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Women fight against ban at Mumbai's Haji Ali Dargah

Women fight against ban at Mumbai
Highlights

The landmark Haji Ali mosque in Mumbai is facing pressure to overturn a ban on women entering its inner sanctum, a move that could set a precedent on gender restrictions to places of worship.

Mumbai: The landmark Haji Ali mosque in Mumbai is facing pressure to overturn a ban on women entering its inner sanctum, a move that could set a precedent on gender restrictions to places of worship.

A Muslim women's rights group is locked in a bitter legal battle with trustees of the Haji Ali Dargah, built in the 15th century and popular not only with Muslims but Hindu devotees and sight-seeing tourists. Women have been prevented entry to the mosque's mausoleum since 2011, with its trust saying close female proximity to the tomb of a revered saint is "a grievous sin" in Islam.

The Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) has petitioned the Bombay High Court seeking a ruling that the ban is unconstitutional, hoping such a decision would mark a major step forward for women's rights in India. "A positive ruling would set a precedent and would have a wider and long-term effect," BMMA co-founder Noorjehan Niaz told AFP.

"It would send a message and encourage women of all religions who are barred from entering places of worship to approach courts with similar demands," she added. The mosque is located on an islet accessible via a causeway at low tide. It was built in the 1430s in memory of a wealthy Muslim who gave up his worldly possessions and went on a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Legend has it that Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari, who became a Sufi saint, died during his spiritual journey and his body washed up on rocks in the Arabian Sea off south Mumbai. The mosque was constructed on the spot where his body was found, and his tomb, or "dargah", lies in the inner sanctum -- the mosque's most sacred place. It is one of a string of temples and mosques across India that restricts access to women.

Last month local media reported that a Hindu temple in western Maharashtra suspended seven security guards after a female devotee stepped on a platform to worship an idol. Women are barred from the stand and temple authorities later performed a "purification" ceremony on the idol, according to the reports.

Haji Ali Dargah is one of Mumbai's most recognisable landmarks and receives tens of thousands of visitors every week. But Ms Niaz said the trust started banning women from the mausoleum four years ago, although they are still allowed into the mosque's other areas, where they can pray.

She said trustees cited menstruation as the reason for barring women entry to sacred spots, an argument often used. "They've said women are impure. But menstruation is a natural event and responsible for the entire of humanity being born. How can it be dirty? It's a ridiculous and demeaning argument," she told AFP.

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