Land ownership remains highly skewed within our country. The lack of access to land is even more glaring when we look at the minuscule proportion of women who own land in both rural and urban settings. Providing women land ownership is one sure way to address a range of gender-empowerment challenges plaguing our country. It is thus noteworthy that our Ministry of Human Rights has recently launched a public campaign concerning the rights of women to inherit land under Islamic jurisprudence and the Constitution.
The ongoing official campaign aims to not only create awareness about women’s land rights but also to provide free legal advice via a helpline. The ability of a helpline to help ensure that women can secure land ownership is perhaps limited. The ministry thus also plans to create a list of volunteer lawyers in every district to aid people requiring free legal assistance, based on cases reported via its 1099 helpline. The success of this initiative depends on how many lawyers take up cases of women being denied their property rights and whether they can win these cases in court. It would also be useful to spread the news about this facility to poorer segments of society.
To bring religious elements into the fold, the ministry has also uploaded a video message of the chairman of the Islamic Ideology Council (IIC) which asserts that influencing women using familial, social or cultural pressures to give up their lawful right to inheritance violates the laws of Islam and the Quran. This video message should be broadcast via mainstream media and even played at mosques around the country during their Friday sermons to maximise its impact.
Unfortunately, women in our country are being denied the right to inheritance due to a combination of factors. A deep-rooted patriarchal system, biased interpretation of divine directives and the laws of the land, and an inefficient mechanism for implementation of laws all work together to deny women their right to own land in both urban and rural settings.
Under the Muslim Family Law, women have rights to inheritance. They are entitled to acquire property through purchase, inheritance, gifts, will, etc. Additionally, there are other sources of acquisition of property meant solely for women, such as dower, dowry and bridal gifts. Yet, women in our country do not own land in practice.
National laws which provide for women’s landownership rights have so far failed to translate into real change on the ground. Besides longstanding constitutional provisions affirming the right of women to own property, the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill passed in 2011 is specifically aimed at preventing women from inheriting property. Yet, it did not realise that there are many underlying reasons why women do not contest their lack of land ownership.
Many female births and even marriages are often not recorded, which complicates land ownership and inheritance. Even if a woman does inherit land on paper, she will often forgo her share in favour of her brothers, whose support she relies on in times of need. Since brothers often take on the responsibility of providing dowry for their sisters, they stake a claim on her inherited land as compensation.
Moreover, our existing legislation does not have the concept of co-ownership of marital property. Widows customarily lose their right to inheritance if they remarry outside of the family of the deceased husband even though the law prescribes otherwise.
These varied challenges are not easy to overcome, and they do need a multidimensional strategy of awareness raising amongst families to allow women to own land, and amongst women themselves to demand their right to own land. The state must also do its bit to address documentation and other above-mentioned legal impediments which continue to undermine women’s land ownership.
If women in our country can own even half the amount of land that men do, it will lead to a revolutionary change in their economic and decision-making powers.