Does giving women legal rights to property, particularly agricultural land, necessarily empower them and heighten gender equity? In some development narratives, this claim has become something of an axiomatic truth. Combining an interdisciplinary approach and rich ethnographic data this book provides compelling arguments that question both this assumption and the notion of gender equity underpinning it. Mondal’s study focuses on inheritance specifically. This is the legal mechanism used by the postcolonial Indian state to ‘deliver’ property rights for women but, as she carefully shows, is also a highly distinct form of property transfer, mediated through intimate, complex and diachronic relationships rather than market logics.
Mondal’s core argument is that legal reforms relating to women’s inheritance have produced an understanding of gender that sits in tension with the much broader conceptions, and experiences, of gendered subjecthood that animate how people think about inheritance ‘in real life’. This is much more than an argument about ‘disconnect’ between law and lived experience. Mondal shows clearly how legal reform has been deeply informed by the ‘moral logics’ of domestic relationships and inheritance. Nor is it simply an issue of women being unable to access their legal rights. The courts are not absent from the lives of those whom she observes in her ethnographic data, but she finds that the way that villagers understand and legitimise their stakes in inheritance, discussed in terms of shares and ‘recognition’, sits so awkwardly with the legal language of rights that the law is seen as a poor tool to address injustice in these matters. It is thus not detachment but internal friction within legal discourse that makes it ‘inadequate’ for enabling gender justice. This leads Mondal to ask “how we can rethink gender relations and gender justice in terms other than those of rights with special reference to inherited property, where inheritance is understood as a distinct property relation with a moral axis”. (p. 5)
The book is divided into two different parts. The first part, titled ‘Property rights and the state’ critically examines how the framework of liberal rights has been used to negotiate gender equality as a project situated between the state, family and law in post-colonial India. The second part of the book presents a close and sensitive reading of the intimate domestic bonds and moral logics that shape how the residents of Debshala village, in West Bengal, both male and female, think and talk about claims to family property, including land.
Bringing together political theory and legal histories, the two chapters in part one explore the logics that enable the emancipatory claims of ‘feminist rights-based politics’ while also exposing the limits and internal tensions of legal reform. Focused on the liberal rights bearing subject, rights-based politics produces a very narrow conception of emancipation as the acquisition of as many individual rights as possible. Through the historic evolution of liberalism, individual rights to property are seen both as the most crucial form of rights to acquire, as well as the basis of individual subjectivity in the first place. Feminist rights-based politics interprets gender justice through this framework, a process that Mondal drawing on Goodale1, describes as the “juridification of gender” (p. 19).
However, the complexity of social relations, and the legal system itself, means that rights are framed in multiple intersecting but also inconsistent ways across different forms of legislation. Mondal highlights these inconsistencies within Hindu personal law, the legal system governing inheritance for India’s majority community, but also between this system and other forms of non-religious, civil legislation, particularly the 2007 Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act. Thus, Mondale, argues, feminist rights-based politics has produced an understanding of female subjecthood and emancipation that is both too narrow, and internally fraught.
The three chapters that make up the second part of the book move away from legal discourse to understand how the residents of Debshala conceive of land, inheritance and gendered subjectivities. Chapter 3 examines the social meaning and performance of landownership, chapter 4 provides case studies of the small number of women in Debshala who do own land and the final chapter looks at understandings of inheritance amongst Debshala women, and men, who do not own land. This latter group make up the largest section of the community in Debshala, which comprises a range of jatis (groups within the caste system), including a Santal tribal community. Caste politics intersects with class and the pull of non-rural jobs and living. The majority of families do not own land, and those that do all hold small plots, the vast majority of which are 5 acres or below. There are a small number of Brahmans in the village but the dominant landholding group are Kayasthas.
Through the three different chapters Mondal examines how access to family property, particularly agricultural land, does not lie outside gender relations, “rather ownership is in itself a relation whose meaning and pattern is profoundly embedded in and manifested through gender relations and kin-work” (p. 173). Ownership, and access to family resources, rests on the performance of domestic service, forms of labour that are differentiated by gender but also by generation and marital status. Women, and men’s, household role changes as they age and through their relationship to the household unit, through death and divorce. Rather than rights, Mondal uses the language of reciprocity to describe these relationships that involve cycles of unrepayable indebtedness: children are forever indebted to their parents, but can go on to receive from their own children.
Across all three chapters, Mondal shows how the focus on individual claims in legal rights rubs up against the operation of claims and shares within the dynamic domestic cycle. Women are most able to access land, and other forms of inheritance, not by breaking free from patriarchal family structures but by operating through them, gaining legitimacy as wives or daughters-in-law. This also means that female family member’s claims to land are just as likely to be opposed by other female relations as by men, especially if they are framed in terms of a ‘personal’ or individual claim. This is not ‘false consciousness’ but an attempt to secure justice within the logics of the domestic moral framework.
The book does an impressive job of revealing the inadequacy of a rights-based approach to inheritance for delivering gender justice as well as sensitively unpacking alternative ways of understanding inheritance and gendered subjectivity. The question of what gender justice could look like, refocused around the moral axis of inheritance Mondal describes, is not fully answered, however and remains, a daunting task. However, in laying out the stakes of the issue so fully and clearly, this book takes a crucial step forward in this important work.
1 Mark Goodale, Anthropology and Law. A Critical Introduction, New York 2017.