An iftar helped get me back to my roots.
Our values are perhaps the source of all our complexities. As we grow up, it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile the values our parents inculcate in us, and those that we make for ourselves. I’m a perfect example of this contradiction. A Muslim, a feminist, a 90’s kid, an obedient daughter and a girl who enjoys a cold beer any time of the day. When I set out for Haji Ali Dargah that afternoon, I was filled with many questions and preconceived notions about my faith and its guidelines. I had read about the women’s ban that had been effective from 2012 until 2016, till the Bombay High Court ruling put things in order and the ban was lifted.
Haji Ali Dargah
A shrine, a mausoleum and a symbol of cultural unity in India - the Haji Ali Dargah stands tall on an islet in the Arabian Sea. Hindus and Muslims come together to pay homage and offer their prayers, and yet it’s also a place which differentiated between men and women. How could it be a place that united people and on the other hand upheld discrimination that is banal and apathetic?
I arrived with a friend around 4:30pm in the scorching sun. The causeway that led to the main shrine was drenched from the stormy waves of the sea, splashing unceremoniously on passersby. Before we were halfway through we had already been followed by overexcited hawkers and soaked in the salty grime of the high tide. We laughed a little at each other, trying our best not to wholly dislike the experience.
Crowd and clatter at Haji Ali
Soon people had arranged themselves in neat lines on the sides of the causeway. Food lay in front of them as they waited patiently for the Azaan to break their day long fast. Within an hour the entire place had changed. It had a wholly different energy; it was peaceful, like a shrine should be.
I made my way up the stairs that jutted outside the walls of the Kinara mosque and into the main office. A man sat inside with his back towards me watching the match intently, toying with his woven skull cap. Shaikh Mohammed Ahmed is the administrative officer of the Haji Ali Trust and for better or worse he was going to have to answer some very difficult questions for me.
Preparing for iftar
I introduced myself and began.
Q: “Why did you ban women from entering the inner sanctum of the shrine?”
A: “We never banned women from entering the shrine, we just asked them to use a different entrance,” he replied very calmly.
Q: “That makes no sense, sir. It was all over the news. There was a very legitimate ban on women entering. Why would women create an issue about using a separate entrance?”
A: “I cannot answer why women would do that but, you know how women’s rights people are. They want to be equal to men in everything.”
Q: “Has it ever occurred to you that women don’t want to be equal to men but that maybe they are already equal and we are just asking for that to be implemented?”
A: “Islam gives women a very special place. The prophet never said that heaven was under the father’s feet but under the mother’s. We here at Haji Ali have taken care to provide all amenities that are required for women to pray as per the rules of the Sharia. We have a separate enclosure for women to offer their Namaz and break their fasts during this holy month.”
Q: “You did not answer my question sir. I know that Islam has provided many rights for women. I am not asking you how Islam treats women. I am asking you how the Haji Ali Trust does…”
What ensued next was a monologue of (mis?)information about the religion and the rights it gives to women. He circumvented every question, telling me things he thought I had no idea about. Somewhere in between the topic of triple talaq emerged, and as he sat there trying to explain the legalities behind it, I cut him off, “I really think either you do not know or choose to not understand the fact that according to the Sharia there is no concept of triple talaq. No matter how many times you utter the word, it is counted as one talaq for the entire menstrual cycle of the wife. Legally and effectively a man will have to wait it out for three months i.e. three periods to divorce her. It doesn’t matter if you advocate it or not, Islam doesn’t.”
“Aisa nahi hai,” was his perfunctory retort.
Q: “I have heard that every evening the trust organizes an Iftar. Is it open to all?” I inquired.
A: “Yes, we prepare iftar for almost 1000 people every day and have a special caterer for it. We serve mutton and chicken pulao as well, and the fried food is not like the local stuff you get at the kiosks,” he said looking proud and happy. “I know you have many questions and that people have their own versions of the truth and of Islam. Ask yourself what is Islam? What is Allah? Nobody has ever seen God but we still believe in him. If you only believe what you see, then there is no Allah. But there is, like the wind. It is something you can only feel and that is what faith is. It is the absence of questions and after you leave here go back to the Dargah and sit for Iftar with the other women. You will see faith,” he said, urging me to reason.
Women participating in the iftar
And faith I saw. I sat there amidst hordes of women, as they chomped down their food, not out of hunger from having starved the entire day but so they could rush to offer prayers on time. I saw little children sit beside their mothers observing rituals they were too young to understand. I saw mothers juggle between feeding themselves and their infants. And I saw teenage boys who had been fasting the entire day, dutifully pouring sherbet into glass after glass and food into platter after platter, ensuring every woman in the enclosure had their fill, ensuring nobody missed out on Iftar.
The iftar organized by the Haji Ali trust
Despite all my reservations, I was sitting in a space that was very akin to home, an environment I could relate to, if not adhere to; and it made me question who I was. My brain found these rituals pointless, even stupid. And yet, tears welled up because it reminded me of my mother and my father back in Kolkata who would be doing exactly what these men and women were doing…and I missed it. I missed them.
A beautiful Muslim girl :)
Is religion perhaps faith for the believer and familiarity for the heretic?
I left Haji Ali with more questions than I arrived with, but on my way back I sent my father a photo of me. My mother called later that night and said this made my father very happy.
“Why,” I asked.
“Because you were wearing a salwar kameez and you had your head covered and he thinks you looked like a beautiful little Muslim girl.”
Did I smile?
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101india.com
By Suman Quazi
Photographs by Manini Bansal and Suman Quazi