The door has opened ever so slightly letting in a glimmer of light for women, this time in the Muslim community, enabling them to shake off patriarchal shackles. Two women in Rajasthan have become qazis after undergoing rigorous study at the Darul Uloom Niswa, qualifying to preside over nikaah (marriage), talaaq (divorce) and deciding the meher (bride price) for a marriage. Predictably, the backlash has been severe, with an All India Muslim Personal Law Board member saying that women cannot put themselves in a position where they can judge men. At the same time, the Maharashtra government has put its weight behind, giving women unfettered access to the shrine of Haji Ali, in response to a petition in the court challenging the ban on this.
The path ahead for the qazis and for Muslim women to worship at the famous shrine will not be easy, but at least it has triggered a debate within the community. The prejudice against women in matters of worship is not confined to Islam. Kerala’s famous Sabarimala temple is convulsed with controversy on the issue of allowing women during their reproductive years into its precincts. A similar ban at the Shani temple in Shani Shingnapur is being challenged. Many argue in favour of tradition, but there really is no justification to deny women the religious rights that men enjoy. The denial of access to Haji Ali is on the grounds that the tomb there belongs to a male saint. However, informed sources say that the tomb is empty and it is only a symbolic monument to his memory.
The women qazis argue that their scholarship equals that of any male clergy member and that this should be the criterion for their officiating in ceremonies. The male clergy across religions have sought to perpetuate the myth that religious rites and rituals are a male domain. That is being shattered now by women who are demanding their right to access religious sites as well as to be participants in presiding over religious rituals. As we have seen from the history of the church, each step in the battle for gender equality in religious matters has been bitterly fought and very often lost. That Muslim women and Hindu women have had the courage to take on these establishments and challenge age-old shibboleths suggests there could the small sliver of light to brighten the whole community one day, given that the battle is continued on several fronts.