Professor Agarwal prior to her talk hosted by the Cambridge University Indian Society Merlyn Thomas

“I read Marx’s Das Kapital when I had flu once. I was wowed by it.” Brilliant and humble, Professor Bina Agarwal’s titles precede her person.

Born in the dusty heat of Jabalpur, before Bina and her family moved to Delhi, the cultural capital of India, she reminisces about her childhood fondly. “It was fantastic. My paternal grandparents moved to the foothills of the Himalayas and my other set of grandparents stayed in Rajasthan. So we spent our summers sometimes in unbearably hot climates and sometimes terribly cold ones.”

An early-achiever from the offset, she went to sixth-form early when she was fifteen. Although she has excelled now in every respect in her field, as a teenager she had never even considered doing economics. Stuck between physics and English literature, her parents finally suggested she study economics, “Economics is a scientific subject but you can also tell a good story, so I thought why not?”

Perhaps what is most striking about Agarwal is that she seems totally down to earth when it comes to the gravity of her accomplishments, casually telling me about her days as an undergraduate at Cambridge, studying Economics at Murray Edwards, at the time called New Hall. She adds: “I was quite young when I came. I was 17 and a half and I had never lived abroad so in many ways it was wonderful. It was a growing up period. It was really marvellous in that sense. But there were just ten women in a class of 150. And I was the only Indian woman. The only brown woman.”

"When you have land or a house, you have a credible exit option. If you have a place to go, you can leave"

Dining options at Cambridge during Agarwal’s undergraduate years were a far cry from today’s meat-free Mondays. Agarwal was the only vegetarian in college in her time at Cambridge. “But College did something wonderful for me. I used to tell the chefs in advance when I was coming to buttery and they would prepare special hot dishes for me.”

She chuckled, “So I made a lot of friends because I was very happy to share my food with others.” She leans in to tell me indignantly, “The only vegetarian! Can you imagine?”

Embracing her time away from home, painting and reading poetry in her spare time, it is no wonder that her vision as an economist is more unconventional and imaginative than most.

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After completing her degree, she returned to Delhi to do a PhD, where she began to specialise in on her scope of subject. “The choice of subject was very much decided by the problems India was facing”, while she says that “India was an agrarian society predominantly both in terms of proportional GDP and also the number of people located in farming.” She adds: “plus, there was a lot of poverty.”

In India, a country with gaping inequalities in wealth and a rapidly expanding economy leaving behind vast swathes of society, there is much progress to made with regards to gender equality. And it is here that Agarwal has focussed much of her efforts, but particularly in the gender gap in command over property.

Wedged between Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and Khalil Gibran’s poetry anthology, on the bookshelf in her office, lies A Field of One’s Own, Agarwal’s award-winning book. She is perhaps best-known for this work, whose title was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. When she wrote it in 1994, “no one was working on the question of women’s property.”

"But there were just ten women in a class of 150. And I was the only Indian woman. The only brown woman.”Merlyn Thomas

An economic staple and a contemporary feminist literature in its own right, her book demonstrate the limits of the commonly-held idea that women’s empowerment simply means jobs in the urban workplace. Instead she emphasises the importance not only of women being in the agrarian workforce, but for them to be truly empowered, they need to have their own fields to which they have full legal rights and titles.

Agarwal says: “The book came out at the right time. It hugely caught the attention of both civil society and current policymakers.”

“In 1995, I was asked to chair a village council election, in Madhya Pradesh. There were all these women who were really enthusiastic, and I shared some of my ideas about their rights to land and I saw the sparkle in their eyes. When you start talking about something like land, they say ‘well nobody's every thought of us.’”

 "Often, when you’re disadvantaged, you don’t ask for what you most need because you never imagine that you’ll get it"

Agarwal is a rare economist in her field who has sought to explicitly examine gender asymmetries, not only to challenge the traditional model of a household and its intra-family relationships, but also to weave these into public policy.

India’s inheritance laws are complicated, to say the least. Different laws apply depending on religion and state. The traditional idea of the household sees a benevolent leader. Most economic models and laws treat the “household” as a single entity, one with an altruistic family head – and in government programmes predefined as male household heads – whose members share common preferences and interests, she outlines in her talk. But she contends that this abstract does not work in real life.

Using her field research, she ran her first campaign in 2005, where she successfully amended the Hindu Succession Act, essentially removing gender discrimination with regards to property rights. 

Although most programme’s working with women in developing countries focus on getting women into employment, Agarwal says there can be a perverse effect to this: “in cases where the woman is employed but her husband is not, there were the highest reports of domestic violence”. Agarwal goes against the grain, arguing that it is a woman’s command over property which affects her ultimate welfare most – “we looked at how command over property affected rates of domestic violence in Kerala, a state in the south of India.

“Looking at 500 randomly selected urban and rural households, we checked whether they had land or house, both or neither. When women owned neither house nor land, 49% experienced domestic violence. Of those who had land, 17% experienced domestic violence. Of those who had a house, 10% experienced it. And of those who had both, 7% experienced domestic violence. The results speak for themselves.”

“When you have land or a house, you have a credible exit option. If you have a place to go, you can leave”, she explained.

But she has still faced a great deal of opposition: “Often [they] say, ‘women don’t need land of their own because their families have land and they’ve never asked for it anyway.’ Yet I found when you talk about it to women, it is very important to them. Just because they have not asked, does not mean it’s not important to them.”

A particular group of women stands out in Agarwal’s memory. During a workshop she ran in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, in 1997, she met with a group of rural women who had just returned from towns after leaving their jobs to cultivate plots of land, whilst their husbands continued to work in the city.

She recounts the story, and says “I asked them, ‘Who will this land go to?’” They then “told me, ‘Well it will go to the oldest son’, but I asked, ‘Shouldn’t you be getting it because you’re the ones working and toiling away for it?’”

They were silent initially, she tells me. So she asked them again, and they smiled. “We do understand your question ... no one has ever asked us before.”

Agarwal paused for a moment to look at me, waiting for this to sink in. “Often, when you’re disadvantaged, you don’t ask for what you most need because you never imagine that you’ll get it.”

Agarwal’s heart for gender equality is not newfound, she explains “I first spoke about women’s rights when I was 15. It was in school. It was an exercise to hone our debating and presenting skills. Some people talked about how to lay the table. I talked about the importance of women voting and their rights. And I remember saying, ‘When we have the right to vote, let’s all decide we need to vote for women.’” She laughed, reassuring me, “I wouldn’t do that today, but for me, it was important, because I saw in Rajasthan – a place that’s fairly conservative for young women – that even better off families don’t send their girl children to school beyond a few years.” She adds, “of course, things have changed a little now.”

She talks fondly of her childhood. “My parents were very keen on all of us – three daughters and one son – and we were all very well educated. But when I went back to my grandmother’s village, I could see that lots of the households had very conservative attitudes towards girls, and so made me very conscious that it was very unjust. Children tend to think things are fair or not – it hits you very quickly.”


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It comes down to the idea of owning something, Agarwal insists. During her talk, she speaks fondly of her dadiji, her grandmother, who – like most Indians – kept her most treasured belongings under her bed and on top of wardrobes. “She had a big, old metal trunk that she’d keep under her bed and would never let any of us go near. Each time she went away she’d tell us, ‘Nobody should touch my trunk.’ We’d reassure her, saying ‘No no, dadiji. Don’t worry.’”

“When she passed away and we sorted through her belongings, we finally opened the trunk and found there was very little at all in it. But it was her bargaining chip. It was a way of say “You’re not going to get whatever’s inside here if you’re not nice to me.”

For Agarwal, she has been an ‘only’ type of woman for most of her life. The only vegetarian in her college, the only Indian woman studying Economics in her year, the only person to have started work on gender equality in property. This ‘only-ness’ is one of the things that makes her most warm and gracious. A pioneer of sorts, and lone person at times in her field, she is adamant but fervent in her imagination.

She summarises her talk with the same revolutionary vision with which she begins it, using a rallying cry from the Bodhgaya movement in Bihar, where women struggled to have land put in their own names: “We had tongues but could not speak, we had feet but could not walk, now that we have the land, we have the strength to speak and walk.” She later tells, me “you’ll never get anything until you fight for your rights”.

Prof. Agarwal is currently the Diane Middlebrook and Carl Djerassi Visiting Professor at the Centre for Gender Studies, University of Cambridge, and long term Professor of development Economics and Environment at the University of Manchester