadership roles on many global councils devoted to the cause of peace and justice. One reviewer opined that Carter detoured off into “folksy” stories too much, but I did not find that to be the case. He did ramble on occasion, it is true, but here is an example of one of his stories. In countries such as Ghana, ponds fill up during the rainy season, but then shrink the rest of the year. Whatever the water level, they are still the source of the village’s water, and Guinea worm larvae live in the water. When the people drink the water, the larvae hatch in their digestive tracts and grow into two-to-three-foot worms before leaving the body through their skin anywhere, but particularly through the legs and feet. When the women wade into the ponds to draw water, the worms on their legs lay eggs into the pond. It takes 30 days for the worms to painfully make their way completely out of the body, and if you try to pull them out and part of them breaks off, they will rot and you will have to have an amputation. There is no cure, but the Carter Center is working to dig wells for each village, so that there is no need to go into the infested pond. They are seeing tremendous success. Here in the U.S., I would be in an insane asylum long before the 30 days were up. I have already wondered if was legal to request a drug-induced coma for mental health reasons. If that is the reviewer’s idea of a folksy story, he is one hardened dude. In our family now, this has become the touchstone of suffering: Lost your job? Car won’t start? Best friend won’t speak to you anymore? Look on the bright side! You could have Guinea worms!
This is a thoughtful and revealing look at many forms of oppression against women, although for a deeper treatment of any particular topic, one would have to look elsewhere. There is an index in the back, but no notes, which I found disappointing. However, I would recommend this title to anyone interested in the subject, or to anyone wanting to take a look at the longest presidential retirement on record. You’ll be impressed.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer, my church, or anyone else.