Good verdict on Haji Ali dargah

The Bombay High Court’s ruling that there should be no ban on entry of women into the inner sanctum of the Haji Ali dargah in Mumbai is yet another affirmation of women’s equal right to worship in religious places. It has come after a similar judicial order in the case of the Shani Shingnapur temple, also in Maharashtra, where women had been barred from praying for the last 400 years. The past few months have also seen relaxation in the rules disallowing women’s entry in other religious places like the Trimbakeshwar temple in Nashik and Eidgah Eishbagh in Lucknow. The trust which manages the Haji Ali dargah had only imposed the ban in 2012 after women had enjoyed access to the sanctum for about 150 years. The reason cited by the trust, like scriptural injunctions, undesirability of women going near the grave of a male saint and the likelihood of exposure of women’s bodies would not stand scrutiny. The court has rightly rejected all of them.

As the court asserted, the right of women to worship in temples is guaranteed by the Constitution which bestows equal rights on all citizens, bans discrimination based on religious grounds and ensures protection of life and liberty. It is male orthodoxy and the strong sense of patriarchal privilege that lies at the root of discrimination against women in religious and social spheres and institutions. Tradition is often invoked to justify the exclusion of women, but these traditions have only been shaped and nurtured by hegemonistic attitudes. A false idea of women’s impurity is also invoked to buttress the bias against them. Biology cannot be the basis for a ban, and it is in essence no different from the argument of ritual pollution which had for centuries forbidden lower castes from entering temples. Traditions need to be changed if they militate against the legitimate rights of people. It is not just the constitutional principle of equality but the idea that all are equal before God that is involved in the right of women for equal access to and worship at religious places.

It is unfortunate that women have to fight temple by temple and from one religious place to another to secure their religious rights. The issue of entry into the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, where women in the 10-50 age group are not allowed, is before the Supreme Court now. The ban there is also based on an assumed tradition and the idea of impurity. There cannot be localised and specified arguments to justify the ban if the principle of universal access, as implied in the Haji Ali and Shani temple judgements, is accepted.

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