Gender and property Law in Pakistan: Resources and Discourses. Rubya Mehdi. Vanguard. 2002.
Rubya Mehdi is the first Pakistani academic who conducted a comprehensive study of rural women’s property rights in Pakistan. Her work, ‘Gender and Property Law in Pakistan : Resources and Discourses’, provided detailed accounts of women’s relationship to property and the formal and informal ways of resolving property disputes in four villages, each in one of the four provinces[i] of Pakistan (Mehdi 2002: 1). Her ethnographic research is embedded in a legal-anthropological approach which shows the interaction of women’s social realities with the plural legal structures and how it affects their property claims. Mehdi investigates women’s relationship to dowry, dower, gift exchange, usufructuary rights to land, rights to maintenance and the right of inheritance (2002:1). She claims that most Pakistani women bargain away their property rights for long-term benefits from their natal family, adding further that gifts from natal family implies “the basic rights of the woman is recognised but is negotiated over and bargained away” (2002: 253). Mehdi also states that women have more control over their dowries, gifts and their private earnings than their inheritance.
Mehdi, through her study, makes a number of interesting discoveries about Pakistani women’s property relations. Dower, which is considered necessary for a Muslim marriage, is practised only in the Punjab and Sindh provinces, whereas in Baluchistan, the custom of ‘Vulvar’ is practised, under which the groom pays the bride’s family a significant amount of money for the acceptance of his proposal, in NWFP (KPK), Vulvar was the common practice but is now being replaced by dower (Mehdi 2002: 190). Mehdi also claims that in Baluchistan Vulvar is considered a symbol of respect for women; the higher the amount, the greater the value of bride, which also strengthens woman’s bargaining positions within her husband’s family (2002: 218). This tradition is countered by another tradition under which a woman’s ties with natal family are weakened after marriage and her husband and his family control all aspects of her life (Mehdi 2002: 219) and her natal family cannot intervene in her life or support her against the wishes of her husband’s family.
Mehdi’s research also highlights the customary practices, found in the different provinces of Pakistan that affect women’s rights. She outlines customary practices in relation to women’s marriage; for example, marrying a widow to her husband’s brother[ii] (2002: 152) and giving young girls as ‘Swara’[iii] (a compensation) to aggrieved parties to resolve murder disputes (2002: 151). Another practice similar to Swara in the KPK is ‘Vani’[iv]. ‘Marriage to Quran’ (Mehdi 2002: 89), another customary practice, is common in some parts of Sindh Province. A woman takes an oath on the Quran that she will not marry and will also not claim her inheritance.
The above-mentioned customary practices indicate that women in these areas have little input into their marriage decisions. The decisions about women’s marriage or remarriage are controlled by their natal and affine families. These customary practices also illustrate how women’s property rights are over-ridden by cultural norms.
Mehdi also gathered evidence from the four provinces in Pakistan that women in certain circumstances are given usufructuary rights to land for life. The usufructuary right is a right to enjoy the produce of a land of another person (Mehdi 2002: 25). This right is not of permanent and depends upon the goodwill of the original owner. This right is not recognised under Pakistani law but is relevant to women as it gives them access to land (2002: 228). In Sindh, women who are married to the Quran are given a house by their natal families, in Baluchistan, daughters who are not married due to spirit possession (a common way of disguising mental illness) are given usufructuary rights in their parents’ property (Mehdi 2002: 228). In NWFP, daughters are given agricultural land which their husbands can cultivate as sharecropper and in Punjab, elderly widows or single women are given usufructuary rights to land (Mehdi 2002: 228). Mehdi also cites a case of a woman who was given some property by her father because she left her husband when her husband contracted a second marriage; in another case, a disabled woman was given a house by her father as her future security (2002: 231). All these examples indicate that in some circumstances women are compensated by de facto land rights for not claiming their inheritance. Although, while Mehdi provides first-hand evidence of these usufructuary land practices, it is difficult to say if these practices are widespread.
Mehdi offers a detailed account of local dispute channels found in the villages, she studied, and how they operate and interact with the official courts. Her study revealed that people in all four villages prefer to use local dispute channels instead of going to court to settle their grievances. The informal disputes fora have different names in different provinces, in Sindh they are called ‘Faislo’, in Baluchistan and NWFP the word ‘Jirga’ is used, and in Punjab this system is known by the name of ‘Panchayat’ (Mehdi 2002). Mehdi also confirms that village women prefer to resolve their property disputes within the family or baradari (tribe, community) due to their lack of legal knowledge, distrust of police and court officials, lack of monetary funds, purdah restrictions and the notion of family honour limit their ability to pursue justice in the formal settings (2002: 240). Another reason, women avoid the courts is that often the “[j]udges in the official courts have imperfect command of the language of the disputants and little knowledge or sympathy for the culture of the region” (Mehdi 2002: 241). Even though both the formal and informal dispute fora are controlled by men, rural women prefer to utilise informal dispute resolution channels because they are run by local elders who have a good understanding of local issues, particularly disputes concerning properties, and their decisions are generally respected by men. Mehdi thinks that the state legal system lacks the ability to provide justice in accordance with the social norms and people’s expectations and often these channels are manipulated by disputants to prolong the court proceedings, causing unnecessary delays in the dispensation of justice (2002:240).
Mehdi’s explanation of customary practiced such as ‘Swara’ and ‘Marriage to Quran’ presents a very bleak situation of rural women’s agency, but amidst these constraints she finds evidence of women’s involvement in resolving matrimonial disputes and in some cases, helping Jirga by using their own social network and influence to resolve disputes (2002: 242). This indicates that women are not completely devoid of agency. Mehdi admits that a conflict exists between the formal judicial system and the informal resolution culture. The supporters of informal systems accuse the formal of corruption, long delays and monetary expenses, power and control by the lawyers and judges over the conflict resolution process, while the formal systems consider the informal institutions of conflict resolutions as primitive, lacking modernity, and not fulfilling the standard of Justice. (Mehdi 2002: 2)
The judicial system works according to the prescribed legal rules, the interpretation of laws by judges and set judicial precedents. Informal dispute resolution works in line with the prevalent customary practices and resolves issues through compromise and with few changes, particularly in relations to women’s right, both can coexist peacefully (Mehdi 2002: 2). Mehdi suggested that studying women’s interaction with the legal plural realities can help the state to introduce legislation which will provide the best possible solutions for women. The introduction of new laws against anti-women practices in the Pakistani legal system are the result of efforts initiated by Mehdi and advocated and lobbied by Pakistani feminists, members of the civil society and agencies like NCSW (Pakistan), and Shirkat Gah[v].
The strength of Mehdi’s legal-anthropological research lies in the way she gathers her data. She adopts a narrative research technique and lets her subjects speak of their life experiences, their daily routine, their needs, their property issues, their interaction with informal and formal legal forums, and how they make sense of the constraints over their life choices. She provides a link between women’s social realities and the plural legal structure, and highlights why women living in rural areas prefer informal dispute resolution mechanisms over the judicial system. However, due to the scope of her study, she does not provide an in-depth analysis of the relational aspect women’s property rights. Mehdi suggests that there are similarities between rural and urban women in respect to their property relationships, as both have tendency to give up their rights in property in favour of their brothers (2002: 4). This suggests that most women, irrespective of where they live, prefer to maintain good ties with their natal family.
[i] The Four provinces of Pakistan are Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and NWFP. The name of NWFP has been changed and the new name of the NWFP province is Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). Apart from these provinces there are two autonomous states (Azad Jummu Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan), the Federal Capital Territory (Islamabad) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (called FATA).
[ii] These types of marriages are common in Pakhtun families of the KPK province.
[iii] “Swara means a female rider” (Munir and Khan 2013: 37)
[iv] Vani is derived from a Pashto word ‘Vanay’ which means blood, in traditional terminology both Swara and Vani means giving a girl in marriage or exchange marriage to a family whose family member has been murdered by the girl’s relative (Munir and Khan 2013: 37).
[v] Shirkat Gah is a women’s rights organisation which has been working in Pakistan since 1975. The head office of Shirkat Gah is in the city of Lahore (Punjab) and it also has two regional offices in Peshawar (KPK) and Karachi (Sindh). For my research I visited their regional office in Peshawar and conducted an interview with the head of the regional office. For more details on Shirkat Gah- http://shirkatgah.org/
Mehdi, Rubya (2002). Gender and Property Law in Pakistan: Resources and Discourses Lahore: Vanguard.
Munir, Arshad and Ghulam, Ali Khan (2013). ‘A Social Custom “Vani”: Introduction and Critical Analysis’. Al ADWA 28(40): 37-44. Accessed at