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Land is the most significant form of property in rural South Asia. Ownership of land determines economic well-being, social status and political power. Despite gender progressive legislation, Bina Agarwal notes in this first major study of gender and land rights in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal that few South Asian women inherit property and even fewer control it.
Land ownership is largely in the hands of male household members. The dominant social assumption is that the family is an undifferentiated unit governed primarily by altruism. It is assumed, therefore, that a piece of land owned by the male head will benefit the entire family.
Feminist critiques have challenged this assumption and have documented persistent interfamily inequalities in the distribution of resources and tasks within the household. Building on this scholarship, Agarwal points out why it is critical for policymakers to reconsider the nature and structure of the family.
Agarwal argues that independent land rights are crucial towards establishing more equal gender relations both within and outside the household. She establishes a firm theoretical framework for understanding the relationships of power between men and women, revealed in a range of practices, ideas and representations including the division of labour, roles and resources between genders. She explains the ways in which the "contested terrain" of gender relationships are maintained and identifies the processes through which they change over time as a result of being constantly subject to negotiation and realignment.
The household, viewed as a matrix of relationships subject to constant negotiation, is characterized by both conflict and cooperation. Agarwal argues that this non-unitary household demands a different set of policy interventions than those which stem from an ideal of the "unitary" household.
Agarwal goes on to explore the nature and extent of woman's bargaining power within the family. She demonstrates a subtle understanding of women's unspoken behaviour and adroitly uses folk songs and "women talk" to …