It’s about time we discussed our skewed inheritance laws
In a summer afternoon, a girl came to know that her father had died of a car accident on his way back from Dhaka. Her only sibling was her younger sister.
Their mother was in her late 20s, a full-time home-maker. Life has never been the same for them since.
At first, her mother was not able to figure out what to do with her deceased husband. Should she lay him down in the cemetery near their home in the same small town? It seemed logical. She and her daughters could go any time to pray for him if it was in the same town.
Or, as her in-laws were insisting, the body should be laid to rest in their family graveyard, two hours away, in their village. Of course, the relatives’ decision was final. After all, there was no “guardian” anymore in this family. Hence all decisions must be made by the male members of the extended family.
Then came the daughters. What would these girls do in the city — the extended family sounded worried. It’s not safe in this age to live alone with a young mother without a male guardian. “Let’s send them to the village,” they decided. The bereaved mother muttered: “My girls are only eight and six, are you all out of your minds?”
On the third day, after the kulkhani, the in laws started to take control of the “shongshar.” They asked for the keys to the almirah. Took the cash out from the chest of drawer, collected the cheque-books, found all the documents related to the husband’s property and savings. As expected, no property was recorded on the wife or the daughters’ names.
The relatives looked relieved.
After a few months, the wife was forced to remarry one of her brothers-in-law, so that the 2% share from her husband’s property remains within the family. Uncles and aunts got and sold their share of the property, even though the heirs, the daughters, were underaged. The daughters’ share, 8% of the property, went under the supervision of their paternal uncles.
During one summer, it was the jyatha and his sons who would take care of and enjoy the property, the next summer it would be the kakku and his sons. Meanwhile, at the mercy of their uncles, the girls are being educated in the village, and reminded of this favour every day.
However, the girls are not allowed to talk or ask about their share of the inheritance from their father. Instead, they are reminded that they are girls. They can’t manage such a big responsibility. They will get married, however educated, and their husbands will just take over the property, which is unacceptable. So, it is always better if the uncles were in charge.
Why exactly are we so afraid to allow women equal rights on property? When can our girls feel and believe that they are not inadequate just because of their gender?
This is just one event, where the in-laws are being kind enough to take care of a family without a son after the patriarch’s demise. There are many events where the wife is sent back to her parents, the daughters are sent to orphanages, and the entire property is taken over by the extended family.
Yes, there are bigger problems right now in our country than worrying about inheritance. But this idea that absence of a son or a male guardian should change every parameter for all women in a family is unacceptable in this day and age.
At some point, many of these girls become financially independent, provide for their families, raise sons and even leave property for them. But the experiences they go through just because they did not have a biological brother or father can never be faded.
Women in our country have come a long way in education, politics, and formal labour-force participation. Government policies, NGO initiatives, grassroots movements and activism along with self-determination have all led to this point in our history, where we rank the best in South Asia in terms of women empowerment.
However, we are in denial that discriminatory property rights have significant impacts (social, psychological, and financial) on women in our society.
Fortunately, some of our feminist activists and the civil society members are vigorously voicing their opinion and are lobbying in favour of a uniform family law, and for equal property rights for sons and daughters. The present government has even taken this issue with enough gravity as to have drafted a policy on this.
But why exactly are we so afraid to allow women equal rights on property? When can our girls feel and believe that they are not inadequate just because of their gender?
Let’s broaden our heart little bit more and try to see the invisible scars left on our girls, because of one discriminatory law.
Masreka Khan is an academic and has worked extensively in the international development sector on gender issues.