Virasat –Traditionally this term has been associated with male heirs and the legacy they are bequeathed from their ancestors. Women had little or no part to play in this since they were expected to bear the next generation of successors who would take the family name and wealth ahead.
If God forbid you became a widow, then you had no place in the family home or within the domestic circle. Widows were expected to live on the edges of society, interacting with no one except their clan, not allowed in any celebration or festivals. The absence of colour is what marked them out from “normal people”, implying that their lives are now worthless without the presence of a man. Virasat in the widow’s world meant a life of isolation, devoid of any support (both mental and financial)
Fast forward to 21st century India, where widows have more autonomy than before. Especially in Tier 1 & Tier 2 cities where societal norms have been replaced with more humane practices.
However, the Indian ethos is a tenacious mix of old practices, superstition and religious customs which reduces the average Indian woman’s identity to her marital status. You are judged if you are a divorcee if you are a second wife if you have a re-marriage or even if you are a single woman. If you are a widow, then society discounts the very lens under which you are judged, i.e. marriage.
Says Nikita Parmar, a single mother, and a widow whose husband died in the 2004 Mumbai local bomb blasts “A widowed woman’s marital status is nil which means that you are at an economic disadvantage naturally. Unless you have in-laws like mine who are highly supportive, you are pretty much left to fend for yourself. But times are changing, and the law is better defined now for widows.”
Lawyer Kiran Mhatre says, “Since India is a secular country, each family matter is subjected to laws basis the religion followed by the parties involved. According to the Indian Succession Act 1925, each sect, i.e. Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists Muslims are governed under separate laws of succession.”
Under the Hindu Succession Act (1956 and amended in 2005), all the assets/properties of a Hindu male who dies without a will are to be distributed equally amongst his widow, sons, and daughters. In certain cases, where there is no will and the widow has remarried before the family/court has decided the final terms of succession; she may not inherit any assets/property. The law also says that certain widows, who have already remarried by the date of succession, may not inherit as widows. (A case to case opinion)
If you are the widow of a Christian male, then you get a specified share depending on the relationship of the deceased with his successors. For, e.g. If the deceased male had children, then they will receive two-thirds of share in his estate while the widow gets one third. If there are no descendants, but his kin (parents, brothers, sisters) are alive, then one half of the estate will go to the widow while the remaining will be distributed amongst the kin. If there are no children or kin, then the entirety of the estate/assets belong to the widow.
A deceased Parsi male’s estate is to be divided equally amongst his widow, children and his parents (if they are still surviving). If there are no heirs or relations, then the widow is entitled to a half share of the property with the remaining to be divided among other relatives of the deceased husband.
Under Muslim law, no widow is excluded from inheritance. A Muslim widow who has no children is entitled to 1/4th of her deceased husband’s property once his funeral expenses, debts (if any), legal expenses (if any) are paid off. If she has children or grandchildren, then she has the right to claim a 1/8th share of her departed husband’s property. However, if her husband dies without consummating the marriage, then she has no right to claim an inheritance. If, however, they are divorced, and her husband passes away before her, then the widow can claim the right to inherit his property.
Our country, of course, has more religions and sub-sects than the basic 4 tenets listed above and the laws governing the same can be verified from an expert family court lawyer.
We have certainly come a long way from extreme rituals that were criminally unfair to women. Even the law is amended periodically to reflect that change in societal mindset. Today a widow has more rights and hopefully, a more humane existence. Virasat is no more about privileges a man enjoys but an equal right given to women as well. At last.