Khatoon Shaikh’s eyes went misty standing inside the sanctum sanctorum of the Haji Ali Dargah as she handed over a chadar to A S Merchant, the chairman of the Haji Ali Trust, as an offering. Shaikh, in her 50s, had last visited the dargah in 2011 before the trust imposed a ban on allowing women into the inner sanctum terming the practice un-Islamic.
After a six-year hiatus, Shaikh returned Tuesday as the head of a delegation of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) activists. The group fought a legal battle, which had reached the Supreme Court, seeking equal access to women at the dargah.
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“This is a momentous day for me. It may seem as a trivial fight for a few feet of space but this moment is a milestone in the huge fight for ensuring equality for Muslim women,” said Khatoon Shaikh, one of the seniormost members of BMMA.
A 100-strong group of BMMA activists walked into the inner sanctum of the dargah amid heavy police presence Tuesday afternoon. This was the biggest delegation of women to visit the dargah after the trustees decided to provide equal access to women.
While the women were allowed access to the inner sanctum, they could not touch the grave of Sayyed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari. Iron donation boxes had been placed around the grave as a barrier with both men and women not being allowed to touch the grave.
The group subsequently came out of the inner sanctum and sat outside the dargah for close to half an hour to watch a qawwali performance.
The dargah trustees who had been embroiled in a legal battle with BMMA offered them tea.
“They came as devotees. It is not in our culture to create problems for devotees or misbehave with them,” said A S Merchant, chairman and managing trustee of the dargah.
Merchant ensured that the women did not face any difficulties or opposition when they were inside the dargah premises. Interestingly, the last time a group of women led by activist Trupti Desai had talked about entering the inner sanctum of the dargah they had been threatened with physical violence.
“It is a momentous day for Muslim women. A glass ceiling has been broken today,” Zakia Soman, the founder of BMMA, said after visiting the dargah.
The BMMA is now contemplating starting a campaign across the country to ensure equal access to women at all dargahs.
The trustees of Haji Ali Dargah, a 585-year-old shrine of Sayyed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari located on an islet off the Mumbai coast, had decided to stop access of women sometime in 2011 calling the practice un-Islamic.
The trust had said it was rectifying its earlier mistake of allowing women to touch the grave.
This had led to the BMMA to file 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.
The Bombay High Court in August deemed the trust’s action as unconstitutional and asked it to remove the restrictions. The trust had then moved the Supreme Court but before the court gave an order, it voluntarily agreed to open up the dargah for women.