“She Comes to Take her Rights. Indian Women, Property, and Propriety”

Basu, S., 1995, She Comes to Take her Rights. Indian Women, Property, and Propriety, State University of New York Press


This book is a really useful reference work for our project. Even if it focuses on issues related to property and inheritance in Delhi urban contexts almost exclusively concerning Hindu women (very few references are made to Muslim women cases, though some interesting discussions on such matters are present) its methodological and theoretical framework could help us in formulating some work hypothesis, and its results could provide us with useful material upon which to develop our enquiry.

The main focus of the work is on the ideological mechanisms through which systems of property transmission are perpetuated. “Myths of tradition” which enforce differential gendered access to resources, property, and rights are analysed and deconstructed empirically through surveys and ethnography of three Delhi neighbourhoods, selected by the author according to the socio-economical status of their inhabitants. Furthermore, we are offered the analysis of several law cases dealing with disputes over property. Here, law is presented as an ambivalent field: on the one hand, it functions sometimes as a strategic ally to women rights claiming, but, on the other hand, rhetoric characterisations of gender, entitlement and justice operating in the cultural realm saturate the legal framework. In author’s words, “the opinions of judges are constituted through the very discourse that guides other property decisions” (p. 218).

A first concern of the author is analysing the relation between ideology and agency, which is translated here as the enquiry into “myths” related to women property (property transmitted both as marriage prestations and as inheritance), and women ideas and practises which either subsume or challenge them. Among the strongest arguments preventing women from claiming their share are eldercare, dowry, long-term help to women from natal families, women’s severance from their natal homes upon marriages.

Basu provides us with data collected through surveys in a sociological fashion, and integrates them with qualitative ethnographic data and collected life stories. Data presented show how money invested by parents for daughters’ dowry, differently from what is usually believed, often compare in amount with expenditure incurred for sons’ marriages, being anyway much inferior than what would be a daughter’s share in her natal family according to provisions of law. The idea that dowry substitutes inheritance share, often held even by women, is thus  groundless according to economic principles. Even so, and differently from cases reported in other researches (see review of Gupta, J.), women value positively dowries as the only way to get part of natal family property, maybe the only property asset they can rely on. Generally, the amount of property owned by women is much less than what is owned by their male counterparts (husbands or brothers). This is often culturally justified by the claim that women get property through husbands and affinal families while men directly inherit from natal families. Data show instead that, while men routinely inherit familty property, women do not always succeed to their husbands’/in-laws’ property either formally or informally. The disinheritance of women from natal family property is ubiquitous, and extreme family wrath comes down upon women asserting any claims to natal property (the haklenewali, from which the book takes its title – that is the woman who takes her rights – is indeed a stereotypical figure strongly condemned not only by men, but even by the very women).

Basu manages to deal with three levels of enquiry, establishing connections which link them and highlighting critical points. On one side, she provides an analysis of ideology, that is mainstream discourse and considerations collectively shared about property, position of women in relation to it, differential access to and rights in wealth, resources and goods. On the other side, she shows through detailed data on families (income, properties, access to schooling and work, and so forth) how in practice economic and symbolic capital is differentially held according primary to gender and then to class distinctions. In this way, ideological presuppositions are confuted on the basis of actual data. Finally, and more interestingly, Basu analyses the relation between the two levels discussed through a twofold strategy. On one side, she investigates into women emic perceptions about wealth and property, bringing on the surface resistance discursive strategies and resistance practices on the side of women. On the other side, she analyses law cases showing how widely shared cultural assumptions inform the substance of legal decisions. Even in cases won by women, often judges inscribed female nature or women’s rights in distinctly patriarchal ways, and created easy legal remedies at the cost of ideological disempowerment of women. Law is seen thus as a site of deep ambivalence, a space for potential revolution that never becomes one. In author’s view, past, in the form of ‘custom’,

 “continues to dominate in post-colonial India, establishing not an ancient or mythical social distribution of resources but cementing contemporary structures of gender and class privilege. Division evoking rationales of dowry as inheritance, virilocality determining caregiving, and the joint family living together off the land, depict a world where usufructuary rights seem reliable, wages in the marketplace have little effect on subsistence or assets, joint family residence is viable, and daughters married as infants to far-off places retain limited connections with families of origin. They are transliterated smoothly into a world of increasing nuclearization of families, immense reliance on wages and capital, regular contact with adult daughters, and awareness of domestic violence and the possibilities of divorce, with the distribution of property further enhancing vulnerabilities of gender and class in the urban milieu. These spectres portray a shimmering past that diverts attention from current material conditions.” (p. 230).

For our specific topic, it will be useful a brief discussion of the two parts of the book where the author addresses issues related to Muslim women and property. Of the three cases analysed, the first concerned a woman’s mother and paternal aunts who had inherited legally lands from their natal families. Though, land was cultivated along with the rest of the family land by their brothers.

The second case  was that of a woman disinherited from family property. Her comments reflected hegemonic ideologies. In fact, she states that if she had claimed her share, her brother would have broken off social relations with her, she would no longer have been able to make lengthy visits to her natal home, and she had already been given property in the form of wedding gifts. The author concludes the section as follows:

 “In effect, women had limited or no access to natal property in each of these Muslim families. Customs of virilocality kept women even from enjoying the property they supposedly inherited. […] Ultimately all these women were recipients only of occasional an uneven gifts from the natal family, and distanced from the full benefits of their natal family wealth. Their situation varied little from that of Hindu women” (p. 69).

 The second part where Muslim practices are directly addressed is when the author reports of mehr payments. According to ethnographic data, mehr was often symbolic, and on the nuptial night the groom usually pled inability to pay and asked to be forgiven his debt, while the bride was usually told by her in-law that the ‘nice’ thing to do was agree (see also Jeffery).

Mehr is indeed a religious matter and it extends even beyond death unless formally forgiven. Though, Basu reports some women saying that it was better for a woman not to forgive the mehr because  then the husband was no longer as attentive and could easily divorce her. In an opposite position stands the belief held by someone that a high mehr would correspond to the “selling of a daughter”. In practise, however, mehr rarely functioned in the form a woman’s fund of resources as intended. Instead, it worked as a socio-religious counter for women rather than a security fund proportionate to the groom’s family resources.

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