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No women, please!

Shaikh Azizur Rahman, Kolkata November 9, 2012

A ban on the entry of women to the sanctum sanctorum of Mumbai's iconic 15th century Sufi shrine Haji Ali mausoleum has caused an uproar in India.

Indians relax on rocks on the shores of the Arabian Sea next to the landmark Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai, India (Photo: Rafiq Maqbool/AP/dapd)
Image: AP

While the ban on women entering the innermost part of one of India's most prominent Sufi shrines was implemented some months ago, it has only got out to the public very recently.

The statement, "Women's visit to a grave is considered un-Islamic by Shariah law so we have banned women's entry to the grave area of our dargah [mausoleum]," made by Rizwan Merchant, a member of the Haji Ali Dargah Trust that controls the mausoleum, has caused an uproar - not only among women and rights activists, but also among India's Muslims.

"This ban should be opposed in the strongest possible terms. It is nothing short of an attack on the inclusive Sufi traditions that have contributed majorly to the centuries-old syncretic traditions of Central and South Asian regions," said author Sohail Hashmi.

Attacks on shrines and women

"This ban is to be seen as part of a process of Talibanization that has brought an increase in attacks on women and on Sufi shrines in Afghanistan and Pakistan," Hashmi said.

A Muslim woman holds her child and stands at the Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai (Photo: Rafiq Maqbool/AP/dapd)
More women visit shrines than menImage: AP

Located on an islet, the shrine's innermost sanctum santorium houses the tomb of saint Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari and every week it attracts more than 200,000 visitors - Muslim as well as non-Muslim. From beggars to Bollywood stars - many people in the culturally diverse India visit the mausoleum to pray.

The website of the mausoleum says, "people from all parts of the world without restrictions of caste, creed and religion visit the shrine to offer their prayers and for the fulfilment of their wishes by the blessings of the saint ... Some pray for wealth, others for health, children, marriages, etc, have their wishes being granted at all the times."

While as much as sixty percent of the visitors of the shrine are female, all men and women seek to get closer to the grave at the sanctum and pray there mostly seeking to fulfil their wishes.

"From my childhood I have visited the shrine a few times every year. I love to sit by the grave, touch it and pray there. But for some months now, I have not been allowed to get closer to the grave. I feel uncomfortable and sad because I cannot get that close to the grave anymore," Huma Khan, a teacher in Mumbai, told DW.

"A man can get closer to the grave. But I cannot, just because I am a woman. It's injustice," she added.

'Irreversible' ban

But Merchant said the trust had done just what a fatwa, or edict, from Islamic scholars had suggested:

A view of the Haji Ali shrine (Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)
India is known for its cultural and religious diversityImage: AFP/Getty Images

"Following Islamic law or Shariah, the religious scholars issued an edict that women should not be allowed closer to any grave. We have simply implemented the edict. If we go against this, we have to go against the Shariah - we cannot do that," he said, adding that the ban was irrevocable.

Seven out of Mumbai's twenty prominent dargahs have recently had bans implemented regarding the entry of women into the sanctum santorium of the shrines.

While Sunni Muslim clerics said that all dargahs in the country should bar women in identical ways, many Muslims were of the opinion that the ban should be revoked.

"We know that Prophet Mohammed's daughter Hazrat Fatima Zehra visited the grave of his uncle Hazrat Hamza a few times. It's difficult to believe that Islam would forbid the visit of women to any grave. Islam believes in equal status of men and women," Aziz Mubarki, secretary of South Asia Ulema Council, told DW.

Islamic scholar Dr. Zafarul Islam Khan believed the ban was a form of misogyny.

"Muslim society in the Subcontinent is patriarchal. Women by and large are supposed to remain in the background, in purdah [veil], and stay at home. This is a cultural and not a religious tradition," said Khan, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat, an umbrella body of Indian Muslim organizations.

"The dargah administrators should rather ban anti-Islamic practices openly prevailing at such places - like worshiping the graves and making vows at the shrines."