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 Bukhari. Reports 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”. [Read more...]