The Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to hear a plea seeking permission for Muslim women to enter mosques to offer prayers and asked the Centre to respond to it.
A bench of Justices S A Bobde and S A Nazeer told the petitioners' counsel that it would hear the matter only in view of the apex court's judgment in the Sabrimala temple case.
"The only reason we may hear you is because of our judgement in the Sabarimala case. Otherwise you are not giving us satisfactory answers," the bench told the counsel appearing for petitioners Yasmeen Zuber Ahmad Peerzade and Zuber Ahmad Nazir Ahmad Peerzade.
On September 28 last year, a five-judge constitution bench of the apex court, in its 4:1 verdict, had paved the way for entry of women of all ages into the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, saying the ban amounted to gender discrimination.
Besides the Centre, the apex court also issued notices to the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Minority Affairs, National Commission for Women, Maharashtra State Board of Waqfs, Central Waqf Council and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, seeking their replies on the plea filed by the Pune-based couple.
During the hearing on Tuesday, the apex court asked the petitioners' lawyer as to whether the right to equality could be invoked against private individuals.
"Can you invoke Article 14 (equality before law) of the Constitution and claim equal treatment from another human being?" the bench said, adding, "Is a mosque a state? Is a temple a state? Is a church a state?"
The bench also sought to know from the petitioners how the state was involved in this.
"Persons in a mosque are individuals. Where is the state involved in this?" the bench said, adding that the fundamental right to equality can be invoked against the state and not against individuals.
To this, the petitioners' counsel said mosques in the country were enjoying the benefits and grants extended to them by the state.
At the outset, when the petitioners' counsel said the issue was about the right of Muslim women to enter mosques to offer prayers, the bench had asked, "Who has denied this right? Have you tried to enter (a mosque) and were denied entry?"
The bench then asked the counsel about a matter before the Bombay high court regarding the entry of women in the Haji Ali Dargah.
The counsel replied that women were allowed to enter the Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai.
He said in a similar matter related to the entry of women in mosques, the Kerala high court had dismissed a plea, saying, 'let a Muslim person come forward' on this issue.
At this juncture, Justice Bobde asked, "Which are the other mosques where women can enter?"
The counsel said women were allowed to enter the holy Mecca and also mosques in Canada, but in Saudi Arabia, there was a 'fatwa' in this regard.
The counsel said the petitioners had written to police for help but no assistance was given to them.
"This is not an offence. Why should the police help somebody in this? If you do not want a person to enter your house, can that person get police help to enter your house?" the bench observed.
In their plea, the petitioners have sought a direction to declare the practices of prohibition of entry of Muslim women in mosques in India as illegal and unconstitutional for being violative of constitutional provisions, including articles 14 (equality before law) and 21 (protection of life and personal liberty).
The plea also said that there was nothing in the holy Quran or the Hadith that required 'gender segregation' and there were no records stating that the holy 'Quran and Prophet Muhammad had opposed women entering mosques and offering prayers'.
"Like men, women also have the constitutional rights to offer worship according to their belief. At present, women are allowed to offer prayers at mosques under the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Mujahid denominations, while they are barred from mosques under the predominant Sunni faction," the plea said.
It said that even in mosques where women are allowed, there are separate entrances and enclosures for worship for men and women.