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Inherit the earth

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NILANJANA S. ROY   |   Published 19.12.04, 12:00 AM

Why did it take so long to achieve something as simple as the legal acknowledgement that women should be equal inheritors of family property? This basic change in the law, allowing Hindu women to be ?co-parceners?, was so long overdue that several Indian states had already got there before the central government did. This week?s very welcome news from the law ministry will basically force north Indian states to fall in line.

The logic behind barring women from inheritance was based on the antediluvian idea that women who marry become ?paraya dhan?? the property of their husband's family. Once this is accepted, it also becomes accepted wisdom not to educate a woman too much (why feed a cow that will provide milk to other houses?) or to include her in the division of family property (why pass on property to someone else?s family?). Even now, the law ministry has in its wisdom left out women who are already married. The logic is that their families may have already spent too much on the wedding and on gifts at the time of the marriage, and so shouldn?t be forced to part with more of the family loot.

In winter, Delhi turns into a large shaadi hall as one opulent wedding after another fills the coffers of wedding planners. We hear the same stories every year: grooms? families greedy for dowry, girls? families going bankrupt in order to uphold family ?honour?, elaborate presents given to the bride that she?ll never see, because her new family will assume that these are their property.

From the cynic?s perspective, nothing will change in the short run. Grooms? families will continue to demand that the woman?s family meet the cost of educating the lawyer or clerk or IIT graduate; male members of the family will put pressure on women who can now inherit property to relinquish their rights; weddings will continue for a short while to be vulgar displays of an often illusory wealth.

But give it time, and you might find that the inheritance laws have reshaped the marriage contract. Faced with a choice between losing their inheritance and an opulent wedding, many women who had nothing to lose in a previous age might actually demand more simple ceremonies. Faced with the prospect of paying twice over ? once at the wedding, once when family property is divided ? women?s families might begin to balk and to show demanding prospective in-laws the door. And realising that the bride might have a share in her own property, the in-laws might stop seeing her as a burden.

The one thing the inheritance laws ask of women is the one thing we?re often trained not to do ? we now have rights, but we must demand them. Many women will be under pressure to sign over their rights to men who ?understand these things better?. That?s rubbish: if you can, as even illiterate women do, run a household on a slender budget, you can understand the finer points of the inheritance laws. All it?s going to take is curiosity ? a willingness to understand the nature of what is yours by right ? and some determination for women who?re getting their first taste of financial power.

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