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Women`s land rights hindered by customs

By Peerzada Salman

KARACHI: The 11th Hamza Wahid memorial lecture delivered by Dr Saba Gul Khattak on the topic of `Friction between customs and religion – possibilities of women`s land rights` organised by Irtiqa Institute of Social Sciences went down well with the audience at the PMA House on Tuesday. The event was presided over by retired Justice Majida Rizvi.

Dr Khattak is an Islamabad-based researcher and social thinker. Though her research on the topic was country-wide, she confined the lecture to two tehsils of the Swat valley when it hadn`t been hit by violence, terming the period `before the havoc happened`. She set out by giving information on the valley with the help of slides and said it was a mountainous piece of land, only one-fifth being arable. She showed houses of the relatively well-off people made with migrant money and followed it with the subject of land claims in connection with violence against women. She said her research was based on interviews and focus groups.

She segmented the presentation into male and female perceptions on the issue and claimed that a majority of the male population considered land as an identity marker and very few thought of it as a source of earning. She said it was after 1930 that land ownership came about in Swat; before that every 10 years tribes moved from one place to another. She said during the research she found out that 85 per cent men thought women had the right to own land, 62 per cent believed they could exercise control over it by subcontracting it etc and 13 per cent opposed it. Sixty-two per cent said women needed men`s help in taking care of land, which was why they didn`t claim it. Also, it would socially ostracise them.

Discussing qualitative findings, Dr Khattak said landless peasants opposed it saying if women had land they`d be empowered, kick out their husbands, and their sexual agency would be active, which would destroy the social order of society. Subsistence farmers said religion had given women the right to claim and own land, but since there`s no sharia in the whole of the country it couldn`t be applied partially. She argued that`s how religion and customs were used to suit their purpose.

Talking about women`s perception, Dr Khattak said they had a nuanced understanding of ownership, and because of `protection` they wouldn`t like to upset their brothers or fathers. While getting married, class was more important to women than land. For most of them dowry wasn`t considered a compensation for inheritance rights. She said land wasn`t the reason for violence against women, and mobility of women was related to class. Poorer women would be seen moving about, while a little better off wouldn`t be seen in bazaars and would only visit relatives. She said there was a notion that women got freer once they became old, but even that didn`t guarantee power.

Dr Khattak said in her research she discovered that men were of the view that women who could inherit land didn`t have enough knowledge how to take care of it, and those who had the knowledge didn`t claim ownership. She said there was selective reliance on jirgas and more on the judiciary. She maintained women should be given the sense of social protection through different methods which could make a difference in their social status.

During the question-answer session Dr Khattak was asked to clarify what she meant by friction between customs and religion, to which she replied that while religion allowed women to claim land, it`s as per customs that it`s not seen in favourable light, which created tensions between communities.

Retired Justice Majida Rizvi in her presidential address lauded Dr Khattak`s presentation and said it was good that the lecture took place in the month of March, because March 8 was International Women`s Day. She said we should respect each other`s rights, and then pointed out certain flaws in the system which created unevenness in society. She said an empowered woman would never cause her family to disintegrate. She emphasised the need for having mother`s name on important national documents, and said voices must be raised against patriarchal mentality.

Prior to the speeches Dr Jaffer Ahmed gave the background to the Hamza Wahid series of lectures, which began in 2001 in memory of Hamza Wahid who was a social activist and a conscientious, enlightened teacher.

Source: Dawn