Inheritance Not Dowry

Written by Malavika

Another mantra to add to our shloka books…

Leila Seth, reminds me of my own grandmother except she speaks fluent English. All my grandmother can manage is a few broken sentences and she’ll shift to Tamizh. Both women are elegant, their sarees draped neatly, the pallu hanging over their shoulder, just the right length, hair in a well-oiled bun and a large bindi on their forehead. I admire both of them and I’ve only met one of them. Even before Leila Seth opened her mouth to speak I knew I would enjoy her TEDx talk.

I was going through TEDx talks on YouTube and I came across this one quite by chance. Titled, “Women should rethink their inheritance”, it focuses on a widely discussed topic in recent years: the dowry system, its existence today and the inequality that women in India face.

My grandparents have told me stories about Hindu women who were widowed young and had to shave their heads and wear plain white sarees so that they wouldn’t look attractive to any other man. Also,women weren’t given as much importance as their brothers when it came to splitting family property when the patriarch died. Then there’s the concept of dowry. Even today it is tradition that the bride’s family cover the expenses of an extravagant wedding. My cousin got married last year and the months before the wedding passed by in shops buying sarees and dress material that wasn’t going to be worn by the bride herself! In recent years there are families that have outgrown this tradition and have rather shared the costs.

Leila Seth was brought up in a family where there was no discrimination between her brothers and her and this might have helped in her understanding of the issue.

She accompanied her husband to England in 1954 and spent the next three years studying law. Even at that time most women were expected to keep the house clean, care for the children and be good wives. Becoming a student of law was never in any equation for a young married woman. She returned to India with the hope of training under a senior lawyer and then practising it herself. She approached Sachin Choudhry, who wasn’t in favour of women as lawyers, as her mentor. In the first meeting he tries to discourage her by telling her to stick to her wifely duties. It’s ironical how a lawyer who stands for equality discriminates between a male and a female. But Leila was persistent and that is what helped her become a judge in the Delhi High Court and the first woman Chief Justice at a State High Court.

She considers herself lucky to be married into a family that didn’t demand a dowry and all they had was a simple marriage. She laughingly tells us that she’s been married for 64 years handling law and three children of which one is the famous author, Vikram Seth. Her story is just one of the exceptions in the hundreds of stories of parents giving in to the pressures of marrying their daughters of.

The Dowry Prohibition Act 1961 stopped the display of dowries openly ‘but the giving and taking of dowry continued’ and we can still see remnants of it today. Despite knowing that it was illegal, parents would succumb to giving some dowry. There is an example, she gives, of a senior judge in the Supreme Court, who gave dowry when his daughter got married but refused to take any when his son would. This isn’t exactly a perfect situation but it’s one step ahead.

So can the passing of laws change attitudes today?

In 1956, the Hindu Succession Act was passed and this gave equal rights to both genders in the splitting of unwilled possessions. But there are cases of women who are aware of the laws but still relinquish their inheritance in fear of not maintaining friendly relations with their brothers, in case of future struggles.

 There are four A’s that she mentions: Awareness, Assertion, Attitude change and Action and it isn’t hard to apply them in this context.

 To conclude,I would like to quote Leila Seth from her speech,

“Sisters don’t be blackmailed by your brothers, demand your inheritance and

brothers make sure she has that legitimate share

 Oh! Father give me a chance, just a chance,

Mother, break the bonds of tradition and

let me into the sunlight, to dance, to dance, to dance.”

Link to watch the talk:

About the author


i'm from chennai and i like dharu badnam
i'm a history student but i want a minor in chemistry
i'm always bored but i have a lot of work

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