International Women's Day 2024: 24 Supreme Court judgments that shaped the contours of women's rights in India

This piece serves as testament to the pivotal role played by the judiciary in shaping a future where every woman enjoys the full spectrum of rights, unfettered by societal constraints.
International women's day
International women's day

On the occasion of International Women's Day, we shine a light on landmark judgments delivered by the Supreme Court that have profoundly influenced and elevated the rights of women in our nation.

From seminal cases addressing issues of discrimination, violence against women and reproductive rights, to those championing the cause of workplace equality and personal autonomy, the Supreme Court has been a steadfast guardian of justice for women across the nation.

As we celebrate the remarkable achievements of women worldwide, this piece serves as testament to the pivotal role played by the judiciary in shaping a future where every woman enjoys the full spectrum of rights, unfettered by societal constraints.

1. CB Muthamma v. Union of India and Others (1979) [Justices VR Krishna Iyer and PN Shingal]

This case revolves around gender discrimination within the Indian Foreign Service. CB Muthamma was the first woman to be appointed as an Indian Foreign Service officer. She had alleged discriminatory practices prevalent in the service, because of which she was denied the benefit of promotion.

Before the Supreme Court, she had contended that the provisions of the Indian Foreign Service (Conduct and Discipline) Rules, 1961, violated her constitutional rights under Articles 14 and 16. The rules, as they stood at that time, restricted women officers from serving in certain foreign posts and imposed conditions on their eligibility. It also disentitled them to promotion if they were to get married.

The Court acknowledged the blatant gender-based discrimination and held that the rules were indeed violative of the constitutional principles of equality. It emphasized that the Constitution guarantees equal opportunities to both men and women in matters of public employment, and that gender cannot be a valid criterion for differential treatment.

2. Air India v. Nergesh Mirza (1981) [Justices Syed Murtaza Fazlali, A Varadarajan, AP Sen]

This case dealt with the discriminatory termination of air hostess Nergesh Meerza by Air India on the ground that she was married. The airline had a policy at that time that required air hostesses to resign within four years of their service or upon getting married, whichever occurred earlier.

As per the rules of the airline, air hostesses were required to retire at 35, or on marriage, or on their first pregnancy, whichever occurred earlier.

The Supreme Court held that the policy of forcing air hostesses to resign upon marriage was arbitrary and unreasonable. It emphasized the importance of gender equality and rejected the notion that marriage could be a ground for termination of employment.

3. Mary Roy and Others v. State of Kerala and Others (1986) [Chief Justice PN Bhagwati and Justice RS Pathak]

Activist and educationist Mary Roy challenged the discriminatory provisions of the Travancore Christian Succession Act, 1916, which governed the inheritance rights of Syrian Christian women in Kerala. The Act, based on customary law, granted women only a one-fourth share of the property that their brothers inherited.

She argued that Christian women in Kerala should be entitled to an equal share of inheritance as their male counterparts, aligning with the principles of gender equality enshrined in the Constitution.

The Supreme Court in its judgment acknowledged the discriminatory nature of the Act and ruled that the one-fourth share for women was unjust and unconstitutional, emphasizing the need for gender-neutral laws in matters of inheritance.

4. State of Maharashtra and Another v. Madhukar Narayan Mardikar (1991) [Justices K Jagannatha Shetty and AM Ahmadi]

In this case, a police inspector was accused of the attempted rape of a woman of ‘easy’ virtue. The woman had filed a complaint against the inspector, and in the course of investigation, admitted to being in a relationship with another man while she was married.

The departmental enquiry found the inspector guilty of perverse conduct and ordered his dismissal from service, but the High Court quashed the removal order as it believed it was unsafe to rely on the testimony of a woman of ‘doubtful reputation’.

The Supreme Court set aside the order of the High Court and decided that there was sufficient evidence to corroborate woman's testimony. The Court observed,

"Even a woman of easy virtue is entitled to privacy and no one can invade her privacy as and when he likes. So also it is not open to any and every person to violate her person as and when he wishes. She is entitled to protect her person if there is an attempt to violate it against her wish. She is equally entitled to the protection of law. Therefore, merely because she is a woman of easy virtue, her evidence cannot be thrown overboard."

5. Neera Mathur v. Life Insurance Corporation of India and Another (1991) [Justices K Jagannath Shetty and Yogeshwar Dayal]

In this case, a female employee was dismissed from service on account of her failure to correctly declare her last date of menstruation and the existence of her pregnancy on her employment declaration form at the time of joining service.

She approached the Supreme Court on the grounds that her right to equality guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution had been violated by the arbitrary order of discharge.

The Supreme Court set aside the discharge order, stating that the declaration required in the form was embarrassing, humiliating and a violation of the employee’s modesty and self-respect. It recommended deletion of such requirements from the declaration form and indicated that attempts to evade giving maternity benefits to a female candidate by not hiring her if she is pregnant would be open to a constitutional challenge.

6. Vishaka and Others v. State of Rajasthan and Others (1997) [Chief Justice JS Verma, Justices Sujata V Manohar and BN Kirpal]

In this landmark case, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace, laying down crucial guidelines and establishing a framework for preventing and redressing such incidents.

The case originated from the gang-rape of a social worker in Rajasthan, prompting women's rights groups to petition the Supreme Court for guidelines to address sexual harassment at the workplace.

In its decision, the Supreme Court held that sexual harassment of women at workplace violated the fundamental rights of working women under Articles 14, 15, and 21 of the Constitution. The Court invoked international conventions and norms, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to emphasize the need for legal safeguards against workplace harassment.

These guidelines led to the formulation of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act (POSH Act), 2013.

7. Githa Hariharan and Another v. Reserve Bank of India and Another (1999) [Chief Justice AS Anand, Justices M Srinivasan and UC Banerjee]

The Supreme Court addressed the issue of guardianship under the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956. The petitioner challenged the discriminatory provisions of the Act, which designated the father as the natural guardian of a minor child, excluding the mother from this crucial role.

The Supreme Court held that such a provision was unconstitutional and violated the principles of equality enshrined under the Constitution. The Court ruled that the mother, like the father, should be considered a natural guardian, and her rights in this regard should not be subordinated solely based on gender.

"It is an axiomatic truth that both the mother and the father of a minor child are duty-bound to take due care of the person and the property of their child and thus having due regard to the meaning attributed to the word “guardian”, both the parents ought to be treated as guardians of the minor."

8. Mohd Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano Begum & Ors (1985) [Chief Justice YV Chandrachud and Justices Ranganath Misra, DA Desai, O Chinnappa and ES Venkataramaiah]

Shah Bano, a 62-year-old woman from Madhya Pradesh, who was divorced by her husband in 1978, filed a case for maintenance under Section 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).

The Supreme Court ruled in her favour and upheld the right to alimony for Muslim women as well as the constitutional validity of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986. The Court ruled that Muslim husbands are liable to provide maintenance to their divorced wives beyond the iddat period, as mandated by Section 3(1)(a) of the Act.

The Court declared that the husband’s liability does not end with the expiration of iddat, but that in cases of vagrancy and destitution of the wife, the husband must maintain her even beyond the customary period.

9. Anuj Garg and Others v. Hotel Association of India and Others (2007) [Justices SB Sinha and Harjit Singh Bedi]

The petitioners had challenged the constitutional validity of Section 30 of the Punjab Excise Act, 1914 which prohibited the employment of any woman or man under the age of twenty five years in any part of an establishment in which liquor or any other intoxicating drugs were consumed by the public.

The Court prima facie observed that the challenged provision was a pre-Constitution law, and had to be reviewed in view of the changed societal conditions and against the touchstones of Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution. The Court employed the strict scrutiny standard and the doctrine of proportionality and incompatibility to review the Act and struck down the provision as it perpetrated sexual differences and restricted a woman's right to be considered for employment.

10. Suchita Srivastava and Another v. Chandigarh Administration (2009) [Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan and Justices BS Chauhan and P Sathasivam]

The petitioners challenged the constitutionality of mandatory pre-abortion approval by a medical board under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971. It was argued that the mandatory approval process posed a serious infringement on a woman's right to privacy and autonomy over her body.

The Court recognized the fundamental right of women to make decisions about their reproductive health, including the choice to terminate a pregnancy. It held that forcing a woman to seek approval from a medical board for an abortion amounted to an undue intrusion into her privacy. The judgment emphasized that the right to reproductive choice is an integral part of a woman's right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution.

11. Joseph Shine v. Union of India (2018) [Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices Rohinton Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra]

The Supreme Court unanimously struck down Section 497 IPC, which penalises adultery. The Court said that any provision of law affecting individual dignity and equality of women invites wrath of  constitution.

"It's time to say that husband is not the master of wife. Legal soverignity of one sex over other sex is wrong," the Court said.

It said that Section 497 violated a woman's right to dignity, resulting in infringement of Article 21 of the Constitution.

"Autonomy is intrinsic in dignified human existence. Section 497 denuded the woman from making choices. The law in adultery is a codified rule of patriarchy. Society attributes impossible attributes to a woman, Raising woman to a pedestal is one part of such attribution," it held.

12. Federation of Obstetric and Gynecological Societies of India (FOGSI) v. Union of India and Others (2019) [Justices Arun Mishra and Vineet Saran]

The petitioners challenged the constitutionality of provisions of the Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act (PNDT) 1994. Section 23(2) of the Act was challenged because it assumes the guilt of the alleged accused even before his/her conviction by a competent court, thus allegedly violating the fundamental right to liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.

While upholding the constitutional validity of Section 23, the Court observed that female foeticide is the most inhumane, immoral and anti-social act. The Court said that the PCPNDT Act is a social welfare legislation, which was conceived in light of the skewed sex­-ratio of India and to avoid the consequences of the same.

13. Lata Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh and Another (2006) [Justices Ashok Bhan and Markandey Katju]

The petitioner, who was an adult, left her family home to marry a man from a lower caste. Her brothers, who were unhappy with the alliance, filed a missing person report and alleged that the petitioner had been abducted.

In is decision, the Supreme Court talked about an adult woman's right to marry or live with anyone of her choice. The Court further ordered that the police initiate criminal action against people who commit violence against those who decide on inter-religious or inter-caste marriages.

It observed that everyone has the right to marry and a definite right to choose their life partner under the ambit of Article 21 of the Constitution. This fundamental right of any citizen cannot be violated at the instance of another person.

14. Secretary, Ministry of Defence v. Babita Puniya and Others (2020) [Justices DY Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi]

In this case, the Supreme Court directed that Permanent Commission should be granted to women in Army regardless of their service, in all ten streams where the Central government have already taken a decision to grant Short Service Commission to women.

The Court held that absolute exclusion of women from command assignments is against Article 14 of the Constitution and unjustified. Therefore, the policy that women will be given only "staff appointments" was held to be unenforceable by the Court.

15. Aparna Bhat and others v. State of Madhya Pradesh and others (2021) [Justices AM Khanwilkar and S Ravindra Bhat]

The Supreme Court expressed its extreme displeasure with the Madhya Pradesh High Court for asking a person accused of sexual assault to get Rakhi tied on him by the victim as a condition for grant of bail, effectively turning molester into brother by judicial mandate.

The judgment was delivered in a plea filed by nine woman lawyers who had challenged the High Court order contending that such bail orders have the effect of trivializing sexual offences against women.

Read the seven directions issued by the court.

16. Hotel Priya, A Proprietorship v. State of Maharashtra and Others (2022) [Justices KM Joseph and S Ravindra Bhat]

The Supreme Court held that the condition imposing a gender cap on the number of women or men who can perform in orchestras and bands in licenced bars, is unconstitutional.

While the overall limit of performers in any given performance cannot exceed eight, the composition can be of any combination, the Court clarified, while allowing the appeal filed by a hotel challenging the restrictions imposed by Mumbai Police. The Court observed that the restriction capping the number of women performers emanated from gender-based stereotypes.

17. Prabha Tyagi v. Kamlesh Tyagi (2022) [Justices MR Shah and BV Nagarathna]

The Supreme Court held that every woman in a domestic relationship has a right to reside in the shared household of her husband even after his death.

The Court also held that a woman can enforce the right irrespective of whether she actually lived in the shared household before.

The Court noted that under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, there should be a subsisting domestic relationship between the aggrieved person and the person against whom the relief is claimed vis-à-vis allegation of domestic violence is raised. However, even in the absence of actual residence in the shared household, a woman, who was at some point of time in a domestic relationship, can enforce her right to reside there.

18. Arunachala Gounder (Dead) by LRs v. Ponnusamy and Others (2022) [Justices S Abdul Nazeer and Krishna Murari]

In this case, the Supreme Court held that even in cases prior to the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, if a property of a male Hindu dying intestate is a self-acquired property or obtained in the partition of a coparcenary or a family property, the same would devolve by inheritance and not by survivorship, and a daughter of such a male Hindu would be entitled to inherit such property in preference to other collaterals.

The Court noted that ancient text as also the Smritis, the commentaries written by various renowned learned persons and even judicial pronouncements "have recognized the rights of several female heirs, the wives and the daughter’s being the foremost of them."

19. State of Jharkhand v. Shailendra Kumar Rai and Others (2022) [Justices DY Chandrachud and Hima Kohli]

The Supreme Court held that any person found conducting the archaic two-finger test on a victim of rape or penetrative sexual assault will be guilty of misconduct.

The Court ordered a review of the curriculum in medical schools with a view to ensuring that the two-finger test is not prescribed as one of the procedures to be adopted while examining survivors of sexual assault and rape.

The Court took a dim view of the fact that such tests were being conducted even today and said that the same had no scientific basis and retraumatised victims of sexual assault.

20. Deepika Singh v. Central Administrative Tribunal (2022) [Justices DY Chandrachud and AS Bopanna]

In this case, the Supreme Court held that a woman's statutory right to avail maternity leave cannot be taken away for the reason that she had availed child care leave earlier for her non-biological kids.

The Court ruled that the provisions of the Central Civil Services Rules (CCS Rules) regarding maternal leave have to be purposively interpreted in line with the object and intent of the Maternity Benefit Act enacted by Parliament.

The Court made it clear that grant of maternity leave is intended to encourage women to join and continue in the workplace.

21. Akella Lalitha vs Konda Rao and Others (2022) [Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and Krishna Murari]

The Supreme Court observed that mother being the only natural guardian of the child has the right to decide the surname of the child, as also give the child up for adoption. Thus, a direction of the Andhra Pradesh High Court to a mother to restore her child's original surname from his step-father's surname, was set aside by the top court.

The Court said that such a direction of the High Court to a mother, who had remarried after her first husband's death, to restore her child's original surname, was "almost mindless and cruel".

22. Kamla Neti (Dead) through LRs v. The Special Land Acquisition Officer and Others (2022) [Justices MR Shah and Krishna Murari]

The Supreme Court urged the Central government to consider amending Section 2(2) of the Hindu Succession Act, which specifically excludes female members of Scheduled Tribes from the purview of the Act.

The Court opined that there was no justification for denying the right of survivorship to female members of a community. It further stated that it was high time for the Centre to reconsider the provisions of the Act since even after 70 years of the Constitution, the daughter belonging to a Scheduled Tribe was being denied equal rights.

23. X v. The Principal Secretary Health and Family Welfare Department, Delhi NCT Government and Another (2022) [Justices DY ChandrachudAS Bopanna, and JB Pardiwala]

The Supreme Court held that provisions of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (MTP Act) allowing termination of pregnancy beyond 20 weeks and upto 24 weeks cannot be denied to a woman merely because she is unmarried.

The Court held that Rule 3B(c) of the MTP Rules cannot be interpreted in a restrictive manner so as to deny right of abortion to an unmarried woman beyond 20 weeks, and that doing so would be violative of Article 14 of the Constitution.

Thus, even unmarried women who become pregnant from consensual sexual relationships are entitled to terminate pregnancy upto 24 weeks, the Bench held.

24. Aureliano Fernandes v. State of Goa and Others (2023) [Justices AS Bopanna and Hima Kohli]

The Supreme Court took strong exception to the fact that even a decade after the enactment of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013 (POSH Act), there remained serious lapses in its effective enforcement.

The Court underlined that all the state functionaries, public authorities, private undertakings, organizations and institutions are duty bound to implement the POSH Act in letter and spirit.

It was brought to the notice of the Court that as per a survey conducted by a national daily newspaper, out of 30 national sports federations in the country, 16 don't have an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) till date.

It is imperative to educate the complainant victim about the import and working of the POSH Act, the Bench added. Hence, it asked the Central and state governments to take affirmative action and ensure that the object behind enacting the POSH Act is achieved in real terms.

Anadi Tewari is a Master of Laws-LLM (Technology and Law) student at the Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur. He works as a Legal Assistant Reporter for Bar & Bench.

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