Being in the pir’s presence

Bhanuj Kappal | Updated on January 15, 2018

Happy fists Members of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan celebrate after the Bombay High Court ruled in their favour   -  PTI

Spreading the word: The ‘Haji Ali Sab Ke Liye’ campaign from Mumbai reached Ajmer in May Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

After taking their battle all the way to the Supreme Court, women have regained their right to enter the Haji Ali mazar. For them, the fight was for not only gender equality, but also what the Sufi pir’s dargah means to women

“The court is wrong,” declares Alam, as we walk the narrow path that leads through the waves to Worli’s iconic Haji Ali dargah. Alam works at one of the many stalls lining the route that sell offerings — beautifully embroidered sheets, flowers — alongside food, phone cases, wallets, and souvenirs. His job is to facilitate a quick darshan for anyone who spends above a certain amount at his stall. Normally, he gives pilgrims a quick rundown of the dargah’s history — the story of the Sufi pir who’s interred there, legends of doomed lovers — but today he’s got something else on his mind. On October 24, after a two-year-long legal battle, the Haji Ali Dargah Trust finally conceded before the Supreme Court that it will now allow women to enter the dargah’s mazar (inner sanctum) “at par with men”. Alam believes that the court should not interfere in religious issues and he’s insistent that there’s a good reason for women to be kept out of the sanctum. “See, it is a dead pir’s grave, he is under the ground,” he explains patiently. “So when women in sari go right up to the tomb, you can see everything from down there.”

The Haji Ali dargah has always welcomed pilgrims of all faiths, and did not discriminate between Hindu and Muslim, or men and women. But in 2012, the dargah trust decided to change the rules in order to ban women from the inner sanctum.

This was a departure from a centuries-long progressive tradition that allowed women the same rights of worship as their male counterparts. So when Zakia Soman, Noorjehan Safia Niaz and a few of their colleagues from the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) were denied entry into the mazar, it came as a rude shock. “We found a young man sitting in the small office who told us, ‘the way you women are dressed, it distracts the men,’” remembers Soman, who co-founded the BMMA as a progressive, rights-based organisation in 2007.

“That made us quite angry, as you’d imagine. And that scared him a bit because he realised we weren’t just asking for the fun of it. Eventually he gave us the address of the trust’s main office and the names of the trustees.”

Soman viewed this move as an expression of the regressive, patriarchal mindset that the BMMA was fighting against. The BMMA wrote letters in protest to the Haji Ali Dargah Trust. The first one went unanswered. The second one was returned unopened. Then they approached various State authorities, including the State Minority Commission, National Commission for Women, State Commission for Women, and Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis. The State Minorities Development Department eventually set up a meeting to help resolve the dispute. “But when we went there, nobody from the trust turned up,” says Soman. After a few more failed attempts, the officials suggested that the BMMA try a different route.

Despite repeated attempts to contact him, Abdul Sattar Merchant, the Haji Ali Trust chairman, declined to comment, saying he had “no time and no details.”

For Soman and her colleagues, this was a fight for gender equality, but it was also a fight for what the Haji Ali Dargah means to women, especially Muslim women. “Sufi dargahs are places where women go to find some peace and solace in the presence of the saint, where she can reflect on her life and what she’s going through,” says Soman. “This is what I’ve seen in my life. My grandmother was a schoolteacher, but there was not a dargah anywhere that she would miss visiting. She would sit by herself, pray, cry, laugh. It was a refuge for her, almost a cathartic experience.”

“It’s also because it’s a Sufi shrine, and Sufi Islam is the inclusive face of Islam,” Soman adds. “We felt that if today they exclude women, tomorrow they may say no Hindus or Christians. Finally they’d keep it only for Sunni men. We thought it was very important to assert that Sufi Islam is progressive, and that the keepers of a Sufi shrine cannot behave like Wahhabis.”

The BMMA held internal discussions with its members across the country to decide the next step. The general opinion was that if negotiation was not possible, then legal avenues had to be explored. In early 2014, the BMMA petitioned the Bombay High Court, arguing that the ban was unconstitutional. “The first thing the court asked us was ‘convince us why should we admit this petition’,” says Soman. “As luck would have it, we had saved the letters. We had documentation of our discussions and our efforts to negotiate with the trust. We filed all of that and the court immediately admitted the case.”

While much of the media coverage portrayed this as a simple case of religious rights vs women’s rights, the Bombay High Court recognised it as more complex and took a cautious approach. In August 2015, the bench requested the trustees to consider allowing women entry to the mazaar. But the trust’s lawyers informed the court that an amicable decision was not possible as the “entry of women in the close vicinity of a male saint was a grievous sin”. The defendants also argued that they had taken this step in the interests of the safety and security of women.

“First they argued that this was in accordance with Sharia Law,” says Soman. “Look, there’s no Sharia here. And if it is Sharia, why were we allowed in till 2011? Sharia didn’t change in 2012. Then they loosely referred to Islam and Quran, but could not produce any verses or evidence in their favour. Then they came to the ridiculous argument of women’s purity.”

When the Court remained unconvinced by either argument, the trust invoked Article 26 of the Constitution, which states that a trust has the right to manage its own affairs in the matters of religion. However, in a landmark ruling in August that skilfully negotiates the tensions between individual freedom and religious traditions by hewing close to the Constitution, the Bombay High Court ruled that the ban was in violation of Articles 14, 15 and 25 of the Constitution of India. Undeterred, the trust appealed to the Supreme Court, where they eventually had to concede defeat.

For Soman and her colleagues, the Bombay High Court verdict was a moral and political victory that has been a long time coming. “We look at this judgement as a beginning for Muslim women’s equality and justice in the country,” says Soman. “Muslim women today are standing up in large numbers demanding justice and gender equality, and that process has really kicked off with this judgement.”

However, she isn’t entirely sure if this battle is over. That’s because while the Bombay High Court ordered a return to the status quo, the Haji Ali Dargah Trust has come up with an alternative solution. In order to prevent women from touching the tomb, the new arrangements bar men from doing the same. This is technically gender equality, but it’s hardly the ‘progressive’ solution the trust’s lawyers promised the Supreme Court. “How far can these patriarchs go to deny equality to women?” asks Soman. “It’s a very deep-rooted, hardened patriarchal mindset. We’re okay with these arrangements for the time being, but we’ll discuss and decide whether we want to pursue this further at our national meeting, later this month.”

Inside the dargah, a week after the new arrangements are in place, Alam and I stand in front of the mazaar with bowed heads. Women are now allowed inside the sanctum, but the genders are segregated. Separate entries for men and women have been retained. Nobody is allowed to touch the tomb, but that doesn’t stop a few boys from reaching over and placing their fingers on one of the sheets covering it. Before I leave, I talk to a couple of women taking photos at the steps to the dargah. “I think it’s only fair. Why should we be treated as separate from men?” asks Shabnam, a regular visitor from Hyderabad. “Earlier I used to think why can’t we go inside, what have we done wrong? It feels great that we can go in and pay our respects properly. We also can experience what it’s like to be in the Pir’s presence.”

Published on November 18, 2016

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