WHILE this year’s Haj will again be marked by a limited number of pilgrims, the Saudi government’s decision to allow women to perform the rite without a mahram (male guardian) is indeed a major step forward. Though many schools of thought — including the Jafari, Shafi’i and Maliki fiqhs — already allowed women to proceed for Haj without a mahram, the Hanafi school, which is followed by the majority in Pakistan, does not. While people are free to act upon the juristic rulings of their respective schools, the Saudi decision definitely makes it easier for women without male relatives wanting to perform the pilgrimage to do so. Earlier, many women wishing to go for Haj who were not able to travel with husbands, sons, brothers or other close male relatives were barred from performing this important tenet of the faith. However, prospective women pilgrims will have to hold off on their plans for now, for the kingdom has, for the second straight year, announced that only Saudis and resident foreigners will be able to perform Haj due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Saudi government has said 60,000 people will be allowed to perform Haj this year.

Over the last few years, Saudi Arabia has begun to lift the many curbs it had placed on women’s social freedoms in a campaign overseen by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The removal of the mahram clause for women pilgrims is part of this series of events. Regarding the overall Haj situation, it is indeed a point of concern that the Muslim world’s most important annual event has had to be scaled down again. Where once millions from across the world were able to participate in Haj, now only a few thousand from within the kingdom will do so. However, the need to protect people from Covid-19 has necessitated the decision, and it is hoped that with increased vaccination worldwide and a decrease in cases, foreign pilgrims will once more be allowed to perform Haj.

Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2021

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