Tradition, not law, decides women’s entry at Sufi shrines | mumbai news | Hindustan Times
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Tradition, not law, decides women’s entry at Sufi shrines

The example of the New Marine Lines shrine show that rules on entry of women into dargahs are determined more by tradition than by fundamental rights

mumbai Updated: Sep 19, 2016 00:21 IST
Manoj R Nair
After they were banned from the sanctum of Haji Ali, members of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), which petitioned the Mumbai court, visited 17 dargahs across the country and found that most shrines had no rules barring women.
After they were banned from the sanctum of Haji Ali, members of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), which petitioned the Mumbai court, visited 17 dargahs across the country and found that most shrines had no rules barring women.(HT File Photo)

The streets around Liberty cinema in Mumbai’s New Marine Lines locality are dotted with the graves of holy men. Some of these tombs have grown into large shrines, the most popular being that of Hazrat Bahauddin Shah. The folklore is that the shrine’s proximity to a building that houses income tax offices makes it a refuge for those caught in tax wrangles.

Some of the smaller dargahs in the area are just rooms inside labyrinthine housing quarters, with members of the resident families, including women, working as the shrine’s caretakers. The women guide devotees, clean the tombs and dress them with embroidered cloth and flowers.

This week, trustees of the Haji Ali dargah, which stopped women from entering the inner sanctum, only to have the Bombay high court strike down the ban, will decide whether to appeal against the court order. The shrine’s trust said that their fundamental right to freedom of religion allowed them to frame such rules.

The example of the New Marine Lines shrine show that rules on entry of women into dargahs are determined more by tradition than by fundamental rights. After they were banned from the sanctum of Haji Ali, members of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), which petitioned the Mumbai court, visited 17 dargahs across the country and found that most shrines had no rules barring women.

There are no restrictions on women worshippers at the city’s other popular dargah, Makhdoom Ali Mahimi, at Mahim. Incidentally, the Mahim and Haji Ali dargahs have common trustees. At Mahim, women can walk into the inner sanctum right up to the tomb. The genders are segregated but this is a safety measure to control the crowds of devotees. Men and women use different sections of the sanctum, and when their numbers are too large women are allowed to get in while the men wait outside. “The tomb of the saint’s mother is next to his,” said Ghulam Naik, the caretaker, explaining why he thinks women have access into the sanctum.

The caretakers of the Moinuddin Chisti dargah, Ajmer, the country’s oldest Sufi shrine– the saint, the founder of the Chisti order of Sufism is believed to have lived in the 13th century - said that rules on entry of women at dargahs have been decided by tradition. The shrine has no restrictions on the entry of women, but that is probably because the saint wanted it that way, said S M Hameed Chisty, a descendent of the family that has looked after the shrine.

Chisty said that the restrictions at some shrines on entry of women have nothing to do with religion. “But if the belief is that the saint did not want women near the grave, the rule is followed,” said Chisty who said that the Nizamuddin and Qutbuddin Baktiyar Kaki shrines in Delhi have restrictions on entry of women. Kaki, according to Chisty, is reported to have told his followers that women should not come close to his tomb. While there are no documents to show that the saint wanted this, tradition determines the rules. Another tomb, believed to be that of a woman, bars entry to men. “It is a spiritual matter; it cannot be proved,” said Chisty.

The rule on entry of women, according to dargah caretakers, is based on tradition. If this rule is followed, the Haji Ali dargah will have no defence to explain its decision to bar women from the shrine’s inner sanctum. The shrine has said that there were always restrictions on the entry of women, but BMMA members have contested this claim. Noorjehan Safia Niaz, co-founder of BMMA said that when she had visited the shrine in 2011, there were no such restrictions. If tradition decides whether there can be a gender-bar on entry into shrine, can the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala, where women of child-bearing age do not go, explain its ban on convention?