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Faculty Seminar | Reposing ‘Faith’ in Gender Equality: Mapping the Consequences of the Sabarimala case for Religious Freedom and Gender Equality in India

July 20, 2022

NLSIU invites you to this week’s faculty seminar by Ms. Megha Mehta, Visiting Assistant Professor, NLSIU on “Reposing ‘Faith’ in Gender Equality: Mapping the Consequences of the Sabarimala case for Religious Freedom and Gender Equality in India.”


In 2019, a Constitution Bench of the Indian Supreme Court held that women aged 10-50 years have a constitutional right of entry to the Sabarimala temple in the state of Kerala, notwithstanding the temple authorities’ claim that women in this age group are customarily barred from undertaking the pilgrimage to the temple. Though this was welcomed as a progressive verdict, its implementation in practice has been unsuccessful due to public and political backlash. Moreover, the reasoning used in the Sabarimala judgement has now been deployed to allow the prohibition of Muslim women’s right to wear the hijab in public colleges in the state of Karnataka. In this paper, I propose to interrogate, using ‘distributional analysis’ whether the Sabarimala judgement has had a positive impact for enforcing gender equality within religious faith, or has opened the backdoor for usurpation of the ‘women’s rights agenda’ by Hindu majoritarian political forces. For this purpose, I have traced the historical continuities between the Sabarimala judgement and previous social reform measures undertaken by the State in the name of religion across three time periods: the prohibition of sati, and widow remarriage legislation in colonial India; the debates around a Uniform Civil Code and the enactment of Hindu personal law reform in the post-colonial era; and finally, State intervention in Muslim’s women’s right to maintenance and the practice of triple talaq in post-liberalization India. I shall argue that all these social reform measures, whether undertaken by the State or the judiciary, have accorded primacy to analyzing whether a religious practice is ‘essential’ to the faith, and ‘moral,’ rather than inquiring into the consequences a given reform measure would have for women. Thus, the religion/morality duality fails to account for religious women’s intersectional identities and subjective interests in complying with the dictates of the faith. As an alternative, I have proposed a dynamic interaction/rights mediation framework which seeks to accommodate religious women’s claim to equality within their groups’ cultural and religious liberties, instead of setting them up in conflict with each other.