02/03/2012 07:59 am ET Updated Apr 04, 2012

Women At Risk In An Unequal World

Two horrific news stories this week shine a spotlight on how far we are from the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the "golden rule" that we treat others as we would have them treat us. The BBC reported from Kabul, Afghanistan that a woman was arrested two days earlier for allegedly strangling her daughter-in-law for giving birth to a third daughter. The murdered woman's husband, a member of a local militia, suspected of involvement, had fled. The baby girl, who is now 2 months old, was not hurt. And in Canada, a man, an immigrant from Afghanistan, was convicted by a court for the "honor killing" of his first wife and three daughters.

The stories highlight two of the most shameful realities in today's world that put women at risk: son preference and honor killing. They also pose some difficult questions about the nature of family relationships and the meaning of honor.

The first story is about son preference. It reports that when a young woman gave birth to a third girl this enraged her mother-in-law who, as many families do, wanted a boy as an heir. Son preference can be explained by culture and tradition, by economic factors including exorbitant prices for dowries and weddings, and family hierarchies where men are viewed as more important. It's a huge and perhaps even growing problem, with estimates of "missing" females (that means dead or unborn) as high as 130 million worldwide.

Religion comes in for some of the blame. I have certainly never encountered a religious person or leader who condones the practices involved -- aborting girl fetuses, infanticide and neglect of girls -- and indeed have never even heard a voice raised in their defense. But tragically the practice goes with religious teachings that view women as lesser beings. What's most troubling is that the religious leaders we look to as ethical mentors and guides, with a few prominent exceptions, rarely take up the cause of women's equality with the vigor one might expect.

Swami Agnivesh shows what can be done: an Indian spiritual leader with guts and vision, he leads marches against feticide and never hesitates to condemn the practice roundly. But legal regimes and family law, secular and religious, help perpetuate cultural traditions through inheritance and land rights biased towards boys and men and tipping family power in favor of men.

That a man in an eminently civilized country like Canada could invoke an ancient practice like honor killing in the 21st century is frightening. The mores that seem to be at work cut to deeply felt attitudes about families and women. Psychologists, anthropologists and theologians can probe the reasons why daughters' opposition to their father and desire to chose their own paths in romance and dress could evoke such rage and sense of wounded family pride that the "dishonor" could possibly translate into murder. The law in North America clearly has no space for such thinking. But probing deeper into the stories about the case are hints that there was too little preventive action by community and police. The story is about a criminal, possibly insane act. But "honor" and its relation to attitudes toward women is, again, not part of any religious ethos, but it surely is related to a view of women as subordinate and lesser beings.

At tax and census time we answer the question about who heads our household. It seems pretty harmless -- a technical matter of who fills out forms perhaps? But it serves as a reminder that families have long been understood to operate with a hierarchy and with an authority that still commonly is seen to be a privilege and responsibility of men. Many religious traditions honor this hierarchy and see it as part of a natural order that allows families to work. Others, happily, honor a different conception that is true to the principles of equality and dignity that are set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Families are where we learn what equality means, and how partnership need not invoke an authority that harks back to different eras and norms where women were seen as inferior.

Horror stories of murders linked to giving birth to a daughter and rebellious teenage daughters do not often come to our attention, and they are rather far removed from questions about who is a head of household in contemporary America. But there is a link and a call. The link is acceptance, whether sanctified by religious teachings or simply accepted as part of culture, that women are subordinate to men. The call is to redefine, within families and beyond, relationships that give real meaning to the kind of partnerships that are grounded in a deep belief that all people are created equally, in the image of God, and are deserving of the love, honor and dignity that that implies.