x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A man in possession of a good fortune ... took it from his relative?

Settling an inheritance is a complicated and often painful process if you happen to be a woman in the Arab world.

'She continued to rail bitterly against the cruelty of settling an estate away from a family of five daughters, in favour of a man whom nobody cared anything about." So says poor Mrs Bennet in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, but why does she resonate with so many Arab women?

The book, adapted to film so many times, was published in 1813. You would think that the financial and social restrictions on women in the 18th and 19th centuries, as portrayed in Austen's books, are long outdated and irrelevant.

But, as I recently learnt, inheritance is still fraught with gender-related concerns. Emotions come into play and often there is an undeserved sense of self-entitlement. The issue is so complex that it can involve issues of religious choice.

Whether we like it or not, there comes a point in all of our lives when we face the issue of inheritance after a relative passes away. We learn what we have, or have not, been bequeathed something from the recently departed.

In my own case, one of my relatives recently passed away and left me a tiny bit of property in the will. That little inheritance has upset several of my male relatives, who feel it should have been passed down to them or, failing that, any of the men.

All of a sudden, gender stereotypes we have long fought against came into play. As a woman, I couldn't possibly be "capable" of handling such an inheritance. It got worse when I announced that I wanted to turn the land into an animal shelter for abandoned and old animals in danger of being put down.

"But you can't do that, you should invest and build and make money," was my cousin's reply.

Perhaps I am naive, but I don't like to put monetary value on everything, especially not an inheritance. Thankfully, in Poland my inheritance could not be contested on religious or gender-related grounds, although it remains at the mercy of lawyers and legal loopholes.

But for some, it is far worse. Parents have even officially changed their religious affiliation to take advantage of inheritance laws. In one case I know about in Lebanon, a father decided to change the entire family's sect from Sunni to Shiite, just on paper, so that his three daughters could be his heirs without having to share their inheritance with the next closest male relative as is customary in some Sunni communities.

In Islam, regardless of sect, sons inherit twice as much as daughters, although the issue is more complex because women have a right to the man's money. Often among Sunni Muslims, when a family has only daughters, women inherit a small portion and the balance goes to the next male relative. Within Shiite Islam, daughters can be the only heirs if they don't have male siblings.

I know that in my family there was a sigh of relief when my brother was born. I don't mind the bulk of the inheritance going to my brother, because a sister inherits half of her brother's share. The disparity is based on the belief that men have greater financial responsibilities than women in general and inherit the debts of the deceased.

Looking at my own financial responsibilities and independence, I don't think that reasoning applies as much today. The assumption is that women will get married, but what if that doesn't happen? I have a relative whose fiance was killed in a car accident and she never married. She ended up losing most of her inheritance to a cousin, and somehow an old uncle has more rights to her childhood home than she has. The house doesn't mean anything to him, but it means the whole world to her.

The problem with inheritance is that we all avoid talking about it until we are forced to. People even avoid writing wills, as if they would be inviting death into their homes.

Personally, I would never let someone as annoying as Mr Collins, the grasping male relative in Pride and Prejudice, inherit my home. I also doubt we all will be as lucky as Elizabeth Bennet and marry a rich and handsome Mr Darcy as a compensation for a lost inheritance.

 

rghazal@thenational.ae