[The court said that the constitutional protection of religions applied only to those rules that are “an essential and integral part of the religion,” without which its character would be destroyed. Because the Quran, the sacred book of Islam, does not prohibit women from entering mosques or tombs, the court said, the trustees of the Haji Ali Dargah Trust could not bar women from entering the inner sanctum.]
By Geeta Anand and Suhasini Raj
Visitors at the Haji Ali tomb, a popular Muslim religious destination, in Mumbai
last year. Credit Punit Paranjpe/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
MUMBAI, India — In a landmark ruling that could pave the way for more rights for Muslim women in India, the Bombay High Court on Friday ruled that the trustees of the city’s famous Haji Ali tomb could not bar women from entering the inner sanctum.
In a 56-page ruling, the court dismissed the trustees’ claim that they could bar women under a provision of the Indian Constitution that gives religious groups the right to manage their own affairs.
The court said that the constitutional protection of religions applied only to those rules that are “an essential and integral part of the religion,” without which its character would be destroyed. Because the Quran, the sacred book of Islam, does not prohibit women from entering mosques or tombs, the court said, the trustees of the Haji Ali Dargah Trust could not bar women from entering the inner sanctum.
The trust “has no right to discriminate on the entry of women into a public place of worship under the guise of managing the affairs of religion,” the justices wrote. They added that the state “will have to ensure the protection of the rights of all of its citizens” against gender discrimination.
The court order was stayed for several weeks to allow the trustees to consider an appeal to the Supreme Court, where two other major women’s rights petitions are currently being heard.
One challenges the right of Muslim men to divorce their wives by uttering the word “talaq” (“I divorce you” in Arabic) three times. The other seeks to end the exclusion of girls and women ages 10 to 50 from a sacred temple in south India.
Women’s rights groups said they hoped the court ruling would expand rights for Muslim women and all women in the country, whose rights have sometimes been suppressed in the name of protecting religious traditions.
“This is a historic judgment,” said Zakia Soman, a founder of a Muslim women’s group and one of the petitioners in the case. “It is 70 years since Indian independence, and still women are not really equal in our families and in our marriages.”
The Indian Constitution, in trying to balance the rights of people of multiple religious traditions, has allowed some measure of religious freedom. But the Constitution also tries to balance these rights against citizens’ fundamental right to equality under the law and freedom from gender discrimination.
Courts have interpreted these laws differently since Indian independence in 1947.
The Bombay High Court ruling on Friday follows a similar ruling by the same court this year ordering the state of Maharashtra to enforce an earlier judgment allowing women to enter the sanctum of Hindu temples. The court’s ruling followed raids by groups of women, led by Trupti Desai, an activist who tried to force her way into the inner sanctums of several temples.
With white domes and minarets, the Haji Ali tomb is one of the most popular religious destinations and a landmark in Mumbai, also known as Bombay. Located a few hundred yards off the coast and entered via a pedestrian walkway submerged at high tide, it draws more than 30,000 visitors on a typical day, and more than 60,000 on important holidays.
In their court petition, Ms. Soman’s group, Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, noted that women had been allowed to enter the inner sanctum of the Haji Ali tomb until sometime in 2011, which the court confirmed. The trustees said they had barred women to protect them from sexual harassment and because “it is a grievous sin, as per Islam” for them to be close to the grave of a saint.
Mohammad Ahmad Taher, the administrative officer of the Haji Ali trust, said in a telephone interview that the trust would have a detailed discussion within its ranks and with its lawyers before making a decision on how to proceed.
Mr. Taher disputed the court’s finding and said, “Never before in the history of the tomb have women ever stepped inside the sanctum.”
Ms. Desai called the ruling “a victory over a society and people with regressive mind-sets which have tried to keep women oppressed socially for centuries.”
Javed Anand, who started Muslims for Secular Democracy in 2003 to advocate for human rights in Islam, said the ruling would have a cascading effect on other cases around India.
“This verdict will have implications for Muslim women’s rights across India,” he said.
Geeta Anand reported from Mumbai, and Suhasini Raj from New Delhi.