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Haj reform: Minister Naqvi says Muslim women may soon be allowed to travel alone

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A govt-appointed committee allowed women over 45 to travel for Haj without a male relative, but for now, only in groups of four or more.

New Delhi: Weeks after the Supreme Court’s triple talaq judgment, another reform is on its way for India’s Muslim women. A government-appointed committee recently proposed to allow Muslim women to travel for the Haj pilgrimage without a ‘mehram’ or male relative, but according to Union Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, this could just be the beginning of an era of reform.

“This is the first big reform in 70 years; in the coming days, there will be more. We might allow them to start travelling alone,” Naqvi told ThePrint.

The Haj Review Committee which, incidentally, had no female member, proposed that women above the age of 45 be allowed to go on the pilgrimage without a ‘mehram’, but only in a group of four or more. While the age bar is a Saudi restriction, the prohibition on a woman travelling by herself has no root in Saudi guidelines or laws.

Naqvi said while the issue shouldn’t be politicised, it was “unfortunate” that for 70 years, India had prevented Muslim women from going for Haj without a male relative.

He also said there had been an increase in the “reformist approach” within the Muslim community, but that reforms were more likely to succeed if they came from within the community.

“A government cannot impose a reform on a community or religion,” he said, adding that in this case, the government had only lifted an impediment to a reform without imposing it on any Muslim, and that those sects that disallow women from travelling alone were not being forced to send women alone.

Muslim community divided

Expectedly, the proposal has once again left the Muslim community divided, with conservatives condemning it as “un-Islamic”, and women’s groups dismissing it as a “reinforcement of patriarchal cultural norms”.

Muslim scholar Kamal Faruqui, a member of the five-man committee, said the four-women rule had been proposed to ensure the safety and security of women. “If they’re alone, anything can happen,” he said.

Asked if he saw the ban on single women travelling alone as arbitrary and discriminatory, Faruqui said: “This is the difference between Islam and other religions. We take extra care of our women and their safety.”

However, Hasina Khan, founder of the Bebaak Collective, argued that the bogey of safety for women travelling for the Haj pilgrimage was “shameful”.

She said: “The safety of women is the state’s responsibility. You cannot respond to the threat of harassment by imposing more restrictions on women.”

Khan insisted the new rule was akin to saying that a man is a complete person, while a woman is one-fourth of a man.

Gulzar Azmi, secretary of the Jamiat Ulama, recently sparked controversy by saying that if everyone wanted equality on the basis of gender, why did men and women not carry pregnancy for four-and-a-half months each?

“The decision to allow Muslim women aged above 45 years to go on Haj alone is entirely illegal and is an intervention in Islam. It is clearly stated in the Quran that a woman cannot go on Haj alone,” Azmi had said.

However, according to Zakia Soman, founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, the requirement of a ‘mehram’ had no origin in the Quran.

Soman also pulled up the government for its patriarchal mindset. “Even though the government is trying to give some freedom (to women), it is reinforcing the same old hardened patriarchal paradigm,” she said.

“Why did this committee, constituted to make reforms, not have a single woman member?” she asked.

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