From the Times of India
MUMBAI: One of the features of Sufi shrines is an inclusive approach to devotees. That character is now being turned on its head by Mumbai's iconic dargahs, which have started segregating men and women visitors. Seven dargahs have banned women from entering the astana (sanctum sanctorum, where a saint is buried) and many more are preparing to do so.
The ban has existed for a year at the Haji Ali dargah, which allows women to offer prayers and chaddar from behind a barrier that is four feet from the mazaar (grave), thus preventing them from touching the resting place of the saint.
At the Mahim dargah-the shrine of Makhdoom Shah Baba-the trustees for six months have been "sensitizing" women to the thought that going near the saint's grave is "un-Islamic".
After the dargah's redevelopment, there will be a separate enclosure for women like the one at the Haji Ali shrine, denying them access to the astana. At present, men and women are allowed into the astana in separate batches.
Sunni and Deobandi clerics support the seven dargahs' decision. "The sharia does not allow intermingling of men and women at any place. The visit of women to graves is forbidden. It is welcome that the dargahs are following this rule," said Maulana Athar Ali, a Sunni cleric. Senior Deobandi cleric Maulana Mahmood Daryabadi echoes this. "They should have done it much earlier. I am glad they are now following a rule sanctioned by the sharia," he said.
But liberal Muslims are outraged. "This is shocking and shameful. This is a regressive step that will further fuel Islamophobia and encourage the detractors of Islam to allege that the religion practices discrimination against women," said Javed Anand of Muslims for Secular Democracy.
Dargah trustees are adamant on their decision. Suhail Khandwani, managing trustee of the Mahim dargah and also a trustee at the Haji Ali dargah, said trustees were only following what muftis, or clerics who issue fatwas, have demanded for long. "Muftis have time and again pointed out that Islam does not permit women to visit a cemetery. While we prefer to call dargahs resting places of the saints, they are in fact graves and the sharia does not allow women to visit graves."
The development at the seven dargahs was brought to light by the advocacy group Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), which recently surveyed 20 dargahs in Mumbai. "Last March, after our conference in Mumbai, our women activists visited the Haji Ali dargah and offered prayers inside the sanctum sanctorum. But this year, during the survey, we were shocked that the dargah had banned women from entering the mazaar," said Noorjehan Safia Niaz, founder member, BMMA. What worries the BMMA is that dargah trustees may not stop with banning women from entering astanas. "They might bar entry for non-Muslims as well, which would damage the secular fabric of the country,"