Women in modern-day South Asia, are victims of gender discrimination, especially in terms of inheritance and property rights. Hindu women in these countries are subjected to Hindu Property Laws that limit and, in some cases, prohibit inheritance for women.
I argue that Arthashastra, an ancient treatise written by Kautilya in 375 BCE, served as a precursor to the modern-day Hindu Law and laid the foundations for stifling the economic independence of women in present-day South Asia.
Other literature which came before Arthashastra, such as the Vedas, Dharmashastra, and Sangam literature might have influenced Kautilya as well. For instance, Rigveda- the earliest written ancient literature asserts, "the mind of woman brooks not discipline. Her intelligence carries little weight," (Verse 17 of Hymn 33).
Similar disdain for women is also noticeable in the most oft-read texts such as the epics Ramayana and Mahabharatha. Another ancient law code, the Manusmriti perpetuates extremely abhorrent ideas about women's rights.
For example, Manusmriti verses 2.67-2.69 and 5.148-5.155 state, "A girl should obey and seek protection from her father as a child, her husband as a young woman, and her son as a widow; and that a woman should always worship her husband as a god". Such writings demonstrate that women's existing disadvantaged position in social and cultural worlds is based on Hindu tradition and reinforced by holy scriptures. However, until the Arthashastra was written the financial aspect of this discrimination remained vague.
In Arthashastra, a woman's property is defined as a "means of subsistence or jewellery" (Book III chapter 2). Although there were no restrictions posed on how much jewellery a woman could own, it was explicit that the only form that a woman could own was jewellery.
Although Arthashastra stated that a woman had the freedom to decide the usage of her jewellery, the expectation was that the valuables would be used for the overall benefit of the family.
In times of adversity, a woman's husband was also permitted to make use of it. However, women were not allowed to own any ancestral property, real estate, or "special share of properties" such as goats, horses, cows, or sheep (Book III chapter 6).
While jewellery can have a higher monetary value than these special properties or even real estate, Kautilya was successful in creating a social and economic environment in which women were at a disadvantage, women's rights were neglected, and their economic rights suffered the most.
The first issue with the arrangement set forth by Arthashastra was that wealth authority was never placed in the hands of a woman. The jewellery that a woman received was usually a gift from her husband.
The ownership of jewellery was contingent upon a marriage that met certain criteria. For example, a woman is dissatisfied with marriage - "A woman who hates her husband, who has passed the period of seven turns of her menses, and who loves another, shall immediately return to her husband both the endowment and jewellery she has received from him and allow him to lie down with another woman".
If a man is unhappy with his marriage, he "shall allow her to take shelter in the house of a beggar woman, or of her lawful guardians, or her kinsmen" (Book III chapter 3). This demonstrates men's absolute authority over marriage.
A woman's wealth belongs to her only while she is "satisfied in her marriage." Any dissatisfaction, on the other hand, should allow the man to "lie down with another woman," implying that when Kautilya refers to "satisfaction" in the marriage, he simply means that the woman should not complain. This tells us how masculine dominance controlled the financial fate of a woman at every step in ancient India.
Then comes the issue of pregnancy. "If a woman either brings forth no live children or is barren, her husband shall wait for eight years before marrying another. If she bears only a dead child, he has to wait for ten years. If she brings forth only females, he has to wait for twelve years. Then, if he is desirous to have sons, he may marry another" (Book III Chapter 2).
Thus, the role of a woman in a marriage was very specific- to bear a child, preferably a male child. If she does not comply, she may be abandoned. A woman could possess tons of gold jewellery but if she wanted to keep the wealth, she needed to make sure she gave birth to sons.
This preference toward male children, male dominance, lack of inheritance rights, female infanticide are issues that are still at large in modern-day South Asia. Some of the patriarchal principles outlined in Arthashastra made their way into the legal framework of South Asian countries.
The version of Hindu Law that is in practice in India and Bangladesh, stems from the mediaeval Hindu laws that came long before the adoption of egalitarian democratic principles in the constitutions of modern nation-states.
The classic law has been constructed from two books "Mitakshara" by Vijaneswara (11-12th Century CE) and "Dayabhaga" (11th Century CE) by Jimutavahana. It is unknown when or in what year Hindu law was born.
Unlike other laws, Hindu law is thought to have neither been created nor published in a single day. It was most likely developed through a process of development and tradition before specific legislatures were passed.
Some property laws stated in the classic Hindu law are as follows:
Except for non-agricultural property, inheritance from fathers is usually passed on to sons. Sons or sons of a predeceased son inherit the part that their father would have inherited if he had been alive at the time of their grandfather's death.
Daughters will only inherit the property if none of their father's sons, wives, or grandsons are alive. Widowed daughters, daughters who do not have a son or daughters who do not have the possibility of having a son, are always barred from inheritance to their father's property.
If a woman does inherit property, it is just for their life interest. This means that they are the owners with limited rights and that if they die, the property will pass to the nearest male heir of the dead male owner, rather than the heirs of the female heir.
Several amendments to the law have been made over the years, always drawing criticism from right-wing Hindu nationalists. Only in 1956 did India pass a Hindu Succession Law that abolished the clause granting women "limited owner" status over the property.
It was not until the Amendment of 2005 - thousands of years after Arthashastra- that daughters were granted equal property rights as sons in India. However, the situation in Bangladesh remains bleak.
Although a new law passed in 2012 made it possible for women to register their marriages and file for divorce or annulment (which was previously not possible), women still cannot inherit property of their parents, and even if they do, they have limited ownership over it.
And in October 2021, the High Court of Bangladesh ruled that the Hindu widows would get the shares in all the properties of the husband, not just the house. However, the court said that the Hindu Women's Rights to Property Act 1937 would continue to dictate the inheritance of the assets.
Studies show that women contribute to 66% of the work performed globally, and produce 50% of the food, yet earn only 10% of the income and own 1% of the property. Empowering women through education for girls, protecting women's political, legal, and marital rights, ensuring employment, and encouraging entrepreneurship can contribute to better family planning and lower child mortality.
Data shows that a woman's income can increase by up to 380 percent if she has the right to own and inherit property and women who own land are 12 percent more likely to take out loans to build businesses.
Land ownership provides economic stability, which reduces women's vulnerability to domestic violence. The benefits to her family are substantial, with her children being 33% less likely to be severely underweight, 10% less likely to be unhealthy, and 13% more likely to be educated.
Unfortunately, Kautilyan policies concentrated economic power in the hands of men, which widened the gender and caste divide over hundreds of years, impeding the implementation of equal rights and stifling economic growth.
Thus, tracing the vast impact Arthashastra may have had on the Indian subcontinent's long-standing sexism in the context of not only property laws but also basic human rights aids us in understanding the roots of the problems that still exist.
Sristi Sejuti Halder is a student of Sunnydale School.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.