A recent decision by the Haji Ali Dargah management banning the entry of women evoked sharp criticism. The dargah trust said women could offer namaz, shawls and flowers but not enter the sanctum sanctorum. Noorjehan Safia Niaz, founder of Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) that surveyed dargahs in Mumbai and brought the issue to the fore, talks about the movement in an interaction with The Indian Express. The movement that began in 2007 has a few thousand followers
ZEESHAN SHAIKH: What issues is BMMA taking up?
Noorjehan Safia Niaz: Employment, education, health, security of women, changes in law, there are many. These issues may not be new, but they are being taken up Muslim women.
We have seen that the state tends to ignore development of Muslim ghettos.
We are working to get the Sachar Committee report implemented.
Codification of Muslim law is another of our campaigns. Nobody is ready to touch this issue in the wake of the Shah Bano controversy. Muslim women are being divorced and modern technology is making it easy.
Then you have the issue of polygamy. There is no codified Muslim law like Hindu Marriage Act or Christian Act. Everything is left to the cleric to interpret. We feel just as there is a codified law for Hindus, there needs to be a comprehensive codified law for Muslims as well. The law should address issues such as how much mehr should be paid in a marriage and what do we do to tackle polygamy.
SWATEE KHER: What is your stand on uniform civil code?
NSN: We do not need a uniform civil code. As far as BMMA is concerned, we feel if Muslim personal law is reformed and codified, it should take care of a lot of things.
SAGNIK CHOWDHURY: How did the dargahs issue start?
NSN: What we planned at the beginning of the year was to campaign for implementation of the Sachar Committee report. We wanted to be innovative, so we decided to go to dargahs with an offering and pray that the government implements the recommendations. We went to Haji Ali Dargah in July 2012 and realised we could not enter the mazar.
This restriction was not there in March 2011.
We met the president of the trust and he justified the curbs. One of the reasons he gave for the barricading was that a woman devotee was not dressed appropriately. He also felt it (the dargah) was too crowded and women were not comfortable.
After this, we decided to go around the city and see what was happening in other dargahs. Of the 20 we visited, seven did not allow women.
Our worry was if something like this can happen at Haji Ali, an iconic place, what will stop trustees of other dargahs to issue similar decrees.
SMITA NAIR: Any specific reason for denying women entry?
NSN: As far as the religion is concerned, there is none. What made us take up this issue was our fear that tomorrow such bans may be extended to other communities, though the immediate issue was discrimination against women.
This is happening because of the growing influence of Wahhabis, who are coming up with the most conservative interpretation of Islam.
Islam is based on equality.
SUKANYA SHETTY: How difficult has it been to mobilise Muslim women?
NSN: Our effort is to get a woman out of her home and help her organise self. The moment she is able to do that, she has community support. It has not been difficult from 1992 as the communal riots awakened Muslim women. The 2002 genocide in Gujarat pushed Muslim women into public space. They now know they have to organise themselves and assert themselves within the community. It is happening, but slowly.
For us, it is important to provide that space and that’s what we are doing.
ZEESHAN SHAIKH: Do you think the Shariah is compatible with secular laws?
NSN: I would say the Quran is compatible with the Constitution. There are as many versions of Shariah as there are sects in Islam. Dargahs that allow women and the ones that do not both claim to base their decisions on Shariah. It is convenient to talk about the Quran because it is a revealed book.
For us, it is important we go back to ideas of the Quran, which are progressive and liberal.
MANASI PHADKE: What kind of support do you get from Muslim political leaders?
NSN: They will not speak. Whether they are religious or political leaders, they do not want to talk about the truth or injustices happening within the community.