Editor's Note: This article was originally published on 28 April when Trupti Desai first made an effort to enter the Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai. In light of Friday's Bombay High Court ruling that allows the entry of women into the inner sanctum of the Haji Ali Dargah, this piece is being republished.
Recent developments about women from different faith backgrounds demanding equality over the right to religious worship are extremely important and should be seen as historical. Given that patriarchy draws sustenance from customs, traditions and practices purportedly based on religion, these latest moves by women assume tremendous significance. Indian women are coming out in the open demanding justice and challenging the male hegemony over religion. They have seen through the age-old game of male orthodoxies appropriating religion and planting themselves as sole custodians of places of worship thereby excluding anybody who doesn’t blindly accept their authority. Women can participate in Pujas in temples and Urs in dargahs so long as women agree to abide by rules and regulations devised by male patriarchs. But women questioning the discriminatory rules and traditions is out of the question!
The Haji Ali Sabke Liye is a heartening step as it signifies a larger churning in Indian society for a just and fair world order where women are treated as equal human beings. It signifies that Trupti Desai is not alone in this fight. It signifies that Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan is not alone in this fight. More significantly, it means that women are not alone in this fight. There are men in large numbers who support this struggle for justice and equality. It signifies that hindu women and men are speaking out in support of muslim women and vice versa. It signifies that sizable number of muslim men are willing to stand up to defend the rights of their sisters from all faiths. This is a historic movement with long-term significance for Indian democracy and for the future of religion in the modern world.
Exclusion of women in the name of religion has been the case world over and particularly in South Asia. Sati, dowry, widow ostracisation, triple talaq, servile bahudom [daughter-in-lawhood] are all unjust practices based on some or the other myth invented within the religious framework. The source can be invented at will from the Puranas or manusmriti or concocted ahadis – they are all meant to misguide society and force the women into unquestioning submission. What better way to further the male superiority fable other than customs based on religion! While some of these issues are very much real even in modern India, the exclusion of women from places of religious worship – temples and dargahs – in particular stands out.
For centuries male hegemonies have owned or presided over places of religious worship be they churches, temples, dargahs, mosques etc. This control over places of religious worship is key to the larger hegemony over women and thereby whole communities. So, when the temple trust decides that women are impure and cannot enter the chabutra [inner sanctum] an exclusionary practice becomes the norm. Suddenly in 2011 the Haji Ali Trust decided that women cannot be allowed into the mazaar [sanctum where the Pir lies buried] and this was meant to become the norm. This diktat overnight declares us women as impure and inferior and therefore we are barred from entering the mazaar and offering the chadar with our own hands.
It is another matter that till 2011, we had been going right into the mazaar and offering our prayers. Can these arbitrary rules and regulations be accepted? Would not every believer, every human being, every Indian, every muslim, every hindu question it?
What we are witnessing presently is this questioning of male hegemonies, be it the Shani Mandir, Sabarimala or Haji Ali. Fortunately, there are enough number of citizens of India, both hindus and muslims who are not willing to accept such misogynist practices in the name of religion. For one, it is a violation of religious tenets of justice and equality. Secondly, it is also a violation of the Constitutional principles of justice irrespective of gender and sex. Places of religious worship are public places and they cannot be permitted to violate the rights of citizens on account of their gender or sex.
The courts are upholding the highest principles of justice and equality and they are a great source of inspiration for all who believe in equality of the sexes. It is heartening that Haji Ali Sabke Liye has citizens from all faith backgrounds – hindus, muslims, Christians, Sikhs, parsi – men and women who have decided to join the fight for justice. It includes citizens from all sections of society - activists, writers, thinkers, film makers, scholars, academics, business persons, students, lawyers, IT professionals, shop owners – a slice of our multi-cultural multi-religious society! Along with Trupti Desai and her group these citizens have decided to stand up and be counted for womens’ equality in religion.
All power to Indian citizens in this quest for a just and fair world!
Zakia Soman and Noorjehan Niaz are co-Founders of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan