A group of young women assembled to take a selfie outside the sanctum sanctorum at Haji Ali Thursday evening while others, their heads covered, went inside to pray. Even as protests rocked Kerala where Sabarimala temple opened its doors to women for the first time following a Supreme Court order, a little over two years since the Bombay High Court permitted women to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the Haji Ali shrine, fraught emotions and tension amid Mumbai litigation are now a thing of the past.
The Haji Ali Dargah Trust, which initially resisted women’s entry after a ban was put in place in 2011-12 and which filed an appeal before the Supreme Court, conceded in October 2016 that women can enter the sanctum.
Like in the Sabarimala case, some of the resistance in the Haji Ali case came from women devotees who had said that even though the ban was lifted, they would not be comfortable accessing the sanctum sanctorum.
But on Thursday, the three plywood doorways that allowed women into the sanctum saw a long queue as the devotees waited to see the tomb of Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari. Women stood in a line, some offering flowers and chadar, handing them over to male attendants. Others pressed their foreheads to the donation box, lying prostrate, as a mark of respect to the saint. The tomb lay metres away, separated by barricades for the male devotees as well. The male attendants hurried the crowds on, both men and women in separate sections, asking devotees to move faster to allow others in.
“I have been visiting the dargah since I was very young. But I have come back after many years now. I was told that the entry of women was stopped in between. But I am glad that it has changed. I find peace going in. Even if it is for a few minutes,” said Shaheeda Begum, who had travelled from Uttar Pradesh, with her sons, to visit the dargah. Even as the devotees were being hurried along, she emerged through the doorway that marks a spot beyond which women were not allowed when the ban was in place, and joined other women who sat to pray. Outside the sanctum, male volunteers stopped women from entering with their footwear on or with their heads uncovered, some even offering scarves to women.
“Women were not allowed for some time. But after the court order, it is accessible again. Everyone can go in now,” said Shoaib, a volunteer outside the sanctum.
The trust had told the Supreme Court on October 24, 2016, that it would require two weeks to ready the shrine for women devotees who would like to enter the sanctum. The court had given the trust a period of four months to complete the process.
A trust member said that since the shrine previously permitted women to enter the sanctum, all that had to be done was to remove the steel barricades and relay the flooring to fashion a separate path for women, as per the court’s directions.
The petitioners had told the court that they had visited the sanctum in their childhood, and it was only since 2012 that they had been stopped from entering it.
In November 2016, Noorjehan Safia Naz, along with a group of 75-80 women from across the country, including members of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), visited the dargah to re-enter the space. A trust member said once the barricades were removed, volunteers facilitated the entry of women into the dargah, returning to the way things were before the ban.
The PIL was filed by Naz and Zakia Soman, office bearers of the BMMA. The two had written to the trust’s president in 2012, and also approached various state authorities requesting intervention, including the minorities commission, women’s commission and charity commissioner, before approaching the High Court. Before the court as well, the trust said “free mixing” between men and women was discouraged in Islam and that menstruating women are “unclean” and hence, could not offer prayers at the mosque.
“These beliefs stem out of a patriarchal mindset leading to gender-based discrimination against women. The intervention of courts through judgments help demolish these mindsets and perceptions,” said Naz Thursday.