“Inheritance Rights for Women. A Response to Some Commonly Expressed Fears”

Madhu Kishwar, Ruth Vanita, 1990, “Inheritance Rights for Women: A Response to Some Commonly Expressed Fears”, Manushi, 57 (March-April): 3-9.


This committed paper deals with some of the fears commonly expressed in mainstream (male) political discourse regarding women’s inheritance rights in order to confute them and provide alternative proposals for actually getting women equal inheritance rights. Even if it address mainly Hindu law and Hindu customary legal practice, it could be useful for us in as much as many of these “fears” are arguments used as well for denying to Muslim women their entitlements in family property. The seven fears/arguments discussed in this paper partially overlap with those “myths” which Srimati Basu deconstructs in her book (see review p. 8). These arguments are actually found in most of the works reviewed as justifications by social actors (both men and women) for denying/refusing women’s inheritance shares (cfr. Basu, Jeffery, Banu).

1)    Land fragmentation. It is often claimed that giving a share in family land to daughters will result in excessive fragmentation, making each holding uneconomical. Authors highline how the problem of land fragmentation is persistent today, even if women are denied property, and that solution to such matter should be looked for instead in implementation of honest land reforms. As they argument, “denying women a share in land means making them the most powerless section within already powerless poor peasantry. Certainly, if a piece of land can be divided between three sons, there is no reason why it cannot be divided between two sons and a daughter” (p. 3).

2)    The daughter goes away. This argument maintains that since daughter marries and goes to her husband’s house, which is often far away, she cannot cultivate her parental land or run her parental business. As a corollary of such argument, it is often said that since the woman becomes a member of her husband’s family, she should be restricted to inheriting a share of his parental property.

3)    Sons look after parents. This argument runs: since sons, not daughters, support and look after parents in their old age, sons should inherit the parents’ property. Authors confute it by claiming that when even parents die young daughters don’t get their share. Furthermore, it is usually the daughter-in-law, and not the son, who takes care of old parents. This produces a particular inversion by which a daughter-in-law, who is forbidden to care for her own parents, is expected to channel her emotional energy into serving her parents-in-law.

4)    Brother-sister love will be destroyed. Giving daughters property will breed animosity, even litigation, between brothers and sisters, destroying the harmonious and beautiful brother-sister relationship which now obtains. According to the authors, this argument is based on untenable generalisations, and pretends to ignore that brother-sister relationship in many communities is structured by the power of man and the powerlessness of woman: it does not make for mutual support, but compels the brother to be a perpetual giver and the sister to be a perpetual taker, setting often husband’s wife and sister as rivals.

5)    Dowry is the daughter’s share. In authors opinion, dowry cannot be considered a daughter’s share because: a) it is not in her control as property is in son’s control; b) it functions as a bribe to her in-laws to keep her in their house, while property enhances the son’s independent standing; c) dowry generally consists in extravagant display which enhances family status, and of cash and items which are expendable and do not appreciate in value; while property often comprises income generating assets as land, house, tools, machines.

6)    She will inherit doubly. This argument affirms that a woman will end up getting double rights, inheriting both form her father and from her husband. It ignores the fact that men as well could possibly inherit from both their fathers and their wives…

7)    Women cannot manage property. It is sometimes objected that since women have less experience and resources for managing property, the effect of the control of property nominally inherited by a daughter will pass on to her husband and his male kin.

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