Thursday, June 16, 2016

1916- 1986- 2016 Mary Roy and Mary John Akhouri: Overturning 100 years of discrimination

Mary is a very important name in the church and it includes St. Mary, first among saints, St. Mary Magdalene and St. Mary the sister of St. Martha among others. Mary brings to mind several things. It is a name that the church will never be able to wipe out. The name brings not just assurance, hope and obedience but rebellion, sacrifice and victory from oppression. Along with Mary John Akhouri who has managed to wake up the senses of the church and civil society in Kerala, India and the world, is Mary Roy who single handedly fought against an oppressive law and a patriarchal church and society which supported the law.

We are still looking at the merit and faults of denying a decent burial to Mary John Akhouri in the church of her choice and as per her last wish. But there is also another interesting aspect to this time and year. 2016 is an important date because it comes exactly 100 years after the act of 1916 which was discriminatory towards Syrian Christian women in India because it gave only 1/4th the share of ancestral property going to the son, to the daughter or Rs 5,000 whichever was less. In 1984 Mary Roy who also belonged to a Syrian Christian family and was separated from her husband and was going to be evicted from her house in Ooty, filed a case in a court of law, which came out with a favourable verdict in 1986. This was followed by several other cases which culminated in the 2010 verdict of the court granting the right to one part of the property to Mary Roy. 100 years after a discriminatory law and 30 years after a favourable court verdict for Syrian Christian women. This is what 2016 offers and the passing away of Mary John Akhouri and her wish to be buried in her parish brings to focus not just inter religious weddings, church membership and funerals but the key factor of rights of women.

I mentioned in an earlier write up that we have to have a lenient view to several parties involved in the recent issue. But how can we reason within the church that Mary John Akhouri deserved better? For this Mary Roy offers help to us. The Travancore Christian Succession Act of 1916 was clearly discriminatory and it was tweaked to be even more so by the powerful Syrian Christian community. “Under Section 24 of the Act, a widowed mother has only a life interest terminable at death or remarriage, over any immovable property. Under Section 28 female heirs who had already received Streedhanam (dowry) were not to be given any share in the case of intestacy because the daughters have only a right to get streedhanam and it was fixed as ¼ of the share of a son or Rs.5000/- whichever is less, daughters could get shares in the intestate’s property only in the absence of male heirs. Even the unmarried daughters had only a right to get streedhanam which was to be calculated as aforesaid. Thus the Travancore Act contained several discriminatory provisions blatantly violating Article 15(1). The reason for the denial of the share in the family property was that the daughter was going to the matrimonial home and only the sons are contributing to the growth and betterment of the family.”

Venu Menon writes that the Supreme Court verdict brought about by Mary Roy’s court case brought the Syrian Christians under the more liberal Indian Succession Act, 1921. “The judicial order sent shock waves through the community, especially the patriarchal authority that influenced the lives of Christians. The verdict not only gave the female progeny equal rights in the father's property, it did so with retrospective effect. The retrospective clause promised to unleash chaos in the community. Every Christian household faced the prospect of an insurrection from within. All past land transactions became open to question. All titles to property derived from intestate succession now stood invalidated. There could be no precise estimate of the number of women who suffered injustice under the earlier law. The Supreme Court judgement provided an instant remedy.”

The church and the state tried to stall and circumvent the court order and has been successful to a great extend with changes in will and daughters agreeing to sign legal documents mentioning they have received their share. The court order should be read from the perspective of daughters being sent off from their house in the hope that they will never return. It is a once for all settlement. Perhaps this was what happened with Mary John Akhouri. Her being sent off or her going on her own was the part of the societal and church sponsored programme of making sure that the daughter of the house was settled and sent away. Mary John Akhouri’s wish to be buried in her mother parish can and must be seen as her return for her rights which were denied to her earlier. Even if she personally got something from her family her return is the return of a Syrian Christian woman for an equal share of the property of her family which includes a space in church and the cemetery as well. Here I am again sympathetic to the priest in charge as his denial must be seen as the denial of the church to accept someone like Mary Roy and her fight for her rights and the effort to circumvent any court order given otherwise.

The court order giving equal rights over ancestral property to women in the family was always fought by the church and the political class as well because they thought that the ruling patriarchal class would be offended if they did not circumvent the court verdict. It was also a case of holding on to power by the influential class of people in society. The church still has a chance to redeem itself by first of all accepting what Mary Roy, a Syrian Christian herself has done for the emancipation and equal rights of women. She should be honored for this fight and struggle that she has undertaken. Her fight and case should not be seen as anti-church but as a struggle for the church and its constituency of women. What the church has not done for various reasons was taken up and done by a church member and this should be appreciated by the church. The church finds itself at the cross roads looking at itself on what it means by equality, justice and peace. Is it only a slogan or is it something which suggests that all who are in the church are its members and deserve equal treatment from the church? In the Mary John Akhouri analysis it will help church members and others to understand that her burial is not just a burial of a church member who was away and therefore had given up her membership status but that she was a woman of the church who was collectively wronged by a patriarchal society and church together. Her wish to be buried in Kumarakom is her coming back and her journey for the justice which was denied to her because of a discriminatory law of 1916 which still seems to be hanging like a mill stone around the neck of church administrators.

The church and all of us together must understand that we have been hand in glove with all of this. We have not considered the work of women like Mary Roy and Mary John Akhouri because they were women and they tried to change the status quo of gender roles prevalent in the church. One did it through a life long legal battle to get a right to her ancestral property and the other did it through an end of life wish to gain access and right to her ancestral tomb and thus property.
In Numbers 27 the daughters of Zelophehad Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting and said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the LORD, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.” So Moses brought their case before the LORD, and the LORD said to him, “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them. The five daughters of Zelophehad are the women who makes God change God’s rules. They go to Moses and the others and when Moses asks God, God tells Moses to give them the inheritance to their father’s property and name even though that was not the norm.

The year 2016 is a good year to remind ourselves about our commitment to women and that we owe them their inheritance which they will come to claim at a time they choose. Mary John Akhouri chose now and chose her way to do that. Mary Roy has already brought about a change through her struggles. Now it is time for us to go to God like Moses did and ask God what indeed we must do.

Pictures courtesy and


Pushpa Kurup said...

Well said!

Fr. Jerry Kurian said...

Thanks for commenting. It is interesting to note that many things we take for granted in Kerala were gained through struggle and protest. For instance temple entry and covering of the upper body of women. Religion in its actual form is always love and any other explanation of religion is a corruption of this.