A guest in her own home?

The recent Bombay high court judgment of February 7  that ''children, after becoming adults, need their parents' permission to stay in their personal property…'' by Justice J H Bhatia noted that the parental responsibilities towards their minor children cease when they attain adulthood.

He, in fact, further stated that “They can live in the house of the parents only with the consent of their parents and not otherwise.”

Considering Indian society has a strong family orientation, with emphasis on attending weddings, naming ceremonies and birthdays, the judgment should have long term implications on the traditional family structure as a social institution and on gender relations within this unit. More importantly, the judgment marks a shift in the popular perception and understanding of the family as a unit. 

In the Indian social environment the patriarchal family, and its variation/s, proves to be the dominant family type. The more uncommon matrilineal, matrilocal families that were found in many pockets across the country have slowly but steadily transformed towards the more dominant, patriarchal form.

This has been observed in families from states such as Kerala and Meghalaya. Changes in inheritance laws such as the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 (Amended in 2005), the Meghalaya Succession to Self Acquired Property (Khasi and Jaintia Special Provision) Act 1984 have resulted in widespread changes in patterns of descent and inheritance.

Impact on family

The pronouncement of the Bombay high court could have a similar impact on what constitutes the family.  A unit which is widely considered to be an inclusive one now marks a shift by clearly articulating delineation in the rights of different family members on the basis of age and their access to and control over property.

Parental permission will now become necessary to remain within the parent’s personal property beyond the age of 18. The inclusive Indian family which had for long been the image reflected in popular culture and the national imagination is one which does not always adhere to such distinctions.

Clearly the implications of the judgment for women are a shade more serious as they also hold that upon marriage the daughter ceases to be a member of her father/parent’s home. She instead has rights now only in her husband’s home. The Bombay high court further states, “After marriage when she goes to the house of the parents, legally she is only a guest in the house and does not have a legal right to continue there. She can stay there as long as her parents permit her but she cannot force herself on her parents in the house.”

Gendered implication

To that extent, the gendered implications are equally significant. By stating that the daughter ceases to be a member of the natal family upon her marriage, the notion of the parent’s home as a refuge for a married woman is under attack. It reduces her status within that unit to one of a guest even as it gives her rights within the husband’s home.

This shift might over time increase her vulnerability to violence within the marital home as it takes away whatever rights she had in the parent’s home.

Especially in the context of the National Crime Record Bureau reports which highlight an alarming increase in the incidence of domestic violence, cruelty by husbands, relatives often torture. In view of these harsh realities, the parental home has been, of late, been viewed as a shelter against any cruelties that the women might face in the marital home.

So much so, the high court’s observations reinforce the more traditional patriarchal notions, such as those embodied in terms used for daughters such as ‘paraya dhan’.

To what extent would this controversial judgment impact on the concept of the family as understood till now is to be seen. Especially, given the transformation of Indian society characterised by higher salaries, economic prosperity, nuclear families, rural-urban migration and inclination for immigration.

(The writer teaches at Christ University, Bangalore) 

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