February 15, 2018

Kamla Bhasin takes on “patriarchal injustice” in South Asia with #PropertyForHer

Written by the Stability Innovation Atlas team

The Stability Innovation Atlas team, led by FHI 360 and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, will release their finished product in Spring 2018. The complete Atlas will feature economic stability-enhancing innovations that empower the world’s poor and vulnerable people in managing and investing with confidence in their future. We will be profiling several innovators and innovations that were identified during the research and crowd-sourcing process over the coming weeks and months.

Kamla Bhasin. Photo credit: Jannatul Mawa

As a founder of the South Asian feminist network Sangat and the region’s coordinator of the global movement One Billion Rising, Kamla Bhasin has dedicated most of the past 45 years working for the empowerment of women and speaking out against what she calls “patriarchal injustice”. At the beginning of 2017, Kamla led a high-profile campaign on social media to promote equal property rights for women in South Asia, called #PropertyForHer, bringing together an assorted group of NGOs, civil society networks, trade unions and others working to overcome the cultural barriers that prevent women from owning land or homes.

Discriminatory socio-cultural norms in much of South Asia determine that property is passed on to sons, primarily through inheritance. “As soon as I’m born, I know this house where my family lives is not mine, it’s my brothers’,” Kamla explains. “This means I have to get married if I want a roof over my head, and then I have to go to an entirely new family, and in most cases also change my name.”

Kamla cites academic studies which show that access to even the smallest bit of property improves a woman’s financial security and protection from domestic violence. “If a woman is not secure and doesn’t have a fallback position, if there’s violence, she has nowhere to go.” By encouraging families to pass on a part of their assets to the wives or daughters, #PropertyForHer not only aims to make women more economically independent but also “to make them stronger socially, by giving them a sense of belonging to a family.”

The campaign included dozens of simple slogans in Hindi, Urdu and English that Kamla and a group of young artists designed and posted in public spaces. Some of these included “Daughter in my heart, daughter in my will;” “Be proper, give property to daughters;” and “If a daughter has property, then there will be no dearth of husbands who want her.”

A “Tweet-a-thon” in July saw thousands of men and women share their views on Twitter while a campaign on change.org collected nearly 3,000 signatures. Kamla says that much progress has been achieved on gender equality in India over the past several decades and countless organizations now advocate for women’s rights. Patriarchal laws are being challenged and increasingly incorporate gender equality principles, nearly all universities offer gender studies programs, and misogyny is increasingly condemned. But she’s not ready to attribute any of these accomplishments to #PropertyForHer. “There’s so much going on in society for gender equality, that nobody is going to tell me that my slogans had anything to do with families giving their property to their daughters.”

With plenty of powerful forces still arrayed against women, the fight for gender equality is far from over. The massive pornography and cosmetics industries that objectify women, as well as popular media and other male-centric industries that promote dangerous gender roles and stereotypes all comprise what Kamla refers to as “capitalist patriarchy”.

“The films done by Hollywood and Bollywood continue to repeat patriarchal messages,” she says, citing the popularity of films that glorify superheroes or womanizing characters. The spread of religious fundamentalisms of all kinds also conspire against women’s rights. The social media campaign #MeToo demonstrates how extensive sexual abuse and harassment is around the world.

Thousands of groups in India and South Asia continue to confront these forces to promote gender equality. “We just have to go on writing songs, slogans and articles,” Kamla says, “to make it an acceptable idea that daughters be considered heirs and can inherit property actually and not only on paper.”