And now Haji Ali… how 2016 has many wins against regressive patriarchal restrictions

A woman in her reproductive prime has long been under fire of religion and culture for her inherent physical 'impurity' and capacity to distract and 'pollute' men, just by the virtue of her existence.

Written by Nandini Rathi | New Delhi | Updated: November 29, 2016 7:54 pm
Haji Ali Dargah, Haji Ali, sabarimala, sabarimala temple, trupti desai, women in Haji Ali Dargah, women in sabarimala A woman in her reproductive prime has long been under fire of religion and culture for her inherent physical ‘impurity’ and capacity to distract and ‘pollute’ men, just by the virtue of her existence. (Express photo by Prashant Nadkar)

Today is the day activists of the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) were re-allowed into the asthana or inner sanctum of the iconic Haji Ali Dargah to offer prayers, after an arbitrary restriction imposed by the Dargah Trust in 2011 banning all women from it. The Dargah Trust deemed the historical practice of women touching the grave of male saints as distinctly un-Islamic and a “grievous sin” resulting in the ‘corrective’ measure five years ago. Arrangements were then made to stop women three feet from the tomb of the revered Saiyyad Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari.

In the court, the decision’s justification was couched in more normalised rhetoric, with the defendants stating that intermingling of men and women in an enclosed place around the tomb causes discomfort to both the sexes – “mentally” for the men and “physically” for the women. the decision to forbid women’s entry into the tomb sanctum was, therefore, to avoid this ‘inconvenience’. It also controversially posited that the Quran unequivocally forbids the touching of the tomb of male saints by women – a postulation that has been widely challenged as baseless or extremely weak by activists and a variety of Quran scholars alike.

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The ban was successfully challenged and overturned by the BMMA in the Bombay High Court, but the defense did not stop until the Supreme Court too outruled it on October 24.

After Shani Shignapur and Trimbakeshwar Shiva temples and now Haji Ali Dargah, 2016 has seen notable legal wins for women’s rights in challenging and claiming access to religious spaces in face of regressive patriarchal restrictions. The temple of Lord Ayyappa in Kerala’s Sabarimala is still a pitched battleground on this issue in which women of menstruating age are prohibited from entering the premises as Ayyappa is a Brahmachari (celibate) whom tradition decrees, in danger, of being distracted by women in their prime.

A woman in her reproductive prime has long been under fire of religion and culture for her inherent physical ‘impurity’ and capacity to distract and ‘pollute’ men, just by the virtue of her existence. Her biological, God-given, if you will, sexuality is coded and endorsed as a dormant yet potent threat to a celibate male God or Saint, in pockets of most major faiths. Women are banned from praying in a majority of mosques because of the ‘fear’ that their mere presence would distract men from the act of praying, the weakness that such a premise reflects upon male believers notwithstanding.

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Historians have shown that after the Vedic age, the stratification of the Indian society along strict, caste lines required that women’s sexuality be carefully controlled and guarded by the men — which not only relegated women as subordinate to male domination but also vilified their sexuality as a dark force. No matter that menstrual blood is life-giving and nourishes each and every that’s born – even its connotation is a long-established, normalised byword for ‘pollution’ in these spaces.

At the heart of patriarchal domination, the concepts of shuddh (pure) and ashuddh (impure) conveniently shut out the women in their prime and reinforce the constant, ageless superiority of men. By this logic, a woman is maybe harmless when she is a little girl or after she is relieved of menstruation in the fifth or sixth decade of life– but a man is always shuddh and viable for performing the holiest of rights – the religious ones. Couched, established and brandished in the name of ritual and tradition – these restrictions were over time propagated not just by men, but women too.

However, such regressive relics no longer work for the emerging generation of institutional India, who have taken the stage with vibrant, high-voltage campaigns like ‘Happy to bleed’ to counter the hush-hush tones in which misogyny is prevailed by some bigoted and some incurably old-fashioned religious authorities. The rebuttal of the arbitrarily imposed ban on women’s entry in Haji Ali Dargah five years ago is the latest example of this refusal.