Women can legally head households, a court in India ruled this week in a monumental verdict for women’s rights. The decision will allow the eldest female in a family to formally occupy a role traditionally inherited by men through a patriarchal system of lineage that stems from Hindu beliefs.
The change applies to the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF), which is a legally recognized entity created by members of a family of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Sikh Indians through marriage. It’s a unit that families can create to jointly handle matters of inheritance and taxes. It’s headed by the oldest male member of a family, or a “Karta,” who is anointed with both ritual and practical privileges through both Hindu tradition and the Indian legal system.
The Karta can make decisions about jointly held business or property assets, as well as lead funeral rites for family members.
If a male member of a Hindu Undivided Family, by virtue of his being the first born eldest, can be a Karta, so can a female member.
“If a male member of a Hindu Undivided Family, by virtue of his being the first born eldest, can be a Karta, so can a female member,” Justice Najmi Waziri of the Delhi High Court said in a judgment made public earlier this week. “The court finds no restriction in law preventing the eldest female [member] of an HUF, from being its Karta.”
The ruling was made after the eldest daughter in a family in India claimed to be its Karta after her father and her uncles died. A younger male cousin challenged her for the role.
Although women were granted the right to equality in inheritance matters through a constitutional amendment in 2005, allowing them to become the Karta will give them agency in other matters.
The court’s decision takes the 2005 reform “to its logical conclusion,” according to the Times of India. “While the amendment restricted itself to providing women equal inheritance rights, the verdict now allows them to manage property and rituals of a joint family.”
This is the second notable decision on gender roles in traditional legal systems out of the Indian judicial system in recent months. In November, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that women will maintain rights to keep any gifts she receives before or after marriage if she separates from her husband.