The apex court began hearing the Sabarimala matter on Monday. The Review Petition in the Sabarimala matter, which was referred to the larger nine-judge bench last year has come to assume a lot of importance as the Supreme Court, as other issues relating to women’s entry to places of worship have been clubbed along with the issue of entry of women in the age group of 10-50 years to the Sabarimala shrine.
While deciding to refer the review petition on the 2018 Sabarimala verdict lifting age restrictions on the entry of women into the Sabarimala shrine to a larger bench, the apex court had observed that it may impinge on the affairs of other religions as well and therefore required a more detailed examination.
The five judge-bench led former CJI, Ranjan Gogoi, which had heard the review petition last year had referred seven questions for the consideration of the larger bench, including the broader question of whether essential religious practices should be afforded Constitutional protection. Other issues that were clubbed together with the Sabarimala matter were Female Genital Mutilation among Dawoodi Bohras, ban on Parsi women married to non-Parsis, from entering the fire temple and entry of Muslim women to Mosques.
The reference to the larger, nine-judge bench has therefore paved the way for a judicial determination on the issue of restriction on entry of Muslim women to Mosques, something that comes as a glimmer of hope for the Muslim women.
However, attempts are being made to get the issue of entry of Muslim women to Mosques excluded from broad reference. Kapil Sibal, representing the All Indian Muslim Personal Board (AIMPLB) argued that the Board maintained that Muslim women were permitted to enter the Mosques for the purpose of offering Namaz. He further argued that the Court should not enter into matters of faith to decide the essential religious practice on a Public Interest Litigation filed by a person who does not belong to a particular faith.
By arguing that the Board has maintained that Muslim women are allowed to enter Mosques to offer Namaz, Sibal is essentially adverting to the affidavit that has been filed by the AIMPLB in this matter.
The affidavit read, “Considering the religious texts, doctrine and religious belief of the followers of Islam, it is submitted that entry of women in the Mosque for offering prayer/ Namaz, inside the Mosque, is permitted. Thus, a Muslim woman is free to enter Masjid for prayers. It is her option to exercise her right to avail such facilities as available for prayers in Masjid.”
However, in the same affidavit, the Board has also made it clear that the religious practices in individual Mosques are governed by private bodies concerning its Muttawalis. The Board has admitted that its status is only that of an expert body, and as such its opinion is only advisory in nature.
As such, the opinion of the AIMPLB cannot be taken to suggest that Muslim women are in reality allowed to enter and offer Namaz at Mosques. At best, it can only be material to argue why Muslim women should be allowed to enter Mosques.
It is common knowledge that barring Muslim women from entering Mosques and offering Namaz is a centuries-old practice. In such circumstances, the present reference to the nine-Judge Supreme Court bench, in its broad terms, comes as a glimmer of hope for Muslim women.
However, AIMPLB, represented by Kapil Sibal, seem to be making all possible attempts to ensure that the issue of women entering Mosques is excluded from the larger question of entry of women into places of worship being considered by the Supreme Court.
Presently, the Supreme Court has decided to frame as a separate “issue”, the question whether the top Court could have referred a larger question to the nine-judge bench while hearing the Sabarimala review petition.
If the Court decides in the affirmative, then the question of entry of women into Mosques will be considered and decided. But the vehement opposition to the issue of women’s entry to Mosques being considered shows how all possible attempts are being made to ensure that Muslim women are not allowed to get rid of this gender-discriminatory practice.