Women’s right to property and inheritance in Hunza

women's right to inheritance in Hunza

by Rozina Ahmed

Debate over women’s right to property and inheritance in Pakistan, in general, and in Gilgit-Baltistan, in particular, is commonplace in mainstream media, social media, and political circles. Although women’s right to property and inheritance is mandated by Islamic Shariah as well as the Constitution of Pakistan, it is rarely honored in practice. Even in regions where the literacy rate is high, many women remain deprived of their fundamental rights including the right to property and inheritance.     

In this article, I interrogate social, cultural, and historical practices of inheritance and property in Hunza, which is often depicted as a ‘liberal” and “enlightened” society with high literacy. What are the impediments to securing fundamental rights for women in Hunza? What are the causes of gender inequality in society? What are the underlying reasons for women’s disempowerment and why are they forced into coercion and servitude?  

To answer these burgeoning questions and understand the patriarchal system, accumulation, and distribution of wealth and private property, we need to understand the origin of the family and private property.   

The origin of the family and private property 

The organization of family and private property came into being at the start of the written history of the agricultural era. Economic factors, resource control, and production as well as reproduction caused the transformation of primitive communities into class-based societies. According to Fredrick Engels and the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan who championed the land rights of Native Americans, the first domestic institution in human history was the matrilineal clan. Writing shortly after Marx’s death, Engels stressed the theoretical significance of the matrilineal clan. Women lived and worked together in communal households and felt strong bonds of solidarity with one another, enabling them when necessary to act against uncooperative males.  

According to Morgan, the rise of alienable property disempowered women by triggering a switch to patrilocal residence and patrilineal descent. It thus reversed the position of the wife and mother in the household. Her new condition tended to subvert and destroy that power and influence. 

Morgan emphasized the importance of social relations of power and control over material resources rather than the supposed psychological deficiencies of “primitive” people. In the eyes of both Morgan and Engels, terms such as “savagery” and “barbarism” were respectful and honorific, not negative.  

The consanguine family is the first stage of the family and as such a primary indicator of our superior nature in comparison with animals. In this state, marriage groups are separated according to generation. The husband-and-wife relationship is immediately and communally assumed between the male and female members of one generation.  

Property and economics thus began to play a larger part in the family, as a pairing family had responsibility for the ownership of specific goods and property. Women became keepers of the household and guardians of legitimacy. Engels refers to this economic advantage for men coupled with the lack of rights of women to lay claim to possessions for themselves or their children (who became hers after a separation) as the overthrow of mother-right which was “the world historical defeat of the female sex”. He attributed this to the onset of farming and pastoralism. For Engels, ownership of property created the first significant division between men and women in which the woman was inferior.  

According to Engels, bourgeois law dictates the rules for relationships and inheritances. As such, two partners, even when their marriage is not arranged, will always have the preservation of inheritance in mind and as such will never be entirely free to choose their partner. Engels argues that a relationship based on property rights and forced monogamy will only lead to the proliferation of immorality and prostitution.  

The social revolution which Engels believed was about to happen would eliminate class differences, and therefore also the need for prostitution and the enslavement of women. If men needed only to be concerned with sex and love and no longer with property and inheritance, then monogamy would come naturally.  

According to Marx “The modern family contains in germ not only slavery (servitude) but also serfdom since from the beginning it is related to agricultural services. It contains in miniature all the contradictions that later extend throughout society and its state.” 

Philosophers and anthropologists argue that primitive societies were matriarchal in nature with no concept of private property. The concept of private property started with the advent of the agricultural era which gave birth to slavery, subjugation, accumulation of wealth, and coercion, leading to capitalism. The accumulation and transfer of inheritance from one generation to another continues today. The male member(s) of a family get(s) almost all or a lion’s share of inheritance.  

One of Marx’s most central concerns was to analyze the effects of this form of property rights and the consequent form of social relations of production as they affect individuals’ abilities to develop their human powers and satisfy their real human needs.  

He described the fragmentation of the production process through commodity exchange, the transformation of the means of production as well as the products of productive activity into commodities, and the transformation of the human productive activity itself into a commodity, by a single term – alienation.
Alienation reflects the fact that capitalist commodity production fragments and dissociates the productive life processes of individuals.  

Historically and theoretically speaking, the accumulation of wealth and property requires dispossessing others. We are born into social groups, and we depend on social groups to survive. We are productive in social groups – hunting, growing, fishing, and building.

Right to property and inheritance in Hunza 

In Hunza, patriarchal control is strong where men get all the inheritance and women are denied their share in inheritance. The justification for denying the share is either preserving the ancestral land or women’s exogamy.  

Women’s share in property is guaranteed in the Constitution of Pakistan, the Family Law, 1961, and in the customary law of the defunct Hunza state. Neither of the above-mentioned provisions is honored and followed there even though awareness about their rights has substantially increased among women – thanks to the high literacy rate in Hunza. For the last four decades, women’s education has increased markedly. Education has been declared one of the basic rights and compulsory for every citizen in the Constitution of Pakistan and the United Nations charter of Human Rights. Yet inheritance for women remains conspicuous by its absence.  

Women are like a nomad owning nothing. Firstly, they do not even have their own identity. They are identified with the name of their fathers or husbands’, but they belong nowhere.  

 There is no feeling of belongingness of a woman with the land. Historically women have worked as unpaid laborers on the lands for livelihood but never got any wage for the labor or ownership of the land. 

Right to land gives economic stability and social connectivity to a woman. Owning a piece of land grants economic independence to a woman. However, most women are compelled to live in abusive relationships because they are not given their due share in land and property.  

They do not have any place in society and a place to live independently; they are not accepted by the male members of the family — whether their in-laws or parents’ family — especially if they are uneducated and not earning. In case they are accepted, it will be just for domestic work and having no status in the family. Such cases also lead to suicide. Giving her a share in the inheritance will secure her economically and socially.  

Currently, Hunza is becoming a business hub; big business tycoons are in a mad rush to buy land, especially in tourist resorts; they build multi-story buildings without any plan while totally disregarding local ecology and customary laws. The non-locals are buying lands either on lease or ownership by offering exorbitant amounts. In this process, women have no say or share in the proceeds of the deal. Since women have no share in the land hence, they are not the direct beneficiary.  

Land grabbing and other rapacious business practices are not only widening class contradictions in an otherwise egalitarian society but also exacerbating gender divisions. Women don’t have any share in big hotels and business entities. Small businesses are run by women without any claim to ownership; accounts and finance are managed by male members of the family. In small businesses like guest houses women are doing all the labor work and don’t get any share in the profit. They don’t even know where the money goes. 

The denial of the inheritance right has a huge impact on women — divorced, widow, or single. Divorced women have nowhere to go especially if uneducated and not earning. They are a ‘burden’ on the family. Remarrying becomes an option not by will but because there is little alternative to seeking out a new patriarch. The condition of a widow is even worse, especially if she has no children or brothers. There is a third category now of women staying single. 

The justification for denying the share of women by men to preserve the ancestral land and women’s exogamy is not valid now as men are selling the ancestral lands and women who are educated, and earning are buying lands in their native villages and breaking the taboo already. Women are getting aware of their rights and claiming their rights. Women want to stay connected to their ancestral land and this can only happen if she owns a piece of land. The land is considered the symbol of honor and power in a patriarchal society and it’s a masculine trait. Only men owning land is strengthening patriarchy and oppressing women more.  

Currently, there are women who are highly educated and earning better and have bought land and it’s registered in their name. Historically women have claimed their rights, but the control and authority are still with the men in the family. Women own the land, but they have no say in the decision-making and management of the land.  There are women who are married out of the region, but they are claiming their rights and, in a few cases, have got their share. 

The patriarchal justification is no more valid now as men are selling ancestral lands and women buying ancestral land. The concerned authorities need to either extend the laws to the region or reform the customary laws and make them more inclusive. The most vulnerable segment of women (divorced, widow, or single) shall be prioritized in the laws, and their share is ensured and protected.

Rozina Ahmed is a women’s rights activist and a visiting faculty member at NCA, Lahore

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