I am the oldest of my father’s six surviving children. We are part of a big extended family system and it is taken for granted that men are decision makers. Being a woman I was not considered a threat to claim my right to inherit my father’s landed property. In fact nobody has ever done so in the family. For instance when my grandfather died, those of his widows who could stay with their children did so but those who could not disperse into their own world. It took me twenty-three years of silence and one year of battling with patriarchy to have control over my rightful inheritance and decide what to do with it.
Understanding the complex social, cultural organization of how land is used and owned is important to break the cycle of abuse and exploitation of the properties of orphans and widows. For instance, a whole generation of children has lost ownership of their father’s land and I did not want that cycle of abuse to continue in my family. As a human rights activist, I had to take a stand to ensure that justice is done regarding our family inheritance, even risking being snubbed in my own extended family.
In my society land issues are shrouded in myths, yet it is of the most valued properties one can claim as wealth. My community town located in the coastal part of the Gambia and close to the Atlantic Ocean, is increasingly attracting property buyers and developers. Some urban women are also buying landed property situated in these rural coastal towns and villages. For the rural women, this is threatening. Most of them only have access to use the land to grow vegetables and rice. Furthermore, most of them would never own the land they are accessing for farming except they fight for it. In the traditional social psyche most rural women are not expected to own land. Women are not expected to be independent and to live on their own property without a man in their shadow. They either live with their parents, husband or brother at any given time of the lives.
In the society there are traditional structures, councils that are expected to maintain social cohesion and peace. Members of such councils are the elderly or the knowledgeable and they include religious scholars. In times of dispute they are expected to intervene and ensure that there is justice for peace to prevail. Such groups are also important in addressing issues of inheritance for orphans and widows. In many cases they do not facilitate such processes and in the end most women give up on the right to land by being silent.
Traditional systems of controlling and managing land are recognized in our communities. These include volunteers assigned to take care of the land and most of the time the community is aware of the ownership because of the “Kabilo” system in the community. For instance, an elder brother could be taking care of the landed property of a younger brother but members of the family will know who the owner is. It is usually mutually beneficial. However it should be noted that taking care of the property does not mean ownership.
While I was silent for twenty-three years, I was actively watching and noting how people in positions of power play out their power over others. Some families are evicted from their properties because they have nobody to stand for them. Mostly these are women who are vulnerable and are coerced to re-marry to their late husband’s brother to continue to stay in the family compound. If they decide not to do so they are evicted along with their young children, even if the children are boys. Some are forced to leave their sons behind with the extended family, mostly with the paternal uncles and the widows are only allowed to go with the girls. In such processes, the widows and their children are also denied inheritance of landed property. In situations where the children are adults and in particular if they are boys, the widows stay in the late husband’s house whether they re-marry amongst the men in the family or outsiders. A widow re-marrying to a late husband’s brother is so common that the practice and is called “wife inheritance.” (It should be noted that in Islam, a wife cannot be inherited. Marriage is based on consent.)
Injustice can cause unnecessary human sufferings. For twenty-three years, I have watched a particular family where the widow struggled in difficult situations with her children just because she was not in control of the property of her children and even her own share of the property. Not sharing inheritance at the right time can cause a lot of suffering in families. While overcoming the grief of losing the loved one, the rest of the family should not suffer because an uncle or brother has decided to be silent over the property of the orphans and widows. This particular family has a huge fruit tree orchard and the income was being enjoyed by others in the extended family. To my dismay not even the scholars who are closely associated to the family stood up to ensure justice prevailed. The children had to go from one place to another to have support to be educated and their mother borrowing other people’s land to grow vegetables and rice as well as engage in petty trading at the market. She should have been the decision maker in the absence of her late husband on how to use the income from the fruit trees, perhaps to pay school fees, feed the children with less difficulty.
I studied this family to understand all these complex dynamics about inheritance which were not based on the teachings of the Quran. During this period I had learnt about my right as a Muslim woman and it gave me hope that when I approach the religious scholars about my inheritance, their decision will be based on the teachings of Islam. To my disappointment and dismay the arguments I initially received were socio-cultural sentiments towards a particular group of people forgetting that I did not ask for privileges but my right to have my share of my father’s landed property. I was even surprised that people I expected to stand for justice were the very ones who were against my decision to claim for my rights. I was not convinced with some of their reasons. “Your uncle took care of the land for your father and now that he is dead, his children want to have a share of the land.” This was going to be more challenging than I thought.
I reflected on the family I had studied over the years. I remembered the widow telling me she could not claim her rights and that of her children because there is myth about fighting over landed property. She did not want anything bad to befall her children, so she just waited with the hope that someone will see the need to give them what was theirs. I did not realize that asking for my right would be a ‘fight’. I had to take a decision whether to also succumb to the myth that if I claim my right to landed property some supernatural means would be fall me or allow people to continue to control and benefit from what is rightfully mine.
I reflected on what options I had and finally I was determined that no matter how long it took and what was going to happen, I would break the cycle of abuse of orphans and widows in my family. I was ready to take responsibility. This meant having to face a group of patriarchs who could not simply understand why I had to claim for a piece of land. I gave them the option to settle the matter at the family level or we go for a legal battle to settle it for us. I knew I had all the evidence to support my case and they were not comfortable with the questions I asked. I wanted to know whether a girl child can and should inherit from her father and if so I wanted only my share of my father’s property. It did not matter to me the size I would have but I should be able to have my name on it and be able to take decision about it. It also meant that I took the risk being isolated in my extended family for starting “trouble” in the family. I had to stand up to the negative perceptions about being a woman trying to be a ‘man’. One of Scholars told me “Amie why are you bothering yourself with all this trouble knowing that your share as a girl is half of your brothers’.” But it seems one of the elderly women in the family assumed she had an answer and she told me “You don’t need this land, all you’re trying to do is to proof your point about the women’s rights issues you and Dr. Isatou are talking about.”
I had to admit that she was right, but the underlying fact is even if I was to have only one square metre of the land I would be happy that I was able to break the myths about claiming landed property.
After a year-long ‘fight’ through meetings, consultations between the family members, family friends and the Islamic scholars, my father’s landed property was shared. All the children had their share, be they male or female and my father’s two widows also had their share of the land. I now have control over what belongs to me. The fact that justice has been done at the end, it also brought the extended family closer that it had been when the feeling of injustice shrouded the relationship. When I was later visited by one of them, he confessed “You know most of the scholars did not understand your stand at the beginning, I think you should be engaging them more.” Well I’m happy to do so but what I hope has been achieved was that my case has set the standard that those who are in control of making decisions about the lives of others would be aware of the impact of their decisions on orphans and widows.
People in position of power need to be aware that with education and enlightenment people are increasingly becoming conscious of their rights and can no longer accept abuse and subordination of women. It should not be taken for granted that the signing and ratification of global and regional commitments to promote and protect the rights of women is enough. Development partners need to invest in the education and empowerment of grassroots women in particular. Women need to be aware of their rights in order to overcome social and cultural myths and be able to stand up for those rights at the national and community levels but more importantly at the family level. For instance, the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Protocol to the African Charter on the Human and Peoples Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (also called the Maputo Protocol) call for the respect of the rights of women to own land and have equal and equitable share of their inheritance. That is why GAMCOTRAP, a Women Rights organization in the Gambia does not restrict its message to education regarding Female Genital Mutilation. It also raises awareness about other traditional practices that deny women their other rights, including their right to inherit land, cattle or any other property. I hope sharing my story on my struggle to get my right to inherit landed property will motive the many silent women in similar context to speak out against social and cultural myths that continue to silence women and deny them their right to inherit land.