Home / Opinion / Religious freedom is not just for men

The Bombay high court’s Haji Ali judgement lifting the ban on women’s entry into the inner sanctum of the dargah is a historic verdict. It is a signal that nearly 70 years after independence, it is time Indian women got equality in religion, society, and in all spheres of life. It is a huge step forward for Indian Muslim women’s struggle for justice and equality, which began earnestly in the last decade or so. It is a signal that Indian women can no longer be discriminated against on any account, including religion.

The Haji Ali dargah, one of the landmarks of Mumbai, is where the Sufi pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari lies buried. It is a historic monument that men and women from all faiths—Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc.—regularly visit and find peace in the presence of the pir. The pir does not discriminate between men and women or Hindus and Muslims. We too have grown up visiting this dargah and, therefore, it was a rude shock to us when we were suddenly prevented from entering the inner sanctum, or mazaar, in 2012.

At a time when Indian women are demanding equality in all spheres of life, this restriction was clearly against the tide of the times. Such gender discrimination is unacceptable even if sanctioned by “custodians" of a religion. Islam does not forbid women from visiting any shrine or place of worship, the self-appointed male custodians do. The Ajmer dargah and, until 2011, the Haji Ali dargah, are proof of this. Besides, some of the holiest places in Islam, such as Kaaba and Karbala, don’t discriminate between men and women. The question therefore is not about religion; it is patriarchy masquerading as religion.

We had offered our prayers previously in 2011 right at the mazaar. Hailing from a women’s rights organization striving for gender justice, it was imperative for us to reject the discrimination. We decided to take up the matter with the Haji Ali Trust. We wrote several letters which the trust refused to acknowledge. Some governmental bodies tried to intervene and help. They failed to convince the trust. After going back and forth for nearly two years, we held consultations with our members across different states. The women were unanimous—we must regain entry through dialogue and discussion; failing this, we must go to court. Ordinary Muslim women displayed tremendous faith in the judiciary, and this enabled them to attain justice and equality.

Following this, we petitioned the Bombay high court. The court began by asking us to convince it as to why our petition should be admitted. Thankfully, we could produce evidence of all the efforts we had put in to resolve the matter through dialogue and deliberations. We could also convince the court that the trust was non-responsive, and our petition was admitted.

The range of arguments provided by the patriarchs who practise gender discrimination is well-known. Women menstruate and, therefore, they are impure—this is the common refrain. This was the argument in our matter too.

Next, we were told that the way women are dressed causes a huge distraction to men and, therefore, women cannot be allowed entry! And then we were told we are being barred for our own safety and security! Of course, the oft-repeated, “We are following our sharia" statements were made.

Slanderous, even defamatory, arguments were made that we were merely “publicity-seeking women". The court threw out all the arguments and the verdict rejected the patriarchal world view. The court saw the problem for what it is—discrimination based on gender—and ruled against it.

We firmly believe that gender justice is a fundamental principle of Islam. We firmly believe in the need to question the patriarchal misinterpretations of Quranic injunctions. We firmly believe that as Muslim women we do not need patriarchal self-appointed male custodians to dictate to us on our religion. In any case, in Islam there is no place for an intermediary, and every Muslim directly connects to her Allah.

Sufism represents humanity, peace, harmony, love and pluralism. It represents a humanist face of Islam as against the patriarchal or extremist or conservative face. The pir would be extremely unhappy if anyone is discriminated against. The pir would not want anybody to be prevented from coming to the mazaar. Orthodox and misogynist ideologues cannot be the keepers of a Sufi shrine!

Besides, Muslims are Indian citizens and Muslim women have equal rights according to the Constitution. Articles 13 and 14 uphold justice and equality and reject discrimination of any kind. Articles 24 and 25 uphold the right to religious freedom of all citizens, including female citizens.

Nowhere does the right to religious freedom give precedence to males over females. The right to religious freedom cannot be extrapolated to mean subjugation of women. Barring women from places of religious worship is not tenable under any precinct or law, religious or legal. The Haji Ali judgement establishes this beyond doubt.

Besides being a legal victory, it is also a huge moral victory—not just in the Haji Ali case but also the Shani Shingnapur temple case. In both cases, ordinary women fought against mighty and powerful religious trusts. And in both cases, the judiciary stood by the women and enabled gender justice. This victory will give a lot of encouragement and power to the ongoing struggles for gender justice in our country.

Zakia Soman and Noorjehan Safia Niaz are founding members of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan.

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