Of all the rights that any statute confers, the right to property is probably the most important and contentious one. This article intends to examine the proprietary rights of women as being enjoyed during Vedic times as compared to the modern times.
It is a general misconception that the women of Vedic times did not have any proprietary rights and the grant of proprietary rights is creation of statutes such as Hindu Succession Act, etc. The most often relied upon authority to reach this conclusion is Manusmriti, though the treatise does not denounce the proprietary rights of women all together.
The detailed study carried out by Dr. A.S. Altekar and Upadhya of the ancient texts primarily consisting of four Vedas and the Smritis show that women of Vedic India had varying degree of rights over the property, vis-à-vis their position in the family. Though it is true that women were never treated as co-parceners in the Joint Hindu Property, a right being conferred upon daughters of modern India vide Hindu Succession Amendment Act, 2005, granting them equal shares in their ancestral property since their birth. However, based on broad classification of property into movable and immovable, the women of Vedic times had rights of property vis-à-vis their position in the family.
Movable property: As far as movable property like ornaments, jewellery, costly apparel, etc., was concerned, women’s right to own them was recognized from very early stage and were classified as Streedhan. It is very difficult to define Streedhan precisely; Hindu jurist only proceed to describe its different varieties. Manu is the earliest writer to give a comprehensive description of Streedhan, which according to him consisted of six varieties: including gifts given by father, mother and the brother at any time, gifts of affection given by the husband subsequent to the marriage and presents given by anybody either at the time of marriage or at the time when the bride is taken to her matrimonial home. It is relevant to mention that Manu classified Stidhan as including only moveable property. However, the Hindu Scholars of 7th-8th Century A.D. also included immovable property under Streedhan, though not without opposition.
Women enjoyed absolute right over their Streedhan and had right to dispose them as per their own willing and husband had no right over them.
Thus though there was dispute amongst the scholars regarding the extent of as to what all the property covered, there was agreement to the fact that all the ornaments and jewellery were to be exclusively possessed by women and in case the husband utilised the same, it was a loan which he had to return back to his wife with interest.
The right of women over property constituting Streedhan has been codified under Section 14 of the Hindu Succession Act. The Supreme Court of India explained the concept of Streedhan and its legal position under the Indian Laws in Pratibha Rani vs. Suraj Kumar, 1985 (2) SCC 370 and held inter alia:-
“Hindu married woman is the absolute owner of her Streedhan property and can deal with it in any manner she likes and, even if it is placed in the custody of her husband or her in-laws they would be deemed to be trustees and bound to return the same if and when demanded by her.”
In Vedic times there was a general prejudice against the property devolving upon female heirs by inheritance. The right to inherit immovable property was certainly restricted and daughters unlike today were not treated as co-parceners in the property. The primary reason for the same appears to be that the daughters were married into her husband’s family and her parental family did not intend to part with the landed property.
Daughters: Daughters of Vedic age were well educated and possessed full religious privilege. The right of brother less daughter to inherit her father’s property was recognised since the time of Rig Veda and continued to be recognised till 400 BC Vedic society having a clear preference for a son as heir did not allow daughters who had brothers to inherit the immovable property. However, in cases where the daughters remained un-married she had a share in the property, even though she had a brother.
In the present times right of daughters as co-parcener in the ancestral property has been recognized by Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005. This amendment now confers upon the daughter of the coparcener as well the status of co-parcener in her own right in the same manner as the son and gives same rights and liabilities in the co-parcener properties as she would have had if it had been son as held by the Supreme Court in Danamma v. Aman & Ors.; (2018)3SCC343.
Wife: The concept of joint ownership of the property by husband and wife was well recognised in Vedic times and it has been generally agreed upon by Vedic scholars that wife had a right to joint ownership of the property along with her husband. However, exact expanse of such a right is not known. Further, the wife had no right of inheritance in her in-laws property. Though vis-à-vis her husband she was a co-owner of the property. It has been recognised in various smritis and samhitas that wife and husband were co-owner of the property.
Widows: In Vedic times widows had only the right of maintenance. In absence of her husband and a son, she had a right to be maintained from her husband’s estate. In case of a minor son, she had a right to inherit the property as guardian of minor, but no right to alienate the property. Per contra, a widow inherits her husband’s property upon his death today and is the owner of the property in her own right and can dispose of the same at her will.
Thus, the above analysis shows that women of vedic times had considerable proprietary rights. In case of movable property i.e. Streedhan she was the sole owner and had right to dispose of the same at her will. While, in cases of immovable property, she had restricted right, in the form of right to be maintained out of the estate or right to hold the property as guardian of minors for their benefits.
The rights of women gradually declined post the Vedic period and had reached the lowest rung during the British period. The reasons for the same are gradual decline in education as well as economic contribution of women to the society, which made them financially dependent on their families for survival. Further, foreign invasion was one of the main reasons in decline of rights of women.
It is only post independence, that women have been conferred with various property rights by way of statutory interventions, such as Hindu Succession Act, 1956 etc. Hindu women of modern India, no doubt enjoy more rights and privileges than their Vedic counterparts, but the concept of ownership of property was not alien to women of Vedic times as well. It would be incorrect to state that they had no rights at all.