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Haj rule change in India leads to sharp rise in female applicants

The change in rules now means that women can undertake the Islam pilgrimage without a male companion.The panel that reviewed the policy noted that the religion per se didn’t prohibit this.

india Updated: Dec 24, 2017 08:15 IST
Saubhadra Chatterji and Zia Haq
Saubhadra Chatterji and Zia Haq
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Haj,Haj police,Mehram
Muslim pilgrims at the Kaaba at the Masjid al-Haram Mosque, Islam's holiest site, in Mecca, in September 2015. The pilgrimage is one of Islam's five pillars – it has to be performed at least once in one's life if he or she can afford it. (EPA File Photo)

A record 1,244 Indian women have applied to go for Haj next year after the NDA government allowed for the first time Muslim women to undertake the annual pilgrimage to Mecca without the company of a male relative.

Till now, Muslim women had to be accompanied by a mehram, usually a husband or a relative to whom marriage is unlawful, for the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

Officials in the minority affairs ministry said of the 1,244 applications from single women, 1,016 applications have been accepted so far.

The recommendation to allow women-only groups to apply for Haj was made by the Afzal Amanullah panel constituted to review the earlier Haj policy. The panel’s recommendation was accepted by the Narendra Modi government in October.

“There are many schools of thought on this (women going alone) but the religion per se doesn’t prohibit it. So I decided to make the recommendation,” Amanullah said.

Since demand often outstrips the quota of pilgrims India is allowed to send, applications are picked through a lucky draw. But in the category of women without male companions, there is no quota limit as the Centre wants to give priority to such applicants.

Kerala tops the list with 288 women, said Mohammed Hassain, who vets records at the Kerala Haj Committee.

Scholars say there is no restriction in Islam that explicitly bars single women from embarking on Haj. Saudi Arabia admits women-only groups if the pilgrims are over 45 years of age.

Puttutty, who goes by one name, has never wandered alone from her small village in Kottayam, a Kerala district famous with vacationers. When she occasionally does, the 54-year-old is usually accompanied by a male relative.

In June next year, Puttutty will break free from the many fetters traditional societies put on women. She, along with three other women in her group, will make a lifetime’s journey without a male looking over their shoulders.

“We are four women, so I am not at all nervous,” Puttutty told HT over the phone.

Another pilgrim who will lead an all-women’s team to Haj from neighouring Mallapuram, Asya, said she too was venturing out alone for the first time but “God will help us”.

Faizan Mustafa, a scholar and the vice-chancellor of the Hyderabad-based NALSAR University of Law calls it “a welcome step”.

“It should have happened long ago. Why should the Indian government impose any restrictions on Indian Muslim women to go to Haj? I also think women should have representation in the Haj committees. When 50% of the population is women, they must find more space in these bodies.”

Afyia Siddiqui, a social activist from the NGO ‘Lab Azad Hai, described the reform as a “giant leap”.

In 2017, at least 1.24 lakh Indians went for the pilgrimage, while the total number of applicants was nearly 4.5 lakh.

Former Indian-origin American reporter Asra Nomani created headlines when she published a memoir Standing Alone in Mecca after performing Haj by stealth as a single woman with an infant son born outside marriage.

Sehba Farooqi of the National Federation of Indian Women, said: “I have seen Muslim women married outside the community going to Haj taking help from neighbours or distant relatives and fudging their identities. Now, as the government is allowing women to go unaccompanied by male relatives, it will become very easy for them to travel to Saudi Arabia.”

“But I don’t know how the clergy will react. I must say, this is a great challenge for Indian Muslim women to assert their rights within the Sharia structure.”

The new Haj policy is among a series of reforms by the judiciary and the government to empower Muslim women and ensure gender justice in the community. The Supreme Court this year struck down instant triple talaq and also allowed women to enter the Haji Ali shrine in Mumbai.

In September, Saudi Arabia reversed its much-pilloried, long-standing policy of not allowing women to drive, as the kingdom faces pressure to modernise its patriarchal laws.

First Published: Dec 24, 2017 08:13 IST