“India is very patriarchal society, changing attitudes and mind set is extremely difficult and it is a slow process but we need to fast forward it” said Leila Seth, the first woman chief justice in India.
Patriarchy does not dominate in India alone, it is a deeply rooted practice in every country. It is embedded in the psyche of every society in the world. Unfortunately some progressive groups, political parties, individuals and even societies that propagate ideas of female emancipation, female liberation and gender equality and claim to oppose gender discrimination, are not immune to patriarchial ideas. Heavy social pressure and fear of social alienation weaken their desire to challenge the age-old and meaningless traditions of male domination. Hence they do not always practice what they preach because it is too painful and mentally draining to challenge the dominant male culture. Moreover, these reformist groups, political parties and individuals often lack knowledge, and understanding of women’s experiences of physical, mental, sexual and financial exploitation. Their work, activities and demands primarily remain in the boundaries of equalities in waged labour.
Unquestionably the reformists sincerely advocate female economic independence, a tool to empower women that would enhance their status. They believe that once economic independence is achieved, social and political inequalities and patriarchal ills would automatically melt away. They advocate female inheritance right but surrender to social pressures and hesitate to give their daughters the liberating right to property. Ironically they passionately argue in favour of protecting the property holder’s rights and wishes. Without doubt the property holder must have a full right to choose how he/she wishes to dispose his/her property, so long as their decision does not favour one gender over another. Unfortunately, in most patriarchal societies including in advanced capitalist countries such as India and Britain, daughters are prevented from claiming their legal right to inherit ancestral property. The Indian constitution, Hindu succession Act 1956 (amended 2005), and Britain’s Equality Act 2010, all grant women an equal right to inherit parental property but in practice, patriarchal norms and values have erected social and cultural firewalls ensuring only sons are granted heirloom not daughters.
The Ancient Hindu Laws particularly the Manu Smritis, Arthashastra and other Dharmshastras pushed women into a subordinate position where they are considered to be an inferior being who must be dependent upon and controlled by male relatives. Hence, women are prevented from rights to hold property or become financially independent. They must rely on males even for their basic needs and necessities.
However, the Hindu Succession Act does pave the path to break the chains of gender dependency and cracks the patriarchal system by granting women a right to an equal share in parental and husband’s property and in other assets. (There are some discrepancies and weaknesses in the Act, for example it does not apply to Muslims and Christians) The Act sought to put an end to gender discrimination, to enhance women’s socio-economic status and empower them socially, economically and politically. The right to access family assets provides women with better economic security and advances their bargaining power and enjoyment of full citizenship rights.
Available evidence indicates that the ownership of property reduces the threat of violence, abuse, exploitation and other inequalities within the household.
Unfortunately, strong and deeply rooted patriarchal social norms and values in Indian society prevail and despite the Country’s radical laws, women are still denied the legal right to inherit parental property. In fear of fragmentation of agricultural land or other assets or losing it altogether when a girl child gets married, Indian fathers use every method possible to discourage daughters from claiming their legal right. Huge social and cultural pressure is placed on them. They are blackmailed, ostracised, socially boycotted, hated and even killed should they exercise their legitimate right to ancestral property. They are left with no one to turn to at a time of need. They have much to lose. Fearing damage to family relationships, violence and threat of violence, daughters usually opt to give away their right in favour of their brothers. Many studies have discovered that instead of empowering women, the right to inherit has led to increased female foeticides and higher female infant mortality rate. Girl children are considered by many a liability, since the inherited property falls into the hands of their in-laws as does the dowry – a practice that has become a curse in the Indian society. A traumatic fear for parents and for the girls.
The reasons for not asserting the right to inheritance or disclaiming it is rooted in misogynistic customs and traditions. These include early marriage, financial dependency, lack of awareness especially in rural and tribal communities. Lower levels of literacy among women deter them contesting matters in court. The religious laws and patriarchal practices conditioned the mindset of Indian society – men and women – believing that only sons are entitled to parental property. According to Census data of 2010 , only 13% of farmland is registered in women’s name.
Many women, however, especially educated urban women have successfully challenged the patriarchal perception that only men have capabilities and skills to possess and manage property. They are rejecting dowry for right to inherit.
Indian girls are denied a Right to Inherit in Britain – 21st century
With better socio-economic conditions in an advanced capitalist country like Britain, Indian girls, compared to their sisters in India, have taken advantage of available education opportunities that has enhanced their socio-economic independence. Unlike their sisters in India, British Indian women are not dependent on the income of their male relations. The welfare state is their safety net to turn to for financial support at the time of need. Unlike in India, there is no reason to fear the segmentation of property, as the people in Britain primarily possess a house and/or movable property.
Despite Indian women in Britain being aware of their rights, not being dependent on males income and have a safety net from the state, they are not willing to assert their right to property. Hence the cycle of the gender inequalities and discrimination in the family perpetuates and is reinforced. The notion of patriarchy is planted in the psyche of females and males alike from birth. A girl is reminded at every opportunity and conditioned to believe that she does not belong in the parental house, she will leave and build a home of her own elsewhere with her husband after marriage.
Patriarchal traditions and values are so strong that despite being socially and economically independent Indian girls do not wish to risk damaging the family relationship with their parents and brothers. Many have been subject to honour killing and/or have been alienated by their families. So the practice of dowry and denial to inheritance right continues. I once asked a young woman the reason for accepting dowry and not practicing her right to inherit to which she answered that the risk is too high if she claimed her right to parental property. She said through means of dowry she receives something from her parents property otherwise that too will go to her brothers. By doing so she saves her family relationship.
I asked another four well educated and economically independent girls what they thought about gendered distribution of family property. They answered that ideally the financially weakest member should be helped but they were strongly opposed to parents disposing of their property in favour of sons. They said they would defy this practice.
I asked some ten older ladies how they felt when they wrote off their rights to their brothers. They said they did not favour such a practice but there was too much to lose and said it felt like their heart went with the piece of paper they had signed.
So what is the solution? It is to demand strengthening the British inheritance law to ensure zero tolerance to gender discrimination in property distribution. Such practices should be a criminal offence in the eyes of the law. Raising awareness and changing attitudes among all communities, empowering girls to assert their right to inheritance. We must not treat gender discrimination as part of Indian culture and an internal family matter. We must ensure that the ancient religious laws and patriarchal practices are not used to blackmail girls by their parents and brothers and dowry does not handcuff them in demanding their legitimate rights. Right to Inherit is a monetary benefit but also a fundamental human right that exists in equality with men.
In Britain we find encouraging evidence where some courageous women have and are challenging this discriminatory practice. Some parents have and are refusing to discriminate against their daughters. We must ensure our daughters are treated as equal to our sons. Denying our daughters their right to inherit is illegal.
Let us ensure the ancient Indian religious laws and patriarchy have no room in the 21st Century Britain.
Member of Indian Workers’ Association GB