Late eighteenth-century colonial agrarian and judicial reforms had a direct impact on women from elite and non-elite backgrounds. Informed by British liberal ideologies and upper-caste Brahmanical norms, colonial policies marginalized women's access to, and control over, resources in the emergent political economy. In this article, I reconstruct histories of the ways in which Anglo-Hindu law compromised women's status as heirs, businesswomen, and members of society who wielded social capital with other community groups. Focusing on widows in Banaras who commandeered their property disputes, I illustrate that pre-colonial precedents of case-resolution under the Banaras rulers, and practices of ‘forum shopping’ by disputants themselves, shaped the widows’ approach to the colonial courts. Colonial judicial plans being incommensurable to everyday life, the courts incorporated pre-colonial forms of dispute handling and maintained a flexible approach to the practice of colonial law under the supervision of an Indian magistrate for a period of time. These characteristics made the courts popular among local society in the Banaras region. However, British officials, insistent on applying abstract scriptural laws, aligned customary practice to the dictates of Anglo-Hindu law. This article shows that the narrow legal subject position available to widows under scriptural law reordered their relationships with family and community networks to their disadvantage.
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