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Haji Ali dargah and entry of women: All your questions answered

The genesis of the conflict lies in a campaign launched by the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, which works for empowerment of Muslim women, in the implementation of the Sacchar Committe report. Before starting the campaign, activists of the group in June 2012 decided to offer prayers at the Haji Ali Dargah, a 585-year-old shrine of Sayyed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari which is located on an islet off the Mumbai coast.
Activists realised that women who earlier had access to the Asthana, the actual spot where the saint is buried, were now not being allowed to go inside and touch the tomb. The trustees had decided to stop access of women sometime in 2011 to the grave calling the practice unIslamic. It had stated that it was rectifying its earlier mistake of allowing women to touch the actual grave.
Entry to the main hall is segregated for both men and women. The men enter the Dargah through the South, women through the east. At present, separate arrangements have been made for women. They are allowed till a certain point which is an area of 275 square feet roughly three feet away from the tomb from where they can pray but cannot touch the tomb. After a failed discussion with trustees, the BMMA put forth their case before the Maharashtra State Minority Commission and the State Minority Welfare Department which expressed their inability to intervene in a religious matter.
READ | Haji Ali dargah will have to open doors to women, says Bombay HC
The BMMA finally filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Bombay High Court in August 2014 against the “blatant discrimination on the ground of gender alone” saying it impinges on their fundamental rights and also “the failure of the state to eliminate inequalities”. It asked the state to ensure that access to the inner sanctum was restored.
What does Islam say about women visiting graves?
Shrines are technically the burial places of holy men. There is no explicit direction in either the Quran or the Hadees refraining women from visiting graves provided they do not indulge in actions which are contrary to the Sharia. Men as well as women visit the final resting place of Prophet Mohammed in Medina. In the dargah at Ajmer, women have access to the innner sanctum. The BMMA which did a survey of 19 dargahs in Mumbai found that 12 of these provided unfritttered access to women. There is a school of thought which claims that there are sayings of the Prophet which object to the visitation of graves by women. However opponents of this school of thought say that claims of these are weak-chained narrations and the Prophet himself had allowed women to visit graves.
What exactly were the defendants arguing?
The Haji Ali Dargah is governed by the Haji Ali Dargah Trust which is a public charitable trust registered under the Maharashtra Public Trust Act. The Trust has claimed that intermingling of men and women in an enclosed place around the tomb causes discomfort to both the sexes and the decision to stop women from entering inside is to avoid this inconvenience. Trustees have claimed that the intermingling “disturbs men mentally and women are disturbed physically.”
It claims that the practice of allowing women close access to graves is unIslamic and the trust is trying to rectify its earlier mistake of allowing women to touch the actual grave.
“There is no discrimination but only females are not allowed to touch the tomb of male saint. The Quran is very clear on that,” Shoaib Memon, a lawyer representing the Haji Ali Trust told the Bombay High Court.
What has been the state government’s stand in the High Court?
The Maharashtra Government had said that women cannot be banned from entering the inner sanctum of Haji Ali Dargah unless the practice is an integral part of the Islamic faith. The state has claimed that the essential part of a religion cannot be interfered with. However customs and traditions will have to give way to the Fundamental Right to freedom of religion, it said. After the issue cropped up in 2012, the state has however refrained from directly intervening in the matter. In the court hearing, the Advocate General stated that if there are difficulties in implementing Constitutional rights, the court must step in. “Artificial discrimination based on sex could run foul of Article 15 of the Constitution,” the then Attorney General Shrihari Aney had told the Bombay High Court.

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