Small World

Closed Spaces and the Muslim Woman

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A court case on Haji Ali Dargah’s gender discrimination could ring in much needed change
For years, she had been offering prayers at Mumbai’s Haji Ali Dargah and nobody stopped her from entering the inner sanctum. In mid-2012, however, Noorjehan Safia Niaz found herself forbidden from the enclosure.

“Suddenly disallowing women from entering the dargah made us feel we needed to start a dialogue,” says Niaz, founder of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), an organisation dedicated to protect the rights of Muslim women. Her first task was to get a good lawyer and she found one in Raju Moray. “We visited 19 dargahs and found that only six of them were not allowing women entry. The Haji Ali Dargah has been allowing women to enter for 400 years. It’s an important place of worship,” she says. They filed a PIL in August 2014. At the last hearing, held on 19 October, trustees of the dargah told the Bombay High Court, ‘Entry of women in close proximity of grave of a male Muslim saint is a grievous sin in Islam’. The Court, however, ruled that the petition was ‘maintainable’ and admitted it for hearing.

Haji Ali Dargah is a prime example of religious institutions barring spaces for women. “You cannot stop someone from going somewhere just because they’re women,” says Niaz. Another reason the dargah trustees cited for barring women was ‘safety and security’. “What security issue they are talking about? The arrangement in place until 2012 was perfect—there were two separate entrances for men and women,” she says. For mosques that don’t allow women to enter, Niaz attributes it to space crunch. She suggests separate timings for men and women. “How many more fights will women take up?” she asks. The next hearing is on 17 November and Niaz is hopeful. “If the judgment is in our favour, it’ll be a positive step not just for dargahs, but other communities as well. One judgment may have long-term implications and set a good precedent.”