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Book Review: A Field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights

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Published: Thu, 01 Feb 2018

Book review of A FIELD OF ONE’S OWN: GENDER AND LAND RIGHTS IN SOUTH ASIA by BINA AGARWAL (Cambridge South Asian Studies, 1994)

This book is first of its kind. It is the first major study of gender and land rights of woman in the region. This book aims to tackle various gender bias arguments that are put forward by patriarchal society for not giving women the land rights. This book has been of utmost significance in affecting policies providing land rights to women. As in India, it prepared the ground for the incorporation of fairly radical recommendations in Ninth Five year plan. It also led ministry of rural areas and employment in November, 1997 to set up 3 member committee for Gender equality in land devolution in tenurial laws to reform the rules governing inheritance of agricultural land.[1]

Book starts with emphasising the role of women in major movements be it Chipko movement in UP or Bodhgaya movement in Bihar, yet women did not receive any share of land that was distributed after these movements. She also describes these struggles vividly at the end of the book that how women participated in Tebhaga struggle, Telangana struggle, Bodhgaya struggle yet the benefits were received all by males and they were said to get back to their household work. It is only in Bodhgaya struggle that they managed to get land jointly in their names after a strenuous struggle. Agarwal pointed out the role of the state in establishing women’s land rights through land distribution. There has been always focus on basic needs such as education, health of women, but she explains it is equally important to focus on giving land rights to women in policy formulation. State has assumed that giving land to male would take care of complete family including women. Assumption of family as single entity and benefits get distributed equally holds in state’s allocation of land. But she said that bargaining power plays as much role inside household as much in market. She stressed on women having “independent rights in land” demanding rights not just in law but in practice as well. This is what would essentially give women more bargaining power according to her. Though she says that an even joint title over land is also beneficial for women than having no land but having independent control over land would give them greater flexibility. Role of the state in establishing land rights for women have been emphasised often in this book. It has well evidenced in this book that because state does not show much interest in giving rights to women that the issue remains suppressed under the carpet. Like it was shown in the case of Garos, a tribal community in North-east India that state policies was largely responsible for erosion of women land rights.

She very well also focuses on the fact that how scholars and policy makers have wrongly interpreted Marxist ideology. Engels said “In capitalist societies, gender relation would be hierarchical among property owning families of bourgeoisie where women did not go out to work and egalitarian in property less proletarian families where women were in labour force.” It was essentially focusing on the fact that abolition of private property could restore women land rights. This was largely ignored by even the left wing parties whose main focus was on land redistribution. While discussing the absence of a gendered focus in redistributive programmes, Operation Barga in West Bengal is taken as a case in point, where primarily men were registered. While the criticism on grounds of non-registration of women is perfectly valid, the critique mounted of the Left certainly needs to take note of the issues involved, especially since the left-inclined women were some of the most outspoken in demanding land rights for women. While pointing out the patriarchal bias in land reforms implemented by Left-led governments, it may have also been useful to explore what implications the abandonment of the land reforms programme altogether by other political configurations has on the economy in general and the lives of women specifically.[2] Agarwal claims that despite the legislations favouring land rights to women, very few have effective land control. Even in the few cases where women had land rights, the right to decision concerning sale of land or produce of land rests with male family head or male kin. In some cases, land rights were not given in a fair manner. Women would get a lower share than their male counterparts. Agarwal then comes on to the issue which is the main argument of Agarwal on why land rights are at all important for women and society in general. It is premised on: a) women’s bargaining power increases in home as well as in society (b) it is easy to find non farm employment opportunities (c) children are better taken care of if women has the money in her hand (d)Security of women will be assured if she has an asset (e)land will not be fragmented if it in the hands of women and its productivity will rise and so on. Likewise various reasons for giving rights to women have been brought forth from welfare, empowerment and equality perspectives. Enough reasons and counter reasons of providing land to women have been provided. Though scholars like Cecile Jackson has argued that increased women participation in land rights will induce conflict in household rather than mitigating it[3]. But Agarwal argues here that women already are in conflict in household going through various forms of harassment and violence. She says “In any case, if everything difficult were to be set aside on the argument that it might cause intra-family conflict, then where would we go with women’s struggles over reproductive rights, or over gender-equal education, or over their freedom to choose their marriage partners or professions, and so on?”[4] She claims that giving rights to women who works on land will lead to more productivity from some empirical works. But Jackson refuses to take this argument and says this is just the logic of incentives that work here. So even if men are given rights they will have more incentive to increase productivity. But to propose that transfer of land from male to female ownership within a landed household is justified on this evidence is another matter entirely.

Agarwal very well inculcated the argument of increasing bargaining power of women at household, community and the state level for empowerment of women. A member’s bargaining position is determined by the strength of person’s fall back position. If women possess an asset it will not only improve their fall back position but also give them greater bargaining power both within the household as well as outside. They can bargain for subsistence within the family and for fair distribution of resources in the community. Implicit or explicit bargaining can occur between an individual and the community over the rules governing economic resource use, political positions and social behaviour. Women’s bargaining strength with the state depends on factors such as whether they are able to organize themselves into groups and garner the support of media.

Agarwal also brings forth the fact that it is majorly inheritance and succession practices which is customary rather than defined by law. In this customary inheritance of ancestral property, land goes to males of the family. She has pointed that this succession practice was not biased earlier where tribes like Garos, Nayars in India and many in Sri Lanka gave land rights and inheritance rights to women. However this has slowly eroded due to changes in customary practices and scarcity of land over which women had little control. She tries to find out what really defines land rights or inheritance rights for women by studying various communities in India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. She extensively studies and tabulates the nature of communities, marriage practices, marries close kin or not, residence after marriage, sexual freedom. Causation was established thus that if women marry with a close kin or remain within the village after marriage they can exercise control over any inherited property. However even in matrilineal or bilateral communities, jural authority or authority to participate in caste council rested with males. This is an essential feature which restricted women to have control over their lands. Their participation in caste councils have been fundamentally restricted which intensified the sufferings of women as there was no one to listen to their apathy. So as Agarwal says they ‘largely remain takers and not makers of many decisions that deeply affect their lives’. This is emphasised often that if women enter the struggle through ‘state apparatus’, it could be a crucial step towards women empowerment.

Agarwal has also captured the essential aspect of this debate that why women don’t exercise their rights even if they can and is defined under law. Women tend to face various difficulties while inheriting land in traditionally patrilineal communities. They tend to voluntarily give up land rights in lieu of getting access to her brother’s house. Brother’s support is considered crucial in every aspect of women’s life customarily. Also women are at the receiving end of hostility from male kin in case she tries to exercise her rights. They are dependent on male kin for mediation with outside world. Other reason is that she finds it difficult to have land rights is lack of support from village bodies and government official as they are not allowed to participate in village panchayats and state bodies. Also the patwaris (village land records official) commonly present in Northern India favour custom law over existing law by registering land in names of males of the family only. Again the concern of unwillingness of the state and government officials to protect the rights of women is put forth. Even if the state enforces laws for women but it does not ensure practice of it rather promotes unwritten customary laws. Thus she points out that it will be less difficult to enforce land rights in Nepal, Sri Lanka and south India where the customs favouring women rights are into existence. It would be much difficult to apply in Pakistan, Northern India.

Further Agarwal gives counter arguments for the reasons put forward by patriarchal society for not giving share of economic resources to women. Firstly, it is believed that if women own land they will not be able to access resources and since they are generally illiterate they will not be able to cultivate effectively. Agarwal counter argued it by providing a very admiring solution to this. She said that it will be effective if women could cultivate jointly as a group. This way they can pool resources and also can access credit easily. Also women have extensive knowledge of indigenous seeds and farming technique. If women operate as a group they can exercise greater bargaining power over community resources than if they work individually. Secondly, according to the slogan ‘land goes to the tiller’, women cannot have the right over land. Though it is the women who cultivate land yet they hold no rights over it. It was said that land will go to the tiller. Women were not allowed to plough the land not just because of heaviness of the work but it is considered against the customs. So though the women sow the seed and harvested the crops without which there would have been no production yet they were denied land rights just if they did not plough the land. Another argument that is put forward by patriarchal society which though has been captured by other scholars like Goody(1973, 1976) that if women were given rights on ancestral property then their marriages have been tried to control. This argument is refreshed by Agarwal through empirical evidence taking in account both immovable and movables given as dowry. Patriarchal society claims that they give women their due share when they depart from house after marriage. But it is not recorded on the paper neither it is distributed in a fair manner. Also generally immovable like land is not passed on to daughter due to various considerations of distance and marrying a non kin. So generally the dowry that the daughter gets is not used by her rather her in-laws use it.

It is very interesting how she has captured the fact that songs, words and silence has been used as mediums of protest. Songs of folklore have been given as example to get an understanding of the fact that women interweave their sufferings in songs which pokes at patriarchal society. Sometimes silence and other times words were used as mediums to protest against the society which largely denies them rights. Small protests at home like daring to leave the house of husband is highlighted by Agarwal to point that woman actually suffered but did not come up openly to ask their rights.

Various solutions have been put forward at the end of the book in the chapter ‘The long march ahead’. a)It is essential that state policies should be framed to incorporate gender equality b) Inheritance rather than dowry is the critical aspect for gaining bargaining power in household c) greater participation of women in jural bodies and representation in decision making bodies at village level d) women can acquire land rights as a group as it promotes infrastructural support. These solutions are expressed by Agarwal as, (p.494) “The shift in approach from welfare oriented to empowerment oriented, from top-down to participative, and from individual focused to group focused, in the 1980s, is an important step forward.”

Agarwal concludes that struggle for gender equity is no different from struggles on many other fronts such as for democratic rights, against communalism etc. Also there has been increasing interaction among women groups internationally across Asia which has the potential for catalysing the formation of regional pressure groups around common concerns. It is not very clear how giving land rights will improve condition of women and productivity of land as there are many other empirical evidence other than those quoted by her that reveal in opposite direction. Whether land rights could be a single solution to various problems faced by women is doubtful. But land rights could be considered to be an essential first step towards women empowerment. As Agarwal makes it clear that what has crucial bearing on gender relation is not just rights over economic resources but also how, that is the process through which it is acquired. Acquiring those rights will require simultaneous struggles against many different facets of gender inequalities embedded in social norms and practices, access to public decision-making bodies at every level, gendered ideas and representations, and so on. It will require shifts in power balances in women’s favour in several different arenas: within the household, in the community and the market, and at different tiers of the state apparatus.

REFERENCES:

Bina Agarwal “Women’s Land Rights and the Trap of Neo-Conservatism: A Response to Jackson” (2003), Journal of Agrarian change 571-585

Bina Agarwal, Gender and land rights revisited: Exploring the new prospects through the state, family and market, Journal of Agrarian Change, 2003, 184-224

Cecile Jackson “Gender Analysis of Land: Beyond Land Rights for Women?” (2003) 3 Journal of Agrarian Change 453-480

Indu Agnihotri “Bringing Land Rights Centre-Stage” (1996), Economic and Political Weekly


[1] Agarwal, Journal of Agrarian Change, 2003

[2] Indu Agnihotri “Bringing Land Rights Centre-Stage” (1996), Economic and Political Weekly

[3] Cecile Jackson “Gender Analysis of Land: Beyond Land Rights for Women?” (2003) 3 Journal of Agrarian Change 453-480

[4] Agarwal Bina “Women’s Land Rights and the Trap of Neo-Conservatism: A Response to Jackson” (2003), Journal of Agrarian change 571-585


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