- Devotees queued outside the Haji Ali shrine in Mumbai, Feb. 7, 2010.
A recent ban preventing women from entering the most sacred part of the Haji Ali Dargah off south Mumbai’s coast has prompted a debate about gender segregation in Islam.
Women were stopped from entering the sanctum sanctorum, the holiest part of the shrine, in July, according to a Muslim women’s group that raised the issue with the Maharashtra State Minorities Commission on Wednesday.
But the discrimination is not all one sided; some Sufi shrines don’t allow men.
“The Dargah of Dai ha Sahiba, the wet nurse of Khwaja Qutub, in Mehrauli Delhi does not allow men into the inner part,” notes Sadia Dehlvi, author of “Sufism: The Heart of Islam” and “The Sufi Courtyard: Dargahs of Delhi.”
Sufism contains many traditions about the various levels of admittance given to men and women at different Dargahs, she added.
However Ms. Dehlvi said this recent ban at Mumbai’s Haji Ali Dargah wasn’t appropriate.
“If women are traditionally allowed, then the tradition should continue,” Ms. Dehlvi told The Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time. “This is a very radical interpretation and I think it sends a very wrong message and reinforces the stereotype that Islam is oppressive to women.”
Haji Ali Dargah, dedicated to the 15th-century Sufi saint Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari, receives between 15,000 and 20,000 visitors of all castes, creeds and religions a day, according to the trust that runs it.
When the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan women’s group visited in July, it discovered that the sanctum sanctorum had been barred to females. The group said this week that the decision was damaging to Islam’s reputation in India.
“The way Muslim clergy have been discriminating against women is not just a disservice to women but to Islam,” founder member of the group Noorjehan Safia Niaz told the CNN-IBN news channel.
“This religion has given equal rights to women, [but] the rights are being taken away by clergy who are misinterpreting the texts and Sharia [Islamic law].”
The trust in charge of the shrine said it was acting in accordance with a religious ruling that restricts the presence of women in Dargahs.
“There’s a fatwa saying women are not allowed in the Dargah,” Abdul S. Merchant, a representative of the Haji Ali Dargah Trust, told CNN-IBN.
The shrine’s authorities said they were rectifying a mistake that had allowed women to enter the sanctum sanctorum.
At the Sufi shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia in Delhi, women are also prevented from entering the site of the saint’s grave.
Sufism emphasizes the internal prayer life and meditative relationship between Muslims and Allah. Islam forbids the inappropriate mingling of the sexes, which is why most mosques have separate areas for men and women.
Abdur Raheem Campisi, a member of the School of Sufi Teaching in Australia, said the main areas in a mosque are reserved for men because they are obliged to pray corporately. “The greater blessing for men comes from praying at a mosque whereas for women it is believed to come from praying in the home,” Mr. Campisi said.
The Maharashtra state government has refused to intervene in the Haji Ali Dargah issue, which it says is a religious matter.
Zeenat S. Ali, professor of Islamic Studies at St. Xaviers College in Mumbai, said Islam upholds the rights of men and women. “It’s a misogynistic interpretation of Islam that’s being followed. They [those imposing the ban] are making it anti-women whereas the Prophet [Mohammad] has given women all the rights of the world and the spiritual rights of women should not be trampled upon.”