Tag Archives: Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia: Parsi Legal Culture

A court for poor wives

10 October, 2017
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Three candidates running for the position of delegate of the Parsi Chief Matrimonial Court of Bombay. [“A Tug and Pull. Three dogs fighting for a bone,” Hindi Punch (19 March 1916), 20.]

Interiors: Parsi Chief Matrimonial Court

Excerpts from Mitra Sharafi’s award winning book, Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia: Parsi Legal Culture, 1772-1947, now available from Permanent Black in South Asia.

“It was Parsi wives, more than husbands, who came to the Parsi jury for relief. Suits for divorce or judicial separation dominated the docket. In these cases, female plaintiffs outnumbered male ones by a factor of two to one. From the late 1920s, the ratio became three to one. Because a surprising number of these wives were underprivileged and because plaintiffs usually won their cases, the Parsi Chief Matrimonial Court (PCMC) of Bombay was effectively a court for poor wives. However, it was not all kinds of poor Parsi women who came to the court for help. The PCMC records captured a particular slice of poor Parsi women: those whose families were too poor to support them, but who could raise the money to go to court. These women were moderately poor, but not abjectly so. Parsi women in bad marriages regarded litigation as a solution, in other words, when the options of de facto separation and long–term financial support from their natal families were unavailable. The diminished presence of both very affluent and very poor women suggested that law was a solution for Parsi wives of the middling working class, a finding that has been replicated in studies of divorce courts in other times and places. Elite Parsi couples typically avoided divorce when their marriages fell apart. If the wife’s natal family was wealthy enough to support her, she simply returned to live there. Long-term informal separation was not unusual in privileged Parsi circles, as among elite British couples in the same period. The property-related consequences of divorce, along with the publicity of a court case, may have explained elite avoidance of the matrimonial court.

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Occasionally, husbands told the court that their wives had engaged in pre-marital relationships and even been impregnated by other men, and that this information had been concealed from the husbands until after the marriage. In Dinbai v. Toddyvala, the alleged fraud pertained to something more unusual: claims about the bride’s racial purity. The bride Dinbai’s father had been Parsi by ethnicity and Zoroastrian by religion. Her mother, though, was part African. There were references to Dinbai’s mother being “Abyssinian.” At the time, Abyssinia was shorthand for Africa generally. Dinbai’s mother Mana had a Parsi father and a Malagasy mother. Dinbai’s father, a man named Jamshedjee Dadabhai Khajotia, did business in Madagascar in the 1880s. During that time, the half-Parsi, half-Malagasy Mana was his mistress. Dinbai was born in Madagascar from their union. When Dinbai was a young child, her father sent her from Madagascar to India to be raised among Parsis by his cousin. Dinbai’s illegitimacy was an issue, but the larger problem was that Dinbai’s mother was racially impure, according to Mr. Toddyvala. He argued that Dinbai’s part-Malagasy background made her ineligible to be initiated into the Zoroastrian religion — that one needed two Parsi parents to be eligible for the navjote, itself an unsettled point in the early twentieth century. Because Dinbai’s mother was part-Malagasy, Dinbai’s initiation into the religious community was invalid, claimed Toddyvala. In turn, this made their marriage void under Parsi law, which applied only to the marriage of two Zoroastrians. Toddyvala claimed to have asked the matchmaker, Hirabai, about the girl’s dark complexion during early negotiations. By his account, Hirabai had assured him that the high salt content in the local water of the girl’s village of Vesu, near Surat, made Dinbai’s skin dark. Her complexion was sure to lighten once she moved to Bombay.

…Hirabai told the Parsi jury that she had informed the Toddyvala family of the girl’s family background. “I had already told Defendant and his people that plaintiff was born of an alien mother. I knew that as a fact. They said there was no objection.”

…About six months after the wedding, the husband claimed to have learned of his wife’s racial background through a distant relative in the town of Bulsar. He told the Parsi jury: “I returned to Bombay and told my mother not to allow the girl in our house. This was because of the information I’d received. If I’d known I would not have married the girl because I am orthodox. My parents also are orthodox.”…When Mr. Toddyvala confronted Hirabai, she criticized his concern with purity. “Is your wife a cucumber or watermelon to cut and see the inside of?” exclaimed the matchmaker. The Parsi delegates rejected the husband’s claims by a majority of ten to one. They considered the marriage valid, and they granted the wife her request for the restitution of conjugal rights.”

Mitra Sharafi is a legal historian at the University of Wisconsin Law School. Follow her on twitter @mjsharafi for the latest in the world of legal studies.

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