Days after a controversy broke out over its decision to ban women from entering the sanctum sanctorum, Haji Ali Dargah’s website still proclaims: “People from all parts of the world without restrictions of caste, creed and religion visit to offer their prayers…” The statement is a reminder of the inclusive, all-embracing spirit that one of Mumbai’s most famous landmarks was known for.
Built in 1431, the shining marble dargah, floating off the Mumbai coast and immortalised in many a Bollywood film, houses the tomb of 15 th century Sufi saint Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari. The shrine attracts thousands of visitors every day — men and women across faiths. Therefore the move has come as a shock, and many are calling it “anti-Islamic” and “unconstitutional”.
“Our fear is that if this can happen in Haji Ali, which is an iconic dargah, then it can happen anywhere,’’ says Noorjehan Safia Niaz, founder-member of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), which has openly challenged the ban. “It goes against the spirit of what Sufi saints preached. There is a larger issue of not respecting diversity, disrespecting women and moving away from the spirit of Islam,’’ says Niaz.
The Haji Ali Trust, on its part, claims it is upholding this very spirit, and that the ban is not a new one. “Women were never allowed to enter the room where the tomb is kept as the Sharia law does not permit women to touch the tomb,’’ says Haji Ali Dargah chairman and managing trustee Abdul Sattar Merchant. “One of the rooms, at a distance from the sanctum sanctorum, is reserved for women.They can do the namaz there. But the shariat does not allow them to enter the room where the tomb is,” adds Merchant.
Not true, say activists. “I visited the dargah last year in a group and we were all allowed into the mazaar ,’’ says Niaz. “But when I went again this July, there was a steel barricade and we were told we could not enter the sanctum. The president of the committee told us some woman had visited the dargah dressed inappropriately, but that does not mean you ban the entire community of women. Besides, what Sharia are they talking about? What about those dargahs that allow women? Is their Sharia different,’’ asks Niaz.
“The debate regarding entry into shrines is an old one,’’ says Dr Zeenat Shaukat Ali, professor of Islamic studies at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College. “There is no clear specification regarding the matter relating to entry into shrines, for men or women. Some say that there is a tradition of the Caliph Omar, which mentions that women should not visit graves. Others hold that this was specified under certain circumstances. As gender justice is an important part of Islam, it was not considered a general rule as it would prevent women from visiting the graves of their loved ones.’’
After all, as Dr Ali points out, Muslims, both men and women, visit the Prophet’s grave. “The Prophet’s own daughters visited his grave. So many women visit the grave of the Prophet’s grandson Imam Hussain in Iran. The Taj Mahal is also a makhbara (mausoleum) like the Haji Ali Dargah. Are you now going to say women cannot visit the Taj? This attitude of women as un-equals is going to precipitate Islamophobia and convey a sense of misogyny that is totally alien to Islam,” she says.
Other religious scholars agree. “The dargah’s decision has nothing to do with the Sharia,’’ says Maulana Shoaib Koti from the Darul Uloom Deobandi University. “It is an administrative decision. The Sharia allows men and women equal access. All that it says is that women and men should be in separate enclosures.”
Hasan Kamal, a senior journalist and editorial advisor to Rashtriya Sahara Urdu, sees the ban as an attempt by certain groups within the community to gain the upper hand. “They want to give the message that they command the community. I am connected to many dargahs and none has such rules. If Mecca and Medina, the two places most sacred to Muslims all over the world, don’t ban women, how can any other?”
But the powers that be at Haji Ali Dargah are sticking to their guns. “Eventually, this will be done in every dargah, as the Sharia law will have to be upheld,” says Suhail Khandwani, trustee of the Haji Ali Dargah and managing trustee of the Makhdoom Baba’s Dargah in Mahim, Mumbai. Incidentally, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board too has come out in support of the Haji Ali Dargah Trust.
Activists fear the ban could set a precedent. The BMMA has found that seven other dargahs in Mumbai already deny women access to the mazaar . The BMMA has also tried to get the Maharashtra government to intervene, but so far, its attempts have been futile. The government has refused to get involved in the issue on the ground that being a religious matter, it falls within the Haji Ali Trust’s purview and not the government’s. There is now talk of looking to the courts for redressal.
“Legally, it is a tricky issue’’, says human rights lawyer Mihir Desai. “On the one hand you have a personal law. On the other, there is the matter of discrimination against women. It is a fundamental rights issue but vis-a-vis a private body — not the State. But it is also a question of freedom of religion guaranteed under the fundamental rights in our constitution.”
Watching the debate play out from the sidelines are writers like Sameera Khan. “When my grandmother died several years ago they did not allow her three daughters to witness the burial or visit the site later. Even today we stand on the pavement outside the graveyard, separated by a fence and say a prayer for her.” Though Khan did not contest the stricture then, activists like Niaz are in no mood to meekly accept the ban on women entering the Haji Ali Dargah. Clearly, this is a debate one hasn’t heard the last of.
This article also appeared in The Telegraph