A piece I did for Femina a few months ago, on women's inheritance rights in India. Read on.
A room, a field, a place of her own.
One little cottage in Ooty – that’s what triggered a sibling tiff in 1965 and over the course of a quarter century, changed the law of the land. The legal battle began in 1984 when Mary Roy (writer Arundhati Roy’s mother) went to court demanding a fair share of the family property, and wasn’t fully resolved until recently when a civil court in Kottayam ordered the implementation of a Kerela High Court order in her favour.
Brief background to the Mary Roy case:
Mary Roy had been living in the cottage with two small children after her marriage fell apart when her brother asked her to vacate the place so he could sell it. She refused and went to court. But the law was stacked against her at the time. Under the provisions of the 1916 Travancore-Kochi Christian Succession Act, in Kerela, a daughter could inherit only one fourth of the share of the sons in her father’s property. In fact, the law stated that ‘a daughter shall receive one-fourths the share of a son or Rs 5,000 whichever is less’.
Mary Roy went to the Supreme Court and in 1986, the apex court ruled that Christian women are entitled to an equal share. Mary then approached the Kerala High Court and secured a judgment in her favour but her brothers raised several objections that delayed the implementation of the court order. All the objections were finally over-ruled in October 2010 when a Sub-court in Kottayam ordered the execution of the verdict.
The Mary Roy dispute has been settled finally but this was just one case – an exceptional case where an angry sister and single mother chose to fight all the way to the Supreme Court and back for her constitutional rights. “By the time I actually started my legal battle I was an independent wage earner. The family and society did not matter,” Mary says. Even so, her community in Kerela, including the Church and the tea and coffee estate owners, have been reluctant to act on the judgment. “Society reacted with joy at first. When they realized that there was a retrospective angle to the Judgement, there was consternation. The Syrian Christian Church encouraged the fathers to write wills which in effect disinherited daughters.”
She adds that subtle changes have been taking place in society. “Educated women with jobs generally don’t get kicked around.”
However, women must still run to court to be acknowledged as equals by their families, colleagues and even the government.
Take the recent court case where a government employee lost her job because she got married! The state has provisions for offering jobs ‘on compassionate grounds’ to the sons or unmarried daughters of government employees who die or retire prematurely. Medha Parkhe from Pune had applied for such a job since her father was a cancer patient and had to retire prematurely and she was placed on the waiting list in 1999. She finally got a clerical position in 2003 but two years later, the Maharashtra government threw her out, saying she was not eligible since she had gotten married in the interim.
The case went to the industrial court, which ruled in her favour, but then the state appealed higher. Finally, the Bombay High Court also ruled in her favour. The judge put it best when she ruled that: ‘It is impossible to accept in this day and age that once a woman gets married she will cut off her ties with the family she is born in and will leave it to suffer the vagaries of life in penury.’
It is indeed ridiculous to assume that sons shoulder all financial responsibility in a family. If a married adult man is entitled to a job so he can care for his parents or get on with his own life, there is no reason a married woman should not have the same right. Besides, studies have shown that daughters often spend more time caring for elderly or sick parents than sons. And time is money too.
Unfortunately, despite a constitutional guarantee of equality, it has taken a series of legal battles before Indian laws became a little more equal for women.
The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005 came about after decades of discrimination. According to the Lawyers Collective Women’s Rights Initiative, matters began to hot up in the Delhi High Court after a slew of cases wherein the wife was claiming a share in family property. The law commission then set up an inquiry to ensure that daughters are not denied a share in the coparcenary (joint inheritance) property. It consulted judges, lawyers, scholars, NGOs etc. Amongst other recommendations, there was one that suggested that a person’s unrestricted right to will away his/her property should be abolished. Paroma Ray, a research officer at Lawyers Collective, explains, “Usually, sisters are not willing to file cases against their brothers. If they do, they often end up settling out of court.”
However, not all recommendations of the commission were accepted by Parliament. But at any rate, daughters were given equal rights over family land. Bina Agarwal, author of ‘A Field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia’ was one of those who helped draft the recommendations for the amendment. She says that her work on inheritance of land is rooted in the three decades that she has spent researching livelihood and inequality. Gender was just one part of her work but once she began to study technological change in agriculture, she found that women farmers’ access technology and other inputs was constrained because they didn’t have land titles. Ultimately, her research began to focus on land inheritance and included five nations in the region.
“I mapped patterns,” Bina says. “In Sri Lanka, I found that irrespective of religion, women had strong land rights. In northwest India, there was very little access, but this was closely linked to marriage. In communities where women marry closer home, or within the extended family, their rights to land are greater.”
There is the age-old argument, of course, of dowry. The fact that women take away a huge chunk of family wealth when they get married is used as an excuse to disinherit them. That argument, however, is quite insidious because firstly, dowry itself is illegal. Secondly, dowry wealth is often in the form of consumer items – cars, motorbikes, clothes, electronics – meant to appease the groom and his family, not to secure the daughters’ economic future. Bina, who is currently Director of Institute of Economic Growth, says that immovable property like land or houses cannot be compared to dowry since a daughter is always more vulnerable without fixed assets of her own.
She has recently undertaken a study, along with a colleague in Kerela, that found a link between domestic violence and property ownership. “We found that if a woman owned a house or land, the risk of her facing domestic violence went down. If she owned nothing, the risk went up to 49 percent,” says Bina. She adds that it is a pity that so much work has been done on issues like domestic violence, but so little research or advocacy of women’s property rights in India.
It is a pity indeed. In the last century, Virginia Woolf had famously said that a woman must have a room of her own in order to become a writer. We could safely paraphrase her and say that a woman must have a room, or a bit of land, to call her own in order to be a full citizen.