Religious women and the struggle for rights in India

India’s freedom struggle was influenced by religious sovereignty to a large extent, as groups from numerous faith traditions worked together for national independence. Indeed, religion could be considered a non-negotiable element in understanding India. The independent nation state was formed on the basis of sovereignty, socialism, democracy, and secularity. But in India, secularism is not an absence of religion. Instead it seeks to promote religious freedom and prevent any one religion being favoured over another.

Religious women constitute a massive category, spanning class, ethnicity and national origin. But questions around the freedom and rights of religious women are still being debated. Are women oppressed and discriminated against by religion and its conservative norms, or are religious women finding their true selves by practicing their culture?  

 In India, this question is one of competing fundamental rights that pits the equality those who practice religions versus the equality of women. 

There are two landmark legal cases in India that provide us with a window from which to examine these contradictions. The case of the Sabarimala Temple case and the case of Talaq-e-biddat have been controversial, and crucial to understanding intertwining rights and freedoms of women and religious women in India.

The Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, India. Photo: Saurabh Chatterjee, used under a Creative Commons license.

In 1993, India ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Drafted by the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in 1979, CEDAW is an international treaty promising to end discrimination faced by women in all walks of life.

The CEDAW includes thirty articles which encompass various parts of a woman’s life. But one of the basic factors that can form part of women’s identity is completely neglected: religion. In India, as elsewhere, religious values regulate most, if not all, aspects of personal life, from marital relationships and children’s guardianship to inheritance of property and divorce. 

While CEDAW promotes equality for all women, the conundrum is its contradiction with regards to religious freedom. The Indian judiciary has faced this dilemma time and again. One such example is the 2018 case of the Sabarimala Temple in the state of Kerala.  

The Sabarimala Temple is an important pilgrimage site for Hindus, visited by millions of people each year. A 1990 decision by the Kerala High Court legalized the banning of women in the Temple during their menstruating age, but it was overturned by the Indian Supreme Court in 2018. The Supreme Court noted its primary agenda is to evolve a sense of “substantial and complete justice” in such matters, and therefore, the need for an overall judicial review of religious practices across the nation.

 This verdict was a result of a petition claiming violation of the fundamental freedom of women by the Indian Young Lawyers Association back in 2006. However, what makes this case even more compelling is the fact that the ones protesting this overdue and liberal judgment were women. Were religious women protecting their traditions anti-feminists?

If Hindu women were now entering the Sabarimala temple, would Muslim and Parsi rules regarding the entry of women in their places of worship have to change too? These are the kind of questions that women rights’ activists began asking soon after the judgment. “For our secular society to thrive, it is of utmost importance that all religions thrive side by side,” in the words of writer Sumitra Nair. 

Women emphasized that religious rights form the foundational basis of the country and claimed that the motto of women’s empowerment is not enough of a justification to restrict religion. Practising Hindu women were empowered in their own way and religious women have the right to their own religious freedom. The Sabarimala Temple case was not the only such struggle in India.

A similar conflict took place during the landmark judgment of the Triple Talaq Case in 2017. The verdict of the Indian Supreme Court abolished the age-old Muslim practice of Talaq-e-biddat, which is a form of divorce by a husband, who states his intent thrice over a period of months

This method of divorce negatively impacts the married woman and, if she has them, her children. Aside from the social stigma, Muslim women may struggle with a lack of alimony, childcare and overall support.

After the Supreme Court declared this particular kind of divorce unconstitutional, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formulated a legislative bill criminalizing Talaq-e-biddat. This bill was then introduced and passed in the Lower House of the Indian Lok Sabha (the equivalent of the House of Representatives) in 2017, and was passed by the Rajya Sabha (the equivalent of the Senate) in 2019. However, one of the reasons for the delay in the latter ruling is the opposition’s questioning of the political motive of the Hindu ruling party and its persistence in passing this bill. The debate is ongoing.

Muslim feminist groups have been among the loudest voices against the bill. “This act criminalizes a community without taking cognisance of the living struggles of Muslim women or questions of their social security,” said Hasina Khan, one of the members of the All India Progressive Women’s Association and Women’s Research and Action Group group.

An association of 40 women rights’ activists belonging to reputed institutions such as Jawaharlal Nehru University and other organizations called the bill “arbitrary and excessive.” The verdict was considered anti-women and anti-children. It was considered a deeply flawed decision, especially because of a lack of consultation with Islamic religious scholars and leaders. 

In a country of more than 1.4 billion people, there is great power in religion. As we have seen over the past months, the coronavirus pandemic threatens not only international economies, but also communities and social practices around the world. The growing sense of uncertainty has meant that for many, religion continues to be a shoulder to lean on, a source of solace. And women are crucial nodes for the continuation of religious practices in the home.

Religious communities have the ability to speak to a majority of the population in ways that the state cannot. During the pandemic, religious women need to be heard and included. As peculiar and difficult as these times are, it is now that equality and rights of women of religion need to be re-conceptualized, locally and globally. 

This article is the third produced in collaboration between Toward Freedom and the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts in Pune, Maharashtra, India. For more information, contact Barry Rodrigue <> at Symbiosis International University.  

Author Bio:

Oishika Neogi recently graduated from the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts with a major in International Relations and a minor in Law. She shall further be pursuing her M.A. in Conflict and Security Studies at the New School of International Affairs, New York, beginning Spring 2021.