More equal than others

  • Ensuring equal property rights for women, before and after marriage, could go some way towards eliminating the dowry practice
- SEEMA PANDEY
More equal than others

May 8, 2014-

Rihana Sheikh was brought to the Capital on May 6 after a month and a half of treatment at the Bheri Zonal Hospital for severe burns. Rihana, eight months pregnant, had been doused with kerosene and set on fire by her husband and mother-in-law for not bringing in sufficient dowry. She is currently convalescing at the Bir Hospital with her father and sister beside her, wracked with pain and tormented by the loss of the baby in her womb.

The dowry issue has always been a subject of controversy. Men ostensibly view this practice as a sort of financial assistance for having to take lifetime responsibility for someone else’s daughter. Women rights activists, on the other hand, contend that the dowry system devalues women and contributes to spreading societal evils and encourages domestic violence, mental torture and setting women on fire, as in Rihana’s case. In these cases, a few survive, deformed and handicapped while most others end in death. But dowry has its roots in something broader, related primarily to the rights of women over parental property.

Right to property

A major achievement of the 11th Amendment to the Muluki Ain (1963) on Women’s Right to Property was the enshrining of daughters’ rights to parental inheritance. However, a clause stipulating that the woman would have to return property to her family upon getting married was retained. The amendment also established a wife’s equal rights to her husband’s property immediately after marriage, repealing a requirement that previously stipulated that the wife must have reached 35 years of age and must have been married for 15 years. It further established a widow’s right to claim her share of property after the death of her husband and to use this property even if she gets re-married.

So far so good, but this legal backing does not seem to have provided the required mental and financial security to women. In spite of the law, cases where women have sought their parental property rights are rare and cases where a parent willingly gives property rights to their daughter are even rarer, especially in rural areas. Furthermore, as the law stipulates that the woman must return her property upon marriage, the husband still feels that he has to take all responsibility for his wife.

Economic independence can be a major source of empowerment for everyone, especially women. A woman is still born feeling like a liability, who will be passed on to a husband and her life will be decided depending on whom she will be married to. She knows that as soon as she is married, she won’t have any right over her parental property and the economic dependency of a woman passes on to her husband, putting her in a subordinate position. Certainly, assuring that women have a right to their husband’s property secures something but it doesn’t change the major problem of women being dependent on men, which leads to men assuming the dominant role. While men are treated as a separate entity in the law, women are not. Equal treatment needs to be equal indeed and not just a token measure to temporarily placate citizens.

Misguided priorities

Lawmakers need to understand that it is not hard to make simple changes. If both men and women have equal property rights, a daughter takes away her property but a daughter-in-law brings in her property. Hence, both sexes are happy in a win-win situation. Independent women require ensuring rights over her parental property, the same way men are brought up. Men can rest assured that whether they manage to financially achieve something or not, they still have the refuge of their parents’ property. Women, on the other hand, are still taught to seek their rights from their husbands.

Coming back to the dowry problem, equal property rights would eliminate women’s subordination and the men’s concern of having to bear the burden of supporting a wife. Moreover, one step to eliminate such evils could be to amend our Social Improvement Act 2033 Section 5(2), which allows for dowry up to Rs 10,000. Human rights activists have argued that the dowry system must be completely criminalised and in fact, a writ has been filed at the Supreme Court demanding this very thing. But central to this issue is that without addressing women’s property rights, the dowry practice cannot be eliminated.

It is not unreasonable to see the anti-dowry practice in isolation as a movement possibly derived from a patriarchal mindset, which intends

to not provide any rights to the daughters at all. Getting rid of the dowry practice could be seen as a convenient way to get rid of the daughter without any cost.

Taking responsibility

Similarly, it seems reasonable to assert that women’s rights to parental property even after marriage would diminish the dowry practice. Nevertheless, a more effective anti-dowry law should also come into force. It is quite disappointing to see the tendency of ensuring only rights and not responsibilities to citizens. As the dowry practice is inherited and implemented through society, an immediate action would be to criminalise not only dowry seekers but also those who support the act, be it a family member, a neighbour or anyone else. Anyone witness to a dowry being taken and given should have the responsibility to file a case at the court. A sense of civic responsibility is crucial to fight the system.  

As Rihana Sheikh was being burnt alive at her home, neighbours and relatives, or local leader Rizwan Miya, who tried to convince the victim to report the incident as an ‘accident’, did not reach out to the police to file a complaint. They should bear some responsibility for Rihana’s plight. Similarly, if a police officer refuses to file a case, they should be held responsible. Building civic responsibility would be a major step towards fighting such ingrained forms of gender-based violence.

An anti-dowry law or sensitisation alone cannot change women’s status in society, be it as a daughter or a wife. Only a mixture of both, perhaps through a Civic Responsibility Act, can eliminate such evils from society and give women equal status. Until women are mentally raised as independent beings, she will continue to suffer and be discriminated.

Pandey holds a Masters in International Relations and Political Science from Universidade Fernando Pessoa, Portugal

Published: 09-05-2014 08:32

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