India: Court Reverses Ban on Women Entering Mumbai Shrine

Akash Vashishtha
New Delhi
2016-08-26
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160826-women-mosque-620.jpg Worshippers gather at the Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai, March 13, 2016.
Courtesy: A. Savin/Wikimedia Commons

A landmark court order that lifted a ban on women entering the inner sanctum of Mumbai’s iconic Haji Ali Dargah (shrine) will set a precedent for future rulings against gender inequality in India, rights activists said Friday.

“This is a victory for every woman, not just Muslim, in India. The judgment upholds the values and principles of democracy – the cornerstone of any ideology,” Noorjehan Safia Niaz, founder of Muslim women’s rights group Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), told BenarNews after Friday’s ruling by the Bombay High Court.

Niaz, along with her BMMA colleague Zakia Soman, had challenged the ban imposed by the Haji Ali Dargah Trust (HADT) on women entering the grave area housing the 600-year-old tomb of Muslim saint Sayyed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari.

The HADT said it had placed the ban in 2012 on grounds that “women wearing blouses with wide necks bend on the ‘mazaar,’ thus showing their breasts,” which was against Islam. Even as the trust contended that the ban was “for the safety and security of women,” it quoted certain verses from the Quran to support its claim that allowing women in close proximity to the grave of a male Muslim saint was a sin in Islam.

The court refused to accept the argument, saying: “There is nothing in any of the aforesaid verses which shows that Islam does not permit entry of women at all into a dargah/mosque and that their entry was sinful in Islam.”

Muslims represent the largest religious minority in Hindu majority India.

The ban contravened articles of the Indian constitution that guaranteed equality before the law and freedom of religion, and that prohibited gender discrimination, the court said.

“Women should be permitted to enter the sanctum sanctorum at par with men,” it ruled.

The court, however, stayed its order for six weeks following a plea by the HADT that it wished to challenge the verdict in the Supreme Court.

Niaz said the verdict was a significant step toward eliminating gender inequality in India.

“This is a small but very important victory for Indian women. This is not just a struggle for Muslim women. We are against the discrimination all women are subjected to by the Indian society,” Niaz said, referring to a centuries-old ban on women entering Maharashtra state’s Hindu Shani Shingnapur temple. That ban was overturned in April.

‘Women’s safety’

HADT lawyer Shoaib Memon said the ban on women was imposed in 2012 after a Supreme Court order directed all places of worship to arrange proper security arrangements for women to protect them from sexual harassment.

“It was only for the safety of women that the ban was imposed. In any case, we are now bound by the High Court’s orders, and we should not be blamed if anyone comes up with a complaint of sexual harassment tomorrow,” Memon told BenarNews.

Rubina Patel of the Muslim Women’s Forum, a pan-India alliance, blamed the patriarchal mindset of Indian society for depriving women of their rights.

“Finally, the court has granted justice to women. The constitution gives us the right to equality, and it cannot be snatched away from us,” Patel told BenarNews.

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