“All persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience, and the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion”
— Article 25 of the Fundamental Rights, The Constitution of India 1949
Despite being a country that is defined by its social, cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, the concept of inclusiveness somehow evades a great majority of our nation. Intolerance trickles right down to the most basic aspect of differentiation—gender. We have the unfortunate honour of being named the third-worst nation in the world for gender equality.
Mumbai’s Haji Ali Dargah has recently found itself at the centre of a storm on the topic of gender equality. The dargah was built in memory of a wealthy Muslim who gave up his worldly possessions and went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. However, the Dargah, which is popular not only with Muslims, is not very keen on letting women enter the sanctum sanctorum. In 2011, the trust declared that close female proximity to the tomb of a revered saint is a ‘grievous sin’ in Islam. Ever since, women have been barred entry to the mosque’s mausoleum.
This is not the first time that a religious institution has taken a similar stance. The Happy to Bleed campaign that gained online popularity last year stemmed from the dissent directed towards Sabarimala authorities who suggested that there needs to be a machine to check the ‘purity of women’ before allowing them entry. And this is only one of many cases. Of course, India is not the only country that needs to rethink its stand on the general sex-and-gender construct debate, countries all over the world have taboos around females and their natural bodily functions and continue to discriminate against women across various spheres.
Thankfully, the women involved in the Haji Ali dispute are determined not to go down without a fight. In November 2014, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) had petitioned the Bombay High Court saying that the ban was unconstitutional, and hoped that ruling in their favour would mark a major step forward for women’s rights in India. “A positive ruling would set a precedent and would have a wider and long-term effect,” said BMMA co-founder Noorjehan Niaz, “It would send a message and encourage women of all religions who are barred from entering places of worship to approach courts with similar demands.”
Scholars have come forward and expressed polarised views. Dr. Zeenat Shaukat Ali, a religious scholar and former head of Islam Studies at St. Xavier’s College said that she has not come across any spiritual law that prohibits women from visiting graves. She even uses the example of Ayesha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad, who is believed to have lived in the mosque where her husband was buried. “They were living in the mosque, and after he died and was buried, she continued to live there,” she said.
Opposing scholars suggested that there are several reason for placing such restrictions on women, including the fact that they are ‘weak-hearted’. “Under article 26 of the country’s constitution, the trustees have the liberty to take decisions about the day-to-day functioning of the trust,” said Sohail Khandwani, trustee of the Haji Ali Dargah, and also a trustee of Mumbai’s other popular dargah, Makhdum Ali Mahimi Dargah in Mahim. “We have never stopped them from entering the sanctum, however, women have used a separate enclosure.”
Niaz said that even though the trust has banned women from entering the mausoleum, they are still allowed to entry to other parts of the mosque. She also said that the trustees cite menstruation as the reason for barring women from entering the dargah. “They’ve said women are impure. But menstruation is a natural event and responsible for the entire of humanity being born. How can it be dirty? It’s a ridiculous and demeaning argument,” she said.
While the trustees took up Sharia law as an armour to shield themselves from the anger directed at them, the BMMA argued that their exclusion was just a veiled attempt at gender discrimination and also added that Sharia law could not prevail over the constitution.
On January 18, the Bombay High Court, after hearing the petition, said that they would wait for the Supreme Court’s ruling regarding the entry of women into Sabrimala, Kerala, before deciding. On Thursday, January 28, the members of the BMMA, staged a protest outside the dargah, following the example of the 500 women activists who tried to gain entry into Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar.
If we look at the case from a purely legal standpoint, all the odds are in favour of the BMMA. Article 25 of the Indian Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to practice, profess and propagate any religion. Albeit, the right does not extend to anywhere and everywhere. If the place is considered to be significant to a religion, like a dargah, then everyone including women should have access to that place of worship. Or, in simple terms, if the BMMA is able to prove that offering prayers at the dargah is an important part of Sufism, then, by virtue of the right to religion, no one will be able to deny them access.
On the other hand, there is Article 26 of the constitution that allows religious factions to manage their own affairs in the matters of religion. Here, however, it is important to note that both these laws, protect doctrine and belief, as well as the pursuance of religion and not prevention.
Ultimately, whether or not women can be excluded depends upon whether controlling access to the sanctum amounts to an ‘essential religious practice’. According to the Supreme Court, ‘what constitutes the essential part of a religion is primarily to be ascertained with reference to the doctrines of that religion’, and is to be determined, in the last instance, by the courts.
We could dig further into the legal aspect of this case, but one thing is obvious: the ruling must come out in favour of the BMMA. If nothing else, because it it is high time women were granted the same freedom as men to practise their religion. In fact, what we need is a law that declares it illegal for any trust or institution to bar entry to a public place of worship on the grounds of gender. If there has to be state intervention for every religious place, it would end up being a long-drawn out process—and there shouldn’t have to be a revolution every time a woman wishes to visit the shrine of her choice.
Words: Krupa Joseph