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She Comes to Take Her Rights: Indian Women,…

She Comes to Take Her Rights: Indian Women, Property, and Propriety

by Srimati Basu

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Basu studied property rights in several neighborhoods in New Delhi in the early 1990s. Although legally men and women are now supposed to inherit equally in India, what Basu found was that the vast majority of the time, only sons would inherit from their parents. The daughters would relinquish their rights to any property. Basu delved deeper, and found that because daughters were considered to be part of their husband's family, and thought to inherit through his family, they were expected to let their brothers have any property from their natal family. Even women who were single or widowed were expected to give up their natal legacy, because they could possibly marry again. Women who tried to claim what was legally theirs rarely won court cases, and even the attempt cut them off from their natal family. So even if they won, and got a small portion of an estate, they no longer had family ties they could rely upon in times of difficulty. It's worth noting that according to Basu's interviews, most of the women thought that sons and daughters should both inherit--and that almost none of them did, nor did any of them make an attempt to claim their rightful property, for fear of alienation and failure.

Another rationale given for why women were not supposed to inherit was because their families paid dowries (though the money went to her in-laws, so she herself did not get it) and paid for much of the wedding (although again, only a portion of the money spent helped the woman in any material way). And in actuality, most families helped pay the weddings of both their sons and their daughters--and there wasn't much difference between how much they spent on them. Moreover, the money spent on dowry and wedding was almost never anywhere near the amount of money a woman should have inherited.

A third reason women weren't supposed to inherit was that by asserting herself, she'd start sibling fights. Ostensibly, brothers don't fight amongst themselves for inheritance--although in actual fact, of course they do. So the claim that women shouldn't inherit for the sake of family unity is pretty bogus. So to is the claim that sons took care of their parents or relatives more, so they deserve more--again, it's actually women doing the majority of the work, and even spending more of their money.

What all these assumptions and presumptions came down to was that women got less money and far less property from their families, whereas men got money and land/businesses from their families. There are a lot of interesting nuggets of information throughout--Basu does a great job of unpacking elder care, for instance, or doing a basic breakdown of required wedding gifts. She relies heavily on statistics, even though her sample size is small (often ~20 people) and her questions are qualitative, not quantitative. So I'm not sure one can trust all of her stats, but certainly her interviews and insights are valuable. My other problem with this book was the writing style, which I found difficult and dry. Here's an example: "I knew already that her affines were from Uttar Pradesh, and because ethnic group exogamy is so rare, suspected that the circumstances of her alliance with the affinal family might be atypical. Indeed, her life story turned out to be a vivid example of the articulated effects of gender and class subalternity." Reads like a dissertation, and I kinda assume that's what this was originally.

To sum up, in Basu's words: "The prime fate envisaged for women, that they could only be 'saved' through marriage and should take their chances with marriage roulette, thus screened the other registers of their dependence: their relative disadvantage in the labor market and their alienation from inheriting whatever common resources the family possessed." ( )
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0791440966, Paperback)

Using the contemporary workings of property law in India through the lives and thoughts of middle-class and poor women, this is a study of the ways in which cultural practices, and particularly notions of gender ideology, guide the workings of law. It urges a close reading of decisions by women that appear to be contrary to material interests and that reinforce patriarchal ideologies. Hailed as a radical moment for gender equality, the Hindu Succession Act was passed in India in 1956 theoretically giving Hindu women the right to equal inheritance of their parents' self-acquired property. However, in the years since the act's existence, its provisions have scarcely been utilized. Using interview data drawn from middle-class and poor neighborhoods in Delhi, this book explores the complexity of women's decisions with regard to family property in this context. The book shows that it is not passivity, ignorance of the law, naivete about wealth, or unthinking adherence to gender prescriptions that guides women's decisions, but rather an intricate negotiation of kinship and an optimization of socioeconomic and emotional needs. An examination of recent legal cases also reveals that the formal legal realm can be hospitable to women's rights-based claims, but judgments are still coded in terms of customary provisions despite legal criteria to the contrary.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:03 -0400)

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