How Shrines Dedicated to Women End Up Reinforcing Patriarchal Values

The Bombay high court’s ruling permitting women inside the sanctum sanctorum of Haji Ali is a good first step but a lot more needs to be done across India and Pakistan to make shrines women-friendly.

woman prays

Subjugation, often backed with the legitimacy of religious and cultural tenants, is widespread in Pakistan. Credit: Reuters

On my first trip to Mumbai a few years ago, I made my way to the Haji Ali Dargah located in the heart of the city. I was travelling alone and was told that my trip would be incomplete without a visit to the dargah. I had specially carried a dupatta along that morning, knowing that as a woman, I would be expected to abide by certain moral standards which men are often excused from. I also knew that there would be a limit to how far into the dargah I would be allowed to enter.

Having visited several shrines around Punjab in Pakistan, I always returned with a feeling of being a pollutant, of being someone who had the power to contaminate a sacred space depending on where I stepped. Rather than feeling peaceful, many a times I would leave these shrines agitated and angry. In a country where public space for women continues to be contested, to be told that I could not enter the more “sacred” areas of the shrines, reinforced the arbitrary lines of purity and impurity, of morality and profanity and of immodesty and honour.

Pakistan has repeatedly been ranked as the second (or in slightly more positive reports, the third) worst nation in the world for women. The social status of a majority of females in Pakistan remains dismally low and their voices continue to be stifled in the public space.

Subjugation, often backed with the legitimacy of religious and cultural tenants, is widespread.

Rather than enabling female emancipation, the majority of government policies and practices further exacerbate the situation. The recent Protection of Women Against Violence Bill remains hotly contested. As a nation, we are still grappling with whether men should be allowed to lightly beat their wives and whether women are in need of any respite from abuse at all.

Amidst this distressing reality, shrines, festivals and places of worship honoring women serve as a symbol of a bizarre dichotomy across the country.

Every year devotees travel barefoot, with many even crawling, to the shrine Mariamabad – the site of an annual pilgrimage for the September 8 feast of the birth of Mary – in an act of extreme devotion. The celebration of Navratri in Bahawalnagar in Punjab, brings together the Hindu community, both male and female, for the celebration of the Hindu deity Durga. The Bibi Pak Daman, which is believed to host the graves of six women from the prophet’s family, brings to it hundreds of Muslim devotees in Lahore. In the heart of Jhang, the hotbed of militancy in South Punjab, the shrine of the folk legend Heer flourishes with young lovers coming together to seek her blessings.

Having visited and participated in many of the rituals at these shrines, it is tempting to believe that they serve as a source of empowerment for women, who are otherwise subjugated. These festivals and shrines serve as sacred places, where female deities and women are worshipped, and where women have the highest status and symbolise ultimate emancipation. As men come to the foot of their tombs to seek salvation, it is tempting to believe that at the very least in these spaces, it is the women who hold positions of power and authority.

Delving deeper, one begins to realise that while the shrines can, and do raise the status of women, they also disempower the female sex. The caretakers of these shrines tend to be men. Just as women are perceived as needing the protection of male members of the family, these sacred women too seem to need men to guard them in their death. At Bibi Pak Daman and at Mariamabad, it is these men that remind the devotees of the purity of the women that they are there to serve.

The shrines also serve as a constant reminder of the morality that women are meant to exemplify, since the honour of men, families and nations is widely believed to reside with women.

The virtue of Mary is embedded in her virginity. The virtue of the women at Bibi Pak Daman is rooted in them sacrificing their lives to protect their honour, as all ‘good women’ are meant to do. A legend has it that the women of the prophet’s family escaped to Lahore after the battle of Karbala. Scared of being found by Hindu men who were ruling Lahore at the time, they are believed to have run to the spot where the shrine stands today, and asked the Almighty to open the ground and swallow them whole so that they would not have to lose their honour by facing strange men.

It is said that right before the men reached the spot, the ground split into two and gulped them; only a small piece of dupatta was left peeking above the ground.

When the men tried to grab the dangling piece of cloth, it too was pulled inside. The bibis were so pure that the men could not touch even their dupatta. In a way then these women in Christianity and Islam continue to be revered only because they too upheld the honour of society, as the ultimate torchbearers and vessels of morality.

The majority of the prayers of the pilgrims are also tainted with gender-based discrimination and subjugation. The prayers are dominated by the desire of a male child or for the female to be married off so that she is no longer a burden on her family.

On my last visit to Bibi Pak Daman, I saw a young woman and her mother weeping as they offered their prayers. The mother told me that her son-in-law was threatening her daughter with divorce if she failed to have a son. They were told that a visit to Bibi Pak Daman would help salvage the marriage. They were there praying that a son would arrive sooner than the divorce papers. A woman’s role after all was to make her man happy; if she could not give him a son, what purpose did she serve?

At the shrines of powerful women like Heer, stories have been reinterpreted and rewritten by men to fit the expectations of society. Heer, however, is said to have defied the norms by expressing her love for Ranjha despite being married. Today, the space for such rebellious behavior is no longer warranted. At her shrine, the 18th century Punjabi poet Waris Shah’s rendition of the love legend is no longer sung, even though it has traditionally been so popular that Heer is hardly ever imagined or discussed without the mention of Shah.

Today, however, the keepers of the shrine in Jhang tell me that Heer and Ranjha’s love story can only be understood in a spiritual sense and not as a relationship between two individuals who defied societal norms to be with one another. Viewing their relationship any other way would bring shame to the community.

Shah’s Heer, which makes references to not only the spiritual relationship, but also alludes to the sexual one, has thus been prohibited from being sung. The shrine of Heer thrives, but only after being appropriated in a way that abides by the decorum of the society, by the standards of a city increasingly threatened by radical Islam and by a country with deeply ingrained patriarchal values.

Even in shrines that epitomise the sanctity and power of women, there is a constant struggle for making them more moral, for purifying them further and for ensuring that they do not bring dishonour.

The Bombay high court’s recent ruling permitting women to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the Haji Ali Dargah, is and must be celebrated as a critical step towards enabling women to reclaim their space. The fact that women initiated the petition makes the verdict all the more powerful. In India and Pakistan – where a safe and free access to public spaces for women continues to be restricted and controlled by patriarchal notions – to be able to renegotiate entry into sacred spaces is a progressive step.

It may lead to women establishing or re-establishing their access to other spheres of public and spiritual life. One can only hope that more cities and shrines in India will follow suit and that Pakistan will also initiate similar structural changes in the country.

The claims of the trustees of the dargah that the mixing of women and men and the bowing of women and baring of their breasts to the public, are acts of indecency, must not stand in the way of implementation of the verdict.

The idea that a family or a nation’s honour resides in how modestly and appropriately its females conduct themselves and how strongly social institutions control their behavior, must be challenged. The numbers of honour killing cases in the recent years serve as alarming reminders of the damage that such narratives can do.

Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, on honour killings in Pakistan, and the resulting discourse in the parliament, provides some respite in this scenario, but the discourse must continue and be owned by women on both sides of the border.

It is my hope that with the Bombay high court’s verdict, other structural changes and ideological shifts will follow. It is my hope that over the next few years, more and more shrines will open prohibited spaces to women. It is my hope that one will come across more female caretakers at shrines, that more and more women will be included in interpretations and reinterpretations of folk legends and storytelling at these shrines so that the rewriting of folk traditions is not hijacked by patriarchal forces. These are fundamental shifts imperative to the creation of equal spaces for women.

Whether more shrines will adopt similar verdicts as the Haji Ali Dargah across India, and whether Pakistan will learn and implement similar laws in the country are matters that remain to be seen. Until then, the majority of shrines, whether revering male or female saints, will continue to function as spaces that reinforce patriarchal notions of what is permitted and what is forbidden, of what is honourable and what is dishonourable, of what constitutes freedom and what constitutes as sacrilege.

Anam Zakaria is based in Pakistan and is the author of Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians.