When Tehzeeb Jamal, a retired nurse from Patna, visited Haji Ali on Tuesday, she had no idea that the iconic Mumbai dargah has been in the news for discriminating against female devotees. But when asked whether women had the right to enter the inner sanctum of the tomb of the 15th century Muslim saint, her words seemed to echo the Haji Ali trustees.

“Women are absolutely not allowed, in Islam, to touch the mazaar [grave] of a saint,” said Jamal, 67, who had visited Haji Ali once before, in 2000. “Men and women are equal, but for a woman to touch the mazaar in a dargah – that would be sin.”

On Monday, in response to a public interest litigation filed against the Haji Ali Dargah trust, the trustees reportedly told the Bombay High Court that the “entry of women in close proximity to the grave of a male Muslim saint is a grievous sin in Islam”.

The petition, filed in November 2014 by Noorjehan Niaz and Zakia Soman of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, challenges Haji Ali Dargah’s ban on women entering the innermost chamber of the tomb. While men are allowed to go all the way up to the elevated grave, press their foreheads to it and place flowers and sacred sheets over it, women must enter from a separate door and are only allowed up to a spot where they can see the mazaar, but not touch it.

According to the petitioners, the dargah trust introduced this regressive restriction on women sometime in 2011, despite the fact that 12 of the 19 major Muslim dargahs in Mumbai allow women to enter the inner sanctum.

Inside the Haji Ali dargah premises, however, there is little visible indignation about the gender-based entry restriction. Most of the pilgrims visiting the shrine believe that the ban on women entering the inner room is not only age-old but also completely justified.

‘It is a disrespect to the saint’

“I cannot tell you why it is so, but it is not right for women to go right into the dargah,” said a devotee in his 30s, speaking up about the dargah rules before his wife could answer. The devotee, a Mumbai resident, did not wish to be named because he is “not a scholar of Islam”. “But the saint this shrine is dedicated to was a very great man," he said. "So obviously, it would be disrespectful for women to go up and touch his grave.”

Tehzeeb Jamal, too, claims that the restriction on women is “obvious”, but she believes it has nothing to do with notions of impurity that many religions associate with women. “This is just something that we have followed since the time of the Prophet,” said Jamal.

Even among non-Muslim devotees, few seemed perturbed by the fact that women were allowed limited access to the grave of Haji Ali compared with the men. “With women, you never know – some might be good, some might be bad – so you can’t risk them touching the mazaar,” said Baby Parteti, a Gond who lives in Navi Mumbai but visits Haji Ali every 10 days ever since her son was cured of an illness several years ago. “Among men, too, there are good and bad....but that’s a different matter.”

Among the hundreds of pilgrims trailing in and out of the dargah all day, there were, however, a handful of dissenters.

“This is discrimination and we completely disagree with it,” said Rizwana Begum, a 25-year-old devotee who has been visiting the shrine frequently with her friend Yashodhara Basu for the past few years. “We are all made by god, so why should the rules be different for men and women?”