NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 33

The struggle for women’s inheritance rights

Khalida Bibi had to face tremendous family pressure, particularly from her own mother and two elder sisters, when she refused to give away her inheritance share in 25-acre agricultural land and a shop at the Ghalla Mandi (Grain Market) in Hasilpur in favour of her two brothers. All five siblings of Khalida, including herself, had been married off when her father passed away.

After the Chaleeswan (the fortieth day after death) of her father, her mother asked Khalida and other two daughters to submit an affidavit ‘voluntarily’ stating that they didn’t want any share in the properties of their father. Her two sisters agreed to the suggestion readily, but Khalida didn’t. She believed that she had an equal right to her father’s properties, like her brothers. Another reason for her refusal was her husband’s poor financial situation, who had remained bed-ridden for years after a major accident. However, her insistence on not giving away her inheritance right earned her displeasure of the family and a social boycott by her sisters and brothers.

Prof. Dr. Raana Malik says Khalida’s case is not unique or only one case of its kind. In fact, it’s the story of every second family in our society, believes the director of the Department of Gender Studies, University of the Punjab, Lahore. She says that Pakistan has already enacted laws to end discrimination against women, but their implementation needs further measures. A large majority of people are still not ready to accept and implement laws enacted against the cultural and social traditions, she says.

Dr. Raana Malik says discrimination against women begins from the moment a baby girl is born in a family. Contrary to the celebrations carried out on the birth of a baby boy, most families feel aggrieved if a baby girl is born. During their early years of age, girls have to face discrimination at every stage in typical Pakistani families, the expert on gender studies says. Even mothers, who themselves are women, give better food, better clothing and a more comfortable environment to their male offspring than their daughters in their homes, she explains.

Pakistan currently ranks the second lowest country in the world for gender equality, according to the Global Gender Gap Index. Although efforts to promote gender equality are apparent within Pakistan’s Vision 2025, there is still much more to be done to improve the realities for women and girls across the country, says Umme Laila Azhar, director HomeNet Pakistan. She says that gender discrimination or gender bias is deeply rooted in Pakistani society, hampering the socio-economic growth of the country.

The working women rights activist says that gender-wise, boys outnumber girls at every stage of education. According to the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) Annual Report, 22.84 million out-of-school children include 12.16 million girls, which accounts for 55% of the total ratio of both boys and girls. Illiteracy among young girls deprives them of their basic rights because they are unable to get adequate knowledge of such rights offered by education or schooling, she believes. Social indicators show how vulnerable women still are. For example, the female literacy rate is 49% against the male literacy rate of 71%. The female literacy rate is lower in rural areas at just 38%. Pakistan has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the region, she regrets.

Agha Intizar Ali Imran, advocate Supreme Court of Pakistan, says although the principle of equality is enshrined in Article 25 of the Constitution, customary practices, such as women’s seclusion under purdah, foster male domination both within the family and within society. He says that Article 23 of the Constitution gives women the legal right to own and dispose of property; however, according to customary practices, women have only usufructuary rights over land. Even when women do own property, it is the husband who manages it.

Also, the legal expert in criminal and family laws says that the 1962 West Pakistan Muslim Personal Law Shariat Application Act entitles Muslim women to inherit all property, including agricultural property, under customary law, most women do not inherit property. Social pressures from the family and fear of isolation may lead women to forfeit their share. When they do inherit, women often receive far less than their legal inheritance entitlement, he regrets. Agha Imran believes more vigilance and more awareness are needed to end discrimination against women in our society completely.