Thought Box

Retroscope - Salaam Women

Retroscope - Salaam Women

by Rinki Roy Bhattacharya March 7 2016, 3:33 pm Estimated Reading Time: 15 mins, 6 secs

Many of you are familiar with the question of being born female in India. But it will be nice to go through the exercise together –imagine you are a daughter in India. Or a daughter born in an Indian family – anywhere in the world.  Actually it is hardly much different in other cultures. But I will restrict my observations to Indian daughters.

As a daughter in India you will be raised with social customs that are NOT to be questioned. You will be conditioned from childhood to rigid views about how you should behave – or appear. Encouraged to cultivate self- sacrifice as the greatest feminine virtue. Your cultural upbringing includes noble acts of daily sacrifice. This is a sign of respect reserved for all male members - for example, your brothers,  father –  and elder relatives. This translates into everyday activities of life. You may have to part with best piece of fish if you are a Bengali girl - or other goodies, if not. You learn to eat last and less – because this is expected of all girls and of women. In my book BEHIND CLOSED DOORS I quoted a report by journalist Swapna Mazumdar who writes:

“It is not poverty alone that kills baby girls.  Girls born in West Bengal have a better chance of celebrating their first birthday than those born in Punjab even though the per capita income of a family in Punjab is nearly twice that of a family in West Bengal.  Two other States, Haryana and Assam have very similar female infant mortality rates in spite of wide differences in per capita income.” 

The Declining sex ratio is alarming - The decline in number of girls per 1,000 boys from 962 in 1961 to 927 in the year 2001 was alarming enough. The 2001 census figures showed a further decline.  Punjab had only 798 girls (per 1,000 boys), Haryana 819, Delhi 868 and Gujarat 883.
 As a daughter you will be raised in a manner befitting your gender. You will have no option but to internalize prevalent traditional ideas about Indian womanhood. We know, what that means. You will be forced to renounce your own interests, sacrifice at every step, and never question your family's decisions regarding your life choices that are made even before a girl is born. As a woman you can RARELY pursue any other route but those scripted for you by the approved ideals of womanhood!! If you dare to differ - you are marked for the rest of life.

As far as Indian women are concerned, whatever be their religious faith - in matters of property there is no inclusive philosophy nor practice. Traditionally daughters have been given dowry and given away in marriage. Sons continue to remain on the ancestral estate. They inherit the entire estate. This inequitable division is a gross abuse of justice.

Every Indian language has proverbs to justify the unwanted ness of daughters. Not wanting daughters is justified by the fear of DOWRY. DOWRY has become the one single legitimate factor to abort female fetus and to kill female infants. “DUDH PITI” the ritual practice to murder new born girls was prevalent in Kathiawar in Gujarat. By this, most new born female infants were killed by adding herbal poison to the mother’s milk.

One popular proverb from Gujarat says that “Even a king will be a pauper had he daughters”. In Tamil Nadu – female feticide is widely propagated with the philosophy that it is better to kill daughters now than give dowry later. Recently, our ex- Prime Minister Shri Manmohan Singh spoke out strongly against female feticide. A 24X7 hot line has opened for emergency help.

Killing a daughter, before or after she is born is a common form of domestic violence. What I wish to highlight are some of my own conclusions about the nexus between women’s property rights and domestic violence. There is an intimate link between women’s right to property and their abuse, their exploitation, their oppression. A prime example is SATI. In the name of religion thousands of Hindu widows are left in Varanasi & Vrindavan. These heinous crimes are directly linked to the women’s right to property. Women are done away with for their property.

My own experience of the Judiciary began a little more than 25 years back. When I filed for DIVORCE & CHILD SUPPORT after 19 years of marriage.  I was in a state of shock & terror. 

Being an avid film watcher, including Bollywood films, filmy court room scenes played in my mind. Where the Judge raps his desk shouting ‘Order! Order!’ and the litigant is squirming in the witness box. My real life experience was less dramatic. Without going into graphic details or the sheer tedious boredom which follows application of the divorce petition, I soon realized that when a litigant goes to seek justice all he or she gets are dates. Every time you go, a date for the next hearing is fixed. Between the Judge & the respective advocates. I learnt to find solace in the fact that all I need to do is sit in one of the dusty benches – and get the next date of hearing. During this phase, I wrote two short pieces. The first piece was titled the DATE.
My second piece was titled: WHY WOMEN ARE AFRAID OF THE JUDICIARY?
This was written at the time when I filed for my 1/5th share in the estate of my father 29 years after his death. By then, I had done the whole round trip from being the wife of a wealthy & famous film producer to being a very poor woman – with three young children.

From my own experience – and the experience of several women - I know women’s fear of the Judiciary is well founded. We were reminded that attempts to ensure women’s inheritance rights has been opposed by male members of their own family: “Women’s inheritance rights have been violently opposed by women’s fathers, brothers, who are the supposed victims of the dowry system.”
Parliamentary debates preceding the passing of the Hindu succession Act, 1956, was significant.   Men were united across party lines in opposing equal inheritance rights for women on the ground that it would create discord between brothers and sisters. 
In other words, the key element in maintaining family harmony between brothers and sisters is inheritance & property rights. Unless women learn to give up their claim, there will be war. Some fathers/ brothers may willingly give dowry, for it is deemed to be good traditional practice and looks good. But few honour women’s inheritance rights. Against this background, it is easy to understand why women are reluctant to seek legal redress. Even when they are in a dire state or driven below the poverty line. I too resisted to file for my estate share for nearly 10 years .Even after knowing I was being cheated out of it, it took all my strength to finally file – and of course be damned by society. My family sees me as the source of all evil.
Dowry is the villain of this piece, it is also the best argument, or commonest pretext to deny women their rightful share. Yet it is considered a matter of caste honour, of family prestige. At weddings, dowry items are proudly displayed to guests. After being given dowry, Indian daughters are left with acute feelings of guilt. They are convinced that their fathers are greatly burdened by dowry. This is indeed true. However – it does not strike daughters (or fathers) that this burden can be eased if daughters like the sons got equal inheritance rights – and not a one-time dowry. Daughters are reluctant to assert their inheritance rights thinking their families are already under pressure with dowry. Equal rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the Hindu Succession Act has made little difference to this age old traditional mind set.   For Indian women that proverbial knock on the doors for legal Justice is still a far cry.
 But the most powerful deterrent – as I soon realized - is the grim fact that women have no social nor familial support. They are alone in long, lonely and expensive legal battles. That is, if they decide to seek legal solution to economic problems. Add to this the inordinate delay in getting Orders. Often lawyers discourage women from filing for their maintenance. Lawyers– and the Indian Police - after all are rooted deeply in traditional beliefs.  They firmly uphold family values. 
As a result women continue to be displaced - in fact, they are routinely sacrificed, in the name of honour. Or tradition. Take for example this case: A Pakistani villager married off his 10 year old daughter to a 40 year old man to compensate for the death of a borrowed buffalo.  The village council decreed that the father could use his daughter to pay back the man and a Muslim Cleric sanctioned the wedding (The Times of India, 2002:1)
Another shocking incident appeared in Mid Day: a six year old girl was strangled to death by her father at Turbe (Maharashtra).  Her mistake? She did not fetch him a glass of water (30th March, 2004). Both quotes are from my book.
What happens if women manage to sustain their struggle in family litigation?  Court Orders may not always be in their favour.  Even if the Court orders the husband to pay maintenance – he may frustrate the implementation process.  Contempt Motions against husbands for maintenance default is a routine matter. This is the same case with fathers & brothers or family who will fight tooth & nail in Partition suits. Certainly a positive Order raises women’s hopes. But flawed implementation procedure remains a frustrating fact of life. Take the conviction rate in Dowry Deaths for year 2005. It was as low as 8 while the acquittal was 70. For women, it is both justice delayed & justice denied.
Silence about abusive husbands, or one’s family, is common in our culture. This persists in all sections of our society. It is believed, family disputes must be resolved within the four walls. As a result, urban, educated women allow themselves to be discouraged about the efficacy of law courts in family matters or to take legal options. Women literally have to reinvent themselves, if they decide to seek justice. They suffer great isolation – and condemnation.
Divorce significantly, is ​on the rise. More wives seek divorce and maintenance these days. Although this is not an easy decision – women come out in droves to divorce. Also divorce no longer is a social stigma, though maintenance amounts are far below actual requirement.  Often husbands ordered to give maintenance / child support prefer to go to jail than pay a paltry sum.  But there is a welcome shift in women’s attitude.  What’s more, a change in the Judiciary. At least in Maharashtra. Few Judges would pass an anti-Woman order. A welcome step encouraging women to seek legal redress was the waiving of Court fee for them. In Maharashtra, a woman filing for Probation of will or, Partition Suit – (as in my case) does not have to pay Court fee since 1994. 
However as against the rise of divorce - cases of daughters asserting for their inheritance rights is rare. Very rare indeed. It is rumored that there have been a mere 51 Inheritance Suits filed in the country since 1956, when the Hindu Succession Act was amended granting equal rights to daughters. Even after five decades of that – and raising aware ness by Women’s groups – daughters lack the courage to assert for their legal rights. There are notable exceptions. Take Mary Roy who challenged the Travancore State act. The Supreme Court struck down the antiquated Travancore act framed during the British rule which granted Rupees 5,000 to the daughter.  The rest of the estate went to sons. Mary’s case brought a great sense of victory for Syrian Christian women. In fact it is a landmark Judgment for women anywhere. After the Supreme Court Judgment, the entire Syrian Christian clergy witch hunted Mary. She was ostracized. The backlash was a fatal signal for others who would have followed Mary.
Women encounter great social censure for taking civil matters to court. The very fact that a woman has dared to go to court immediately puts her conduct on trial. In fact, her character is on trial.  She is viewed with grave suspicion. There is backlash like boycott & isolation of women who challenge unjust practices. This is enough to scare the bravest. Women’s struggle against injustice, amounts to endurance feats.  What makes it worse is the absence of support structures.
I will read an extract from Pradeep Kumar Panda’s (Centre for Development Studies)   study conducted in Kerala. This clearly indicates the link between violence and women’s property holding. “Ownership of property by a woman reduces violence significantly.  Even some access to an asset, land or house, dramatically reduces the risk of violence.”(Published in The Times of India (2005: 5)
The same study emphasized that the ownership of property by women has a strong negative effect on the violence suffered by them. The study points out that 49 percent of those who do not own property experienced physical violence and 84 percent experienced psychological abuse.   In contrast, those who own both land and house reported substantially less physical violence (report by Katyal, 2003: 5). It was pointed out in this report that women who own houses or property can exercise their options to get out of abusive marriages, and live independently.  Most of the women interviewed admitted their regret not being able to do so.
What we must also bear in mind is the current rate of inflation – which is 7 ½ %. In India, the legal option is the alternative of the Privileged few. Huge legal expenses, the process itself and uncertainty about results, discourage middle and working class women from going to court.  It is easy to see why decades of women’s rights movement has not freed women from fears of backlash.  If women survive in their struggle, they may return with progressive pieces of legislation.
However, the vehement public outrage against accused Manu Sharma’s acquittal, in the Jessica Lall murder trial was an eye opener. It proved beyond doubt that in a democratic society, it’s possible to question redress agencies like the Police and Judiciary.
Women going to court are abandoned by their friends & family. They turn to their advocates for moral & emotional support. Alternative support systems don’t exist. One suggestion would be to consider creating support systems for women within the broader framework of the Judiciary.  This is vital at the time of family breakdowns.  Women and children require sensitive counseling to cope with altered family situations & life styles. 
It may sound ironic – but the Indian family courts were set up with a view to reconciliation. So separating couples are given marriage counseling. There is NO concept of divorce counseling. Nor is there any attempt to find ways how estranged couples can learn coping skills. Specially how to deal with the enormous stress factor of divorce. Vandana Shah – a young divorcee recently released her divorce manual. She runs a support group in Bombay. It’s a small step – but a welcome support gesture. Many more such groups need to address issues important to women. I must add here, that young single women face a far greater degree of social backlash. You need to remember the heart rending film MALENA by Tornatore.
Coming back again to the question of women’s inheritance, I recall late Dr. Julia Leslie’s (SOAS University, U.K.) argument. She believed that Dowry will vanish if daughters are given their actual inheritance share. And that no daughter will hanker after dowry for their economic independence once this happens.
Dr. Leslie pointed out: “I urge that we focus the legal aspects of our campaign on demanding inheritance rights for women.  We need to separate property rights from marriage both in our minds and in reality.  This will cut at the pernicious root of the dowry system.  Once that root is cut, dowry itself will wither away”. 
If indeed DOWRY is so evil and the main villain of the piece –if it is the root cause of daughters being unwanted, their being routinely killed. If dowry turns even a King into a pauper – why don’t we do away with dowry altogether? And give daughters their equal share?  Never mind the family feuds that are likely to follow. We can surely take that risk. Yes, WHY NOT TREAT DAUGHTERS AS EQUALS? It is our daughters who nurture and care for us in our old age.
My wish list is to see daughters as equals… women, wives, mothers, as equals especially in Indian society. And let me say that I agree – wholeheartedly with Dr. Leslie’s argument. Daughters ought to get their equal inheritance.
In the cluster of negative Indian proverbs loaded against women that numb our sensibility, revolt our minds – I found this single exception: Let me share it with all:

Remember that and forget the rest.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.