The Bombay High Court has made its position clear: women have every right to enter the inner sanctum of Mumbai’s iconic Haji Ali dargah. Restricting their entry would amount to gender-based discrimination, the judges said.

The Court pronounced its verdict on Friday morning in response to a petition by the non-profit Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan challenging the Haji Ali Dargah Trust’s ban on women entering the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine. While women’s rights groups are celebrating the lifting of this ban, the Court also put a six-week stay on its ruling after the dargah trust requested for some time to challenge the verdict in the Supreme Court.

But it might be a long time before the Haji Ali dargah becomes an equal space for both men and women, and the six-week stay isn't the only obstacle in the path. A large number of Muslim women are opposed to the idea of entering the inner sanctum of the shrine. Bringing about a change in that mindset will involve a Herculean task of religious and social reform.

A litany of justifications

Located in the middle of Mumbai’s Worli bay, the 600-year-old Haji Ali dargah is the tomb of the Sufi Muslim saint Sayyed Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari. Up till 2011, the dargah trust allowed both men and women to go right up to the grave of the saint, albeit through separate entrances.

Sometime after 2011, however, the trust completely blocked women’s access to this inner sanctum, allowing them to pay their respects to the saint only from behind a metal railing some distance away from the grave. Since then, women have been unable to place flowers or chadars (sacred sheets) directly on the grave – these items have to be passed on to a male dargah representative standing at the railing.

In their submissions to the court, the dargah trust cited a variety of reasons for imposing these restrictions on women. They claimed that the “free mixing” of men and women is discouraged in Islam, that menstruating women are unclean, that it is a sin to allow women in close proximity to a male saint’s grave, that women might “show their breasts” while bending over the grave and that they wished to protect women from sexual harassment.

The High Court may have dismissed these contentions and upheld women’s rights to enter the sacred shrine. But several Muslim women visiting the dargah on Friday voiced the same reservations in reaction to the Court’s verdict.

Women have ‘ladies problems’

“The Court ruling is interesting and I don’t mind if other women choose to enter, but as such it is better if women just pray from outside a dargah,” said Naseem Bano, a housewife in her 30s who often visits Haji Ali with her family on Fridays. “No matter how clean women keep themselves, at the end of the day they are na-paak", impure.

Naseem Bano (centre) with her family outside the Haji Ali dargah on Friday.
Naseem Bano (centre) with her family outside the Haji Ali dargah on Friday.

Sharifa Pathan, another housewife from Mumbai, echoed the same claim. “It doesn’t matter what the High Court said, we will not go inside Haji Ali anyway,” she said. “Only men are allowed inside a mazaar [dargah] because women have ladies problems.”

Pathan’s reference is to menstruation, which many religions believe makes women impure. Menstruation is also used as a justification to deny women entry into some Hindu temples, like Sabarimala in Kerala or Shani Shingnapur in Maharashtra.

However, many Muslim dargahs, including the famous Ajmer Sharif shrine in Rajasthan, allow women equal entry into the inner sanctum. “Different Muslim sects have different beliefs on whether women should be allowed inside,” explained Rukhsana Khanum, who is visiting Mumbai from her hometown in Abu, Rajasthan. When she visits the Ajmer dargah, Khanum chooses not to enter the sanctum.

“It is haraam,” said Khanum. “Women are not even allowed inside regular graveyards, forget dargahs [saints' tombs]. It is the Prophet’s order that even a woman’s shadow cannot fall on a saint’s grave.”

‘Great victory for women’

In its ruling, the High Court has given weight to the submissions of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan that included Quranic references that emphasise the equality of men and women. According to the court, the dargah trust was unable to convincingly prove that Islam forbids the entry of women in dargahs and mosques.

The Court’s judgement also points out that Haji Ali is not a purely religious place of worship but more of a secular public shrine that attracts devotees from different religions and castes.

At the dargah on Friday afternoon, many non-Muslim women seemed pleased with the Court’s decision to lift the ban on their entry. “This is my first visit to Mumbai and I feel so lucky to have come to Haji Ali on a day when the ban has been lifted,” said Mrinalini Mehta, a devotee from Delhi. Mehta was visibly disappointed when she was told that the Court’s ruling did not mean she would be allowed into the sanctum on the same day. “This is still a great victory for women,” she said.

For Noorjehan Safia Niaz, a co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, the aim of their legal fight was not social awareness but demanding a basic right. “Managers of a dargah trust have no right to decide who can enter a public space and who can’t – this institutional change was necessary so that those who want to enter the inner sanctum are able to go,” said Niaz, who believes mindsets will change for many when the rules change. “Before 2011, when women were allowed in the Haji Ali sanctum, so many of them would go right inside.”