Opening Doors

Exclusion of women from certain places of worship is nothing new. Time and again, there have been instances of women trying to breach their entry into places of worship, only to be silenced by the brawny advocates of patriarchy. In a path-breaking move in 2010, Assam Governor J B Patnaik breached the long-imposed ban on entry into the ‘kirtanghar’, or the sanctum sanctorum, of Patbausi Satra (a Vaishnavite monastery) in lower Assam’s Barpeta district.

The Satra was out of bounds for women for centuries precisely to preserve the ‘purity’ of the Satra because traditionally, menstruating women were considered ‘unclean’. In fact, several prominent women like former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and literary stalwarts such as Amrita Pritam, Nabaneeta Deb Sen, and Mamoni Raisom Goswami have tried to breach the long-imposed ban on entry into the kirtanghar, or the sanctum sanctorum, of Patbausi satra and its neighbouring satras but could not succeed.

In a recent move, which could be termed as a landmark in the history of Islam in Assam, the Governor J B Patnaik led a group of women to pray within the precincts of a mosque located near the dargah or shrine of Ajan Peer in Assam’s Sivasagar district. Ajan Peer, born Shah Miran but popularly known as Ajan Fakir, had come to Assam from Baghdad. He had composed jikir and zari songs in folk form in Assamese to teach indigenous Muslims the tenets of Islam and create harmony among people about 400 years ago. Breaking all traditions, a group of women offered asor (late afternoon namaz) along with men under a single imam. Imam Maulana Kari Abdul Hamid, the imam of Station Chariali, Sivasagar, was especially invited to conduct the first joint namaz organised by the management committee of the dargah following a request by Governor J.B. Patnaik.

“Interestingly, on one occasion, women had even approached the judiciary to fight for their religious rights. In 2010, in a path-breaking event, 15 women were allowed to offer namaz in a mosque on Eid-ul-Fitr in Mangalore on the directions of Karnataka high court.”

This move had sparked a row as well as a debate on whether women are allowed to pray inside a mosque. It had gradually dawned on people that actually entry of women to pray inside a mosque is permitted in Islam but is not prevalent in their society. Women are usually asked to pray in their home as they have to take care of household chores and for maintenance of purdah. Ironically, common namaz is allowed in Mecca during Haj. In fact, women are allowed to offer namaz in mosques in countries like Iran, Indonesia and Central Asian countries. Moreover, nobody had ever paid heed to the spiritual needs of elderly women, specially widows who have no space to pray and meditate.

This move by the Governor had evoked many writings in the media as well. Sazzad Hussain, a faculty at Assam’s Lakhimpur College writes, “Muslims around the world have been told that women should not be allowed to participate in outdoor life including praying in a mosque, Idgah or in funeral prayers. What we have seen in Azan Peer’s Dargah in Sivasagar is one big step in the fourteen hundred years of denial in which the Muslims in the non-Arab regions have been practicing Islam. The significance of what happened in Sivasagar will pave the way for a public life of Assam’s Muslim women – a position that has been constantly denied to them. Participation of women in public affairs is the key to development in any society.”

The issue had come to focus in 1988 when the Idgah Masjid, a mosque in the Laban locality of Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, set a precedent by opening its doors for women. Sayeedullah Nongrum, the general secretary of the ‘Shillong Muslim Union’ which runs the mosque, said, “Islam is very liberal. Even during Haj, women pray with men; only a partition divides them. If we can send our women to the market, why can’t we allow them to enter the mosque?”

In fact, a separate enclosure for women inside a mosque is very much prevalent in Kashmir. Muslim Jan, a faculty at the University of Kashmir says, “It is very common for women to pray in a separate shamiana during the Eid namaz and during the Jumma (Friday) prayers. In fact, during special occasions like Shabe-barat and Shabe-Kadr, women spend the entire night in the mosque praying.”

Interestingly, on one occasion, women had even approached the judiciary to fight for their religious rights. In 2010, in a path-breaking event, 15 women were allowed to offer namaz in a mosque on Eid-ul-Fitr in Mangalore on the directions of Karnataka high court. History was created, when Noor Masjid opened its doors to the women, following the court’s orders to offer namaz in the mosque. The women had earlier petitioned the court seeking to be allowed to offer namaz in the mosque after being repeatedly denied the right to offer prayers to celebrate Eid-ul Fitr. P K Ahmed Kutty Moulavi, imam of the Palayam mosque in Thiruvananthapuram, has remained at the heart of controversy since he permitted Muslim women to pray in his mosque for the first time in south Kerala. In what could be termed as a radical Eid for the Muslim women of Kendrapara, a small town in Orissa, they managed to defy an age-old tradition to offer namaz at the Zamiat-Ahle-Hadis mosque on the occasion of Eid.

Liberal and conservative elements in the Muslim community have often clashed over the issue of allowing women to offer prayers in mosques. Shams Ahmed of the ‘All-India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board’ (AIMWPLB) says, “In fact, women should just come out and start praying in a mosque. There is nothing in Islam that forbids namaz by women.”

Women’s entry to religious places has time and again been the centre of heated debates. In 2006, a group of women lawyers had filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a direction to the Kerala Government to lift the age-old ban on women devotees entering the Lord Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala. Right from 10 years till 50, women are not allowed entry into the temple as Lord Ayyappa is believed to have taken a vow of celibacy. In 2007, in a radical breakthrough from the centuries-old dress code of Kerala’s Guruvayur temple, the shrine’s management decided to allow women wearing salwar or churidar-kameez to enter the temple. It will take some time before women will be granted their equal right to enter a place of worship in a society where religion still remains a domain of the man.

Teresa Rehman is an award-winning journalist who chronicles the lives of ordinary people in the seven states that make up the North-East of India. She was born in Shillong and started her journalistic career in Delhi before returning to report on the untold stories of a region marked by state-sponsored violence against its people and a strong sense of neglect and alienation from 'mainstream' India. Winner of two 'Excellence in Journalism' awards.

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