SAKINA Fatima used to think her path to the Haj and Umrah was forever blocked.
“If I don’t have a mehram, why can’t I come to see Allah’s house and do sajdah on the floor of Haram?” the 40-year-old orphan from India, wondered. “Why do I have to pay the price for a decision that’s not mine?” she asked, fighting back tears.
Then in the Haj 2020, during the height of the Covid pandemic, she made a fervent plea as the sight of an almost empty Kaaba pierced through her heart — “Oh Allah, call me once.”
The prayer was answered.
In October 2022, she and countless other women were granted permission to travel for Haj and Umrah without male guardianship.
“It’s not about money or status or anything else. Once Allah has decided to call you, He will make ways,” Sakina told me during an Umrah earlier this year. She was finally in the holy city of Makkah, seeing the Kaaba with her own eyes. The dream had come true.
This year, thousands of women from across 160 countries participated in the Haj pilgrimage, the biggest since the start of the pandemic.
On Wednesday, vast crowds of robed worshippers hurled pebbles to stone the devil as the biggest Haj pilgrimage since the start of the pandemic draws to a close in intense Saudi Arabian heat.
More than 1.8 million people — including over 875,000 women, or 47pc of the total — are taking part in the first unrestricted Haj since Covid, before which about 2.5 million joined the pilgrimage in 2019.
In the 2020 Haj, which came after the pandemic struck, only 1,000 Saudis performed the annual Islamic ritual. The figure rose to 60,000 Saudi pilgrims in 2021, and then to around 900,000 — including some 780,000 foreigners — in 2022.
The Saudi decision to remove the requirement for women to be accompanied by a male guardian heralds a historic shift. Countless Muslim women worldwide are fulfilling their spiritual yearning to visit the holy mosques of Masjid Al-Haram and Masjid Al-Nabawi, independently.
Among them was Hibu from Somalia, who never had the opportunity to perform Haj or Umrah due to the absence of a male guardian.
“I don’t have a brother, nor have I got married. My father passed away long ago… but thanks to Allah that now I came here and saw His house,” she told me during the Umrah in April.
“We are an all-women group. Most of us either didn’t have a mehram or enough money that we could travel along with them. They then sent us for the pilgrimage,” she said.
Fatima Bibi, from Lahore and in her 70s, also had a tale to share. The family’s limited financial resources led her husband to make the difficult decision to send her alone for the Umrah.
“He (her husband) saved all his life for two things only, to do Umrah with me and gold earrings for me… Unfortunately, we couldn’t make this wish [Umrah together] come true. But I am grateful to him that he finally forced me to come here and perform Umrah,” she said. “We can do it together again someday if we stay alive.”
Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology also endorsed this change, allowing women earlier this year to travel for Haj without a male guardian, acknowledging provisions for it in Maliki, Shafi’i and Jafria schools of thought.
The council’s spokesperson noted that a woman who enjoyed the company of reliable women and did not feel insecure while travelling or during the pilgrimage could perform Haj without a mehram, provided her parents or husband allowed her to do so.
Just next door in India, more than 4,300 Indian women registered to perform Haj on their own. An all-women Air India flight took off from Kozhikode, a southern state of Kerala, to Saudi Arabia, carrying 145 pilgrims — the crew and the passengers, all women.
As Wednesday’s sun sets and the Haj 2023 draws to a close, it also signals a new dawn for Muslim women. Amid the echoing prayers and the hum of a million footsteps, one thing is clear: a new chapter has begun.
And it’s a chapter written by the hands — and feet — of millions of Muslim women.
Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2023