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Women and worship: Time to shatter all patriarchal ceilings

There is no ban on women worshippers at Mumbai’s other popular dargahs, Makhdoom Ali Mahimi, at Mahim, though this shrine shares some trustees with the Haji Ali dargah. The Nizamuddin and Qutbuddin Baktiyar Kaki shrines in Delhi do not give women full access, but the country’s most famous Sufi shrine, the Moinuddin Chisti dargah at Ajmer, has no such restrictions

mumbai Updated: Dec 05, 2016 09:49 IST
Manoj R Nair
Women offer prayers at the sanctum sanctorum inside Haji Ali dargah.
Women offer prayers at the sanctum sanctorum inside Haji Ali dargah. (HT Photo)

Dargahs are among the most egalitarian of religious shrines: While some have restrictions on entry of women – or men – most do not discriminate. The rituals are simple and are not dictated by theology; singing, dancing, sharing food – even esoteric ceremonies – is part of the worship. You do not have to be a Muslim to ask the saint interred in the shrine to pray to God on your behalf.

In 2012, when a group of women were turned away from the inner sanctum of Mumbai’s Haji Ali dargah, the portals of the shrine were no longer so welcoming. The shrine trust justified the ban, explaining that shariat (religious laws) prohibited women from touching the tomb, but worshippers said there were not such restrictions till 2011. The shrine trust’s attempt to defend its discriminatory order made no sense.

There is no ban on women worshippers at Mumbai’s other popular dargahs, Makhdoom Ali Mahimi, at Mahim, though this shrine shares some trustees with the Haji Ali dargah. The Nizamuddin and Qutbuddin Baktiyar Kaki shrines in Delhi do not give women full access, but the country’s most famous Sufi shrine, the Moinuddin Chisti dargah at Ajmer, has no such restrictions. The rule on entry of women, dargah caretakers have said, is based on tradition.

When talks with the shrine trustees did not solve the matter, the women contacted the National Commission for Minorities, the National Commission for Women and ministers. In August 2014, they petitioned the Bombay High Court. After eight hearings, the court struck down the ban on women’s entry into the sanctum. The trust challenged the order in the Supreme Court, only to tell the apex court that they have, as a ‘progressive step’, decided to lift the ban.

On Tuesday, over a hundred women, walked along the narrow causeway that links the rocky islet housing the shrine to the city, and entered the chamber that holds the marble-covered tomb of Pir Haji Ali, Shah Bukhari, a 14th century trader who gave away his wealth and died a pauper. As the women prayed, a Qawwali group sat in the shrine’s courtyard, singing ‘Piya Haji Ali’ in praise of the saint.

For Muslim women, the judgment is more than just a permission to enter the sanctum of a religious shrine; their success has laid down the path for more fights against discriminatory social laws.

“The event touches a sensitive spot – the situation of women in religion,” said Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, a doctor and a lay Catholic theologian, in an article she wrote. “While the second class status of women in society is openly acknowledged and addressed the discrimination against women in religions is usually excused and justified with claims of it being divinely ordained.”

By taking on patriarchal diktats, the Haji Ali petitioners have set the agenda for more reforms – in religious and marital laws. After their victory, the groups that supported the campaign said that their next fight will be to get triple talaq banned.

The women from Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), which had filed the petition, and their supporters like the Haji Ali Sab Ke Liye Forum have said that the case is a precedent. Noorjehan Safia Niaz, co-founder of BMMA had said that the order was a victory for democratic values, women’s power, Constitutional values and Koranic values.

The petitioners had said that they were happy that the dispute went to the Supreme Court. The petition’s passage though the country’s apex court has ensured that the case will have national repercussions.

Lobo Gajiwala, who supports the ordaining of Catholic women as priests, said that the Haji Ali order gives hope about reforms in their church. “For Indian Catholic women the triumph of their Muslim and Hindu sisters - at Shani Shingnapur - poses an interesting question: Is the exclusion of women from ordination a form of gender discrimination that can be changed through a judicial process? Can they file a PIL like their Hindu and Muslim sisters?”

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Women entering Haji Ali will inspire more fights against discriminatory social laws

Women finally enter inner sanctum of Mumbai’s Haji Ali Dargah