Is there an ancient culture in which women were not treated as property?

Answer by Raakhee V. Menon:

Among the others mentioned on other answers is the one I belong to.

I belong to the Hindu Nair community of Kerala, India. We follow a matrilineal system of inheritance. Although much has changed now regarding the inheritance of property, the social aspects still remain the same. The bloodline moves through the women of the family, not the men. For instance, I belong to my mother’s family, not to my dad’s.

Earlier, the family property (movable and immovable) was not allowed to move out of the family hands. Major chunks of the family property would be inherited by the daughters and their children. Smaller portions would be given to the sons and after they died, their property would be distributed equally among their sisters’ children. This went on from generation to generation. If you do the math, you would see that the family property kept exchanging hands within the family itself. This meant that the women were individually wealthy. The husbands did not have any right over the wives’ property. None at all.

As the bloodline moved through the girls, the birth of a girl child was (and still largely is) an occasion for huge celebration. A family with more daughters was viewed as lucky. The family would grow more, they’d say. A son was needed just for the purpose of doing the funeral rites for parents when they die. Even if they don’t have a son, the daughters’ sons can do the job. So having a son was not a big deal at all. It was considered desirable to be a girl in a Nair family than to be a boy, thanks to the elevated status.

Our womenfolk were considered equal to the menfolk. They were equally educated in matters of state and in matters of warfare. There was no reason why anybody would think of them as inferior. They were wealthy, they were educated, and they called the shots at home. Their say in family matters held more value than that of their brothers. Even the concept of ‘marriage’ meant something very different to Nairs than what it meant to everyone else. You can read about it in detail on my article here → Is it true that Kerala had no marriage culture in ancient India (1914)?

There are several theories that have been taking rounds of folklore since time immemorial about the origins of Nairs. Some say that Nairs are not indigenous to Kerala. They came down from the foothills of the Himalayas and settled in Kerala. Some say that they are descendants of the Nagas and that it is a branch of the Nair clan that still live in Meghalaya, where they follow almost identical social hierarchies. The culture and customs of present day Nairs was a result of several generations of attempts at assimilation with the other people of the region. Though they have adopted several aspects into their own culture, some still remain very distinct from everyone else. Some even say the community name Nair itself is an off-shoot from the word Naagar, meaning ‘of the Naga clan’. There is also the additional aspect of Nairs being one of the only clans in south India that still do serpent worship. Some theories say that Nairs were the warriors of Emperor Ashoka who settled in Kerala. I don’t know which of these are true and which are not. But Nairs are a warrior clan and it was not restricted only to the men. The women were equally powerful.

A lot of changes were brought into the system by the law that was goaded mainly by disgruntled Nair men who saw the exalted positions men held in other societies and felt oppressed. It was sometime in the late 1960 or early 1970s that they brought in a revised Hindu Property Act that gave equal right of inheritance of property to men and also ruled that after death, the property owned by the parents will be inherited by the offspring. Due to this, a lot of our landed property and other valuables got distributed all over the place. People who inherited property/valuables that once belonged to a particular family may not hold it in equal reverence as the original owners did or would not have sentimental value for it. So they sold off a lot of it to willing buyers.

So a lot has changed since those days of old. But even today, Nair couples hope and pray to be blessed with a daughter and some keep trying until they get a daughter. One family we know had three sons in the process of trying to get a daughter. They even considered doing something medically to get a daughter. But their doctor said that all future attempts will also result in sons and that it’s better that they quit trying. They were quite dejected.

In case anyone is interested in some further reading, here are a few links to articles I have written about my clan:

Is there an ancient culture in which women were not treated as property?

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