By Umar Manzoor Shah
A new religious debate has been ignited in India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that Muslim women can break tradition by undertaking the Islamic pilgrimage of Hajj without a male partner.
Muslims groups began to protest the prime minister’s interference in what they called a religious matter for Muslims in which governments have no mandate.
The uproar began after Modi announced that he wanted his Ministry of Minority Affairs to ensure that all women who have applied to travel alone be allowed to attend the Hajj.
The annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca is considered sacred by Muslims. It has been declared a mandatory religious duty for adult Muslims that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime provided they are physically and financially capable of undertaking the journey.
India has some 172 million Muslims, forming 14.2 percent of its 1.3 billion people, mostly Hindus. The government also allots travel subsidies for poor Muslims to make the pilgrimage.
“Injustice was being rendered to Muslim women. Muslim women in India did not have this right to travel alone and perform Hajj. And I’m glad that our government paid heed to this matter,” Modi announced in his monthly radio address to the nation.
Opposition came soon after the announcement.
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board, which acts as a court for Islamic jurisprudence, said Modi has no mandate to alter the rules set by any religion. It said Hajj is a religious issue that cannot be decided by the government.
Islamic scholar Maulana Abdul Hamid Azhari, the board’s secretary, said most Muslims follow the guidelines set by Islam. “This is a religious issue and not something to be brought up in legislation and passed in the parliament,” he said.
The cleric said a Muslim woman is forbidden to travel for longer than three days or more than 78 miles without a male guardian, whether for Hajj or to any other place. He said if a woman does not have a mehram (male guardian) and does not have the funds to take a male guardian with her to Hajj, then she is exempted from the obligation.
Moulana Azhar Ali Shah, a religious cleric based in Kashmir, said Islam dictates that a woman must be accompanied by her husband if she wants to go to the Hajj.
“If the husband of a women is not allowed, then she must be accompanied by a mehram, which means a male relative with whom she is permanently forbidden to marry by Islam such as a brother, uncle, father or grandfather,” he said.
Kashmiri separatists, who have worked to free the Muslim-dominated Kashmir region from India, opposed Modi’s idea. They alleged it was part of Modi’s attempt to support the idea of his Bharatiya Janata Party to make India a totally Hindu nation.
Syed Ali Geelani, 89, said the prime minister’s interference in religious matters was unacceptable.
“It has proved beyond doubt that Hindu fanatical factions are promoting their specific and biased dogma and are hell-bent on proclaiming India as a Hindu nation,” he said.
However, liberal Muslims were quick to counter this view.
Safura Farooqi, a research scholar based in New Delhi, said the restrictions on Muslim women to travel alone were being imposed without a modern context.
She said the directions were originally imposed to ensure women’s safety, especially when air travel was unavailable.
“Haven’t you seen Muslim women travelling the world alone nowadays. If they can visit other countries alone, why can’t they perform Hajj without a male partner?” Safura asked.