Women’s Inheritance Rights – Part 2


For more great art by Sally Nixon, click here.

In my last post, I talked about how gender-discriminatory inheritance rights have been in the past. While the situation has improved in a large number of countries, the world is still far from equal. That said, based on the experience so far, what have we learnt about the effects of policies that equalize inheritance rights between sons and daughters, husbands and wives, men and women? There isn’t a whole lot of credible evidence on this from different regions of the world but let me tell you what we do know.


Let’s consider India’s example. Inheritance laws in India differ by religion. A vast majority of the population (i.e., Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists) are governed by what is called the 1956 Hindu Succession Act (HSA). While HSA was an improvement over the traditional religious doctrines that were totally gender-biased, it too was not that great in reality. For instance, if a father died without a will, his daughters did not have any rights over his ancestral property. Daughters were given equal inheritance rights over the father’s “separate” property, i.e., property that he did not inherit from his paternal ancestors. But keep in mind that in India ancestral property, e.g., agricultural land, comprises a huge chunk (84% by some estimates) of family wealth! And a lot of fathers die without a will (65 to 80%)!

And what about the widowed wife? While she had a share in her husband’s separate property, like her daughters she too did not inherit any ancestral property—be it her husband’s or her father’s. Given that Indian women still have a low labor force participation rate, it is not hard to understand why Indian widows live in such terrible circumstances.


Some states in India amended these laws over time. The southern-most state Kerala abolished joint family property altogether in 1976. Four other southern states (Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Karnataka) did not go that far, but granted daughters equal rights over ancestral property to daughters. In 2005, the rest of the country caught up as well and the HSA was amended nationwide.

So what were the effects of these amendments? Several researchers have tried to examine the impact of the first generation of reforms in the five south Indian states. Sanchari Roy, an economist at the University of Sussex, finds that they DID NOT increase daughters’ likelihood of inheriting any land! Instead, after the reforms, fathers were more likely to strategically “gift” their land to the sons so as to circumvent these new laws! Daughters, however, were “compensated.” Younger daughters were given more education and girls about to get married received higher dowries as a substitute for their share in ancestral property.

Why would fathers do that? Well, apart from any inherent gender biases, this could be because they want to keep the land “within their family”. Typically, once a daughter gets married, she leaves her parents’ home and joins her husband’s family in another village or city. This means that any land that’s given to a daughter is effectively being passed on to another family. Moreover, the more claimants there are, the more fragmented the property gets. If each child inherits a smaller piece of land, it might not be the most efficient way to cultivate the already small landholdings that Indian farmers possess. And may be giving a daughter education is a better gift than a piece of land that her husband can seize from her control?


Another study by Siwan Anderson also uses the same set-up and finds that better inheritance rights for women increased marital conflict and domestic violence, and led to more suicides for both men and women in India! By the way, did you know that suicide is the second leading cause of death among young Indians?


So what do these papers tell us? Despite being highly contextual, a broad takeaway from these studies is that the world is a complicated place. Even well-intentioned and obviously good policies almost never yield straightforward results. As researchers, we try to focus on a narrow question (a “partial” analysis) and try to tease out the most unbiased effect on a particular outcome. But what does the big picture effect look like? Only time will tell?


All images in this post belong to Sally Nixon.




On feminism


The entrance of the National Association Against Woman Suffrage’s headquarters

One of my pet-peeves is people claiming that they agree with the premise of equal gender rights, but that they don’t identify as feminists. Aziz Ansari conveys my thoughts quite clearly:

“If you believe that men and women have equal rights, if someone asks if you’re feminist, you have to say yes because that is how words work. You can’t be like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m a doctor that primarily does diseases of the skin.’ ‘Oh, so you’re a dermatologist?’ ‘Oh no, that’s way too aggressive of a word! No no not at all not at all.’ ” — Aziz Ansari

Photo credit: Library of Congress


Women’s Inheritance Rights – Part 1


Women! / Equal Rights – Equal obligations / Selects Social Democrats! 1919
Draft: Fritz Gottfried Kirchbach

Historically, women have had abysmally unequal inheritance rights and, in some countries, that’s the case even today. Those of you who watched the Downton Abbey might remember the Grantham family’s quandary in Season 1 about who would inherit the family title and the property since Lord Grantham and Lady Cora did not have a son. What made the situation even more ironic was the fact that a large portion of the property was brought in, as dowry perhaps, by Lady Cora when she married Lord Grantham. In the absence of a son, the primogeniture rules implied that both the title and the property would be inherited by the closest male relative in the patrilineal line. So, the best option that would ensure that the Grantham fortune could be “inherited” by the Grantham girls was to get one of the daughters married to this closest-male-heir, i.e., Matthew. Luckily, all turned out well, and Mary fell in love with and married Matthew, and even though Matthew died soon after, he left the family with a son, preventing another arranged marriage.

TV dramas and human rights aside, why do we care about unequal inheritance rights? A big reason is that inheritance is a major determinant of asset ownership or wealth status, which in turn affects our ability to borrow, among other things. So gender biases in inheritance laws can lead to income and other inequalities by gender for a long time. Women comprise 70% of the world’s poorest people and own 1% of the titled land; these two facts are related.

The disinherited status of women has always been closely tied to marriage. Historically, under Roman Law and British common law, single men and women had the same property rights, but a married woman was considered an extension of her husband. So, a wife’s inheritance became a husband’s property and women could not leave a will. The property rights of widows were, in fact, stronger than those of married women. Under the Doctrine of Couverture, wives lost the right to manage any real property (i.e., immovable property, such as land) they had brought into a marriage and lost control over any personal (i.e., movable) property they owned, including any wages or salaries they might earn after marriage! If the couple separated, the husband continued to control his wife’s property, including any income from her real property and her salary! No wonder marriage has been so essential for women’s well-being for ever. Thankfully, reforms began around mid-to-late 19th century.

Women in countries that used Roman law, e.g., France, Spain, and most of Latin America, retained ownership of their personal property upon marriage, but the management of their real property passed to their husbands. If the marriage ended for any reason, women retained their own individual property, both real and personal, as well as half of the community property. Under Islamic law, married women also retained a legal personality and could own, inherit, and bequeath property. So in terms of women’s inheritance rights, Islamic law > Roman law > British common law.

So what happens when inheritance rights are equalized? More on that in the next post.

P.S. An interesting tidbit from Wikipedia: “As recently as 1972, two US states allowed a wife accused in criminal court to offer as a legal defense that she was obeying her husband’s orders.”

Image courtsey: Duetsches Historiches Museum

Pink vs. Blue


As a thirty-something, I have several friends who either already have children or will soon reproduce some. Consequently, the pink-versus-blue discussion frequently pops up in my personal and social media conversations these days. Like me, most of my friends do not believe in color-coordinating their offspring with the Pottery Barn Kids catalogue. Even so, it only takes a visit to a children’s store or a scroll through the baby shower photos of an acquaintance to be reminded that Pink is for Girls and Blue is for Boys is Still Real.

An unfortunate result of this pink-and-blue paradigm is that most of my female friends say they hate pink, while the rest go the other way and proclaim their love for pink as a step towards reclaiming their feminity. This reaction is not so different from feminists’ dilemma about other traditionally female objects, spheres, and roles, such as heels, makeup, hair removal, cooking, and becoming a homemaker. My equality-minded male friends, on the other hand, respond by wearing pink shirts.

Why can’t we just leave them colors (and babies) alone? And, how did this madness start in the first place?

It wasn’t always so.

Long ago, I read this article in the Smithsonian Magazine and learnt that, if anything, as recently as 1927, it was “pink for the boys, and blue for the girls.” This color paradigm was eventually reversed during the 1940s, but it could have as easily stayed the other way around.

As the Feminist movement gained momentum, clothing, including children’s, became more neutral and unisex during the 60s and the 70s. Things stayed that way until the mid-80s when the arrival of ultrasound technology allowed parents to learn the sex of the fetus, and to paint their nurseries and to set up baby registries in appropriate colors, bringing back the pink-and-blue color binary.

So does this really matter?

First, this has nothing to do with pink or blue specifically; it could as easily have been yellow versus green. In fact, the issues would be the same even if pink was the boys’ color and blue had been for girls. So, you really don’t need to hate pink, lest you are sure that you naturally dislike it.

Second, the real issue is about associating a particular color with a specific gender and reinforcing natural gender differences or synthetically creating gender differences where none exist.

Third, color binaries hurt children of all genders whose tastes and likes do not conform to the social norm. In a pink-and-blue world, a boy who loves pink is quite likely to face ridicule from his young peers who are raised to believe that “pink is a girls’ color.”

Fourth, even if the color binary was harmless on its own in terms of its effects on children, we know that it is part of a world that has gender-biased toy stores that promote Barbies for girls and scientific toys for boys and animated movies where girls hardly speak and are forever cast as princesses that need rescuing. So, it reflects a systematic and systemic problem in how we raise our children.

Lastly, are girls naturally more inclined than boys to like pink-er colors? Apparently not. A 2010 study of 120 infants, although small, found that “There were no significant sex differences in infants’ preferences for different colors… Instead, both girls and boys preferred reddish colors over blue…”

A number of stores are abandoning this so-called “toy shop gender apartheid,” but not enough. Meanwhile, I try to stay neutral and enjoy certain shades of both blue and pink. And, as far as baby gifts are concerned, there are always other colors to choose from.



Image courtsey: Jezebel