Mumbai's iconic and religious shrine Haji Ali dargah has barred women from entering the sanctum sanctorum housing the tomb of the 15th century Sufi saint, a decision that has sparked condemnation.
The management of the Sufi shrine, which is visited by tens of thousands of devotees every year, however, said on Tuesday that women are allowed within the dargah's large and open premises.
"Women are not allowed inside the sanctum sanctorum of the dargah," said Rizwan Merchant, trustee of the Haji Ali Dargah Trust and also a noted criminal lawyer.
"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," said Merchant, defending the decision.
Merchant claimed there are no restrictions as such for women devotees.
"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," he said.
"The Sharia law claims that no woman can visit a cemetery or a grave," said Suhail Khandwani, the trustee of the Haji Ali dargah and managing trustee of Mahim's Makhdoom Shah Baba's dargah.
"We allow women in Dargah Sharif but not at the astana (sanctum sanctorum where a saint is buried)" Khandwani told PTI. The tomb is in essence the grave of Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari.
"Most of the women, almost 80 per cent of them, agree with the decision (to impose curbs)," he claimed.
But the decision to restrict women from entering the innermost part of the shrine has not gone down plan with a women's group, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan.
The group said it will be raising the issue with the Maharashtra government.
The decision came to light when some members of the Andolan had visited the shrine in August. After noticing that women's entry into the sanctum sanctorum was disallowed, they surveyed 20 dargahs in the city.
"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.
Erected on a bed of rocks, about 450 metres into the Arabian Sea and off the coast of Worli in south-central Mumbai, the dargah has been immortalised by Bollywood in several movies.
Sufi shrines are known for an inclusive approach to devotees, but some have started segregating men and women visitors and seven dargahs in Mumbai have banned women from entering the astana, Noorjehan said.
"We are writing to Maharashtra Minorities Minister Arif Naseem Khan, the state minorities commission and the trustees of Haji Ali shrine seeking steps to curb the practice," she added.
Asked what steps are the trustees taking to clear their stance, Khandwani said, "We are in the process of organising lectures to explain what Islamic laws mean."
Congress leader Digvijaya Singh said he was not in favour of the decision and urged Muslim liberals in the country to oppose it.
Echoing Singh's sentiments, the Bharatiya Janata Party's Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said discriminating people on the basis of caste, creed and sex when into comes to entry into a place is not right.
The decision should be reconsidered and reversed, he added.