In a historic verdict demolishing another bastion of gender discrimination in the country, the Bombay High Court on Friday permitted the entry of women right up to the restricted grave area of the famous Haji Ali Dargah here.
The 56-page ruling by a division bench comprising Justice V.M. Kanade and Mohite Revati-Dere came on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by NGO Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) and its office-bearer activists Noorjehan Niaz and Zakia Soman in November 2014.
The PIL challenged a 2012 decision by the Haji Ali Dargah Trust (HADT), prohibiting women from entering the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine, built in 1431, on grounds that "women wearing blouses with wide necks bend on the 'mazaar', thus showing their breasts", which was against Islam.
The trust contended that the ban was "for the safety and security of women". It also said that earlier, it was "not aware of the provisions of Shariat and therefore had taken steps to rectify the same".
The shrine, located on the rocks off the Worli seashore, comprises the grave of Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari, a Muslim saint revered by all communities.
NGO BMMA's lawyer Raju Z. Moray argued that there is nothing in the Holy Quran which prohibits the entry of women into mosques/dargahs and Islam believes in gender equality.
The HADT's lawyer, Shoaib Memon, contended that Islam discourages free mixing between men and women and the intention of the restriction was to keep interaction between men-women at a modest level, besides preventing sexual harassment of women and their belongings getting stolen.
While permitting women to enter the restricted areas along with men, the court asked the Maharashtra government to ensure their safety and security.
Terming the ban a violation of the fundamental rights of a person enshrined in the Constitution, the judges stayed their verdict for six weeks to allow an appeal in the Supreme Court.
"We hold that the ban of the Trust prohibiting women from entering the sanctum sanctorum of the Haji Ali Dargah contravenes Articles 14, 15 and 25 of the Constitution...women be permitted to enter the sanctum sanctorum at par with men," the judges said.
They directed the state government and the trust to take effective steps to ensure the safety and security of the women at the Dargah.
HADT Chairman Abdul Sattar Merchant said they will appeal against the ruling in the Supreme Court and that the AIMIM (All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen) will also oppose the verdict.
The trust, in June 2012, had barred the entry of women on the ground that Islam did not allow women to touch the tombs of male saints and it was a "sin" for them to enter the area where the grave is located.
An umbrella outfit, 'Haji Ali For All' comprising several social and women's groups, including NGO Bhumata Brigade, had attempted to storm the shrine on April 28, but were stopped by the police on grounds of security.
Later, on May 12, Bhumata Brigade President Trupti Desai, accompanied by her supporters and a posse of police, walked through the one-km narrow causeway on the Arabian Sea -- accessible only during low tide -- to reach the Dargah with scores of other devotees.
She followed the prevalent customs and prayed from outside the restricted area -- barely four feet away from the grave -- and departed a few minutes later.
At that time, the shrine trustees reiterated that permitting women upto the tomb of Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari would be "anti-Islam" and claimed immunity as it was a "minority trust".
Desai is credited with successful agitations culminating in women's entry to the Shani Shingnapur Temple in Ahmednagar and later the Trimbakeshwar Temple in Nashik, both in April this year, besides a partially successful agitation at Mahalaxmi Temple in Kolhapur.
"I welcome the historic verdict of the court today. Our agitation has been successful and the courts have recognized the equality and rights of women. We shall soon go to pray at Haji Ali Dargah," Desai said while reacting to the high court ruling.
Several prominent men and women Muslim intellectuals and activists lauded the High Court ruling.
The Dargah was constructed in 1431 in memory of a wealthy Muslim merchant, Sayyed Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari of Bukhara in modern Uzbekistan.
At one time, he renounced all his worldly possessions, travelled all around the world, made a pilgrimage to Mecca and finally settled in the then Bombay in the 15th century.
According to local legends, once he saw a poor woman crying over oil spilt from her vessel, afraid that her husband would thrash her.
He took the woman to the spot where the oil had spilt and jabbed his finger in the earth and oil gushed out. The happy woman filled up her vessel and went home.
Later, the saint had tormenting dreams of how he had injured the earth by his action. He fell ill and asked his followers to throw his coffin into the Arabian Sea.
He died during a pilgrimage to Mecca and the casket carrying his body miraculously was swept back to the Worli shore and got stuck in the rocks there.
His Dargah was constructed at the same spot; and on Thursdays-Fridays, it is visited by large number of pilgrims of all religions from India and abroad for the saint's blessings.
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