Stridhanam: Rethinking Dowry, Inheritance and Women's Resistance among the Syrian Christians of Kerala

By Philips, Amali A. | Anthropologica, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Stridhanam: Rethinking Dowry, Inheritance and Women's Resistance among the Syrian Christians of Kerala


Philips, Amali A., Anthropologica


Keywords: dowry, testamentary inheritance, intestate succession, kinship mutuality, patriarchal hegemony, bargaining, resistance

On February 23, 1986, the Supreme Court of India struck down the Travancore Christian Succession Act, which stipulated that a daughter's share of her father's intestate property would be Rs. 5 000 ($165), or a quarter of the share given to her brother, whichever was less, and that she would lose her right even to this share if she had been given or promised stridhanam, or dowry, by her father. The Travancore Christian Succession Act had been in force since 1916, as the operative law of intestate succession among Syrian Christians, in Kerala, South India, notwithstanding legislative changes during the British rule in India and after India's independence in 1947.

The Supreme Court ruling was the culmination of a long legal battle launched by Mary Roy, a married and separated Syrian Christian woman, against her brother who had evicted her from their father's intestate property. Mary challenged the Travancore Succession Act on the grounds that it was unconstitutional and violated Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, which enshrines gender equality as a fundamental right. In the Supreme Court appeal, Mary Roy was joined by two co-petitioners, both Syrian Christian and unmarried single women, who were also battling their brothers against eviction from the intestate properties of their fathers. The Supreme Court held with the three petitioners, repealed the Travancore Christian Succession Act (TCSA), and replaced it by the Indian Succession Act (ISA) of 1925, which stipulates gender equality in intestate succession.

In this paper, I use the Mary Roy case as the backdrop for discussing dowry and inheritance practices among urban, middle-class Syrian Christian families in Trivandrum, the capital city of the Southern Indian state of Kerala. Specifically, I focus on women's rights and responses in three areas of property devolution, viz., intestate succession (inheritance of property without the owner's will), testamentary inheritance (inheritance based on the written will) and dowry prestations. The data used in this paper was gathered from more than 100 households involving over 500 marriages, during my field research on the marriage and dowry practices of Kerala's Christian community. My field data including interviews of women and case studies of women in property disputes are representative of the experiences of Syrian Christian women in a variety of property situations. My purpose is to use these property experiences to revisit some of the well-established generalizations about dowry and inheritance in India.

Women's contestation of unequal inheritance and dowry practices is not a new phenomenon in Kerala or elsewhere in India. However, writings on Indian dowry are devoid of any perspective on women's responses to property inequities while the literature on resistance has failed to consider these responses as examples of women's resistance to gender discrimination and underlying cultural ideologies. It is also my purpose in this paper to use the property experience of Syrian Christian women to establish linkages between the study of dowry, on the one hand, and the study of women's resistance to property discrimination, on the other. It would seem that these two areas of study have developed in relative isolation in the literature on South Asia.

The dominant dowry paradigms (i.e., structural-functionalist, structuralist and cost-benefit interpretations of marriage prestations) suffer from two mutually reinforcing shortcomings, viz., the tendency towards decontextualized generalization (see Comaroff, 1980) and the absence of a gender perspective that arises from a failure to include women's experiences and voices in regard to dowry and inheritance issues. Discourses on dowry have generally centred around the regulatory and functional aspects of dowry in the hypergamous, stratified South Asian societies: as "gift" for perpetuating alliance and affinity (Dumont, 1966 and 1983; Yalman, 1962); its role in determining status (Caplan, 1984; Goody, 1973 and 1990; Tambiah, 1989); and its compensatory role as payment for contracting an advantageous alliances for the bride's family (Spiro, 1975).

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