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A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power

A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power - Jimmy Carter When did black Americans get the right to vote?

If you answer, "1965," you are very cool and we can have a friendly, spirited discussion about whether having "the right" to do something is really a right if you can’t actually act on that right. And we may have to agree to disagree, because technically the late lamented Voting Rights Act was put into place in order to protect the rights already spelled out in the Constitution. But we’ll certainly be cool and groovy together, because you obviously get it.

If you answer "1870," however, I’m going to have to yell and cry and possibly call your mom. Because 1870 is the year the fifteenth amendment was added to the Constitution, and black women were specifically left out of the text of the fifteenth amendment.

The answer to the question "When did black Americans receive a constitutionally guaranteed right to vote?" is "1920." (And yes, you’re right – that effectively only gave white women the right to vote. Black women as a group only got to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to vote when the VRA went into effect. Right now, I’m just talking about what was on paper.)

Why am I asking this? Why am I talking like some kind of Constitutional scholar when I’m just a stay-at-home reader who’s trying to review a book that’s already a day overdue at the library?

Because I think we have a bad national – no, make that global – habit of believing that human rights are vitally important and women’s rights are cute if you’re into that kind of thing, but frankly kind of 1. boring, 2. obnoxious, and 3. are we still talking about this?

I have a friend who is kind, educated, worldly, intelligent, well read, and sophisticated. If asked, she could describe (and deplore) the human rights violations happening every day all over the world – in Syria, Nigeria, Turkey, all over the place.

She noticed I was reading this book and asked how I liked it.

I explained I’d been worried at first that it would be a lightweight work in every sense – it’s barely 200 pages, and has 18 chapters covering every sort of women’s issue you could think of. But I was starting to understand why Carter went ahead and had a lot of short chapters on a lot of important topics. The matters he asks readers to grapple with are sometimes so brutal that really, the important thing is that he’s touching on them at all.

"But he obviously gets it," I concluded. "I mean, I could kiss him right now just for the fact that he puts the word 'honor' in quotes when he talks about 'honor' killings."

My hip, groovy, compassionate friend looked alarmed. "What are honor killings?" she asked.

And that’s why it’s important that an old white Southern gentleman wrote a book about how religion is used all over the world as an excuse to mistreat women.

Specifically, it’s important that a guy as well-known, old-fashioned, devoutly Christian, and just plain nice as Jimmy Carter decided to write a book like this one. A book with chapter titles such as "The Genocide of Girls" and "Child Marriage and Dowry Deaths" and, yes, "'Honor' Killings."

"Honor" killings cause the death of hundreds of women every single year in Pakistan alone. Women’s rights are human rights because women are quite literally dying for the lack of them.

And the reason my friend hasn’t heard of them is that women’s rights are just not considered important enough to be reported on.

For example:

When the news runs stories about India, the reports tend to focus on economic growth and investment. There are occasional stories of individual cases of individual women suffering horrible fates; but where is the general sense that India is first and foremost a place where it’s just not safe to be female?

Can you imagine reporting on South Africa a few decades ago without making any mention at all of apartheid? South Africa was defined by its institutionalized inequality.

In India, girls are singled out just for being female before they’re even born. And that’s if their parents are wealthy enough to go in for a gender-based abortion. Poorer parents often simply murder their girl-children at birth. And no, this is not just about a few horrible cases. This is what India is like, to the point that there are some areas of the country in which there are only 650 girls for every 1,000 boys.

And that’s just the beginning. Female literacy rates are lower than male rates, because education is much less of a priority for girls than it is for boys. Women in India are routinely expected to endure sexual harassment in public – ever heard of “Eve teasing”? The rape statistics are horrifying. And don’t even get me started on dowry deaths.

So of course when we talk about India, we talk about economic opportunities for investors.

I’m not saying India is the only sexist place in the world. Sadly, that's not even close to being true. I’m saying: all things considered, why is sexism not associated with this country the way racism was with South Africa?

I’m a big fat screaming heathen redhead feminist. It’s easy to dismiss my rageful rantings.

It’s not as easy to brush aside the gentle, earnest anger of a devout and kindly elder statesman like Jimmy Carter.

You may not need to read this book. But I think we should all be glad it’s out there.

And if, like my good friend, you don’t know about so-called “honor” killings – or dowry deaths, or just how widespread gendercide is – you might want to go ahead and grab a copy of this book from the library.

Be warned: it’s short, but it’s not a quick read. Not because the prose is dense – quite the contrary – but just because of the subject matter. I do a decent amount of heavy feminist reading, and I had to take frequent breaks to revisit some very sweet children’s books in the course of reading this book, because otherwise I’d have to scream and cry and throw things. But I’m still glad I read it.