There are dissenting voices within conservative Muslim scholars on the recommendation of the Ministry of Minority Affairs (MoMA) last week to allow Muslim women above 45 years of age to travel for Haj without a mehram, i.e. male guardian. While women groups have welcomed the move, conservative scholars claim that Shariah (Islamic law) does not permit it.

Uzma Naheed, former member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and great granddaughter of Moulana Qasim Nanutwi, founder of Darul Uloom, Deoband, said, “Performing Haj is no easy task. The whole process takes around a month and is a physically exhausting exercise. Performing Haj with a partner is lot more convenient than doing it alone. And since Islam is clear about its gender boundaries, it allows women to travel for Haj with a mehram. In general, allowing women to travel alone is discouraged, but with changing times, a lot of Islamic societies have improvised and some have chosen to still put a ban on it. Nonetheless, Haj is not a travel that a woman is allowed to undertake all by herself. It is practical too. A woman is most comfortable with her mehram, which is why they are anyway the ideal choice of travel partners.” For a Muslim woman, a mehram is her husband or a male relative whom she can never marry, like her father, brother, maternal/paternal uncles, grandson etc.

Until now, Muslim women in India were not allowed to go for Haj without a male guardian, thus making it difficult for eligible women to travel alone for Haj. The MoMA last weekend announced the recommendations drafted by a special committee to make required changes in the new Haj Policy 2018-22. 

Qaiser Shamim, a retired IRS and former chairman of Haj Committee and a member of the current recommendation committee, told The Sunday Guardian: “Not all maslak (schools of thought) in Islam restrict women from performing Haj without a mehram. So, those Muslim women whose maslak allows them to travel for Haj alone, should have a provision in policy to be able to do so. There are many recommendations that have been given to MoMA and this is just one recommendation among them. Whether it will become a part of the new Haj policy or not will be decided by the ministry. But all the recommendations have been given by the special committee only after consulting various stakeholders of society. We had already taken the Shariah into account for what can and what cannot be done for all our recommendations.”

Zakia Soman of the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), a women’s group that advocates contemporary interpretation of Islamic law for women, emphasised the need for such a provision and said: “People make Islam sound regressive by using the patriarchal lens to understand it. There are women who are eligible for Haj, but are not able to go because they are not able to find a mehram to travel with. Also, why should women of only 45 years of age or more should be allowed to travel? Why not younger women? European nations allow women to travel for Haj by themselves and the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia permits it too. Why can’t India permit it?”

Najmi, a private tour operator based in New Delhi who makes Haj arrangements for people who want to travel for Haj on a private package, said, “Since until now there has been no such provision, we have hardly ever come across any such case where a woman could not travel for Haj because she did not have a mehram. Only the Shafai school of thought permits women to travel for Haj alone. Other sects do not. In India, Shafai are small in number which is why such women are also likely to be very few. Moreover, women generally do find a mehram in their blood relatives with whom they can perform Haj, at least that is what we have witnessed over the years.”

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