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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

President Jimmy Carter has written more than two dozen books over the course of his career, about everything from the art of aging to how to achieve peace in the Middle East. His writings are anchored by a deep-seated belief that all people should be granted the same set of rights and freedoms.

In his new book, President Carter tackles one of the biggest human rights challenges head on - the subjugation of women in cultures the world over. The book is called "A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power." And in it, President Carter argues that religious texts are often used to justify the oppression of women.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I teach the Bible lessons in my church every Sunday about 35 or 40 times a year. And I've been teaching Bible lessons since I was a midshipman at Annapolis when I was just 18 years old. So I'm pretty familiar with the entire Bible, since half of my lessons come from the Old Testament and half from the New Testament. So you can pick out individual verses throughout the Bible that shows that the verse favors your particular preference.

MARTIN: So does that mean that there are, in some way, limits to how definitive religious texts and, in particular, the Bible can be when trying to sort right from wrong?

CARTER: Well, in the book throughout it, I quote verses from the Quran and I quote verses from the Holy Bible as interpreted by the Catholic Church, to show that you can interpret the Bible either way. And I think that a fact is that in modern society, we need to look on the - I'd say the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was written after the Second World War, as you know, as a basis for how to treat women and girls.

And when this was issued, the church leaders didn't speak out at that time, although throughout the Declaration of Human Rights it prescribes absolute equality between men and women.

MARTIN: You say, in the opening to your book, that the violence against women that happens in the world is perpetuated in large part by the Unites States. How so?

CARTER: Well, I don't blame the United States uniquely. But the fact is that the United States has the most influence of any country on Earth. It's no doubt about that. And we have a terrible affliction here of slavery. There's a greater number of slaves sold now across international borders, according to annual reports by the U.S. State Department, than there was in the 18th and 19th centuries. And the total slavery income in these days, we call it human trafficking, is more than $32 billion.

MARTIN: You have been working with leaders from many different countries throughout Africa and Asia on women's issues. And I wonder how you think about culturally complicated issues like female circumcision, which is a practice that has been categorically dismissed as wrong by the West, but in many cultures it is accepted as a rite of passage.

CARTER: Well, you know, Egypt is a country in which I've been deeply involved, and UNICEF reports that more than 95 percent of all the women and girls in Egypt have been sexually mutilated. Well, this is a horrible affliction that is in more than 90 percent of Djibouti and all the women in Sudan, all the women in Somalia, all the women in Egypt and more than 50 percent in more than a dozen other countries.

MARTIN: That is also a practice that is perpetrated by women. It is mothers who are doing this to daughters.

CARTER: That's exactly right. Mother's impose it on their daughters just because they had to suffer the same consequence when they were children. There are some strong moves in countries, particularly in Senegal and other places, where women are now taking the leadership and trying to do away with it. And the same thing exists in Liberia. I could name some other countries, as well.

MARTIN: If many of the cultures we're talking about are deeply religious, including the United States as a whole, do you think that religion has to be the conduit for any real and lasting change when it come to the subjugation of women? And what does it look like? What does religious change look like?

CARTER: Well, that seems to be the easiest answer. But I don't think it is the answer because it's very difficult to get, for instance, the Catholic Church to change its policies. I've written to the pope, by the way. And I got an encouraging letter back from him saying that he believes that the status of women and the activity of women within the church needs to be increased. But there's some specific and very difficult things to overcome if the Catholic Church made that an ordained and official commitment.

But at least the pope, the new pope, is aware of it and is much more amenable, I think, to some changes that maybe some of - most of his predecessors.

MARTIN: What about in Plains, Georgia? Are these messages, are these issues that you bring up in your Bible lessons?

CARTER: Yeah, in Plains, we're making some progress maybe because of my small influence in the tiny community. Certainly within my own church, we have a woman pastor and my wife has been one of the deacons. And we have about half the deacons in our church as women. This hadn't been easy but I think our church is committed to this policy.

MARTIN: Jimmy Carter served as the 39th President of the United States. His most recent book is titled "A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power." He spoke with us from the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

Mr. President, thank you so much for taking the time.

CARTER: Thank you. I've enjoyed the questions and then thank you for letting me give the answers.

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