By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)
There are interesting indications of change in Saudi Arabia…
Pilgrims performing the haj walk outside the Grand Mosque of Mecca in Saudi Arabia December 24, 2006. REUTERS/Ali Jarekji (SAUDI ARABIA)
Back home after a fortnight in Saudi Arabia, devoted largely to performing hajj, I find myself still in a daze.
Most Indian Muslims consider hajj a post-retirement exercise. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that most of my relatives were stunned when they learnt that I was heading for the Hajj â€” me, a single woman. The answer to this conundrum is simple: I was going to perform hajj in a group of around 35 Indians â€” including six women â€” invited by the Saudi king. There were brief moments when even I was left musing on the message of this sanyas-like trip. Yet, clad in a few Indian outfits, covered from head to toe, I headed for the kingdom.
Back now, I refuse to grapple with the implications of my new title. I am now a â€˜Hajjaâ€™ or â€˜Hajjjan Bibiâ€™. I have chosen to focus on another side to it all. After all, although an Indian delegation of Muslims selected by the Indian government heads every year for the hajj, it was for the first time in years that a delegation was invited by the Saudi government. The message is simple but two-fold. At one level, it symbolizes the new diplomatic importance of people-to-people interaction across national borders being gradually recognized and accepted by Saudi Arabia. At another, including women in the group like me (only my paternal name reflects my family linkage), apparently carried its own message. This is because the general trend for a woman going on hajj is to be accompanied by a male relative, known as â€˜mahramâ€™. The common question asked by most when they learnt about me heading for hajj was, â€œAre you going without a mahram?â€ However, this apprehension was eased on learning from reliable sources that the mahram condition does not apply to woman going on hajj in a group.
Not surprisingly, apart from performing the hajj, the stay in Saudi Arabia prompted me to try and understand the message inherent in the invitation. Apart from taking Indo-Saudi ties to a new height, apparently the Saudi government is keen on women being encouraged to play a prominent role. I did notice Saudi women acting as security guards in the womenâ€™s prayer sections at Mecca and Medina, checking women pilgrims and also ensuring that no section got overcrowded â€” an important consideration given frequent accidents. If this yearâ€™s hajj went off peacefully, some credit must be given to these women.
Incidentally, the year began on a good note for Saudi women, with Captain Hanadi Zakariya Hindi â€” the first Saudi woman pilot â€” expected to start flying a jet belonging to a Saudi prince by mid-year.
Subtly but definitely, Saudi leaders are aware that the women need to play a far greater role at the national and diplomatic level than they have so far. The hajj diplomacy extended to India is apparently part of this effort.
[Nilofar Suhrawardy is a Muslim Observer reporter based in New Delhi, India.]