In Focus

Laws for women must adapt to changing times

By Nivedita Pal

Law is a reflection of society and with changing norms, the practices are also questioned in a court of law. In ABC v/s The State (NCT of Delhi) (2015) the Supreme Court in a landmark judgment held that an unwed mother belonging to the Christian faith is not bound to disclose the name of child’s father. The unwed mother would have all the rights as a guardian to the child and need not take the father’s consent for guardianship rights.

A division bench held that living under the same roof, you are married under law in Dhannulal and ors v/s Ganeshram and Ors (2015). The bench held that continuous cohabitation of a couple together that is, ‘live-in relationship’ would raise the presumption of marriage unless otherwise proven. The case was that of a property dispute of a man who lived with a woman, not legally wedded wife, for 20 years and the bench held that she was eligible to inherit the property.

More recently, many petitions heard by the Apex Court questioned the Right to Freedom of Religion of women in India and religious practices. Here are a few landmark cases:
In Shayara Bano v/s Union of India (2017), the Supreme Court declared the practice of Instant Triple Talaq (talak-e-biddat) un-Islamic and against the basic tenets of Quran. Shayara Bano had challenged the practice when her husband of 15 years invoked instant triple talaq. The court questioned the custom which is theologically sinful and why was it still part of the practice of a community. The court also directed the government to bring a legislation to this effect within six months.

The government introduced the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act 2019:
- Any pronouncement of talaq by a Muslim husband upon his wife, by words, either spoken or written or in electronic form or in any other manner whatsoever, shall be void and illegal;
- Any Muslim husband who pronounces talaq upon his wife shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.

The Sabarimala Temple case is one of the most important cases that initiated the debate between Right to Equality and Right to Freedom of Religion. The temple in Kerala - a shrine of Lord Ayyappa - had an age-old tradition of not allowing women of menstruating age to enter the premises. The practice was questioned in the court through a petition and in September 2018, the Supreme Court of India ruled that women of all age groups can enter Sabarimala temple. The court initially lifted the ban and termed it as a violation of women's right to practice religion before going on to place it for review before a larger bench, in November 2019.

The Apex Court said restrictions on women in religious places was not limited to Sabarimala alone and was prevalent in other religions as well. This was in reference to the review pleas for larger bench seeking review of its 2018 ruling that allowed menstruating women to enter the Sabarimala temple in Kerala.

In January 2020, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) filed an affidavit in Supreme Court stating that entry of women in mosque is allowed as per Islam. However, it is not mandatory for women to join group prayers or congregational prayers as they can offer prayers at home too. This was in response to a petition filed by a Pune-based Muslim couple seeking to uphold the right of Muslim women to enter mosques freely and offer namaz.