Written by Ankita Shree.

Most religions of the world have had a discriminatory bias against women in respect of the texts, laws, rituals and traditions which they have maintained for centuries. They have treated women as the ‘second gender’, loaded with the responsibility to maintain the traditions inherent in the religion with minimal or no rights as compared to their male counterparts.

India is ranked 130 out of over 190 countries in the latest available Gender Inequality Index, and a particular taint is the issue of discrimination perpetuated by religious dogmas against women.

Over time, both religion and society have evolved to give greater space and rights to women. The rise of modern nation-states promised women equal citizenship rights, but unfortunately, that remained just theory and was never fulfilled in practice. This is an international concern – particularly when patriarchal religious practices are glossed over vis-à-vis their inability to promote gender equality – and India is no exception.

India is ranked 130 out of over 190 countries in the latest available Gender Inequality Index, and a particular taint is the issue of discrimination perpetuated by religious dogmas against women. It plays an important role in sustaining this inequality.

The Indian Constitution is the longest of any sovereign nation in the world and it grants an extensive set of rights to all its citizens. But considering the communal diversity of the land, a provision of separate religious laws was given in deference to the provision of freedom of religion and non-interference of the state in religious matters. This inadvertently paved the way for perpetuating the unequal status of women in India because of various patriarchal interpretations of religious practices such as menstruation and purity, women’s role in religious leadership, and the access of women to various religious sites.

Let us take the comparative example of religious discrimination perpetuated by two major religious groups in India. In 2018, Hindu right-wing groups protested against a verdict of the Supreme Court of India (the highest judicial body) which bestowed equal rights on all women to enter the Sabarimala temple complex in the southern state of Kerala. Opponents decried the judgement, which would have allowed women of menstruating age to enter the inner sanctum of a temple which reveres a deity known for his celibacy. The temple uses the procedure of age criteria for banning women aged between 10 and 50 years (a common menstrual age for women) from entering the temple. According to the critics of the judgement, centuries-old precedents limited the entry of women to the complex, and even men choosing to enter reportedly had to undergo strict rituals to proceed further.

The verdict was viewed as an assault on both culture and religious identity. It resulted in heated and often violent protests against those who chose to implement the judgement and it remains a contentious issue to date, with only partial success by the authorities in enabling the entry of women to the complex. Incidentally, several movements against the judgement have also been led by women who wish to persist with the traditional customs.

The second case involves the Muslim community – the largest religious minority in the country. A Public Interest Litigation was filed in the Supreme Court in 2016 against discriminatory divorce laws for the Muslim community in India. The court held a hearing into the validity of ‘triple talaq’ – a customary practice among Muslims that dissolves a marriage when the husband says the word ‘talaq’ three times. Muslim women questioned the unequal divorce and maintenance provisions between Hindu and Muslim women, despite being citizens of the same state.

The issue gained political momentum in March 2017 when the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) told the Supreme Court that the issue falls outside the judiciary’s remit and that these issues should not be touched by the court.

Politically, the issue is a means for the right-wing Hindu nationalist government to make inroads in the Muslim electorate, since most of the victims of triple talaq – i.e. women – would vote for a government which promised to rescind the practice. For traditionalists, on the other hand, it is a matter of faith and judicial and political overreach. Coincidentally, several Muslim countries including Saudi Arabia have outlawed the practice. In August 2018, the Supreme Court set aside the decades-old practice of instant triple talaq, saying it violated Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution. However, legislative approval is still in knots over the issue.

Both these cases underscore the continuing challenges to gender equality more than seven decades since India gained independence: India became a constitutional republic in January 1950. Despite several safeguards to the right to equality, the brilliance of the constitution is compromised by unequal personal laws in India.

Nonetheless, it would be incorrect to suggest there have been no initiatives to reform unjustifiable practices in the country. The Hindu Code Bill (1955-56) was one of the biggest steps towards introducing religious reforms for women in post-Independence India. Similar reforms were initiated in the Muslim Personal Law, such as in the Shah Bano Case, but this was met with opposition from the Muslim community. Thus, the impact of these reforms has remained limited as the nation continues to live deeply entwined with its traditions and customs that put religion above laws and view women only as second to men.

The situation is not favourable to those struggling to change this norm, as Indian women themselves provide agency for the religious patriarchy. Despite having a similar struggle, women across religious and caste lines have failed to unify as a homogeneous community or a pressure group in India.  Women need to identify themselves as equal citizens and they need to locate their common source of oppression and discrimination in order to bring about greater freedom for themselves and future generations.

India, with its technological and economic advances, needs a cultural revolution to accord equal rights and status to all Indian women. Legislation for women in India always aims towards idealism and, consequently, laws have preceded the preparedness of the society for any change. This does not mean that gender-sensitive religious legislation should not happen, but it also means that the state needs to prepare and educate communities about the positive change such laws will bring in relation to the status of women in society. Only when society and the law are in synchrony can gender equality be achieved in India.

Ankita Shree is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Shaheed Bhagat Singh Evening College, University of Delhi. Image Credit: CC by Adam Cohn/Flickr.

The author bears full responsibility for the facts cited and opinions expressed in this article.

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