A lone woman crusader’s voice that changed the course of women’s history in India and the world over was probably also a single mother’s proclamation from the rooftop of her insecurity that the boy and the girl she had given birth to were equal citizens before the laws of this land, with equal access to all constitutional rights including property. The personal was indeed political for Mary Roy, a visionary educationalist, social worker, and the doyen of women’s rights in India. Before the landmark Supreme Court order of 1986 that she won by the sweat of her brow and the grit of her indomitable will, Syrian Christian women were governed by the Travancore-Kochi Christian Succession Act of 1916, that stated a daughter inherited only a quarter of the son’s share or ₹5,000, whichever was less. This phenomenal woman mounted a singular attack on the patriarchal bastions of religious and familial oppression that validated misogynist decrees such as this.
Tradition is most fiercely valorised in its many trysts with gender, and the veil over women’s precarity is often unmasked with a vengeance when it comes to claiming equal inheritance or property ownership. Mary Roy’s protracted legal battle for equal inheritance laws for Syrian Christian women was easily one of the most heatedly and divisively debated ones in India, laying bare the gendered faultlines at the core of our culture, where even women, conditioned and groomed as they are within patriarchal cultures, religions and families failed to understand how a woman could stand up against her own family for justice.
She questioned the dubious logic of the received notion that the family is never wrong. Isn’t the family always already just to its’ daughters? She ripped the mask off this romantic mystique that had sedimented around one of the least democratic of all social units, the family, across millennia. That the emperor of patriarchy was naked could only be pointed out by a woman of her mettle who had experienced first-hand the denial of female agency and legitimacy within the undemocratic precincts of her own familial and kinship systems. To expose the gendered economies of the family as a nation in miniature, was also to stand up against its paternal and condescending stereotypes. She did it with elan, standing tall and erect against what was also the most powerful institution in the history of humankind, the Church. Her victory after a protracted legal battle of nearly four decades became the triumphant clarion call of radical protest and subversive female dissent from the rooftops of the so called sanctified ‘homes’, a call that spoke for every oppressed living girl in Indian homes, as for the countless unborn female foetuses denied their inheritance of life and a space to live in their homes, destroyed in the womb by misogynist social stigmas.
She lent a voice to those millions of women who had been silenced across history. Her political irreverence and defiance also became the rock upon which feminisms in India etched many new juridical insurgencies. Through the due process of her battles she also debunked the populist claim that ‘dowry’ or ‘groom price’ is synonymous with a girl’s inheritance, where a social evil was given societal sanction to parade as women’s right.
Her school par excellence, Pallikoodam, situated in the small bustling town of Kottayam, was one that breathed a fresh song of a vision into the stale quagmire of conventional school education. She sought to craft a new generation, one that was creative, empathetic, and ethical in living a life sensitive of their ethos and environment, one that would not meander into the dreary desert sand of dead habits and ostentatious customs.
Urban legend has it that she once made a card for herself which read “Mary Roy - Dreamer, Educationalist”! May her last journey be in accompaniment with flights of dreams that sing of a more gender just India, where education creates joyful children, girls, and boys, unafraid of living their lives to the full, and pursuing their dreams of variant hues. She leaves behind, as her legacy, not just her daughter, the writer and critic Arundhati Roy, the captivating chronicler of the saga of Ayemenem, but many bereaved daughters of India who dare to translate their dreams into deeds, even while lamenting the passing away of an age, of a revolutionary dream called Mary Roy!
Meena T Pillai is an academic and writer.