Discrimination and abuse wrongly backed by doctrine
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this
Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex,
language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin,
property, birth or other status ..." (Article 2, Universal Declaration of Human
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free,
there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."
I have been a practising Christian all my life and a
deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and
comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around
So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist
Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an
unavoidable decision when th e convention's leaders, quoting a few carefully
selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was
responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be "subservient" to their
husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the
military service. This was in conflict with my belief - confirmed in the holy
scriptures - that we are all equal in the eyes of God.
This view that
women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief.
It is widespread. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many
Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the
church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably
attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the
deprivation of women's equal rights across the world for centuries. The male
interpretations of religious texts and the way they interact with, and
reinforce, traditional practices justify some of the most pervasive, persistent,
flagrant and damaging examples of human rights abuses.
At their most
repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses
slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws
that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women
control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access
to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.
The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives.
They help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why
girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and
unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs
are not met.
In some Islamic nations, women are restricted in their
movements, punished for permitting the exposure of an arm or ankle, deprived of
education, prohibited from driving a car or competing with men for a job. If a
woman is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the
The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing
gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in Britain and
the United States. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but
its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It
damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers
major benefits for everyone in society. An educated woman has healthier
children. She is more likely to send them to school. She earns more and invests
what she earns in her family.
It is simply self-defeating for any
community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge
these self-serving and out-dated attitudes and practices - as we are seeing in
Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.
I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about
stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and
sensitive area to challenge.
But my fellow Elders and I, who come from
many faiths and backgrounds, no longer need to worry about winning votes or
avoiding controversy - and we are deeply committed to challenging injustice
wherever we see it.
The Elders have decided to draw particular attention
to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality
and human rights. We have recently published a statement that declares: "The
justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion
or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable."
We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful
teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination
against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the
courage to acknowledge and emphasise the positive messages of dignity and
equality that all the world's major faiths share.
Although not having
training in religion or theology, I understand that the carefully selected
verses found in the holy scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more
to time and place - and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their
influence - than eternal truths. Similar Biblical excerpts could be found to
support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.
At the same time, I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same
scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years
of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops,
apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn't until the fourth century that
dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted holy scriptures to
perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.
know, too, that Billy Graham, one of the most widely respected and revered
Christians during my lifetime, did not understand why women were prevented from
being priests and preachers. He said: "Women preach all over the world. It
doesn't bother me from my study of the scriptures."
The truth is that
male religious leaders have had - and still have - an option to interpret holy
teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish
ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.
Their continuing choice provides
the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse
of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ,
the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great
religions - all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all
the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.
• Jimmy Carter was US president from 1977-81. The Elders are an
independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela,
who offer their influence and experience to support peace building, help address
major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.