Women are often the sacrificial lambs when Muslims have to deal with "problems" in our community. Men are unable to control their libidos so women are punished – confined to the homes, relegated to galleries (in mosques) and their voices suppressed. That women fall victim to chauvinistic laws is not surprising, considering that the community, men and women, are often fed with selective information.
Regulations around gender and haj starkly illustrate one type of chauvinism. Not too long ago the Saudi Government introduced a law that forbade women under the age of 45 from undertaking the haj without a mahram (either a husband or a man she cannot marry, like a close relative). This meant that women under 45 could go for haj only if there was a mahram willing to "take her" for haj.
Previously, women were allowed for haj in groups without a mahram. Among most schools of thought it is accepted that a woman may travel with a group of trustworthy women or even with a trusted woman companion. There is also a view that a woman may travel by herself, provided the way to haj or ‘umrah is safe. The Prophet (s) is reported to have replied to a man who complained about highway robbery, "If you lived long enough you will see that a woman will travel from Hira (in Iraq) and will perform tawaf around Ka’bah, and she will have no fear except that of Allah."
The Qur’an speaks of the peace, security and freedom from fear at Makkah. "Behold, the First Temple ever set up for humankind was indeed the one at Bakkah (Makkah): rich in blessing, and a (source of) guidance unto all the worlds. (It is) the place whereupon Abraham once stood; and whoever enters it finds inner peace and freedom from fear. Hence Pilgrimage unto the Temple is a duty owed to Allah by all people who are able to undertake it. And as for those who deny the truth, verily Allah does not stand in need of anything in all the worlds" (Qur’an 3:96-97).
We need to recall only the story of Hajar (s), to have a proper perspective of the issue. She stayed in the desert with her infant son Isma’il because of her faith in God, and her fear for God alone. She did not have a mahram, she survived with the infant by striving to take care of herself and her son with the help of God. Ibn ‘Abbas relates the incident thus: "Prophet Ibrahim (s) brought Hajar (s), his wife, and their son Isma’il (s), whom she was still nursing, and left them at the House of Allah under a tree above the Zamzam. Makkah at that time was a place where there was neither water nor any dweller. He left a bag of dates and a container of water for them. Then Ibrahim (s) turned to go away. Isma’il’s mother said to him, ‘O Ibrahim! Where are you going? And who are you leaving us to in this valley without a companion or a thing?’ She repeated this several times but he did not respond. At last she asked him, ‘Has Allah commanded you to do so?’ He answered, ‘Yes.’ Thereupon she said, ‘Then He will not let us perish!’ (Bukhari).
One cannot help but be inspired by this black slave woman who actively strove to please Allah and survive in the harsh desert. One must remember that a central person whom Muslims follow during the haj is Imama Hajar, a woman.
Women had been performing haj and ‘umrah, travelling in groups, enjoying the haram’s security and access to the Houses of Allah – which is denied to them in some parts of the world. This freedom was then snatched away from an already suppressed group within the community. If the Saudis wanted to control the numbers entering Arabia they could surely have used other methods. But it is easier and one is less likely to face resistance if one deprives a sector that already does not have a voice.
The mahram law effectively bars some Muslims from fulfilling a religious obligation (fard). There are many reverts particularly, on whom haj has become obligatory but who don’t have Muslim mahrams. This is especially true in a Muslim minority country like South Africa. The recently-formed South African Haj and ‘Umrah Council, whose task it is top ease the way for South African hujjaj, should challenge this regulation and request an exemption to this kind of discrimination.
Once a Muslim has the means to perform haj it becomes obligatory on him or her. One never knows what the future holds; deferring the haj could mean that one would lose the opportunity and means to perform it. Ibn ‘Abbas related that the Prophet (s) said: "He who intends to perform haj let him do so expeditiously, for he may well fall sick, may lose his mount (ability to bear expenses of the journey) or may be prevented by some other exigency."
The strange exemption for women over 45 indicates the mind set behind the law. It seems to be more about sex than safety.
Besides the mahram law, many other (official and unofficial) regulations on haj are riddled with many prohibitions for women which cannot be attributed to the Prophet (s): they must not make ramal (brisk walk) while making tawaf; they must not jog the short distance between Safa and Marwa – the Milain Akhdarain – (even though the act is to commemorate a woman Hajar, who ran from Safa to Marwa); they must not make their way to the Hajarul Aswad or pray near the Maqam Ibrahim; and books distributed in South Africa claim they must perform all their salah in their apartments/hotels and not in the Haram; they must perform the tawaf on the outskirts and not try to get close to the Ka’bah; in a crowd of hundreds of thouands they must keep a clear distance from men; they must not say the talbiyyah aloud...
Yes, the Prophet and Allah stress that there is no need to overburden oneself. But only the individual knows the burden that he or she can carry, and each person should have the right to choose the most convenient. Gender cannot be the criterion for deciding one's ability for these rituals.
* Shamima Shaikh wrote this article under the pseudonym Salma Said. It was published in Al-Qalam.