By Mehernaz Patel:
The focus on gender in the Indian media has escalated quickly. The plus side to this is that it has been given national attention far longer than most social concerns. But still, there are some aspects that remain in the shadows – perhaps due to a lack of their immediacy (Read: TRP value) – yet are just as disconcerting. Take ownership of property, for example.
The idea that women don’t inherit property seems like a plausible plot for a period piece, but doesn’t really factor into our discussions as much as it should. This might just speak to a “class” of intellectuals involved in such debates, but I digress. We could try tracing this using an account of a woman living in this “enlightened” society.
Asha (name changed) got married into a wealthy joint family. 3 years later she got pregnant and was blessed with a baby girl, and another one a year later. Since the first two children were female, she was constantly pressurized by her mother-in-law for the next child to be male. Her husband never said anything to Asha but didn’t take a stand against his mother.
This is by no means an isolated incident. Sex selection fuelled by the desire to have a male heir, is prevalent despite attempts at changing societal conscience. This preference however has clearly tipped over into property disputes. If we consider the fact that post-independence, the Mitakshara law concerning undivided Hindu families was left intact, essentially leaving women unable to inherit due to only men being “born into” co-parency.
That statement sounds so ridiculous, and yet is a reality for so many.
At a number of times, Asha was asked to go and live with her parents. When she refused to leave she was treated like a servant with no one in the family talking to her. Even neighbors used to sympathise with her but not her own family. This love for the male child in the family, to take the ‘vansh’ forward made Asha take medicines by crooks and undergo four sex-selective eliminations. One of these eliminations was made when the fetus was four and a half months old endangering Asha’s life. Before each abortion she was told about the ‘expense’ of having a daughter and how it will affect them economically.
Now, this may sound rather barbaric and rightfully so, which is why, it is heartening to know that as of 2005, the amended version of the Hindu Succession Act has removed this heavy skew and stated that women, like men, are born into co-parency. It further removed the section where women – to put it bluntly – had to ask nicely to camp out at home till a male relative decided to give them the money. No ownership per se, only possession.
Few years later the joint family separated. It was at that time Asha’s husband decided to buy a new house in the name of Asha. Unsurprisingly, this decision was opposed by Asha’s in-laws but her husband stood by her. After moving into a new house, Asha gave birth to another girl. Her husband supported her this time. After years of toeing the line, Asha got the confidence to take a stand for her own reproductive health. Ownership of the house not only gave her the confidence to make decisions on her own but also gave her a sense of security. In her own words, “I have a sense of relief that my daughters will not be left without any means. This house gives me a security and I am confident that I do not have to worry about my daughters’ education and careers.”
This is the security that every citizen deserves irrespective of gender; there can never be a compromise on such a basic necessity in a country that dares to call itself “developing”.
But even after the 2005 amendment, as well as amendments made in the direction of equality in states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, the more important question is, how many people, let alone women, are aware of it? All the amendments and all the goodwill is completely useless if there is no primary initiative to know our own constitution and rights better.
The debate surrounding gender needs to move away from the niches it has clogged itself in and explore its ‘less glamorous’ outposts, to dig deep into specialty areas like law and economics, to weed out the remainders of a bias that has long overstayed its welcome.