Women are slowly cutting through the thicket of conservatism that denies them equality in worship in many places. The Haji Ali mosque is the latest after the Bombay High Court struck down a ban on women’s entry into the inner sanctum of the iconic 15th century seafront mausoleum.
Till 2012, women could pray at the tomb of the saint Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari. Pilgrims would enter the room, where the saint is buried at the centre, to touch the grave and offer prayers. In July that year, the shrine authorities suddenly banned women from this area.
Noorjehan Safia Niaz, an activist who focuses on Muslim law and women’s rights, challenged the ban in court and won after a four-year trial. But any celebration of the demise of male hegemony over religion might be premature. Women have won support in the courts because there is sound legal ground against discrimination. From Shani-Shingnapur temple and the Sabarimala shrine to now Haji Ali, the judiciary has insisted on them complying with the principle of gender justice and equal spiritual rights. But in the face of traditional gender hierarchies, translating those victories into actual rights has been a challenge.
Experience shows that the emotive issues of faith are often resistant to even rebukes from the judiciary. Indeed, court verdicts in matters of faith have been difficult to implement because political parties subvert them. For instance, hundreds of people attending Janmashtami celebrations in Maharashtra defied a Supreme Court order limiting the height of the human pyramids due to safety concerns. Maharashtra Navnirman Sena members formed a 49-foot human pyramid to celebrate the birth of Lord Krishna.
Yet, when politicians have shown the will, much progress has been achieved on this front. In April, when the courts ordered that women be allowed into the Shani-Shingnapur temple, large crowds consisting mostly of men, tried to stop them. But the police swung into action and a group of women activists walked into the temple for the first time in 400 years.
In India, roads, railway stations and parks are dotted with illegal shrines. Court efforts to stop the use of public land for religious sites have largely been ignored by political parties. But in 2008, then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s government oversaw the demolition of dozens of illegal religious structures to comply with a court directive. This brings us to the point that political will is key to ensuring compliance with court verdicts.
In the case of Haji Ali, the Maharashtra government has been asked to provide security to women who want to enter the shrine. We can only hope that chief minister Devendra Fadnavis does not fail them.