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Haji Ali for All: The Hon'ble Mumbai High Court Did Not Agree With the Mullahs’ Claim That Islam Is a Backward, Regressive Religion

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

26 August 2016

The Mumbai High Court judgment striking down the restrictions on women praying inside the sanctum sanctorum of the Haji Ali Dargah is welcome for more than one reason. First of all, it is perhaps the single most important victory for Muslim women in this country since many decades.

It is important to underline the fact that the movement to oppose gender based restrictions in the Dargah was led by Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA). It is rather disconcerting to see that some television channels are projecting this as the victory of Trupti Desai which is patently incorrect. Trupti Desai and her struggle to challenge the misogynistic practices at the Shani Shignapur temple are indeed laudable but it is equally true that the movement against such practices within the Haji Ali Dargah was led by Muslim women alone and its they who should get due credit for fighting entrenched patriarchy within Muslim society. Trying to make it into a larger fight in which all women were together obfuscates the voice of the Muslim women who were not only in leadership position but also sustained the movement for many years.

Haji Ali was not always like this. It was in 2012 that the fundamentalists all of a sudden realised that women should be debarred from touching and kneeling at the grave of the saint. The argument of the Dargah committee was nothing less than ridiculous. They argued that all of a sudden they realised that the Islamic Shariat did not permit Muslim women access to the shrine and that strict segregation was what Islam had taught them.

Another way to comprehend this would be to realise that the trustees of Haji Ali realised that whatever their forefathers did was all un-Islamic since they allowed women access to the shrine.

The argument was hardly convincing. People in the know always knew that this change was related to the conception of an altogether new Islam itself. This new Islamic religiosity, which is currently sweeping the subcontinent, indeed the world, is much more attuned to the colourless aridity of Saudi Arabia rather than the colourful landscape of the Indian subcontinent. This new Islam profoundly altered the imagination of the trustees of the Dargah, particularly in its attitude towards women. This sudden realisation in 2012 was hardly sudden: it was in the making for a while and it is still struggling to hegemonise the imagination of Indian Muslims.

There are two important observations which the High Court made in its judgment which might have bearing on other cases also. The trustees argued that since the Constitution granted minorities the right to manage their own trusts, they were entitled to exercise reasonable restrictions within the precincts.

The Court struck down this argument by stating that such entitlements are not absolute. Any measure which is in contravention to individual rights and which ends up being discriminatory is liable to be struck down as it becomes ultra vires the freedoms which is enshrined in the Constitution.

This is important because minority institutions often argue that they are the sole custodians of the future of citizens who are under their jurisdiction. One can only think about the state of madrasas in India and how they are exempt from the RTE provisions which can only mean that although every child of this country has a right to education, Muslim children are exempt from it.      

 The second observation of the Court was that they wanted to know if segregation was an essential feature of the Islamic faith. It is a matter of great shame that the Dargah trustees went at length to prove that it was essential to the Islamic faith. Marshalling passages from the Quran and Hadees, they went at great lengths to show how Islam indeed was a backward, regressive religion which limited the movement of women. The Court however was not convinced and could not find any merit in the argument that allowing women to pray at the Dargah will fundamentally alter the faith of Islam.

Responses from the Muslim orthodoxy will be on predictable lines. They have already started arguing that the judgment is an infringement on the rights of Muslims in India; that the Court has unreasonably interfered in the internal affairs of the community.

It is important to highlight that minorities have rights in this country and that those rights have to be defended at all costs for this secular polity to survive. However, fighting for minority rights is not the same as advocating for gender segregation and plunge into a politics which can only make Muslims regressive and conservative.

Each community evolves and along with it evolve their values and mores. It is heartening to note that scores of Muslims are welcoming the judgment of the High Court. The least the Muslim religious establishment can do is to listen to these voices and not challenge the High Court verdict in Supreme Court. That is perhaps the only way they can salvage their reputation. And the reputation of Islam and Muslims.

Arshad Alam is a columnist.


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