NationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 37

Inheritance – No end to woman vulnerability

Nighat Nawaz Chaudhry was shocked by the reply of her younger brother when she asked him to hand over her share in the inherited commercial shop, as she was going to build her own house on a plot, purchased by her husband in Lahore.

“You should have received your share in the shop at that time. Now forget about it,” her brother told her bluntly. The big shop was situated in the main bazaar of Sialkot, and its market value about 20 years ago, when her father had divided his property among his children, was around 7-8 lakh rupees. Before his death, Nighat Chaudhry’s father had divided his property among all his children. Their house, according to the family head, could only be sold after the passing away of both father and mother, for getting their share in the proceeds. However, two big shops in the main bazaar were divided by the family head among his two sons and two daughters.

Newly-wed at that time, Nighat Nawaz Chaudhry told her brother to continue with his gold jewellery business in the shop, and she would ask for her share later on, when she would feel the need for it. However, in 2019, when she planned construction of her house in Lahore, where her husband was working for a private company, her brother flatly refused to give her share in the shop. When Nighat sought intervention by her siblings, after pursuance of almost one year, the man said he would give her sister money according to the shop price, estimated 20 years ago. The current cash value of the shop has climbed to a whooping over Rs. 12 million from less than one million rupees at the time of division of the inherited property. The poor woman is making an all-out effort to get her rightful share in her father’s property with the help of her other family members, as she does not want to drag her brother into a court of law.

This is a reality that despite the presence of various old laws, and enactment of new ones, the practice of acquiring property rights for women in the country is not effortless. A survey conducted in January 2017 and released in a press release by the non-governmental AGHS Legal Aid Cell, 80% of women reported not getting their legal share in inheritance.

The report said that the denial and inaccessibility of property shares to women was the highest in Balochistan, as restrictions on selection of profession was 66%, selection of spouse 77.1%, freedom of travelling 66.13%, problem in keeping contacts with others 64.97% and the denial of the right to inheritance was 100%. In Balochistan, no inheritance for women exists where especially male offspring are part of the family.

Also, according to the Demographic and Health Survey 2017-18, “97% of women across Pakistan did not inherit land or a house, while 1% each inherited agricultural land and a house. Less than 1% of women inherited non-agricultural plots or residential plots.”

Maulana Muhammad Fayaz, a senior cleric, says that the provision of inheritance is integral in Islam. The Holy Quran says “Allah thus commands you concerning your children: the share of the male is like that of two females. If (the heirs of the deceased are) more than two daughters, they shall have two-thirds of the inheritance; and if there is only one daughter, then she shall have half the inheritance (4:11).”

Agha Intizar Ali Imran, a Supreme Court lawyer, says various laws of the land give Pakistani women full protection as far as the issue of inheritance is concerned. The West Pakistan Muslim Personal Law, also known as the Shariat Act 1962 and the Muslim Family Law Ordinance of 1961, protect the rights of all legal heirs, including women, the chairman of Agha Law Excellence, explains.

In a special talk with the writer, the senior lawyer said that Section 498-A of the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act of 2011 (Criminal Law Amendment), clearly states that depriving women of inheriting property by deceitful or illegal means was a punishable offence. The culprit would be punished with imprisonment which might extend to a time period of 10 years, but not less than five years, explained the author of various law books. The convicted person might be fined one million rupees and imprisoned at the same time.

Agha Imran Advocate said amendments were made to inheritance laws in 2012 and 2015, and there was no time limit for any affected woman. She could file an inherited property claim at any age, the lawyer says. Lately, the government of Pakistan enacted the Enforcement of Women’s Property Rights Act 2021. The ethos behind the enactment of the law was to provide women with a separate forum to agitate their complaints before an ombudsperson, where matters related to property could be resolved speedily. The Act has also been adopted by the provinces.

However, the real issue is the country’s family culture and social system, which hinders women from approaching such forums for getting their rightful share in the inherited properties. In fact, very few cases are actually brought to the notice of courts, regrets the senior lawyer. The Enforcement of Women’s Property Rights Act 2021 can be ground-breaking in providing women speedy access to justice if it is implemented correctly, believes Agha Imran. Its success depends on a true understanding of the ethos and purpose behind its enactment and on the setting up of a proper referral mechanism from the ombudsperson to the courts, he adds. However, first and foremost, the Act must survive the tests of vires in the courts – and must exist – if it is to dispense justice to women, he explains.