New Delhi: On December 31, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that his government had removed the requirement that Muslim women going on Haj be accompanied by a mahram or a male guardian. The actual situation is a little more complicated.
In his final ‘Mann Ki Baat‘ of 2017, Modi had said that removal of this restriction – which he said had been in force for “70 years” – may appear as a “small thing”, but such issues “have a far-reaching impact on our image as a society”. In Islamic law, a mahram is a male relative whom a woman is permanently forbidden to marry.
The factual situation is that rules governing the grant of Haj visas for women are the prerogative of Saudi Arabia and not India. The traditional Saudi position was that only women accompanied by a mahram would be granted a visa for performing Haj. At some point – one media report says this happened In 2014, another dates the change to several years earlier – the Saudis formally relaxed this rule which women from India and elsewhere had in amy case found ways of circumventing, to allow women over the age of 45 to perform Haj without mahrams provided they travelled in a ‘safe group’.
Indians go on Haj in one of two ways – they either make their own arrangements through private tour operators, or they apply to the government-run Haj Committee for facilitation. Given the relaxed visa rules, Indian women above 45 were free to perform Haj without an accompanying male relative and many made their arrangements through private tour operators in order to do so. But women wanting to go through the Haj Committee hit a roadblock since the committee did not bring its own procedures in line with the Saudi rules.
For example, the Haj Committee’s guidelines for application forms for Haj 2016 had a list of categories of those not eligible to go on the pilgrimage. The seventh item simple said that “ladies not accompanied by Sharai Mahram” and made no exception for older women travelling in a group.
In October, a government panel overseeing all arrangements for Indians going on Haj with official support recommended that the Haj Committee accept the applications of women above the age of 45 travelling without a male relative provided they were in a group of at least four.
It is this decision of the official Haj Committee to bring its own rules in line with the Saudi Arabian visa norms that Modi was probably referring to in his monthly radio address.
Speaking to The Wire, the convenor of the five-member committee, former IAS officer Afzal Amanullah said that so far, the Haj Committee did not accept Haj applications from Indian Muslim women without a mahram.
But for Haj 2018, the committee has modified its guidelines to state: “Ladies above 45 years of age, who wish to go for Haj but do not have a male mahram, and their school of thought (maslak) permits [them], are allowed to travel in group of four”.
“That is what I put in the report that if the school of thought of that woman permits passage for Haj alone and not accompanied by mahram, that woman should be allowed to go on Haj,” Amanullah told The Wire.
Women under the age of 45 will continue to barred from performing Haj if unaccompanied by a mahram.
Indian women have been going on Haj without mahram
Soon after Modi’s claim, noted historian, author and scholar Rana Safvi tweeted that she had already performed Haj without a mahram at the age of 48.
Soon after the Amanullah committee had recommended a change in the Haj Committee’s rules, Safvi had in fact noted that the credit for letting women travel alone for Haj belongs to Saudi Arabia, and not the Indian government.
She also noted that “there are some 25 ayats or verses in the Quran that refer to Haj as the pilgrimage that is a pillar of Islam. They spell out the rules of what is lawful during the pilgrimage. However, not one of them mentions that a woman needs to have a mahram with her. But since this is the rule that has been prevailing in Saudi Arabia where Kaaba is situated, one has to obey the law of the land.”
According to retired officials and diplomats who have handled Haj operations in the past, there were no Indian government restrictions or written rules that stopped women.
Talmiz Ahmad, former IFS officer who has twice served as the Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said that whenever there were cases where a woman wanting to go on Haj did not have a male relative of the first degree who could be a mahram, communities had evolved their own solution over the years.
“The issue was handled traditionally – that a whole group of ladies performed it in a group. For example, a certain village gets together and it becomes a kind of coherent community. And the coherent community can perform Haj. The idea was that the lady should be protected,” Ahmad told The Wire.
He gave an example of his own grandmother, who had been very observant and who had gone alone on Haj in the 1960s without her husband who did not want to go on the pilgrimage.
“A group of people decided to go on Haj and she joined them. She did not have a mahram in the traditional sense…and she was protected by the community,” he said, adding that these traditions have gone on without a break for over hundred years.
“Without making much noise, a large number of women were performing in groups and nobody bothered to find out if they had a mahram or not,” he said.
Ahmad also noted that the Saudi authorities accepted these women “on the very loose basis that the supervision of the Indian Haj in Saudi Arabia is the responsibility of the Indian ambassador”.
“So, the Indian ambassador is the guardian of the Indian pilgrimage and therefore of the Indian pilgrims. When I was ambassador, we used to have large number of such women who used to come to perform Haj and the Haj committee had no difficulty,” asserted Ahmad, who had also been posted as Indian consul general to Jeddah.
There had also been other groups of professional women, like doctors who were sent by the Indian government to be volunteers. They were on official passports and used to be accommodated within the Indian embassy camp.
However, the lack of clear-cut guidelines on this issue meant that there are varying narratives.
Zikrur Rahman, a former Indian diplomat who had also served as Indian consul general in Jeddah, claimed that the Haj Committee of India had informally allowed women above 65 years to go without a mahram.
“It was never a direction of the Saudi government, but an internal directive of the Haj Committee,” he said.
About 20 years ago, when private tour operators also started to ply Haj pilgrims, there was further loose implementation of guidelines.
“Many tour operators were taking these women, showing somebody or the other as guardian and they were traveling. Ultimately, private tour operators were responsible for their protection,” he said.
An Indian diplomat told The Wire that the Saudi authorities had frowned upon these activities a few years ago, when it was discovered that several women traveling alone were involved in begging. He pointed to the 2012 case when the West Bengal Haj Committee got a severe rap for sending a large number of women without their husband, who were later found to be part of a begging racket.
Schisms within Haj Committee
According to an official, the Haj Committee of India is not a “coherent body” and therefore there had been differing application of rules depending on the personalities involved in the execution of policy.
Amanullah said that the Haj Committee is probably guided “by the dominant school of thought of Sunni Muslims in India”.
“So, if you are guided by only one school of thought, when there are so many schools of thought in Islam, so how can one group impose its will on the other group? I mean, Islam is an amorphous religion just like Hinduism and we cannot say that one is better than the other. We cannot. We are not anyone to judge,” he said.
That’s why, Amanullah noted, there was a specific insertion that if their “school of thought” allowed travel alone, women should be allowed to go on Haj.
At least one former Haj Committee chair that The Wire spoke to, Salamat Ullah, said he was not aware of the fact that Saudi Arabia itself allowed women above the age of 45 to perform Haj without a mahram. “It cannot be,” he asserted, adding that “in Islam this is not allowed”.
Modi government leaps to take credit
After Modi’s address on radio, the government and the Bharatiya Janata Party went on a publicity spree to take credit for the move to “allow” Indian Muslim women above 45 years to go in a group for Haj.
Minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi tweeted that women seeking to travel alone for Haj will be kept out of the lottery system and the 1,300, who have applied under the new rules, will be allowed to go for the pilgrimage.
After PM Shri @narendramodi Ji‘s suggestion, I assure that those about 1300 women, who have applied to go for Haj without “Mehram” (male companion), will be exempted from the lottery system and allowed to proceed on Haj. #MannKiBaat
— Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi (@naqvimukhtar) December 31, 2017
The BJP later also tweeted Prime Minister Modi as declaring in ‘Mann Ki Baat’ that “Muslim women can now go for Haj without ‘mahram’ (male company).”
मुस्लिम महिलाएं अब ‘महरम’ के बिना हज के लिए जा सकती हैं। अल्पसंख्यक मामलों के मंत्रालय को मैंने सुझाव दिया है कि वो यह सुनिश्चित करें कि ऐसी सभी महिलाओं को हज जाने की अनुमति मिले जो अकेले आवेदन कर रही हैं, साथ ही उन्हें स्पेशल श्रेणी में अवसर दिया जाए: प्रधानमंत्री #MannKiBaat pic.twitter.com/UtgJ0T3Mhn
— BJP (@BJP4India) December 31, 2017
Modi’s expansive claim, however, rankled the opposition parties and leaders and they lashed out at the prime minister for trying to take credit for a relaxation of norms which had actually come from the government of Saudi Arabia.
Congress leader Shakeel Ahmad subsequently tweeted that Modi was “trying to take undue credit”.
Trying to take undue credit. Saudi Govt has relaxed the rule. An Indian woman is free to travel alone, inside or outside the country from before Modi era. For Haj, if rules are not followed Saudi will not issue Visa. Fooling own followers ? .https://t.co/QLhgV7upx5
— Shakeel Ahmad (@Ahmad_Shakeel) January 1, 2018
All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi also rejected Modi’s claim of having facilitated the travel of Muslim women on Haj without a mahram saying the new regulation had been in force in Saudi Arabia for many years. He stated that such women from Indonesia, Malaysia and several other countries had been performing Haj under this new rule.
“It has become the habit of the prime minister to claim credit for everything. If tomorrow women in Saudi Arabia are allowed to drive, he will claim credit for the same,” Owaisi was quoted as saying.
Note: The story has been updated to include a reference to a media report that says the Saudi rule change came not in 2014, as the Indian Express reported, but several years earlier.