THE website of the royal embassy of Saudi Arabia is quite clear: in order to apply for a Haj visa, women who are under 45 years of age must travel with a mehram, or a male guardian, and possess papers that provide proof of the relationship. Women who are over 45 years of age may travel without a mehram and with an organised group, provided they possess a no-objection certificate from their male guardian.
These rules, easily accessed by anyone in possession of an internet connection, seem to not be available to the Haj Review Committee across the border in India. It is perhaps just for this reason that a substantial hue and cry was raised last week when the committee announced that Indian-Muslim women above the age of 45 would be ‘permitted’ to undertake the Haj pilgrimage without a male guardian.
Examine: Indian, Muslim and female
Without ever mentioning the fact that such an allowance was already permitted to any Muslim woman anywhere who is over 45 years of age and travelling as part of a group, Indian media outlets presented the decision as a giant progressive leap. India, and particularly the Indian Muslims who were part of the government-appointed Haj committee, postured and pretended that they had devised the freedom all by themselves. The allusion was that India, under Modi, would be the vanguard for Muslim women’s rights. That the rights had long been granted and used and available was a detail that concerned no one at all.
Muslim women are a convenient pawn in the machinations of the Modi administration.
There is much, of course, to say about the rule concerning guardianship and the Saudi interpretation of it that leaves Muslim women subject to the whims and permissions of guardians even when it comes to fulfilling their religious duties.
As Muslim feminists have pointed out, where the issue of guardianship is concerned, certain injunctions have been used to insist that men are dominant over women. Male jurists have inflated the importance of guardianship directives while ignoring or de-emphasising injunctions that establish equality.
Unsurprisingly, Saudi authorities follow male interpretations that view the presence of a guardian as essential for women under 45 performing the Haj pilgrimage. As the recent directive over the ability of women to drive cars without a mehram reveals, until a Saudi king changes his mind the guardian requirement for women under 45 is likely to stay in place.
But those of course are the unshakeable terms of the Saudis. The issue with the Haj Review Committee in India seems to be that none of its members and none of the journalists that reported the ‘new’ rule seemed to be aware that what they were instituting — the permission for older women to perform Haj by themselves — was nothing new or ground-breaking.
It is not the first time in recent months that this has happened. In late August, India’s Supreme Court banned the oral pronouncements of talaq as constituting a valid Muslim divorce. In that case as well, the general posture by the Indian media was that such a form of divorce was otherwise permissible and not at all problematic.
This is incorrect. Many Muslim jurists and several Muslim countries do not permit oral pronouncements of talaq as constituting a legal divorce. Given that reality, it was misleading to insist, as Prime Minister Modi did, that the Indian Supreme Court had come out in favour of ‘justice for Muslim women’, alluding all the while that such justice would not be possible were it not for court intervention. The fact that oral talaq is severely discouraged and even banned in some Muslim countries was set aside. In its stead, the idea that Muslim women would be left to suffer if it were not for the rescue provided by the Indian state was pushed forward.
Muslim women, who are amongst the poorest in all of India, have become a convenient pawn in the machinations of the Modi administration, a gloss that covers up the evisceration of minority rights in India and the institutionalisation of Hindu militant and anti-dissent policies at every level. A section of the Indian press, always nationalistic, has now turned rabidly so, eager to insert propaganda that will please the country’s increasingly militant and Islamophobic masses instead. Picking on Muslim women, making an eager pretence of providing them with ‘rights’, even while Muslims as a whole are disenfranchised, treated as pariahs and left outside the ambit of economic uplift programmes, is a catty technique that checks all the boxes.
Much like the colonial overlords of yore, and the imperial adventurers of now, the current administration has selected the strategy of ‘saving Muslim women’ even as it victimises Muslims as a whole. That they may not need the kind of saving on offer is not something that seems to have occurred to them.
There will be a day when Muslim women, regardless of age and place, will be able to undertake the pilgrimage by themselves, just as they are able to go to work by themselves, go to mosques by themselves, fly planes by themselves, cure diseases by themselves, write books by themselves, and lead countries and organisations by themselves. In the meantime, one hopes that the Haj committees in India or elsewhere will acquaint themselves with the already existing permission for women over 45 to complete the pilgrimage by themselves when they travel as part of an organised group.
If the administration of Prime Minister Modi is truly interested in being the champion of Muslim women, it could consider providing them quotas in Indian institutions of higher learning and in employment, such that they can consider themselves equal to their more favoured non-Muslim brothers and sisters. Some freedoms have less to do with faith and more with how the faithful are treated.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2017