- "Self-Sacrifice" versus "Self-Interest":A Non-Historicist Reading of the History of Women's Rights in India
Srimati Basu's important study of women and property in present day New Delhi begins with a very timely and pertinent question, namely why have laws of equal inheritance not worked for Indian women in over four post-independence decades?1 As Basu rightly observes, Hindu inheritance practices have remained remarkably unaffected by legislative interventions. Thanks to the passage of the so-called Hindu Succession Act of 1956, Hindu women now have unquestioned legal access to their paternal property even after they get married. Yet, numerous women, all over India, willingly sign away this right after they get married in order to appear in their brothers' eyes as truly good-hearted sisters. The act happens by choice, though there are, no doubt, cultural pressures that promote this particular decision. "One of the central tropes that codes Indian women's disentitlement to property on the grounds of customs and ancient loyalties," Basu tells us "is the specter of the uncaring and greedy sister who claims family property."2 Basu is absolutely right is pointing to this peculiar anomaly that marks the lives of many women in India—women who in every other way are politically conscious, socially active citizens of the nation. Through an extensive series of interviews Basu concluded, "what might appear to be a jumble of deluded attitudes from women refusing property were often complex attempts at optimizing material survival and bridging emotional alienation within a system giving them limited agency and subjectivity."
I would like to utilize the conclusions drawn by Basu as a taking off point from which to undertake a reconstruction of the history of women's rights in India. Basu argued that, women's decisions to give up their property rights implied that they were locked in a patriarchal system where they "maximized their short-term priorities at the cost of undermining their long-term material interests, and feelings of love and loyalty toward parents and the natal family were enacted in ways that bolstered male privilege."3 While I agree with Basu's assessment of the situation, I would like to posit that looking at the articulation of rights by Indian women historically, might present a more optimistic picture than the one emerging from Basu's ethnography. I argue that from the turn of the twentieth century as Indian women became democratic individuals, they did so under the pull and pressure of different and contradictory ideals of personhood. The story of women's rights emerged out of a seemingly continuous divide between law on the one hand and sentiments and duty on the other in such a way that women in India have often lived out the tension between their rights and sentiments related to duties. The woman who relinquishes her claims to property may not be as resigned to that fate as Basu's analysis suggests, however. This conflict between legal rights and sentiments was not a replay of the modernity versus tradition binary. At issue was a tussle between a modern, liberal idea of the individual as a bearer of interest and an equally modern romanticization of the sentiments of the extended family.
Women's rights and the Indian Past
The poster advertising Mr. And Mrs. 55, a popular Hindi film released in 1955, starkly captured contemporary perceptions of the role of women in the years immediately following the independence of India.4 The years 1955-56 are memorable in the annals of an Indian "modernity" because sections of the famous Hindu Code Bill, which among other things gave Hindu women the right to institute divorce proceedings and inherit a share of their paternal property were codified as law during this time.5 The film was a satirical romantic comedy based on the pitfalls of Western liberal reform in India. The film's poster was divided into two parts. In one the hero (Guru Dutt) was shown buckling the heroine's (Madhubala's) shoes as she stood attired in Western garb. The other half of the poster showed the heroine clad demurely in a sari touching the hero's feet.