Recent protests against an age-old ban on the entry of women in the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar distrct and in Mumbai’s Haji Ali dargah have sparked a debate on restrictions on women in places of worship. On Monday, a group of Muslim women moved the Supreme Court demanding entry to all mosques in India. While some scholars insist that the scriptures prohibit the entry of women into the sanctum sanctorum of a dargah (which is where the Sufi preceptor’s grave is), for both mosques and temples, there is no religious prescription against the entry of women.

Theoretically speaking, nothing in Islam prohibits women from worshipping in a mosque. This is perhaps the reason why going through the annals of Indian history, one finds that women being allowed to enter mosques was quite common. Not only were separate zenana sections provided in mosques, “women only” mosques were also built in the country.

Bijapur has two striking examples of this. Situated in the oldest part of the city, known today as the Ark-killah or the citadel, the Makka Masjid was built in all probability by the Bahmani rulers of Bijapur in the 14th century. Devoid of the opulence that generally characterises the Adil Shahi buildings of Bijapur, Makka Masjid is largely austere, save its well decorated central mihrab or prayer niche. British surveyor Henry Cousens in his report on survey of Bijapur in 1916 points out that the most interesting feature of the mosque is the absence of a minbār, a pulpit from where the imam delivers sermons. The fact that the mosque has no minbar makes it a women’s mosque as no imam was required to address the gathering. Furthermore, walls enclosing the mosque have been made high enough to ensure the privacy of worshippers.

However, the women of Bijapur do not worship at the Makka Masjid there. The caretaker of the mosque is an old woman who said, “Aurataan ghar main hi namaaz padhti” (women offer namaz in their homes). Makka Masjid stands deserted for most of the week. The only time it sees a paltry gathering of women is when jummah (Friday) prayers are offered.

The other mosque in Bijapur made only for women worshippers is the Anda Masjid which was constructed in the reign of the famous Ibrahim Adil Shah II of Bijapur and by one of his nobles Aitbar Khan in 1608. The mosque’s ribbed melon dome, enclosed in a quadrangle of beautiful trellis work, is a sight to behold. The mosque is a two-storied building, where the upper floor was a prayer chamber for women and the ground floor was a sarai or rest house. As in the Makka Masjid, the minbar is absent in the Anda masjid too, signaling that it is a women’s mosque.

Ironically, the Anda Masjid today has banned the entry of women. Its ground floor is used as a madrasa for children and the upper floor is the prayer chamber for men.

Zenanas in mosques

While women’s mosques in history are few and far between, many historical mosques in the subcontinent provide a separate zenana section to accommodate the female Muslim worshippers. From the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque in Delhi to the Taj-ul-Masajid in Bhopal, the presence of zenana sections signals that participation of women in prayers at mosques must have been a routine affair in the bygone era.

The zenana sections were usually located on mezzanine floors in mosques, and in some cases the entire first floor was reserved for the ladies (like in Afzal Khan’s mosque in Bijapur)

Delhi’s Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, a magnificent mosque built out of recycled material, has a raised roof on the north end of its liwan (prayer chamber) as its zenana gallery. The secluded gallery is reached by a narrow staircase through the wall, much like in Bijapur’s Anda Masjid. Similarly, the Atala mosque, in the Uttar Pradesh town of Jaunpur, is another mosque made of recycled material. In 1308, the pillared hall at both ends became two storied, with the upper storey reserved for the women and adorned with beautiful perforated screens.

An even more splendid zenana is provided by the Sharqi builders of Jaunpur in the Lal Darwaza mosque, built in 1447. On the north and south side of the central prayer chamber, under the dome, the only double storey in the entire building has been introduced. Constructed for the use of the ladies of the court, the mezzanine floors are accessed by staircases in the towers of the entrance gateway. Both the mosques, despite being replete with zenana sections, have now become no-women zones.

A more interesting example is the Jama Masjid of Champaner near Baroda, built in 1523, where the women’s enclosure is in the main prayer hall itself, formed by screening off the northernmost mihrāb (prayer niche) and entered through a separate entrance on the northern wall of the mosque.

Other examples of mosques which provide a zenana section are the Adina mosque in West Bengal’s Pandua town, dated 1374-'75 and the 20th century mosque, the Taj-ul-Masajid in Bhopal built under the aegis of Shahjehan Begum.

A new phenomenon

But even as both Islamic theology and history encourage the participation of women in prayers at mosques, their entry to most mosques in the country today is forbidden. Right up till the 20th century in India (in the case of Taj-ul-Masajid), zenana chapels were provided in order to facilitate women offering prayers in mosques. Following this tradition, other Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey have proper zenana sections and do not forbid the entry of women in mosques.

The tradition of banning entry of women in mosques, ironically even in historical mosques replete with a zenana, is a recent feature in India. Most modern-day mosques in the country do not provide for a separate zenana, even when a simple barricading of a section of the prayer hall is all that is needed. The tradition of not praying in a mosque is so ingrained that even functioning women’s mosques, such as the Makka Masjid in Bijapur, rarely host a gathering.

Clearly, as the case of Taj-ul-Masajid proves, well into the 20th century, mosques were being built with zenanas. It is difficult to establish when exactly the practice ceased. Furthermore, there is no blanket ban on women praying in mosques as functioning zenanas exist in the mosques of Kashmir. It is safe to say that refusing entry to women in mosques is at best an arbitrary rule.