Hidden Stories of Women's Empowerment and Plight for Justice: A Critical Review of Land Rights of Women in West Bengal, India
This study locates itself in the broader context of women’s relation to land, examining how this relationship manifests their legal and actual empowerment. Ten years after passage of the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005, which celebrates the Constitutional value of egalitarianism and promises to promote gender equality via women’s property rights, my project aims to identify continuing gaps between heterogeneous customs and law. In a still continuing patrilocal-patrilineal framework married women, especially in rural India, are expected to relocate and live with their husbands in the latters’ family holdings. There, they develop economic, emotional and symbolic ties to land (including agricultural land) that legally and socially (according to custom) belongs to their new, matrimonial families which they cannot own or inherit as wives. The Amendment Act 2005 grants married and unmarried daughters equal inheritance right in their natal families, but it does not consider their de facto ability to exercise those rights. A close reading of the 2005 Succession Amendment, as well as the Hindu Succession Act 1956, is needed to explore how this lived social reality is addressed by such laws, and whether the formal, legal provision to endorse property rights of women in fact promotes real women’s interests. By analyzing ethnographic data derived from interviews and participatory observation in the district of Bardhhaman in West Bengal, India, my study aims to answer the following research questions: What is women’s relation to land, and how do they understand that relation? How does formal land ownership enhance (or not) women’s empowerment – understood as self-sufficiency and self-determination, at least comparable to males? How relevant is land ownership as such for rural women in a society whose power dynamics remain generally fractured along gender lines? To what extent are the Hindu Succession Law(s) effective in realizing distributive justice and, thereby, contributing to women’s empowerment and welfare?