Women and the Talibanization of Shrines in India

Every year, millions of visitors undertake pilgrimages to religious shrines dedicated to Sufi saints.  The Indian sub-continent in particular is home to several such mausoleums.  Women and men from various ethnic groups and religious denominations visit the shrine(s) and pray, often finding solace in the presence of a blessed personality.  Many undertake visits in hopes of having their most fervent prayers answered, placing garlands or perfumed cloth over the burial mound out of respect and reverence.  Of late however, reports have surfaced indicating that women, while still welcome in shrines, are now barred entry from the inner sanctum or sanctum sanctorum (the holiest part of the shrine, closest to the tomb) of at least seven different shrines in India.

The Haji Ali Dargah is one of seven shrines where the inner sanctum is now off limits to women.  Located on a tiny island off the southern coast of Mumbai, this Sufi shrine is connected to the mainland by a tiny causeway and houses the tomb of the Sufi saint Pir Haji Ali Shah BukhariReports first surfaced when a group of women from the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) or the Indian Muslim Women’s Movement visited the Dargah in August and were denied entry to the inner sanctum.  Upon further inquiry by the BMMA, they were informed by the shrine’s trustees that the decision to ban women was taken after authorities noticed a woman who visited the tomb dressed inappropriately.

Caretakers of the shrine insist they have always had separate entries for men and women, where the latter sit in a specially constructed room overseeing the tomb.  Rizwan Merchant, a trustee and a renowned criminal lawyer in the city said, “They can offer their prayers, do namaaz and offer shawls and flowers. We are only requesting our sisters not to enter inside the dargah.” A spokesperson for the BMMA insists that while there are indeed two entries to the tomb, women have never been denied access previously.  Another trustee, Suhail Khandwani adds that “Eventually, this will be done in every dargah, as the Sharia law claims that no woman can visit a cemetery or a grave”.

The Haji Ali Dargah. Image via Wikipedia.

In another account, Sadia Dehlvi, an author on Sufism, claims that some Sufi shrines discriminate against men, pointing out that “the Dargah of Dai Mai Sahiba, the wet nurse of Khwaja Qutub, in Mehrauli Delhi does not allow men into the inner part.”  She is also quick to add that Sufism contains many traditions about the various levels of admittance given to men and women at different dargahs.  “If however women have been traditionally allowed, then the tradition should continue,” adds Dehlvi.

News of the banning appears to reinforce stereotypes that Islam is oppressive to women.  There are differing opinions in Shariah not only as it relates to women visiting graves but also whether praying at Sufi shrines and using them as a “wasila” or “means of approach” to the Almighty is even acceptable in Islam.  Such inquiry and debate is beyond the scope of this article.  The trustees of the shrine however, insist they are implementing Islamic law – religious scholars had issued an edict that women not be allowed near graves.  In actuality, the rule banning women from the inner sanctum at the Haji Ali Dargah has been in place for approximately a year.  Their banning led to a survey, which indicated that seven other shrines out of 20 have banned women from entering the inner sanctum.

The banning however does raise an interesting question: if some women do dress “inappropriately,” wouldn’t it make more sense to just reinforce dress codes at the Haji Ali Dargah instead?  Suddenly banning entry of women from the inner sanctum seems to conflict with the spirit of Sufi shrines, which are renowned for their religious tolerance and acceptance.  As far as dressing inappropriately is concerned, most women (including non-Muslims) who visit such sacred sites usually make every attempt to adhere to the solemn environment.  The banning appears to be an extreme response and hints to more troubling issues at hand.

A report by DW cites author Sohail Hashmi who states, “This ban is to be seen as part of a process of Talibanization that has brought an increase in attacks on women and on Sufi shrines in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”  Hashmi’s assessment is noteworthy.  If the attacks on shrines, mosques and even funerals (mostly Sufi) within Pakistan alone are considered, at least 643 people have died from December 2007 to October 2010.  The start of Moharram this year (a month revered by Shias and Sunnis alike) saw a spike in gruesome violence resulting in the deaths of 30 people in five attacks on Shia Muslims.  Similarly, threats of bombings prevent girls and women from receiving an education in Pakistan’s tribal areas.  Internationally, there has also been an outcry over the destruction of shrines in Mali, Libya and Egypt.

In my previous post, a reader pointed out that what Pakistan has been experiencing of late is not sectarian violence per se (considering the conspicuous lack of retaliation by those afflicted) but a virulent strain of religious intolerance directed at minorities like Shia Muslims, Hindus and Christians.  They are also responsible for the ongoing reign of terror, that target girls like Malala Yousufzai  for attending school, raiding businesses they deem are un-Islamic or even attacking individuals who hold views on blasphemy laws contrary to theirs.  Unfortunately, India too may be experiencing its own brand of Talibanization; the banning at the shrine is merely one manifestation of changing ideologies of which women and girls are generally the first victims.


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