The acknowledgment that women have different needs than men and that culture-specific constraints limit women’s access and control over land and housing, has dawned quite recently in policy circles of developing countries. Consequently, these issues have acquired prominence in research in and on South Asia only in recent years. It has since been documented through multiple sources of evidence, mostly in the rural context in South Asia, that women’s ownership of land and housing provides vital security against poverty that other forms of income do not afford.

Since private ownership of landed property occupies a privileged position in the South Asian context, it has also been suggested by several researchers that property ownership strongly influences gender relations both within and outside the household. Basu (1999) writes that property often emerges as the cornerstone of women’s capacity to challenge numerous oppressors: the state, contractors, landlords, husbands and parents.

Despite such compelling evidence, governmental responses to women’s needs in South Asia have continued to concentrate largely on health, nutrition, and poverty alleviation schemes over gender-focused reform of landed property rights, legal literacy, and political equality. Despite compelling evidence and repeated assertions by scholars, of the fundamental value that property rights hold for women’s empowerment, governmental responses are mostly marked by a reluctance to engage in an issue that is largely shaped by traditional and customary factors. Even feminist organisations with the avowed aim of improving women’s economic status have over-engaged with matters of employment and wages while sidelining property ownership.

Urban research in the developing world is increasingly acknowledging the fact that women’s access to a house and land is a key determinant of their empowerment in urban areas (Tinker & Summerfield, 1999). Mearns (1999) describes how women are excluded from land rights through either legal or cultural means. They emphasize that this lack of access and control is a key determinant of women’s economic status and poverty. In India, although women enjoy equal legal rights to own property, many cultural traditions deny them inheritance or management rights. Since the struggle for women’s property rights requires legal, institutional, and cultural transformation, tenure reforms without express guarantees for women can disadvantage them even further.

In India, seven factors variously impact women’s ability to own land: lack of legal knowledge, gendered norms and attitudes about land ownership, lack of formal recognition of women’s right to own land, gender biases in family inheritance, lack of formal documentation, difficulties encountered in interactions with government officials, and vulnerability to changes in the family.

Legal knowledge

In India, women’s rights to own and inherit land are largely determined by family laws which vary among communities. With that in sight, this section considers domestic awareness of relevant laws: the Hindu Succession Act and the Muslim Personal Law.

Hindu Succession Act (HSA)

The Hindu Succession Act (HSA) (1956) consolidated existing succession laws establishing a uniform and comprehensive system of inheritance for Hindus. The Act particularly aimed at guaranteeing women’s inheritance rights. Under the HSA, when a man dies without leaving a will, his personal property devolves first and equally to “Class I” heirs, a category including widows, sons and daughters. Should no Class I heirs exist, the property passes on to Class II heirs in the order delineated in the HSA. While daughters and widows gained rights to equal inheritance of personal property, one oversight in the HSA was the failure to establish women’s equal right to inherit joint family properties. Ownership of joint family property was conferred on the group designated as “coparcenary”. Membership of the latter is limited to male heirs thereby, excluding daughters from a share of this inheritance. Later, state amendments to the HSA, known as the Hindu Succession Act Amendments (HSAA), addressed this discrepancy, recognizing daughters of coparceners as coparceners themselves.

Muslim Personal Law (MPL)

The Muslim Personal Law Application Act of 1937 represents the formal codification of Sharia in India.

Norms and attitudes

In communities that rigidly define economic activities and social responsibilities along gender lines, social norms can influence women’s ability to own productive assets such as land. If the prevalent norms around land ownership are gendered and sufficiently strong, they can constrict women’s economic choices by making it too onerous to deviate from what her family and community consider socially acceptable conduct.

Recognition of women’s land ownership

Since women’s rights to land are legitimate only if they are recognized by relevant public actors, we asked women and their husbands whether women’s rights to own and inherit land were recognized by three overlapping authorities: the state and political actors, religious leaders, and village leadership which represent local recognition.

Religious recognition

About half of the women, Hindus and Muslims, reported that their community leaders do not recognise women’s right to inherit land from their parents or in-laws. Acquisition Methods Having established that women are much less likely to own land than men, we now explore avenues through which households come to own land, and the extent to which these avenues are gender biased. A review of literature suggests that inheritance is by far, the most frequent mode through which families acquire their homestead plots. Inheritance also varies depending on religion, caste and class. Families hailing from lower-middle-class backgrounds invariably depend on ancestral property compared to those who have white-collar jobs and are able to maintain financial stability.

Government allocation

India has a long and varied history of state-level land allocation programs, many of them targeting women. They have also managed to reach some of the most vulnerable sections of the population as the literature reveals that those receiving government land were mostly from backward castes.


Obtaining a title deed for a property in India can be cumbersome and onerous, often involving circumvention of the formal process, going instead by “white paper” transactions. Even when formal processes to record land allocations or purchases are initiated, they are seldom followed through. The results vary according to state, religion and mode of acquisition. Another point to note is that joint-titling was virtually non-existent. Formal documents list either the woman’s name or her husband’s, but not both. It therefore creates yet another imperative to check how often women figure as title holders in such formal documents.

Interactions with government officials

Registering land ownership requires interacting with government officials to record land transfers, or to ensure that paperwork is in order. If women are not deft in navigating these interactions it might significantly affect their ability to gain access to and/or maintain control over land. Literature allows us an estimation of how often women venture to these offices alone or with an accompanying male relative

Excerpted with permission from ‘Urban Women and Matters of Land: An Analysis of Land Politics in Urban India through Gendered Lens’ by Anindita Tagore in Ways of Being Indian: Essays on Religion, Gender and Culture, edited by Manoj Kumar Jena, Speaking Tiger Books.