MUMBAI: A landmark mosque in Mumbai is facing pressure to overturn a ban on women entering its inner sanctum, a move that could set a precedent on gender restrictions to places of worship in the deeply religious country.
A Muslim women's rights group is locked in a bitter legal battle with trustees of Mumbai's Haji Ali Dargah, built in the 15th century and popular not only with Muslims but Hindu devotees and sight-seeing tourists.
Women have been prevented entry to the mosque's mausoleum since 2011, with its trust saying close female proximity to the tomb of a revered saint is "a grievous sin" in Islam.
Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) has petitioned the Bombay High Court seeking a ruling that the ban is unconstitutional, hoping such a decision would mark a major step forward for women's rights in India.
"A positive ruling would set a precedent and would have a wider and long-term effect," BMMA co-founder Noorjehan Niaz told AFP.
"It would send a message and encourage women of all religions who are barred from entering places of worship to approach courts with similar demands," she added.
The mosque is located on an islet accessible via a causeway at low tide. It was built in the 1430s in memory of a wealthy Muslim who gave up his worldly possessions and went on a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Legend has it that Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari, who became a Sufi saint, died during his spiritual journey and his body washed up on rocks in the Arabian Sea off south Mumbai.
The mosque was constructed on the spot where his body was found, and his tomb, or "dargah", lies in the inner sanctum — the mosque's most sacred place.
It is one of a string of temples and mosques across India that restricts access to women.
Last month local media reported that a Hindu temple in western Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital, suspended seven security guards after a female devotee stepped on a platform to worship an idol.
Women are barred from the stand and temple authorities later performed a "purification" ceremony on the idol, according to the reports.