The most worrying aspect of the Haji Ali Dargah ban on women from entering the most sacred area of the shrine is that, eventually, all the dargahs in India may enforce a similar decree.

Every time I’ve visited Mumbai in the last 20 years and driven close to the iconic Sufi Dargah of the 15th century Sufi Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari, I’ve invariably told the driver how I’d always wanted to visit the shrine but never managed to. Each time, the response, irrespective of the driver being a Hindu or a Muslim, had been… “But you should go inside. Waha pey bada sukun milta hei…(You get a feeling of peace there.)”

Well, the Trust that runs the shrine has just made it that much more difficult for me, a woman, to enter the innermost portion of the dargah… the grave of the Pir — what is normally known as the sanctum sanctorum in a temple. Recently, a fatwa was passed banning women from entering the area that is considered most sacred in any shrine.

Located on a bed of rocks about 500 yards into the Arabian Sea off the coast of south-central Mumbai, the Haji Ali Dargah is one of the most iconic sites in Mumbai, and has been a favourite shooting location for Bollywood films. As expected, the latest fatwa has caused a furore in many circles and spearheading the protest is the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) — a women’s group that has launched a survey on the number of dargahs in India that are barring women from entering the sacred areas. It says out of 20 dargahs in the city, seven have kept women out.

Explaining the move, Rizwan Merchant, a trustee of the dargah and a noted criminal lawyer, said: “While women are not allowed inside the sanctum sanctorum of the dargah, they can read their prayers, do namaz and offer shawls and flowers. All that we are requesting our sisters is not to enter inside the dargah.”

How very considerate! That his “sisters” will be allowed such allowances as praying, offering flowers, and so on. The biggest irony is that this ban has been slapped on a shrine dedicated to a Sufi saint… the essence of Sufism is to embrace liberal views, be extremely tolerant and, above all, celebrate inclusiveness.

Flimsy reason

There is some confusion about when the ban was enforced. Some claim it was seven years ago — a lie because, till recently, women were going all the way into the dargah. Founder of BMMA Noorjehan Safia Niaz was told by a trustee that this decision was taken after “the authorities noticed that a woman came inappropriately dressed last year.”

Perfect! So crucify all the women, to pay for the “inappropriate” dress of one visitor. If such a woman did enter the inner core of the place, surely that was the failure of the authorities to enforce a reasonable dress code. After all, at the holiest of cathedrals and churches in Italy, at the very entrance, women in shorts and sleeveless tops are stopped.

But the difference is that if they can wrap a scarf around their shoulders or use a shawl as some kind of a wrap-around skirt, there is no problem. Thus, no woman is denied entry, whether it is to worship or to admire the mind-boggling, exquisite architecture of these monuments.

This development brings us to a common charge against Muslim clergy. Are they uncomfortable with women’s sexuality? Or plain scared?

Or, is this yet another form of discrimination against women and asserting that the male is superior to the female? That I, a male Mullah, or Trustee, or whatever, can deny you, the poor wretched woman, any right or privilege I deem fit.

Across religions

As for women’s sexuality, if you put the issue through a microscope, other religions do not emerge any holier.

Take the Sabarimala pilgrimage. Girls under 10 and women over 50 are allowed, which boils down to the menstruating woman being an “impure” creature who has to be kept out.

And, then, you have a plethora of scandals in ashrams or mutts run by so-called holy men!

In 1995, at the ashram run in Pudukottai by the godman Premananda, my expose was instrumental in putting the sexual pervert and fake seer behind bars, in two life sentences upheld by the Supreme Court.

He was arrested and imprisoned on charges of raping and sexually assaulting women under his care in the idyllic surroundings of the ashram. A DNA test on one of the pregnant girls proved his paternity.

Under his watch, a man was also murdered and buried there. Last year, Premananda died in prison while still serving his sentence. Some of the mutts in Tamil Nadu have been in the news for similar unsavoury episodes. Recently, the leelas of Swami Nithyananda, who was supposed to be anointed chief of the Madurai Aadheenam, were exposed. Fortunately, that decision was reversed.

To many of our “religious” men, women are either considered to be impure and shooed out or suppressed, or exploited sexually!

Across the political divide, both Congress General-Secretary Digvijay Singh and BJP spokesperson Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi have condemned the Haji Ali ban and urged all “liberals” to oppose it. But the same Diggy Raja has no qualms about dragging Rakhi Sawant unnecessarily into his battle with activist Arvind Kejriwal. In a tweet that has been bashed, he said: “Arvind Kejriwal is like Rakhi Sawant. They both try and expose, but with no substance. Apologies to Rakhi Sawant. I am an old fan of hers!”

The “50-crore girlfriend” and the Rakhi Sawant comment reinforce our male politicians’ mindset… women are easy game. Period. So why blame only the Muslim clergy, fake swamis and dargah trustees?

But the most worrying aspect of the Haji Ali Dargah ban is some of the trustees boasting that, eventually, all the dargahs in India will enforce a similar decree as “according to the Sharia law women are not allowed near cemeteries or graveyards.”

This seems to be just the beginning. The next target will be Ajmer Sharif and other holy shrines.

It is another matter that in the holiest of shrines, such as those of Shia saints — Hazrat Ali or Imam Hussain in Iraq — women are allowed right inside… to the embedded graves cordoned with gold and silver covered grills.

Of course, being lesser beings, women get only one-fourth of the circumference of the grave, even though they outnumber men and take much longer to pay their homage. The rest is reserved for men. And we think Indian Muslims are far more liberal!

rasheeda.bhagat@thehindu.co.in and blfeedback@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on November 12, 2012)
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