More than 200 women entered the inner sanctum of Mumbai’s historic Haji Ali Dargah mosque on Tuesday after trustees at the site lifted a ban on female visitors.
The tomb houses the remains of Islamic saint Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari. Pilgrims traditionally have entered the room to touch the grave and offer prayers and flowers, though the site began banning women from the innermost sanctuary as early as 2012. The site’s trustees agreed in October to lift the ban on women entering the mausoleum after a group of activists filed a lawsuit in 2014.
Members of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, a group that promotes the advancement of Muslim women in India, reportedly tried to visit the site in July 2012 and were told they could not enter the mausoleum. Noorjehan Safia Niaz, the group’s founder, told The New York Times that the women had successfully visited the tomb in 2011.
What happened between those dates is unclear, but the mosque’s managing trustee confirmed to press at the time that both men and women had previously visited the mausoleum. “How can we allow women to mix with men?” Abdul Sattar Merchant told The New York Times, defending the ban. He added that women sometimes didn’t wear full veils inside the tomb.
During court proceedings in 2015, the trust’s lawyers said women had never been permitted to approach the grave and instead offered prayers from an area off to the side. The decision to create a separate entrance and provide a “secure place” for women to see the inner sanctorum, they said, was ostensibly taken to prevent sexual harassment.
“This has been decided in the interest of their safety and security and they are close to the inner sanctorum of the tomb as possible, considering the rush of men,” the trust said.
However trustees also called it a “grievous sin” to allow women to be in close proximity of the grave of a male Muslim saint.
The Indian Supreme Court ruled in favor of the activists, and the trust agreed to comply though it decided that worshippers would no longer be permitted to touch the saint’s tomb. “We are complying with the affidavit we filed in the Supreme Court on October 24 and treating both men and women devotees equally,” said Haji Ali dargah trustee Suhail Khandwani, according to The Times of India.
Niaz welcomed the court’s decision as a victory for women’s rights.
“We are very happy the ban against women’s entry into the shrine was lifted,” Niaz told The Guardian on Tuesday. “Credit must be given where due, and the trustees ensured our visit to the inner sanctum of the mosque was peaceful … We even had chai with them after the visit.”
The ruling at Haji Ali Dargah comes at a time when women in India are increasingly fighting for entry to sacred sites previously off limits to female visitors. Mosques and Hindu temples throughout India routinely segregate men and women. Many temples bar menstruating women from entering on an honor system, and one even took the extreme measure of banning all women aged between 10 and 50.
In November 2015, the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra suspended seven security guards after a female devotee reportedly stepped onto a platform off limits to women to worship an idol.
Hundreds of demonstrators organized a march in January to protest the temple’s discriminatory policies towards women. The campaign gained momentum on social media with the hashtags #RightToWorship and #RightToPray to express solidarity with the women’s cause.
In April, the temple lifted the ban and permitted women to enter the inner sanctum.
Muslim women in India are also fighting to ban “triple talaq” ― a practice in which husbands can divorce their wives by saying “talaq” or “I divorce you” three times ― as well as polygamy, saying clerics’ justifications for such practices are “medieval” and “reek of sexism,” according to Reuters.
Kiran Moghe, national joint secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, commented on the decision at Haji Ali Dargah on Wednesday, telling Reuters: “This is a welcome move in the fight for equal rights which are guaranteed by the constitution. It is a boost to women in the community addressing other matters of gender justice.”