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Resonance of Gender Equality in India

One of the widely discussed topics in moral theology, particularly, in India is the issue of gender equality. Although there are goddesses who are worshiped and venerated in this land of religions, women are badly treated by the Indian society and religions. Indians boast about the stability of their families. But, often the stability is at the cost of the docile and silent suffering and tears of women. It is very easy to preach the need of equality between men and women. But, when there are efforts to bring such initiatives into existence, there are differences of opinions. The Supreme Court of India has made some historical rulings in order to solve the issue of inequality of women and LGBTQ both in the society and in the religious places. In spite of several protests, the verdicts of the Court against these types of inequality remain praise worthy which paved the way for a new dawn in India. As a result, there is an emerging consciousness among the women in India to fight for their right and dignity in the society and in religion. The historical verdicts of the court were the milestones in the history of India on one hand. And on the other hand, they were a bang to the rule of patriarchy.

One of the rulings of the court was regarding the striking down of  a 158 year old law, i.e., section 497 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) which made adultery a punishable offence for men. The Court held that section 497 of IPC is unconstitutional and fell foul of Article 21 (Right to Life and Personal Liberty) and Article 14 (Right to Equality). The court unanimously struck down Section 497 of IPC since it offends the dignity of women and violates the rights to equality and equal opportunity to women. The old law considered woman as the property of her husband. The spirit of the verdict lies in its statement that “husband is not the master of wife or wife is not chattel of husband and legal sovereignty of one sex over other sex is wrong.” Thus, it is a “progressive judgement which highlighted the equality and dignity of Indian women.” The court emphasised the privacy of women and clarified that sexual relationship is a relationship between two equals.

Another ruling of the court was in matters of religious practices which deny the dignity and equality of women. Many of the religions in India follow those customs which are patriarchal in nature. For example, in spite of the high ratio in literacy and educational status, there are instances of violence and sexual assaults against women in Kerala. There exists an age old custom in Sabarimala, Kerala, which barred women devotees in the menstruating age group of 10-50 from entering the temple to worship the Hindu deity, Ayyappa. The court questioned this practice and made a verdict on 28 September 2018 that women, irrespective of age, can enter the temple of Sabarimala. The High Court of Bombay made a similar verdict on 30 March 2016. It ensured the entry of women in any temple, particularly the temple of Shani Shignapur in Maharashtra which prohibited the entry of women in its sanctum sanctorum for the last 400 years.  In the same way, on 26 august 2016 the High Court also made another ruling against the prohibition of women in the inner sanctum of the Haji Ali Dargah. The Court criticised such practices and judged that any such denial is against her fundamental right of equality and her right to express faith. In 22 August 2017, the Supreme Court banned one of the controversial Islamic practices of divorce named ‘Triple Talaq’ or ‘Mutalaq’. It allowed men to leave their wives immediately by stating “Talaq” three times. By ruling against the practice of ‘Triple Talaq’ the court affirmed that this practice is against the fundamental right, equality and dignity of women. Thus, the court tried to quash the elements of patriarchy in religion and its rule in religious practices.

The campaigns such as ‘# Me Too’ and the protest of nuns in Kerala against Clerical Sexual Assaults were also signs of emerging consciousness among women in India to uphold their dignity, equality, rights in the society as well as in religious places.

A final note is about the court’s verdict related to LGBTQ on 6 September 2018. The court observed that the 1861 law indeed was a relic of Victorian era which criminalised homosexuality and the lives of LGBTQ people.  It was a surprise that even after the end of British colonialism, it hung on the mind set of India. Fortunately, the Court struck down Section 377 of IPC and decriminalized homosexuality. The verdict was “a breach of the rights of privacy and dignity.” Justice Indu Malhotra, the supreme Court judge, commented that “history owes an apology to the members of this community and their families, for the delay in providing redressal for the ignominy and ostracism that they have suffered through the centuries.” The Court made it clear that although sexual acts without consent continue to be a crime under the section, consensual adult gay sex is not a crime since sexual orientation is natural and people have no control over it. Consensual sex between adults in a private space, which is not harmful to women or children, cannot be denied as it is a matter of individual choice. 

The above mentioned rulings of the Supreme Court of India are reflections of the growing awareness of the need of gender equality in the Indian society. But, there are differences of opinions regarding these judgments. The fundamental groups, the orthodox and traditional people in the secular society are against these verdicts whereas; the progressive, feminist and liberal groups welcome these verdicts.  The conservatives opine that these verdicts distort and pull down the cultural hegemony of India. With regard to the women’s entry into religious places, the liberals welcomed the court’s position that patriarchy in religion cannot be allowed to trump the right to pray. They claim that it is not a right practice to prevent a woman from a temple or from a Mosque or even from a Church and its holy places. Such discriminations are against women’s dignity. Instead, women have to be respected. Men and women are equal partners in life. The liberals have high regard for court’s observation that the subversion and repression of women under the garb of biological or physical factors like menstruation cannot be given the seal of legitimacy and any discrimination against women is against the constitutional morality. For them, one’s relationship with God should not be conditioned by the socially created customs, artificial barriors, biological and physical features. They should not be used as a cover to deny the right and dignity of women. The progressive people hold the view that the verdict is the beginning of a journey towards great dignity, equality and liberty of LGBTQ community. They emphasise that the ruling heralds a new dawn for personal liberty for the LGBTQ community. They believe that the court protected the rights, dignity, equality, privacy and expressions of these people.

There are differences of opinions among the authorities as well as the theologians of the Church in India. The conservative groups in the Church criticised the court’s ruling of decriminalising homosexual acts and adultery. They fear that such verdicts are challenges to marriage and family.  They are of the opinion that legalising homosexual acts and unions violate the essential aspect of marriage, i.e., the complementarity of sexes. Moreover it closes the gift of life and even if they go for adoption, the right of the child to experience the love of father and mother is denied. In addition, the value of marital life lies in the fidelity between the spouses. Since the act of adultery violates the essential aspect of marriage such as unity and indissolubility, the conservatives argue that the institution of  marriage and family will be in danger. On the other hand, the progressive theologians while holding on the compassionate approach towards the homosexual persons opine that it is unjust to segregate a group of humanity on unjustifiable grounds. For them, any such segregation is against the dignity of humanity. Moreover, they are of the opinion that it is not the majority who determines what is right or wrong. The liberal theologians highlight the court’s view that the right to love is not a monopoly of heterosexuals alone but a right of all. They believe that “the choice of a partner, the desire for personal intimacy, and the yearning to find love and fulfilment in human relationships have a universal appeal.”

In short, it is a wonder that the Indian society is now discussing the issues of gender in the light of these verdicts. There are also discussion in the areas of constitutional morality, social morality, cultural morality, religious morality and gospel morality. On the one hand it is appreciable that there is resonance of gender equality both in the secular and religious spheres of India. But on the other hand, it raises questions like which morality is to be followed, whether constitutional morality or religious morality? Another argument which gained substantial attention is that “Are legally permissible acts sinful or not? These verdicts “also made  people to discuss on the issues of women ordination and administration of confession by women. Hence, the authorities of the Church are anxious whether these verdicts may bring some far-reaching consequences in the religious circles or not?  


Nb: The references are from the verdicts of the Supreme Court of India, which are available in the Internet.