Women not allowed

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I love the sufi shrine of Hazrat Nizmauddin dargah but I have one problem with it. Last month your poor rich beautiful feudal brand-conscious foreign minister Hina Rabbai Khar came to Delhi. She also went to Nizamuddin dargah. One Indian newspaper report had this passage on the early morning visit:

“Khar, who arrived here on Tuesday for talks with her counterpart S M Krishna, spent a few minutes there before proceeding to the shrine of Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya. Since women are not allowed inside the shrine, she touched the chadar with her hand and gave it to other members of the delegation and office bearers who went inside and placed it.”

Did you read that?

“Since women are not allowed inside the shrine…”

The shameful thing about Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah, one of South Asia’s holiest Sufi shrines, is that women are not permitted to enter the chamber where the 14th century saint was buried. While the men and eunuchs are free to go in to pay their haziri, the women could pray standing outside the door to the tomb, or clinging to its walls, or sitting in the courtyard. Under no circumstances can they enter the tomb chamber.

It’s offensive.

I have often seen women – sometimes she is a two-year-old child, sometimes she is a 70-year-old granny – who mistakenly enters the chamber and are then rudely asked to leave by the khadims, the dargah’s caretakers. They shoo the women as if they are herding cows or goats. (Do they talk the same way to their mothers, sisters and wives?)

Are women inferior? Are they impure? Does the presence of a woman destroy the sanctity of the sanctum sanctorum? Delhi boasts the shrine of a woman Sufi, Bibi Fatima’s dargah at Kaka Nagar, and it’s not bar to women. So why can’t we let women enter Nizamuddin’s tomb chamber?

“According to the Islamic law, women are not allowed near graves,” said Altamash Nizami, a dargah caretaker. Then why are women permitted inside the tomb of Khawaja Gharib Nawaz, the great sufi shrine in Ajmer, Rajasthan? “The tomb chamber in that shrine is very big and there is a large partition that separates the pilgrims from the tomb,” said Altamash. After a pause, he said, “In Nizamuddin, the tradition of not allowing women is being followed for 700 years.”

How can a sufi saint, who is expected to be kind to everyone, be prejudiced towards a woman who loves him as much as a man? “I don’t think it was a prejudice,” said Sadia Dehlvi, the woman author of a book on sufism. Dehlvi told me that some sufis were accessible to women during their lifetime and some were not. “It depends on the nature of a sufi saint. For instance, Naseeruddin Mahmud Chirag Dilli never met his women followers directly so I understand if we cannot enter his tomb. But to my knowledge Hazrat Nizamuddin used to interact with women. Like Ajmer’s Khwaja Gharib Nawaz, he was accessible to everyone – the rich, the poor, the men and the women. I think the ban on the entry of women in Nizamuddin’s tomb is a later imposition by the dargah’s khadims.”

This discrimination is more ironic because just across the courtyard, a few yards away from Nizamuddin’s grave, lies the lovely tomb of a very interesting woman – Jahanara. The eldest child of Mughal emperor Shahjahan and Mumtaz Mahal, Princess Jahanara composed poetry, commissioned mosques, laid out gardens, and wrote biographies. She designed Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi’s signature street. A follower of Nizamuddin, she was buried in his shrine. The pilgrims refer to her as fakeera, an ascetic. Rose petals are offered daily on her simple grave that looks to the sky.

Jahanara too must have never entered Nizamuddin’s tomb chamber.

While the ban makes me sad, I don’t let the beautiful feeling I experience daily in Nizamuddin dargah be affected by this injustice. I console myself believing that ordinary people must have made this rule and that Nizmauddin baba would have never approved of it.

Recently a Hindu friend of mine, Sonal Aggarwal, went to the dargah for the first time in her life. She had been wanting to visit it for many years but was hesitant because she knew that being a woman she wouldn’t be allowed inside the tomb chamber. This is how Sonal described the event to me.

“The air in the marbled courtyard was suffused with something soothing, like love. In the sanctum, like an oasis, the tomb lay covered in green chadors and piled with red rose petals. I circled the shrine, peering through the lattice grill and murmuring my prayers to Hazrat Nizamuddin. What had my inhibitions been about? I couldn’t remember.”

It was a heart-to-heart connection. Hazrat Nizamuddin likes it that way, no matter if you are a man, a woman, or a eunuch.

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.

1 COMMENT

  1. Women are 'discouraged' but not forbidden from visiting graves because they tend to cry and get emotional whereas in Islam life and death are part of the great cycle of nature, and mourning beyond three days is not considered right. To have chehlums etc therefore is plain custom. You are supposed to get on with life after three days, even though in your heart you may miss a departed person/s. Unfortunately, all Islam's teachings are taken beyond sense by uneducated persons who have nominated themselves as its custodians. I have been to the shrine of Ali Hajweri here Lahore just to see it as an interesting place, and to pray for the departed soul, much as you can do that in your own home, car, anywhere.

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