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Women’s access to dargahs

Shrines to tolerance

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Some Mumbai dargahs have banned the entry of women devotees into the sanctum. When the Sufi saints lying buried there didn't discriminate between men and women, why should religious busybodies, ask liberal activists.

Covered with green chadars and rose petals, the shrines of Sufi saints are usually enveloped in a fragrant haze. And if you happen to be at there at the right time, you can catch Sama, the session of devotional music dedicated to the inclusive, tolerant character of the saints. In the durbars of the saints young and old, rich and poor, men and women are treated equally;discrimination is the antithesis of the Sufi cult.

This air of easy egalitarianism took a beating last week. Mumbai's leading Sufi shrines, including the iconic Haji Ali and the Makhdoom Mahimi, have banned the entry of women devotees from entering the sanctum of the shrines. Leading the protest against this move are members of Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) which, through a survey done in September this year, found that seven out of 20 dargahs in Mumbai prevent women from going closer to astana (graves of the saints).

While dargah committees cite Shariat to justify their action, scholars and activists call it an insult to the Sufi tradition which is based on a moderate variant of Islam. "We are not antiwomen. We are just accepting what many senior clerics have been demanding for long, " says Sohail Khandwani, managing trustee of Mahim dargah and one of the trustees of Haji Ali. "Dargahs are basically premises which house graves of the saints and Shariat prevents women from visiting graves. "

Many scholars are aghast at this gross "misreading" and "misinterpretation" of the Shariat. "The Quran doesn't say anything about visiting of graves. They call it Shariat rule just because the Prophet is believed to have asked women not to visit graves. The authenticity of this tradition is doubtful and in this case we must follow the Quran which is silent on it, " explains Islamic scholar Asghar Ali Engineer.

Other scholars cite instances from early history of Islam when women did visit graves. "The Prophet's daughter Hazrat Fatima visited her father's grave. Do the dargah committees want to tell us that daughters should not visit graves of their parents, " asks Ali. He adds that there is anyway a difference between grave of an ordinary person and that of a Sufi saint. "Sufis are sacred souls. People visit mausoleums of saints not to worship, but to pay homage to the Waliallahs, friends of Allah, " says Ali. BMMA activist Noorjahan Safia Niaz says earlier women would touch the shrines at Haji Ali, the new rule would obviously put an end to that proximity.

However, Dr Syed Liyaqat Hussain Moini, scholar of Sufism and a khadim gaddi nashin (direct descendant ) of famous Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer, says Sufism doesn't discriminate against human beings on the basis of caste, creed or gender. "At Ajmer, both men and women have visited the sanctum for centuries, " says Moini.

Spiritual tourism is booming and many dargahs in India see a large number of celebrity devotees. Will the ban stem this flow? Moini says it will. "How will it help if women are banned? It will only discourage members of other communities from visiting dargahs. Unlike mosques, dargahs are purely secular spaces and this feature of the Sufi shrines will be affected if women are banned, " he adds.

Dargahs are a magnet for those seeking relief from distress and grief. Devotees seek the "intercession" of the saints in their destiny. "Women dealing with emotional troubles often find solace at dargahs. This ban will seem to them like a divine rejection, " says Mumbai-based senior Hindi commentator Feroz Ashraf.

The government is refusing to step into the debate. In Mumbai when activists of BMMA requested minority affairs minister Arif Naseem Khan to intervene, he refused calling it a purely "religious" issue. "Only muftis and clerics can decide on this, " he says.

Urdu poet-lyricist Nida Fazli quotes a famous incident from the life of Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuudin Aulia (incidentally women are banned from entering sanctum of Nizamuddin too). One day the saint's disciple, Amir Khusrau, found his master watching Hindus devotees offering libation to the sun on the banks of the river Yamuna in Delhi. "What do you think of sun worship?" asks Khusrau. "Every follower has his own Kaaba and that is the right path, " replies the saint.

"Such was the tolerance of a Sufi who was a devout Muslim as well as a great human being. Those who want to restrict women's access to the dargahs are fanatics who are shattering the tolerant image of the saints, " says Fazli.

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