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Expert Article: Women's Right To Property In India Explained - Ancestral Property, Streedhan And Property Law

It is believed that women are not very knowledgeable in financial matters. There are many women who have careers and earn handsomely but look for support from male members of their family when they need advice on savings or investments. Lack of knowledge in financial and legal matters can cost women dearly. Everyone must be aware of their rights and women need to be cognizant of their inheritance and existing property laws of our country to be sure that they do not get cheated out of what belongs to them.

Boldsky spoke to Advocate Pompey Bose for her opinion on women's property rights in India. She said, "Property laws are a vast and diverse area of the law and are governed by many different factors." In keeping with her advice, let us first understand the basics - what is the right to property and who is a legal heir? Then we move on to topics like - What is Streedhan? Property Laws like the Dayabhaga school, Mitakshara school and Marumakkathayam, etc. Read on.

What kind of right is the Right to Property?

The Constitution of India confers the right to property upon its citizens. However, the right to property is not a fundamental right in India.

Who is a Legal Heir?

Indian law recognises the concept of an heir, a person who is legally entitled to inherit property from ancestors. Ancestral property can be divided among the legal heirs of the owner under many laws in India.

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Is there a Uniform Civil Code in India?

According Advocate Shruti Pandey's paper, "Home to diverse religions, till date, India has failed to bring in a uniform civil code. Therefore, every religious community continues to be governed by its respective personal laws in several matters - property rights are one of them. In fact even within the different religious groups, there are sub-groups and local customs and norms with their respective property rights. Thus Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains are governed by one code of property rights codified only as recently as the year 1956, while Christians are governed by another code and the Muslims have not codified their property rights, neither the Shias nor the Sunnis. Also, the tribal women of various religions and states continue to be governed for their property rights by the customs and norms of their tribes. To complicate it further, under the Indian Constitution, both the central and the state governments are competent to enact laws on matters of succession and hence the states can, and some have, enacted their own variations of property laws within each personal law. There is therefore no single body of property rights of Indian women. The property rights of the Indian woman get determined depending on which religion and religious school she follows, if she is married or unmarried, which part of the country she comes from, if she is a tribal or non-tribal and so on." [1]

Property Laws - Dayabhaga school, Mitakshara school and Marumakkathayam

India is a diverse country and its women fall under many different systems, as aptly observed by Advocate Pandey in her paper. There are two major schools of Hindu Law in India. The Dayabhaga school and the Mitakshara school, which govern the law of succession of the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF) under Indian law. The Dayabhaga school of law is followed in Bengal and Assam. In all other parts of India, the Mitakshara school of law is followed.

Then there are separate laws regarding inheritance and property in the matrilineal societies of Kerala. Marumakkathayam is a system of matrilineal inheritance prevalent among the Nair castes, Ambalavasi and tribal groups Kerala where inheritance is traced through the female line of the family.

What is Streedhan and What are Women's Rights over it?

Advocate Bose drew our attention to the fact that property rights do not just include immovable property such as land and ancestral homes. They also include moveable property like jewellery. She says, "In case of divorce, the woman is entitled to her Streedhan. Most women think that Streedhan only includes the gold and other valuables given to her by her parents at the time of the wedding and that is what they have a right to, not the gifts they receive from their husband's side of the family. But in reality, gifts that a woman receives from her in-laws also constitute Streedhan and she can leave the marriage without having to return the gifts to her in-laws. These gifts could be anything such as jewellery in gold or silver, utensils, furniture or appliances and gadgets. In fact, Streedhan is a woman's absolute property even before divorce."

In the case of Pratibha Rani vs Kumar and Anr (1985), the Supreme Court of India observed that according to Mitakshara law, Streedhan consists of the following:

- Gifts given before the nuptial fire
- Gifts given at the time of bridal procession
- Gifts given by in-laws at the time of marriage by in-laws
- Gifts created by the bride's family.

If the woman entrusts her Streedhan to her husband or any of the members of her in-laws' family, which is dishonestly misappropriated, the person commits criminal breach of trust. This was observed by the Supreme Court of India in the 1996 case of Rashmi Kumar vs Mahesh Kumar Bhada.

What is Economic Abuse?

Section 12 of The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 aims to protect women from domestic violence. Section 18(ii) of the act defines the term 'economic abuse' as the loss of all or any economic or financial resources to which a woman is entitled under existing laws.

The complexity of the subject of property and inheritance laws is evident from these diverse streams that flow out in different directions and cater to different sections of Indian women. Just like no two women or no two families are alike, the laws governing them are also unlikely to be alike.

Disclaimer: This article is the first of two on the property laws and inheritance rights of women in India. This is not legal advice but simplified information. Please consult your lawyer for the exact laws in your situation and area. Our next article will look at the inheritance laws relating to Hindu women in the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF).

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