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Three reasons why women deserve a share in inherited property

"The Man is not my Provider. I loathe a stereotype/law that reinforces that.Yes millions of women do need protection. But inherited property?" tweeted an indignant Barkha Dutt, criticising a Cabinet proposal giving a divorced wife an equal share of her husband's property, be it acquired during marriage, inherited, or inheritable.

It was one in a series of over-the-top tweets that seemed to attack the very concept of alimony as shameful:

"Find it tough to support the amendment that gives women right to inherited property post-divorce. What happened to economic self-reliance?Am anti-alimony ( would never accept it) but understand why that protection is needed. But inherited property takes it to whole new level. Instead of encouraging women to be economically independent we are reinforcing marriage as an institution of female dependence."

Reuters

Reuters

The latest news that the proposal has been cleared by the Cabinet must then come as a disappointment for the likes of Dutt who believe that strong, self-respecting women ought to be financially independent and never accept a paisa from their ex-husband. Alimony should instead be viewed as financial aid for the needy, reserved for the powerless, gharelu types who don't possess either the gumption or the resources to provide from themselves.

And in an ideal world, such "dependence" would not be necessary.

This lipstick brand of feminism is a gross misreading of the proposed amendment --- and worse, the very concept of alimony. Here are some reality-based facts that 'girl power' advocates may want to consider:

One, alimony is not charity. A share in marital property in any modern society is a legal compensation of the unpaid work of a woman as wife and mother.

This work allows the man to earn an income, accumulate wealth and property, and play the role of the breadwinner over the course of the marriage. In India, women are often not allowed to work after marriage. When they do work, they usually earn less than men, and therefore become the logical choice for the stay-at-home parent. According to a recent study, in "more than 60 percent of the cases, women claimed that marriage affected their career opportunities, because they either could not work after marriage or were able to work in a limited capacity. In about 85 percent of the cases, separated women 'bear the burden of looking after their children single-handed.'"

So why should we deride a woman who has raised children, tended the home and her husband for demanding an equal share in marital property? For that matter, why should we dismiss a woman who has juggled home and career, pulling the age-old double shift or curbing her income potential for demanding the same -- as long as the share is adjusted to reflect her earnings?

Alimony is not a dirty word. As Ranjana Kumari writes, it reflects the notion that a husband and wife are two halves of a whole: "In this sense women are equal partners and participants in the marriage and, therefore, she should naturally receive 50 percent of property if the marriage is dissolved."

And if women receive alimony more often than men, it is because we live in a lopsided world. It is silly to attack the red herring of alimony. Far better to work toward a more egalitarian future where women will be just as likely to write the settlement checks.

Two, divorce is a financial disaster for women. Indian women may have strong custodial rights over children, but they rarely receive the financial support required to support them. As lawyer Kirti Singh told Firstpost:

Currently, the rights of divorced and separated women are limited. This is primarily because of two causes — women have no place to go once they are separated/ divorced and the maintenance laws are extremely weak… We practice separation of property regime. This means that if the property is in the name of the woman it will belong to her, otherwise it will not. When they get separated they hardly have anything in their name.

Forget property, in most cases, the women do not even receive a maintenance allowance. According to India Ink:

The amount requires authorization from a court and is based on the income of the man. But it is the woman who has to produce evidence of her spouse’s earnings before the court. In India, where tax authorities estimate just 3 percent of the population pays personal income tax, and “black money” or under-the-table cash is common, the man’s actual earnings are often hidden, Ms. [Kirti] Singh says. Additionally, the wife may not have access to documents that prove what her husband earns, Ms. Singh says. Even if she does, the maintenance amounts are tiny. Citing courtroom experience, Ms. Singh says judges generally fix a share of 2 percent to 10 percent of the husband’s annual earnings for maintenance amounts.

Literally left without a roof over their head or earnings to support their children, women are forced to live with parents or siblings where they are treated as an embarrassing burden. Contrary to Dutt's assertion, Indian women are more dependent and helpless because our alimony laws are weak and ineffective.

Three, property in India is 'inherited' or 'inheritable' -- but only by men. At first blush, the notion of having to divide inherited or inheritable property seems grossly unfair. A spouse ought to have a claim on wealth created or acquired during the course of a marriage. But why should anyone have to share property that belongs to the family, or was inherited from the same?

According to experts in this NDTV discussion, the new amendment is limited to residential property -- i.e. the property in which the family resides. The home is very often inherited by the husband or in the case of a joint family, remains in the name of his parents. Divorce then becomes an excuse to push the woman out of the house. Since daughters don't inherit property from their natal family, she is left without any property in her name.

The proposed law merely ensures that the husband has to compensate the wife with 50 percent of his share in any such home.

Kabir Bedi also points out on NDTV, that in rural areas, fudging ownership on land papers -- putting it in the name of other family members -- is a standard way to deny a woman her rightful share of the husband's property. In a country, there are countless ways to not disclose income or property and the divorce laws are rigged against women getting any kind of maintenance.

But we should also note that the Ministry of Women and Child Development opposes recognising a woman’s right to inheritable or inherited property as it will "entangle" her in extended litigation involving the spouse's entire family. Unfair or not, it is just plain unworkable.

"We should be working toward making laws that are equitable for women without being extortionist of men," Bedi said on NDTV.

Attacking alimony as a form of female weakness isn't going to do it.