By Mazhar Abbas
May 17, 2020
The significance of right to land is globally acknowledged. For example, Anna Wellenstein-Director at World Bank, emphasises that “Secure land rights are essential for women’s economic empowerment and creating incentives for investment, providing an asset that can be leveraged for agriculture or business development, and offering a solid foundation for financial stability.”
World Bank reports that women in around half of the countries of the world do not control or manage their land even if they somehow receive ownership rights thus making them socially, economically, and politically subservient to men. For example, only 37 out of 161 countries surveyed have definite laws granting equal rights for both genders to own, use, and manage land. Unfortunately, over the centuries this right of women neither appeared on the agenda of several peasant movements nor gained attention in the Marxist/ leftist debates.
Of the total 79.61 million hectares of land in Pakistan, 47.79 percent is agricultural and 27.68 percent is currently under cultivation. While the majority of the population owns little to no land, women are deprived of their due rights even in the limited sphere. For example, a survey, conducted by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific in rural areas of Punjab in 2014, showed that only 36 women out of a thousand surveyed households had entitlement to ownership and out of these only 9 had the power to sell or trade without the permission of their male relatives. Women are doubly suppressed i.e. gender based and class based. That is why the status of women, in our class and caste-based society, is largely diverse across various divides including class, gender, caste, and region-rural/urban-mainly due to patriarchal, feudal, tribal, and capitalist social constructions. In addition, most of the women in this conservative society are charged with the responsibility of maintaining the ‘honour’ of their families by limiting their socioeconomic mobility, political and cultural association, and dress code.
While inheritance is the key instrument of land acquisition for women, they are denied even this right on the account of social and religious norms and values that govern most of the individual and societal practices. Three percent of women, who own agricultural land, are lacking access to agricultural inputs, irrigation water, and right to sell/purchase land. This makes their farming practices less effective. Such problems are not new rather had colonial historical baggage. Historians, for example W. H. Rattingan and David Gilmartin, are of the view that the British rule preferred to govern inheritance through customary rather than Muslim Personal Law (Shari’a), especially in Punjab and Sindh. The custom was that property would only be transferred amongst male members of a family. If there were no male member, the estate would pass on that property to tribe or village community. Various researchers argue that such a strategy was aimed at avoiding fragmentation of land that ensured stability of kinship which, in turn, strengthened the British rule in India.
After partition in 1947, various attempts were made to ensure women rights to land ownership, use, and control. Besides providing constitutional protection, more than two dozen laws have been passed to govern land issues at the national and the provincial. Article 23 of the 1973’s Constitution states that, “every citizen shall have the right to acquire, hold, and dispose of property in any part of Pakistan.” Combined these efforts suggest that a serious attempt was made to get rid of colonial legacy and to reduce gender disparity in property rights. However, religious injunctions, and regional and tribal customs also influence the extent to which the women can get control of their property.
There are discrepancies in laws pertaining to women property rights on the one hand and a stark contrast in theory and practice on the other hand. Firstly, there is no concept of co-ownership of marital property. Secondly, Islamic law grants the payment of dower, however, dower is either deferred or waived off by the wife either at the eve of marriage or later on. Thirdly, a woman surrenders her right to dower if she herself seeks for divorce. Subsequently, she loses her right to access the household land or any other land that was being possessed by her husband’s family.
It was not until the 1980s when the redistributed public land through land reforms was entitled to male-head of the household except few households where widows, rather than adult men, were head of the household. The legislative development gave a few women control over their inherited estates. However, both the genders were promised same rights regarding ownership/entitlement, acquisition, management, administration, and disposition of property whether free of charge or for a valuable consideration when the United Nations declared the ‘1975-1985' as the Decade for Women; Pakistan signed this declaration and a number of other conventions and declarations.
The size of landholding, being a determinant of economic power, political influence, and social status, generates and intensifies the need to keep land within the family. Subsequently, married women are not considered part of their parents’ families after their marriages. On the other hand, these women, if granted inheritance, are forced to relinquish share of their property to their brothers in lieu of dowry. Moreover, such practices secure their kinship relationships to bank upon in time of need. For example, these kinship relationships give them an opportunity to marry their children within the clan. Otherwise, they and their children could be ostracized from the family. In addition to surrendering land in lieu of dowry, births and marriages of several women go unrecorded, which not only complicates but also hurdles their right to land ownership and inheritance. Therefore, though under law they have right to inherit but practically, many women do not inherit land.
There are several cases of coercions, violence and cultural practices such as Haq-Bakhshwana(where women surrender their right to property either forcefully or willingly), cousin marriages and WattaSatta(literal meaning give-take, exchange marriage of a pair of male and female with another pair), and the right of Tanazul (relinquishment) to reclaim the inherited property from women. Thus, exclusion of right to ownership and right to control land further promotes patriarchy and poverty. Besides new interpretations of legal and religious laws and doing away with customs, there is a dire need of a multi-faceted policy of awareness amongst families to allow women to own and control land, and amongst women themselves to demand right to own and control land.
Original Headline: Status of women land rights in Pakistan
Source: The Daily Times, Pakistan