|Haji Ali Dargah as we see it from outside|
Everybody seems to have been to or wants to visit dargahs. All it takes is a fatwa for the excitement to peak. So, when news came in that women will not be permitted in the Haji Ali dargah, there was no pause for thought. First, a bit from the Rediff report quoting Rizwan Merchant, trustee of the Haji Ali Dargah Trust:
“Women are not allowed inside the sanctum sanctorum of the dargah. If Islamic scholars have issued a fatwa, in accordance with the Islamic law of Sharia, and have demanded that women not be allowed in dargahs, we have only made a correction. They can read their prayers, do namaz and offer shawls and flowers. All that we are requesting to our sisters is not to enter inside the dargah.”
Why have they issued this edict now? Or, was it already in existence, and nobody noticed because either women did not enter or when disallowed did not think it important enough to oppose?
If the Sharia is being invoked, then what is the role of dargahs, which is worship of a saint? According to Islam, such worship is wrong. Besides, graves are not supposed to be in a confined space and most certainly not have a fancy tombstone to which people bow their heads. Therefore, why was there silence on this matter earlier?
There is a suggestion that dargahs follow a Sufi tradition, which is moderate. I don’t see how and why people have to start asserting such moderate behaviour when the prayers offered are verses from the Quran; the namaaz is sanctioned in the Quran as one of the pillars of Islam. Except for the qawwalis, there is nothing specifically Sufi about dargahs.
The above-mentioned argument is highlighted to posit it against the stringent form of Islam. This is point scoring, and nothing else. In mosques, women are barred from public prayers. I would like to know how many of the women who are fighting against the patriarchal attitude of the dargah Trust have fought for their right to pray at mosques or to even lead the prayers?
According to some sources, women cannot visit cemeteries and graves. This is dependent on which sect you belong to, and the only thing I can vouch for is that they do not participate in the final rites.
Further more, the report states:
But the decision to restrict women from entering the innermost part of the shrine has not gone down with a women's group, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan. "The shrine trustees told us the restrictions were imposed after a woman came inappropriately dressed last year," said Noorjehan Safia Niaz, founder, BMMA, calling the decision unIslamic.
I doubt if this is the sole reason. But I also do not see how demanding the right to visit some grave becomes a case of Islamic misogyny. How many women saints have shrines dedicated to them? Will the Sufis stand up and explain this, please?
Having said this, I have visited a few dargahs and admit it was less reverence and more curiosity or to please someone. I have not been able to ask for anything, which is what dargahs thrive on – using a pir as an intermediary to god.
Some people do find peace and, in the heightened atmosphere of incense, flowers and low sobbing, one could experience a spiritual or cathartic moment.
But, these places have become celebrity hangouts. The appropriateness of dress of the famous, even if questioned, does not make the place restricted territory for them. Then, there is avarice. The munjawars (caretakers) will rush you through the motions and their boys will follow you till you add to the donation box.
At Nizamuddin, in what was the ladies’ areas, a man came in, thrust a register before me, showed me several foreign-sounding visitors for some strange reason, and gave me a litany of complaints about the money needed. He was like a retail store that places the pricier wares closer to the entrance. Here, I was seeing these big ticket donors. I would have liked to make some offering anyway, but his attitude put me off. Yet, I did pay much more than I would have and it was not in any donation box. He took it saying it would be deposited on my behalf.
Worse, the man selling agarbattis way out of the dargah area ticked me off for not covering my head. The visit was unplanned, so over my respectable kurta I had a thick flannel poncho, it being winter. He said, “Khuda ke darbar mein aakar itna bhi nahin maalum ibaadat ke bare mein?” (Coming to the house of god, don’t you know how to express faith?) I was really angry. I didn’t wish to nitpick that this was not the house of god, unless one refers to god’s omnipotence. But I did tell him, “Sar par dupatta odhne se ibaadat badhti nahin hai.” (By covering my head with a scarf, faith does not increase)
My uncovered head was not intended as a slight. I would have done so on my own. Since I was not going to let the experience go waste, I pulled up my poncho from the back and over my head, the tassels like a fringe on my forehead. I sat against a pillar in the women’s wing, and wept because I felt ridiculous, I was upset, and I did not know what to pray.
A friend who was accompanying me had disappeared. Later, I was surprised to find him escorted right into the mosque and even asked to join in the prayers. He is a Christian. Without even trying, he passed off as a Muslim. He wasn’t too helpful when, upon hearing about my experience, he told me, “You probably don’t look like you belong here.” He meant it literally. I realise I don’t. In so many ways. In so many places.
(c) Farzana Versey
(c) Farzana Versey