Former President Jimmy Carter has a new crusade: the fight for the human rights of women and girls worldwide, particularly against oppression driven by religious zealotry. It is a worthy cause but unfortunately compromised by Carters insistence that modern Western democracies are just as guilty of sexism as authoritarian regimes dominated by medieval fundamentalism.
Carter, who at 89 has published a new book titled A Call To Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, argues that inequality and violence toward women are often perpetuated by reactionary religious dogma that views women as inferior to men. So far, so good. Many will quibble with his view that the belief in male supremacy stems merely from misinterpretation of scriptures rather than unmistakably sexist and even misogynist passages in the texts themselves. But, as Carter correctly points out, the same texts also contain the clear idea of human equality before God, and it is up to human beings which aspects of religious legacy to emphasize.
Carter believes that the tradition of all-male clergy should end. I am sympathetic to this argument. But one should also keep things in perspective. The Catholic Church, despite its male priesthood and its conservative views on abortion and birth control, is not leading an assault on womens rights in the workplace, in the family and in society in general; radical Islamic fundamentalism is.
Not even the most conservative Christian churches in the United States and Europe, except for a few fringe sects, endorse wife-beating, the execution of unfaithful wives and unchaste daughters, or restrictions on employment for women and schooling for girls. Many mainstream Islamic clerics, however, advocate the practices.
My point is not that Islam is inherently more oppressive or misogynist than other major religions (there are many Muslim feminists who disagree), but that, for various historical and cultural reasons, it is far more under the sway of fundamentalist fanatics and more urgently in need of modernization and reform. Denying the facts helps no one, least of all women.
But Carter crossed the line into absurdity when, in a recent PBS interview, he mentioned unequal pay and inadequate handling of sexual assault on college campuses in this country in the same breath as selective female infanticide and other brutalities against women in the Third World as evidence that we, too, have a way to go on gender equality.
As numerous economists (many of them women) point out, the gender gap in pay and advancement is a result of complex factors including womens choices to curtail or interrupt paid work while raising children and to choose careers more compatible with child-rearing. One can argue that these roles can change, but one can hardly mandate this by fiat.
The problem of justice for sexual assault victims, whether on college campuses, in the military or in society at large, is no less complex. It sometimes involves conflicting accounts with little corroboration, or drunken acts in which the accuser and the accused have little memory of the events. There is a genuine tension between supporting women who say they were victimized and upholding the presumption of innocence, a cornerstone of our justice system. None of this compares to the reality, in too many countries, of rape victims being punished (sometimes with death) for sexual misconduct.
The United States and other Western cultures are not perfect when it comes to gender equality. But the West can be proud of advancing human rights and womens rights worldwide. The cause of women and girls is not helped by ridiculous moral equivalencies.