On gender, the Supreme Court should lead. Society will follow
The exercise of a man’s religious freedom cannot result in the violation of a woman’s right to religious freedom
The Supreme Court (SC) has referred the Sabarimala matter to a larger bench of seven judges. In a 3-2 decision, it felt that the September 2018 judgment lifting age restrictions on the entry of women into the Sabarimala shrine may impinge on the affairs of other religions too, and, therefore, it requires a more detailed examination. The court has made a reference to petitions seeking entry of women into mosques and into the Parsi tower of silence.
This is not about the affairs of religion. This is not about a shrine or a temple or a mosque. This is about patriarchy masquerading as religion in our society, and whether it can be allowed a free run by courts. Indian women are granted equality and the right to freedom of religion by the Constitution. The SC can lead by enabling women to exercise both these rights. Society will gradually follow.
Most Indians are religious. Perhaps that is why the Constitution guarantees the right to religious freedom under Article 25 even as secularism remains enshrined within it. This, in fact, should further women’s right to equality rather than impinge upon it. Indian citizens, both men and women, are granted the right to freedom of religion. The exercise of a man’s religious freedom cannot result in the violation of a woman’s right to religious freedom. Women from diverse faiths look up to the courts to be able to freely exercise their rights. This demand for change is led by women who are religious.
Religion has many dimensions. It involves faith, belief, customs and practices. In a fundamental sense, it is a compact between the creator and the creation. It should be up to the conscience of the creation, or simply put, the religion’s follower whether she wants to enter a mosque or a temple or a shrine. Her conscience cannot be curbed if a group of men have formed a trust and claim authority over a place of worship.
Is the discrimination really about religion, or is it a clever use of religion to enjoy powerful positions in religious institutions, and, by extension, in society? Leaving all matters to the men of religion will amount to the dilution of constitutional principles. Practices barring women from entering a temple, or unilateral triple talaq, are the consequences of men’s domination over religion. Courts cannot shy away from addressing the question of authority in religion just because men of religion have appropriated that position. There is a false attempt to posit the issue as that of religiosity versus liberalism whereas, in reality, it is a case of abuse of religion.
Ours is a patriarchal society which makes life a challenge for most girls and women. After seven decades of Independence and equal citizenship granted by the Constitution, women in India have to fight battles in every sphere of life. They face discrimination, violence and chauvinism in family, in school, at workplace, in community, and in society. They fight daily battles to remain alive, to be heard and treated with dignity. It is nothing exceptional if women expect that the courts will stand by them to fight injustice.
Our courts must answer the key question about who has the authority to decide matters of religion. This question has been posed by all women and men who believe that the Constitution is sacrosanct and cannot be violated. This question has been posed by several religious and law-abiding women and men. Solutions to such important questions cannot come from the government, as political parties are driven by electoral considerations. Surely, the courts are better placed and tasked with the duty to uphold the integrity of the Constitution. They must rule on the side of Indian women who continue to reel under the burden of patriarchy and male domination in the garb of religion.
Zakia Soman is a founding member of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan
The views expressed are personal