In the last couple of days, the Narendra Modi-led government has been earning lots of praise for relaxing the rules pertaining to women who want to go on Hajj without a mahram (male escort). Prime Minister Modi announced on his Mann Ki Baat on Sunday that this “injustice” to Muslim women would be “phased out” by the Ministry of Minority Affairs (MoMA).
The Ministry later said that Muslim women over the age of 45 would be allowed to go on the pilgrimage without a mahram, in a group of at least four – this caveat, that only women over a certain age could travel in groups for Hajj, was not mentioned by Modi on his Mann Ki Baat programme.
But is it really the Indian government that deserves credit for this move?
It turns out that the Saudi Arabia government had relaxed the mahram provision for women over 45 years of age, travelling in organised groups in 2014 itself.
So clearly, India has just caught up.
In October 2016, two years after the rules were relaxed in Saudi, a committee set up by MoMA studied the Hajj policy and recommended that women over 45 be allowed to travel without a male escort.
Countries having bilateral agreements with Saudi Arabia could allow their women citizens to go on the Hajj pilgrimage without a man, who is a blood relative or husband, from 2014 itself. However, this will be applicable for Indian Muslim women only in 2018.
It should also be noted that if India had altered the rules and Saudi’s visa guidelines had not, it still wouldn’t have been possible for Indian Muslim women to travel for Hajj without a male escort.
As Rana Safvi points out in DailyO, in the 25 verses which mention Hajj in the Quran, none of them speak about the requirement of a woman pilgrim to be accompanied by a man. However, since Saudi Arabia, where the Kaaba is located, implemented the rule, it had to be obeyed by other countries as well.
While it is good that the Indian government has finally caught up, Rana says that true reform for Indian Muslims would be when the Indian government decides to open the skies to private airlines for flying to Saudi for Hajj. Currently, government carrier Air India enjoys monopoly on the route, as a result of which the prices are quite high.
She says that by allowing private airlines to ply on this route, competition would bring down the fares, making them cost-effective and thus, making Hajj affordable for many more Indian Muslims.