Illustration by Radia Durrani


Women are emotionally blackmailed and often coerced to relinquish their inheritance share in favour of male heirs.
Published November 13, 2022

When Kiran Ali* was married off to Sikander Ahmed* in an arranged wedding, she was only 16 years old. Born and raised in a conservative family, she thought her life would be blissful and full of freedom after marriage. However, her happiness was short-lived. Just two years into her marriage, her beloved husband died from a cardiac arrest, leaving behind an 18-year-old widow and an infant son.

Sikander owned two commercial properties at a prime location in Karachi, along with other assets. Soon after Kiran’s iddat (the Islamic mourning period for widows) was complete, her in-laws arranged her marriage to Sikander’s elder brother, Kamran* to avoid questions about inheritance. Kiran agreed to marry Kamran for her son’s sake.

As a young, naïve woman who was grieving her husband’s loss, Kiran did not claim her inheritance. She later moved abroad with Kamran to start a new life and gave birth to a beautiful daughter.

However, life had some other challenges in store for her. When Kiran was pregnant with her second daughter, Kamran was diagnosed with cancer. He died when his youngest daughter was only one-year-old. At 29, Kiran was widowed for the second time; this time with three children to feed but just as naive as her 16-year-old self.

Despite laws existing to protect the rights of women in matters related to inheritance and matrimony, why are many women in Pakistan often deprived of their due, forgo their share or struggle for years to get what is rightfully theirs? And what can be done about it?

“Both of my husbands believed that a woman’s job was to raise kids,” says Kiran. “I was never allowed to continue my education or learn to drive or visit banks. I never had a say in financial matters. Women are usually considered stupid and are excluded from the important financial or property matters. I was no exception.”

When Kamran passed away in 2011, Kiran had no idea about banking matters, bus routes or what assets he had left behind. Kamran’s brothers took control of their deceased brothers’ estate and denied Kiran and her children their rightful share.

After trying for a year to settle the matter through negotiations, Kiran took legal action against her brothers-in-law. The case lingered on for four years with no fruitful progress. Kiran and her father would spend hours in courts. It pained Kiran to see her old, frail father suffering because of her, so she decided to accept whatever little her brothers-in-law were offering and withdrew her case.

“I took the legal course with high hopes, but our justice system let me down. I learnt that it is only for the powerful. For the weaker lot like us, there are delays, hearings, and a never-ending wait.”

From the inheritance share of approximately seven crores, Kiran only received 1.5 crores in the settlement. “I rest my case to Allah, who is the most just of all,” she says.


Fatima Butt, an Islamabad-based lawyer and human rights activist, agrees that attaining justice, especially in matters related to property is a long, tiring process, sometimes spanning decades. “At times, one generation files the case, and the other generation reaps the benefit. It can be a hectic and exhausting process, which can take a toll on people’s mental and physical health,” she says.

Butt blames the weak implementation of laws that grant women’s rights to property and inheritance. “The majority of women do not get their inheritance share,” she says, “and very few dare to claim it legally.” While most women aren’t fully aware about their rights to property or assets, especially following a death, they also have a host of fears that stop them from claiming their rights. Some of them are blinded by love and do not want to lose their relatives for ‘material’ things. They fear isolation and social boycott. Others lack the courage to even talk about their share, fearing for their life and safety.

Razia Jahan’s* father passed away nearly two decades ago. Her brother, who has since been living in his house, does not understand that she needs her share of inheritance in order to buy her own house. Neither have discussed the distribution of property in all these years. Razia did not need the money but now that she wants to move out and buy her own small place, she lacks the funds to do so.

“I need my share, but not at the cost of losing my brother. He is the only sibling I have,” she says. She does not think her brother will be able to buy a decent place for himself amid inflation. “I don’t want him to struggle the way I am struggling.”

Razia is willing to postpone her plans until she gets enough money or gets a loan. She does not plan to claim her inheritance or convey her concerns to her brother for fear of severing ties.


Women are often coerced into signing away their due rights | White Star
Women are often coerced into signing away their due rights | White Star

The Enforcement of Women’s Property Rights Act, 2020, protects the rights of ownership and possession of properties owned by women and ensures they are not violated through harassment, coercion, force or fraud.

“The Enforcement of Women’s Property Rights Act is a step in the right direction, as it saves a lot of time, energy and money,” says Butt. She explains that women can file a complaint to the ombudsperson who then does a preliminary assessment, calls for a record and passes the order, if no further investigation is needed.

In case the matter needs further reviews, the ombudsman can seek the services of a Deputy Commissioner, who is bound to conduct an enquiry and submit a report within a fixed time period.

“This way, women do not have to go to courts, hire a lawyer or visit various departments to collect data,” she says.

The Enforcement of Women’s Property Rights Act, has empowered women and expedited the standard process. Fatima believes that things are changing for the better. “Now that women can file a complaint in simple words, without going to courts, more and more are claiming their rights to inheritance.” Butt also highlights that there is no time limitation to file an inheritance claim, so women can claim their rightful share even after many years.

However, some people argue that the above-mentioned act gives limited powers to an ombudsman and inheritance cases are often referred to civil courts for proceedings.


The Muslim Family Law Ordinance of 1961 and the West Pakistan Muslim Personal Law — also known as Shariat Act 1962 — elaborates and safeguards the rights of legal heirs in country.

Pakistan mainly follows Islamic principles on inheritance matters, besides having separate inheritance laws for religious minorities. According to Islamic jurisprudence, the estate of a Muslim man devolves upon the heirs immediately on his death in definite shares and fractions.

Chapter four of the Quran, Surah An-Nisa, defines the appropriate share of both male and female heirs in inheritance and stresses on providing women their rightful share, regardless of how much it is.

“Men ought to have a portion of what their parents and kindred leave, women a part of what their parents and kindred leave, whether it be little or much, let them have a determinable portion.” (An-Nisa, 4:7)

While scholars consider the Islamic law of inheritance to be revolutionary and exemplary for its time, some in contemporary times raise concerns over the unequal distribution of share among male and female heirs and call for gender-neutral treatment in inheritance matters, especially when male heirs do not fulfil their responsibilities as maintainers or when female heirs contribute equal amounts of money to the household.

But in a country where intolerance prevails, blasphemy laws are regularly misused and a mob can come together over mere speculation, gender-neutral treatment is perhaps too much to ask for.

While scholars consider the Islamic law of inheritance to be revolutionary and exemplary for its time, some in contemporary times raise concerns over the unequal distribution of share among male and female heirs and call for gender-neutral treatment in inheritance matters, especially when male heirs do not fulfil their responsibilities as maintainers or when female heirs contribute equal amounts of money to the household.


Lawyers argue for more legal literacy programs so women are aware about their rights | White Star
Lawyers argue for more legal literacy programs so women are aware about their rights | White Star

The Quran has clearly emphasised on providing women their due right to inheritance. However, some of the most pious Muslims blatantly ignore such teachings.

In light of the laws and some judgments of the past, Syed Haider Imam Rizvi, advocate Supreme Court and member of Judicial Commission of Pakistan (Sindh), busts some common myths and misconceptions used to misguide women while denying them of their rights.

Women are emotionally blackmailed and often coerced to relinquish their inheritance share in favour of male heirs. They are also misled to believe the estate left behind by the deceased has been gifted away and hence they have no share.

“These gift deeds or relinquishment deeds can be challenged,” says Rizvi. A judgment by the honourable court clearly states that “relinquishment without consideration could not operate as ordinary alienation and so-called relinquishment of accrued inheritance is neither recognised in Islamic Law nor it is treated as a ‘transfer’ under the Transfer of Property Act. Neither it is a gift nor a family settlement.”

A divorcee or widow is often denied inheritance by male family members on the pretext of maintenance or bearing expense of her legal case. This, too, is against the law and teachings of Islam which emphasise the best possible treatment of female relations.

The Quran in Surah An-Nisa Ayat 34 declares men as “protectors and maintainers.” Therefore, if a father does anything beyond necessity, it must be treated as a gift and should not be compensated through inheritance share. “Maintenance is the right of a woman, and it does not nullify her right to inheritance in any case,” Rizvi says.

Many women are led to believe they have been given dowry so they have no right to inheritance. The Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Act 1976 defines ‘dowry’ as any property given before, at or after the marriage either directly or indirectly to the bride by her parents in connection with the marriage, but it does not include the property which the bride may inherit under the laws of inheritance.

In cases where women are deprived through gifting of property to others, there should be evidence to justify their disinheritance from the gift, Rizvi explains. The gifts and other instruments that are used to deprive female heirs, including daughters and widows, are contrary to law and public policy.

Besides, it is also imperative to disclose time, date, place and the names of witnesses in whose presence the alleged declaration and acceptance of the gift was announced, he points out.

It is also important to understand that the right of an heir to claim inheritance does not dissipate with his death; instead, it is passed on to his heirs. According to Muslim Family Law Ordinance 1961, the grandchildren of a predeceased son or daughter are entitled to inherit property of their grandfather to the extent their mother/father would have inherited if they were alive at the time of opening of succession of deceased grandfather. Hence, women are entitled to receive the inheritance share of their parents in the estate of their grandparents even when their parents are not alive.

Islam has laid great emphasis on protecting the rights of widows, but the irony is that, while widows with children are treated badly, a childless widow faces even worse treatment. Surah An-Nisa Ayat 12 states that a childless widow is entitled to 1/4th share from her husband’s leftover estate.

“Women need to be aware of their rights and should not hesitate to claim it whenever required. Sadly, the majority of women do not want to sour their relationship with their brothers and hence remain quiet and bear the injustice,” says Rizvi.


Women are often married off early and often within the family, so the property can stay within the family. Research also indicates that “swap marriages” are common in rural districts of the country to defer women’s inheritance.

The disinheritance of women in rural areas is more common than in urban areas, Butt believes. “Some women in rural areas are even ‘married to the Quran’ to deprive them of their inheritance share, whereas others fall prey to deceitful transfer,” she says.

“Those having some knowledge [of laws] are emotionally blackmailed and misguided in exchange for a gift deed, bridal gift, maintenance allowance or payment of some cash to give up their rights in favour of male heirs. Women who try to break the cultural taboos become victims of physical abuse, which often cost them their lives,” she adds.

Section 498A of the Prevention of Anti Women Practices Act 2011 specifies penalties for those who deny women’s inheritance rights. It states that those depriving women from inheriting property through deceitful or illegal means shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to 10 years but cannot be less than five years, or with a fine of one million rupees or both. However, it is rarely invoked.

Bano Begum* turned to an online community to seek advice. She signed a document she could not even read or understand. The patwari [land revenue clerk] simply asked her if she was willing to give up her share in the estate left behind by her deceased father for her brother.

Manipulated and driven by emotions, Bano signed the document. She regrets that she was not informed or educated about its consequences. Her brother keeps all the income generated from her father’s vast agricultural land and does not give her a penny, she says.

The social implications of such disenfranchisement can often be great, with women being placed at a higher risk of suicide or of becoming murder victims. They may also be encouraged or forced into untenable or abusive domestic situations.


The National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), established in 2000 to combat discrimination against women, is working to promote legal literacy among women in Pakistan, says Barrister Haya Emaan Zahid, Chief Executive Officer of Legal Aid Society (LAS) and a member of the NCSW. The official website of NCSW contains a list of federal and provincial laws that support women.

The LAS has developed nine animated films in eight regional languages on the Enforcement of Women’s Property Rights Act 2020 and inheritance laws of minority communities.

“With the 72 versions of animations available in Sindhi, Hindko, Seraiki, Gojri, Pashto and Balochi, the Legal Aid Society and NCSW have jointly spread awareness on women’s rights to property across Pakistan,” says Haya, adding that “such widespread and nuanced efforts are surely a first!” The films have been shown in mobile cinema tours across Pakistan, she shares.

The LAS also promotes legal literacy through its community outreach sessions. Its trained paralegals have educated 15,000 community members regarding women’s property rights in the districts of Larkana, Shaheed Benazirabad and Karachi. The organisation has helped 80 women in cases regarding access to the marital property from all provinces and provided free legal help and access to litigation services to 100 women regarding inheritance and property ownership cases.

Like Butt, Zahid also believes that patriarchal practices and the lack of awareness about legal rights are the biggest hindrances for women to get their inheritance share.

“Women belonging to other religious beliefs suffer equally as Muslim women, because of the patriarchal norms and cultural taboos,” she says. “However, they suffer a bit differently, in the sense that many lawyers are not aware of their specific laws and hence are unable to present their case appropriately.”


While discussing women’s right to inheritance, it is important to consider matrimonial property rights as well, which usually refer to the property acquired by either spouse, or both, between the date of marriage and divorce.

Zahid stresses on an equitable distribution of the property among spouses at the dissolution of marriage. She highlights the lack of a matrimonial property regime in Pakistan and its effects on women after the dissolution of marriage. “A woman’s unpaid care, domestic work and her financial and non-financial contributions during her marriage often go down the drain and she is left with nothing at the time of divorce,” she says.

Musawah, a global movement launched in 2009 for equality and justice in Muslim family laws, has a Framework for Action, devised thoughtfully after discussions with scholars, academics, activists and legal practitioners. In order to promote women’s right to matrimonial property (WRMP), Musawah, in collaboration with Legal Aid Society, has developed two policy papers to advocate for an egalitarian matrimonial property regime in Pakistan.

While Pakistan’s Constitution provides every citizen the right to acquire property without gender discrimination, patriarchal practices and local customs often bar women from owning or inheriting a property.

Zahid believes natural disasters provide great opportunities to learn from mistakes and improve them in the future. “Now when the floods are over and we will enter in the process of reconstruction, it is important to prioritise women by ensuring joint titling [husband and wife] of new houses,” she says.


While women make half of the world’s population, they own less than 20 percent of land across the globe, a World Economic Forum report states.

According to the World Bank Group’s recently released Women, Business and the Law 2022 report, of the 190 economies studied, 76 (40 percent) restrict women’s property rights. In 19 economies, women do not have equal ownership rights to immovable property, 57 of them do not recognise non-monetary contributions of women to the household, whereas in nine economies the husband has the right to control assets that are owned jointly by both spouses.

The report also states that 43 economies across the world do not give equal inheritance rights to male and female surviving spouses and 42 of them prevent daughters from inheriting in the same way as sons.

Remarkably, Pakistan’s laws themselves are often more progressive in intent and the problem often lies with their lack of implementation.

Inheritance empowers women by providing them security, shelter and livelihood opportunities. Its denial can be detrimental to women’s health and psychological wellbeing. Land ownership renders them the autonomy to make decisions, control resources, generate income, reduce their dependence on male members and boosts their confidence. Enforcement of the law of inheritance is also an important method in Islam for achieving circulation of wealth.

Time and again, Pakistan’s courts have passed progressive judgments in favour of women and have urged men not to act as predators, but as protectors of women and their rights. Then where does the fault lie?

Why do women like Kiran suffer through delays and eventually bow down to the pressure? There is a need to investigate these loopholes in the civil justice system. There is also a need to set up a network of lawyers, and representatives of the education, health, labour, social welfare and revenue departments to highlight the cases of infringement of women’s rights, be it inheritance or otherwise. Most of all, measures need to be taken to build the trust of people, especially women, in the justice system.

  • Name changed to protect privacy

The writer is a freelance journalist.

She tweets @Tanzeel09


Since many women in Pakistan are reluctant to visit a lawyer, they are unable to seek legal advice and hence bow down to the pressure of relinquishing their inheritance rights. However, various helplines are offering free legal advice and guiding women on how to pursue their case.

Under the Legal Empowerment of Peoples Programme in Sindh (LEPPS), the Sindh government has partnered with the Legal Aid Society to support the Sindh Legal Advisory Call Centre (SLACC).

Through its toll-free number 0800 70806, the helpline offers free-of-cost legal advice to everyone across the country. This year, 25 percent of the calls were made by women for issues such as domestic violence, marital and inheritance property rights and custody of children.

Besides SLACC, the AGHS Legal Aid Cell and the Ministry of Human Rights helpline (1099) also provides legal advice to those in need. Some non-profit organisations also fight legal cases of vulnerable women free of cost.

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 13th, 2022