Any legal amendment in favour of women, which tries to redress the inherent gender inequality of our society is automatically cause for cheer – in most cases. So when we heard the news about amendments to Indian Marriage Laws that will entitle the divorced wife to a greater share in her husband’s property and wealth, it seemed to be something to cheer about.
All the news seemed to hail the new “women friendly marriage laws” because they would confer greater economic independence upon women. The fact that the news was met with stiff resistance from certain groups, most typically “Men’s Rights” organisations, seemed to substantiate the fact that Indian men want to retain their economic and social authority within a marriage and that they feel that this law threatens their perceived superiority. So what really is this law? Is it good or is it bad?
What the Marriage Laws (Amendment) Bill proposes
Firstly let’s get one thing clear – this is a Bill (proposal) and not yet an Act (law). At this stage it has got the nod from Cabinet and will be introduced in parliament in the upcoming Monsoon session. This is a proposed amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, and the Special Marriage Act, 1954.
The second clarification is that from what we understand the law is gender neutral – it will impact women as well as men.
The proposed law says that if a couple decides to dissolve their marriage, or even if one of them files for and obtains divorce, the wife will get half of everything that the husband owns. Equally the husband gets half of what the wife owns – marital property will be jointly divided. This includes not only what each of the spouses have earned, but also ancestral property – whether already inherited or inheritable.
The bill also recognizes the “irretrievable breakdown of a marriage” as a just grounds for divorce.
Why the proposed law is good
Gross and profound gender inequality is an irrefutable truth of Indian society. Anything that seeks to set aright this imbalance is only to be applauded. In a society where parents still incur backbreaking debt to marry off their daughters and pay dowries that they can ill afford and where women are still sent back to their parents’ homes and even killed for bringing insufficient dowry, this can only be welcomed. Husbands and in-laws will no longer be in a hurry to end a marriage and send a woman back to her parental home because they will stand to lose a lot.
In a traditional matrimonial set up particularly in a patriarchal joint family where a wife has little economic or decision making power, this law would give a woman the courage and wherewithal to walk out of an unhappy or abusive marriage. She can be secure in the knowledge that she and her children will have a roof over their heads and that she will not have to become a burden upon her own parents. As of now social stigma and a lack of economic independence prevent women from walking out of an abusive marriage, forcing them to tolerate traumatic relationships simply because they have no alternative. As of now, Indian women get a raw deal from divorce.
The proposed law recognises a woman’s contribution to a marriage. Typically a woman sacrifices more of her personal ambitions and works more for a family on a day to day basis than does a man.
This law is being called “women friendly” because is the fact that men are far more likely to posses ancestral property than women (this in itself is grossly unfair) so it is far likelier for men than women to have to part with their wealth after a divorce.
Why the proposed law is bad
Men’s rights groups are up in arms against the proposed law because it infringes upon their hitherto unassailable position of economic superiority in a marriage. If this bill becomes law, men stand to lose a lot. As of now, a woman walking out of a marriage meant that a man has the option of remarrying without suffering much economically. But if a woman walks out talking half of all that he owns or will own, this will hurt him where it hurts most – his pocket.
Men seem also to highly resent the fact that this law may be made applicable to Hindus. In other words many men seem to resent the fact the law will not be applicable to Muslims as well (for some reason, the law allowing Muslim men to take as many as four wives where Hindu men cannot has long been a grouse too).
Where the proposed law appears to be unreasonable however, is that it could negatively impact the inheritance of children from a marriage and may also impact aged parents (if a divorced wife takes half of husband’s share in his ancestral property, where will the aged parents go, say opponents of the bill).
Opponents of the bill believe that the law will be subject to gross misuse and that it will be an instrument of blackmail in the hand of the wife. They believe that women will now enter into marriage simply for the purpose of acquiring the wealth of a man and his family; that it will be a weapon of extortion.
There is no doubt that this is a progressive proposal if it becomes law. It remains to be seen whether it will be allowed to be passed.