Seeking equality across faiths | HT editorial
The Supreme Court (SC)’s decision to refer its Sabarimala judgment to a seven-member bench, while enlarging the scope of the subject to address the issue of gender equality in other faiths, is a turning point. The older decision to allow the entry of women of menstruating age into the Sabarimala shrine, going against religious barriers which had prohibited this, stays for now. The larger bench will also decide on the entry of Muslim women in mosques, Parsi women in fire temples, and the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). It will do so by delving into the intersection of equality and freedom of religion.
The Sabarimala judgment had led to clashes between the faithful and the Kerala state administration when the latter tried to enforce the rule of law. At the time the verdict was first pronounced in 2018, many felt that this was selective as it spoke only about undoing discriminatory practices against women in Hinduism. However, many Muslim women’s groups, encouraged by the verdict, had sought to push for their case to enter mosques and pray alongside men. At present, some sects of Islam allow women entry into mosques, but only in designated areas. The issue of FGM among the Dawoodi Bohras has often come up for discussion, but the pushback from the powerful clergy has meant that faith triumphed over gender rights.
While the SC can be justifiably criticised for overstepping its remit and not following due process by introducing new questions to a review petition, its move to consider their rights is welcome. Irrespective of the final decision, the case will trigger a much-needed debate on the principle of gender equality in a secular, constitutional democracy such as India. It will also force the court, and society, to address the fact that while faith is important, in cases of discriminatory practices, it is subject to rule of law. By potentially opening the door for a scenario in which women can enter all temples, mosques, fire temples, and are not subject to inhuman practices, the five-judge SC bench, led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, has done well. Its decision will have political, social, cultural and religious implications.