Guest Post: Centering Women’s Voices – A Feminist Analysis of Religious Freedom and the Hijab Case

[This is a guest post by Megha Mehta.]

A Division Bench of the Supreme Court is currently hearing SLPs from Resham v. State of Karnataka, (MANU/KA/0912/2022) the Karnataka High Court judgement upholding the ban on hijab in state government-run educational institutions. Judging by what has been reported in legal news portals, the hearings have gone on the tangent of whether it is permissible to proscribe a ‘uniform dress code’ (a sartorial precursor to the UCC?) in ‘secular’ government institutions. Keeping aside the debatable nature of some of the observations made by the Bench, the issue now risks being collapsed into the same category as controversies involving Sikhs’ right to wear the turban in the army, the rights of Muslim airforce officers to have beards, whether the essential religious practices [ERP] test applies, etc.

However, this eclipses the larger jurisprudential point, i.e., to what extent should the State/judiciary intervene in religious/cultural practices to enforce ‘gender equality’/ ‘dignity’ for women? Whose version of ‘equality/dignity/’ should take precedence—that of the State or of women themselves? This is important, given that the Court has parallelly set up a Constitution Bench to hear petitions challenging the practice of polygamy and nikah halala amongst Muslims.

I would argue that both the hijab controversy and the anti-polygamy/nikah halala petitions are direct outcomes of two previous Supreme Court precedents on the supposed ‘clash’ between gender equality and religious freedom: Shayara Bano v. Union of India ((2017) 9 SCC 1) (the triple talaq case)and Indian Young Lawyers’ Association v. State of Kerala ((2019) 11 SCC 1)(‘Sabarimala judgement’). In both cases, the Supreme Court has arguably fallen into the trap of setting up a ‘rights conflict’ between the right to equality and protection against gender discrimination versus the right to freedom of religious practice. Moreover, in both cases the Court has sought to resolve this conflict by applying considerations of ERP, ‘morality’, and/or fundamental rights without centering the concerns of the women affected by the practice.

Therefore, Shayara Bano focused more on why triple talaq is theologically unsound under the ERP test, and the moral fault of the Muslim man, rather than the socio-economic context of why unilateral divorce disadvantages Muslim women. Indeed, the majority as well as the dissenting opinions referred to the Muslim woman in protectionist language, framing her as a victim of religious oppression. [1]

In the Sabarimala judgement, Dipak Misra CJI, in his opinion, authoritatively stated that “in the absence of any scriptural or textual evidence,” it cannot be concluded that excluding women from the Sabarimala temple is an “essential practice” of Hindu religion. Rather, he commented that it is essential to Hindu religion to allow Hindu women entry to a temple, (See Sabarimala judgement, ¶122) affirming the idea that Hinduism has always been egalitarian. On the other hand, Nariman J. and D.Y. Chandrachud J. in their respective concurring opinions held that even assuming that exclusion of women is an essential religious practice, freedom of religion under Article 25 must yield to the fundamental guarantees of equality and non-discrimination under Part III of the Constitution. (¶196, 409) Interestingly, Chandrachud J. relied on Gautam Bhatia’s scholarship on the ‘anti-exclusion principle’ to argue that the ideal approach in adjudicating the constitutionality of religious practices should be to bypass the ERP test altogether. Instead, the question should be whether the impugned practice results in the exclusion of a group of citizens and thus violates the fundamental principles of dignity, liberty and equality. (¶220-221, 409) His opinion further held that the phrase “morality” in Article 25 is to be read as “constitutional morality” as defined in terms of the liberal values contained in the Constitution. (¶215-216)

There has been sufficient critique of the ERP test so I will refrain from commenting on that aspect. From a feminist perspective, the ‘anti-exclusion’ principle appears to be a better approach as it avoids the pitfalls of the ERP test (judges acting as theologians, divergence in textual interpretation, promoting ‘Hinduism’ as a monolithic construct) and specifically focuses on whether a religious practice has the effect of denying civic equality to women. Notably, the anti-exclusion principle as developed by Bhatia, and Chandrachud J., shares similarities with philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s ‘capabilities approach.’ Nussbaum has also argued, in relation to the Hindu Code Bill debates and the Supreme Court’s judgement in Shah Bano, that a religious practice ceases its claim to State deference when it infringes upon ‘shared moral understandings’ embodied in the form of constitutional rights. This particularly includes practices which stigmatize individuals on account of their sex. [2]

Chandrachud J.’s adoption of the anti-exclusion principle and his articulation of the Indian Constitution’s transformative potential is a powerful tool for checking the subordination of women by religious norms. However, there are some important nuances which are not expressly clarified by the judgement though they may be implied therein—who is the correct authority for making assessments about what constitutes ‘dignity’ and ‘exclusion’? What if the affected group does not see religious worship and the enjoyment of fundamental rights in bright line/hierarchical terms—what if women wish to build a feminist reinterpretation of the religious practice into the law rather than arguing for it to be declared illegal/unconstitutional? It may be argued that since the anti-exclusion principle is undoubtedly a tool for achieving substantive equality, the views of the purportedly marginalized group should take precedence over that of any other authority. However, if you apply intersectionality as a framework, how should the State/judiciary respond to fractures within the group? What if upper-caste women and Dalit women have substantially differing ‘moral understandings’ of a religious practice? What about differences between Sunni and Shia Muslim women? Etc. etc.

In this respect, neither Shayara Bano nor the Sabarimala judgement have directly quoted women worshippers’ views on how they are excluded by the impugned practice or discussed dissonances therein—arguably it’s the judges’ own moral views on the subject which are taking center stage. The Sabarimala judgement has in fact, expanded the scope of the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to entertaining PILs against allegedly exclusionary religious practices even if no woman worshipper has personally complained of discrimination (The petitioners in that case did not subscribe to the worship of Lord Ayappa). The counsel for the respondents had raised this issue in their submissions before the Supreme Court. However, both Nariman J. and Chandrachud J. emphasized in their respective concurring opinions that the “gravity of the issue” necessitated that the petition be heard, notwithstanding this anomaly. (Sabarimala judgement, ¶198, 224. Both judges cited Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam v. State Of Tamil Nadu, (2016) 2 SCC 725, 737, ¶12 on this point.) Interestingly, it was the lone female justice, Indu Malhotra J. who highlighted in her dissent that permitting PIL’s in matters relating to religious practices, particularly by persons who do not subscribe to the faith, “would open the floodgates to interlopers” to question such practices, “and that the perils are even greater for religious minorities if such petitions are entertained.” (¶447) Notwithstanding criticisms of ‘anti-feminist’ thinking/conspiracy theories of a general pro-temple management stance concerning her decision, permitting ‘ideological challenges’ does create a due process issue given that the Court’s precedent will bind the affected group, i.e., religious women, without any mechanism to ensure that their interests are adequately represented. [3]

It can be counter-argued that Resham presents a substantially different bundle of facts since over here Muslim women are not challenging the constitutionality of a religious practice on the grounds that it demeans them, but are rather seeking the autonomy to continue following it contrary to State diktat. To that extent the application of the anti-exclusion principle should not encounter any difficulty if the women are able to prove that wearing the hijab does not stigmatize them as unequal, but is in fact essential to facilitating their full participation in civil society. Nevertheless, the High Court has completely ignored this distinction. The Advocate General of Karnataka quoted the Sabarimala judgement to argue that the hijab as a form of ‘compulsion of dress’ is not acceptable as it violates ‘constitutional morality’ and ‘individual dignity.’ The High Court went a step further and quoted Dr. B.R. Ambedkar on how the purdah system brings about the “segregation of Muslim women” and makes them “helpless and timid” to legitimize its conclusions on why the hijab militates against anti-exclusion and equality of opportunity (This of course, completely ignores the fact, as argued by Devdutt Kamat, that purdah and hijab are sociologically distinct practices).

The aforesaid reflexive application of the Sabarimala judgement to Resham is better understood from a law and political economy lens. From a legal realist perspective, though the Constitution embodies a transformative vision of Indian society, it is also in some respects a political compromise, given the ghost of Partition. Hence whilst Article 25(1) explicitly makes religious freedom subject to other provisions of Part III of the Constitution, Article 25(2) delegates the power to undertake social reform to the State. This echoes Dr. Ambedkar’s assurance to religious minorities during Constituent Assembly debates that “all that the State is claiming…is a power to legislate” and that their personal law would not be modified without popular consensus. (See Constituent Assembly Debates (Vol. VII), Dec. 2, 1948 speech by B.R. Ambedkar 7.65.178) In both Shayara Bano and the Sabarimala judgement, the Supreme Court has opened the floodgates to ‘ideological challenges’ to religious practices, sidestepping determination of popular consensus and deliberation by the legislature on the matter. The Karnataka government’s example indicates that such interventions by the judiciary are likely to push the executive to reclaim the mantle of ‘social reform’, and appropriate concepts like ‘constitutional morality’ and ‘dignity’ to enforce its own political agenda of ‘formal equality’ amongst religions [See 1].  On the other hand, the Supreme Court while hearing the challenge to the hijab ban, continues to parallelly act as a counter-majoritarian theological reformer in cases like polygamy/nikah halala. Scholarship critiquing rights-based reasoning has highlighted that the outcomes of ‘rights’-based cases often depend on the subjective political commitments of the judges hearing the case more than the inherent content of rights, which makes rights discourse ripe for appropriation across the political spectrum. [4] Therefore there is no guarantee that the same understanding of anti-exclusion which was applied in the Sabarimala judgement will be extended to similar cases involving ideological contestations over purportedly ‘anti-women’ religious practices (as evidently happened in Resham). In the political tangle between a majoritarian executive/legislature and a judiciary which is prone to changes in Bench composition, women’s voices are bound to be lost.

Thus, rather than delving into vague speculations about ‘secularism’, ‘liberal constitutionalism’ and the problematic ERP test, the Court should take a closer look at the anti-exclusion approach and refine it in a manner that can be used to resolve the conundrum of enforcing gender justice in religious communities. It is worth asking: which institutions are legitimately equipped to address such concerns? Can there be reconciliation, rather than rights conflict, between religious liberty and gender equality? (Malhotra J.’s dissent in the Sabarimala judgement indicated the possibility of a harmonious approach.) How can women’s voices be brought to the forefront? How do we avoid the problem of legal paternalism, i.e., courts/legislatures thinking they know ‘better’ than women themselves as to whether a particular practice is ‘dignifying’ or ‘exclusionary’? How do we deconstruct ‘woman’ itself as a monolithic category? These questions are particularly pertinent to any adjudication on the hijab, given that the existing binary between denouncing it as ‘oppressive’ and accepting it as a mandated Quranic injunction ignores the spectrum of unique reasons that Muslim women have for wearing it. Till the time courts adopt an adequate intersectional feminist analytical framework, we are unlikely to find much satisfaction in judicial reasoning on the issue.


  1. Ratna Kapur, Gender and the “Faith” In Law: Equality, Secularism and the Rise of the Hindu Nation, 35(3) Journal of Law and Religion 407, 418 (2020).
  2. Martha C. Nussbaum, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach, 188 (2012).
  3. Lea Brilmayer, The Jurisprudence of Article III: Perspectives on the Case or Controversy Requirement, 93(2) Harvard Law Review 297, 306, 308 (1979).
  4. Duncan Kennedy, The Critique of Rights in Critical Legal Studies, in Left Legalism/Left Critique 198 (Wendy Brown & Janet Halley eds., 2002); Jamal Greene, How Rights Went Wrong: Why Our Obsession With Rights Is Tearing America Apart xi, xix (2021).

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