Winds of Change for Women's Rights

“If we can see change happening in India, it gives us grounds for optimism for everywhere else”

When entrenched social customs come up against modern legislation, the result can be … complicated, NYU Abu Dhabi’s Rachel Brulé explains in her new book.

Brulé, an assistant professor of political science, studies the economic imbalance between men and women in India. The book she’s working on for Cambridge University Press reports that 25 years after India established quotas guaranteeing women one-third of seats on village councils, gender equality in rural property rights is starting to take hold, despite the tradition of dowry and related social patterns.

“The political tool of quotas,” Brulé noted, “has swept the world to favor women’s inclusion.” In India, to nobody’s surprise, it turns out that female pradhans, or local-council heads, are more willing than males to help women gain control over the property rights now provided by law but frequently denied by custom. Traditionally, sons inherit a family’s land, while each daughter’s share is a dowry – now officially banned but still very common – that’s paid to her new husband or his parents, in exchange for accepting her as a burden.

Female pradhans, Brulé said, can embolden women who are about to marry. “They suddenly have the ability to ask for a different distribution of resources … Women say ‘you know, I’d rather not take that traditional dowry; I’d rather that you reserve a share of the land inheritance in my name’." Such agreements, Brulé noted, are increasingly formalized before a marriage.

(Her work is based on data from two years of field research alongside a recurring study called the Rural Economic and Demographic Survey. Its latest version, from 2006, requests land-inheritance data from over 100,000 individuals in 17 Indian states.)


Gender inequality is amazingly sticky in so many parts of the world. If we can see change happening in India, it gives us grounds for optimism for everywhere else.

Rachel Brulé

Up-ending Custom Isn’t Easy

An Indian son has long been the manager of a typical family’s property, bringing his wife to his village, where she helps care for his parents in old age. In exchange, sons expect to inherit all the land. Daughters who ask for property risk “breaking the ties of affection," Brulé noted. This is doubly dangerous because a woman relies on her brothers’ support “throughout her life. If there’s any problem in the marital household, your brother is the one who will help.”

In some cases, female demands for property end in violence, even murder. The result in each case – from backlash to empowerment – depends, according to Brulé, on the cost that brothers and their families expect to bear. This means that as women-led negotiations for property rights become more expected, dowry may well decline in importance.

Of course bridegrooms and their families might well demand a dowry, but female pradhans make negotiations over the question more possible. The rising value of farmland means that “ it's generally in the interest of marital families to accept land that is promised” to the incoming daughter-in-law,” Brulé explained.

Slowly, she said, women’s revolutionary inclusion in politics is rippling outward. Amongst women who enter marriage markets with equal rights to property and a female elected leader to facilitate their demands for these rights, there is encouraging evidence: declining female infanticide, and “a growing preference for daughters." There’s also a trend for newly-married women to live closer to their own parents than previously.

“Gender inequality is amazingly sticky in so many parts of the world,” Brulé said, “and India is a particularly difficult case. So if we can see change happening in India, it gives us grounds for optimism for everywhere else.”

Women's Representation and Resistance: Positive and Perverse Consequences of Indian Laws for Gender Equality (Cambridge University Press) is expected in 2019.