The Haji Ali Dargah ruling: Bombay High Court’s verdict is a win for Indian women

"Why is it a ‘grievous sin’ for women to be allowed near the tomb of a male Sufi saint? Aren't Sufi masters born to women?" asks Bibi Khatoon, a leader of the organisation that has been braving the storm against women seeking blessings at the 15th century dargah of the Sufi saint, Haji Ali Shah.

The Haji Ali Dargah is not only a dargah (shrine or hospice) but also a historic mosque built on an islet off the coast of Worli in the southern part of Mumbai. It evokes great esteem for thousands of male and female devotees every day.

The male-chauvinist custodians of the dargah have been vehemently opposed to the women’s entry into the mausoleum. They banned women from entering into the sanctum around five years ago. And by doing this, the Haji Ali trustees were the first so-called Sufi followers in India who barred women from the spiritual tradition of shrine visitation. It candidly exposes the Haji Ali Dargah is in the wrong hands of the retrogressive religious jurists and trustees who debar women from shrine visitation.

But this ban was dismissed and challenged by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), a Muslim women's rights group based in Mumbai. Challenging the restriction imposed by the Dargah authorities in 2012, the Muslim women's rights group took it to the court continued to fight a legal battle with the Haji Ali trustees with an undying spirit. Not only Muslim female activists but also those of the male activists and advocates of women rights in the country, belonging to all faith traditions, also upheld this cause against the gender segregation. Several processions were taken out against it across the country.

After a strongly-spirited fight by the women's rights groups demanding entry for females into the sanctum of the historic dargah of Haji Ali, the Bombay High Court has ruled in a landmark decision that, “women can enter the core or inner sanctum of the Haji Ali Dargah”. The high court has also said that, “all necessary protection will be given to women who visit the shrine” and added that “denying entry to women inside the shrine is against fundamental rights”, reports NDTV.

 The Haji Ali Dargah ruling: Bombay High Court’s verdict is a win for Indian women

Haji Ali dargah. File photo. Reuters

The high court pronounced the judgment after hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by several women activists urging the court to lift restrictions imposed on entry of women in the dargah by the Haji Ali Dargah Trust. The state government had in February said before the Bombay High Court that unless the Dargah Board is able to prove that ban is part of their religious practice with reference to Quran, women should be allowed to enter the inner sanctum.

The Indian Constitution has given equal rights to all faith practitioners, both men and women, to profess and practice whatever they wish as per their religious dictates. The Bombay High Court has ruled that Articles 14 (Equality before law), 15 (which prohibits discrimination based on religious lines), 19 (ensures certain freedoms) and 21 (protection of personal life and liberty) allow any woman to enter the dargah if she wants to. However, the court has put the order on hold for six weeks for the Haji Ali Dargah Trustees to appeal against it in the Supreme Court if they wish to.

As expected, the Shrine's trustees say they will challenge verdict in Supreme Court. Several times in the past, the Haji Ali Dargah trustees have repeatedly stated that it is "a grievous sin" for women to be allowed near the tomb of the Sufi saint housed within the mosque.

But as historical traditional practice in all the Sufi shrines across the country, women have been freely accessing any dargah or its sanctum. It has also been an age-old tradition in Mumbai’s Haji Ali Dargah for decades. But for the first time in the country, it was only Haji Ali Dargah Trust that banned women in 2011 from entering the sanctum of the holy shrine.

Thereafter, women rights groups began to fight for women’s entry into the Haji Ali Dargah’s sanctum. The fight started when a petition was lodged with the Supreme Court demanding access for women to the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. Trupti Desai, president of the Bhumata Brigade, who massively campaigned against the long-standing ban on entry of women in some Hindu temples like Shani Shingnapur and Trimbakeshwar in Maharashtra, also stood for gender-justice in the Haji Ali Dargah’s sanctum. Deasi had attempted to enter the dargah with a group of women in April 2016, but was stopped by the police.

Trupti Desai had made it clear that her movement did not offend the religious sentiments, but was only opposed to the gender discrimination practiced by the trustees of the Haji Ali Dargah. However, women were barred from entering the sanctum of Dargah, despite several massive campaigns and peaceful protests. Given this long and untiring struggle for their democratic right to visit the holy places, the Mumbai High Court’s verdict is a sigh of relief for the women. It strengthens a nationwide campaign to allow women entry to all places of worship. "This is a historic decision, we welcome the high court order. It’s a big win for women," said Desai.

Earlier too, the Maharashtra government had supported women’s demand, stating that unless the Dargah Trust proves that ban is endorsed by their religious scriptures, women should be allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum of Haji Ali.

But these questions still remain unanswered: Is it really not allowed for women to visit the shrines of the male Sufi saints? Is it in the religious scriptures of Islam to deny women’s entry into sanctum or is it the self-appointed custodians of the shrines who are actually defying the gender justice enshrined in the Quran? The self-proclaimed Islamic jurists (muftis) of the Haji Ali Dargah have failed to convince the Muslim women contemplating on this issue.

In this context, a professor of Islamic studies and a renowned woman Islamic scholar, Zeenat Shaukat Ali has buttressed a valid point:

“The concept and wisdom of visiting graveyards was said to be twofold – one, the reminder of the inevitability of the death and accountability for actions in the Hereafter; two to offer prayers for mercy and forgiveness for departed ones…..Men are, by no means, more in need of this reminder than women. There is no authentic prohibitory order forbidding women to enter graveyards. Many scholars like me hold it permissible for women to visit graves.”

Going by the established Islamic traditions, Prophet Muhammad encouraged his companions, both men and women, to visit the graves and holy shrines with intent to purify the souls (tazkiyah), attain righteousness (taqwa) and remain mindful of the hereafter (aakhirah). He did not make any distinction between men and women while exhorting Muslims to visit graves and shrines in pursuit of these spiritual benefits. Addressing both men and women — who were among his companions — Prophet issued a general permission for both men and women to visit the shrines.

He said:

“I had prohibited you from visiting graves. But from now on, you can go for ziyarat (shrine visitation) because it makes you feel unattached towards this material world (which is taqwa) and remind you of the spiritual world (aakhira).”

Taqwa and aakhira are the sole purposes of shrine-visitation in Islam. Therefore, not only the Prophet (pbuh), but also his wife Hazrat Aisha would visit the shrines of holy Islamic saints like Ameer Hamza. Throughout the Islamic history, scores of woman Muslim mystics would visit the shrines of holy saints. But one wonders why women don’t deserve, today, to acquire taqwa (righteousness) and be mindful of the akhirat (spiritual world). Why are only men entitled to get blessed with the spiritual benefits of attaining the righteousness and remembering the hereafter?

The Haji Ali Dargah trustees argue that just as it is not allowed for women to get close to a living male saint, similarly it is a “grave sin” to visit the grave or the inner sanctum of a male saint.

Clearly, this is nothing short of an exclusive, male-chauvinistic, misogynistic and patriarchal contention. Remarkably, it has not gone unchallenged by the well-established Islamic scholars in India. The woman Islamic scholar, Zeenat Shaukat Ali has rightly refuted this line of thinking in one of her interviews with Firstpost:

“The Shani Shingnapur temple and Haji Ali dargah issue reflects the misogynistic attitude and patriarchal assertions of male domination. It is surprising to see this in a secular democracy like India, where the Constitution gives equal rights to all”.

The author is a scholar of Comparative Religion, Classical Arabic and Islamic sciences, cultural analyst and researcher in Media and Communication Studies. He tweets at @GRDehlvi. Email:

Updated Date: Aug 26, 2016 18:02:36 IST