Islamic Lifestyle 

More men than women pilgrims: India may revisit mahram rules for haj

| 15 August, 2017 | General
 Shalini Seth, White Paper Media
More men than women pilgrims: India may revisit mahram rules for haj
Photo: A Muslim pilgrim (R) is hugged by a relative before leaving for the annual<span class="highlight"> haj </span>pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, in Srinagar July 25, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Ismail

With rules restricting all women’s travel without a male relative, in spite of Saudi mahram regulations, fewer women than men from India go for haj every year under the government’s quota

In late July 2017, the batches of pilgrims leaving for haj from 21 embarkation points across India earmarked by the official Haj Committee of India continued to have fewer women than men travelling even as a senior official told Salaam Gateway that the country may revisit its internal rules related to mahram based on Saudi Arabia’s regulations.

State-wise data paints a similar picture. Of the 150 pilgrims that left from the Indian state of Bihar, for instance, there were 85 men and 65 women. From Odisha, of the 688 pilgrims set to leave, a mere 200 are women. From Jammu and Kashmir, of a total of 8,103 pilgrims, 3,579 were women.

While the exact gender breakdown of 170,025 haj pilgrims in 2017 is not yet released, on an average, for the last five years, 54 to 55 percent of pilgrims from India have been men and 44 to 46 percent have been women.

MAHRAM ISSUE

One of the reasons for fewer women pilgrims is that the policy laid out by the Haj Committee of India that oversees quotas and preparations of State Haj Committees, does not allow any applications from women without a close male relative, or mahram. The Haj Committee of India is the government body currently under the Ministry of Minority Affairs.

According to the Haj Policy 2013-2017 announced by the Indian government, “The Ministry of Hajj, KSA, does not allow the ladies to come except accompanied with their mahrams. This requirement is imposed by the Islamic Shariah and applicable to all ladies from all countries of the world.”

While Saudi haj policy requires women to travel with a male relative with whom it would be unacceptable to marry, current regulations from Saudi Arabia clearly state that women over 45 may travel in groups. “If a woman is 45 years old or older, she is allowed to go without a mahram if she travels with an organised group or family and submits a notarised No Objection Certificate from her mahram,” says the ministry.

This information is also available on the official website of the Saudi Arabian embassy in India, as it is on government websites for pilgrims for many countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, and Malaysia.

The haj visa requirements out of India, according to the embassy, specify that “women who are either 45 years and older can be granted umrah visas within a safe group.”

When the discrepancy was pointed out, Choudhary Mehboob Ali Kaiser, a Member of Parliament and Chairman of the Haj Committee of India, admitted to Salaam Gateway that the rule may have originated in India.

“When they are allowing other women, Europeans or Americans and other nationalities, it will be probably an Indian rule. Many women from rural areas travel for haj. They would not be travelling alone for various other reasons, even without religious regulations,” he said.

The committee specifies that “sufficient number of female trainers should be selected to impart training to women pilgrims.” Trainers – one for every 250 pilgrims – are expected to impart “comprehensive and effective” training in logistics as well as rituals, in training camps held for the purpose.

India sees a high number of applicants each year, and a little more than a quarter of those who apply actually make it. Government statistics show that 448,268 applications were received for haj 2017, for the total quota of 170,025, of which 125,025 are available to the Haj Committee.

Because the final selection is done by qurrah or drawing of lots, it’s possible that women may be left out even though their male relatives may have been selected. There is an additional quota of 200 set aside for such women, including those who did file their application the first time around but whose permitted male relatives have been selected. This year, according to the committee, there were 694 eligible applications received from state haj committees under this quota, out of which 200 were selected.

Private tour operators that Salaam Gateway spoke to said they follow the Saudi regulation – women over 45 may apply and obtain visas to travel for haj with a group.

Photo: Haj pilgrims wave to their relatives before leaving for the annual haj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, in Ahmedabad, India August 13, 2017. REUTERS/Amit Dave

CHANGES NOT RULED OUT

Changes in the Indian haj rules are not ruled out. Haj Committee of India’s chairman Kaiser said: “If it’s a worldwide thing and people from around the globe are going in a group, it can be considered. People have to sit down and take legal opinion on whether it is sanctioned by the jurisprudence. I’m sure if it’s being done elsewhere the same would apply to Indian ladies as well.”

Adding that the process would mean even more people applying for a limited number of visas available, Kaiser said: “It's a valid query and we could sit down and think about it. If other places are sending their womenfolk, why not India? Opening another visa will be adding to the number of people who have applied. Legally, it has to be completely non-discriminatory.”  

According to statistics shared with Salaam Gateway by the Haj Committee of India, in 2016, of a total of 99,902 pilgrims who went on government-subsidised haj, 54,366 or 54.42 percent were men and 45,536 were women. In 2015, of a total of 99,868, only 44,986 or 45.05 percent comprised female pilgrims. In 2014, of a total of 99,914, 54.75 percent or 45,207 were male.

In 2013, of a total of 121,338, 45.83 percent or 55,604 were women. In 2012, a total of 125,064 pilgrims under the government quota, 55.15 percent or 68,978 were men.

This year, the Saudi government has restored the haj quota, which was reduced by 20 percent since 2014 to accommodate the expansion of facilities at Masjid al Haram in Mecca, and allotted 170,025 haj seats to India with the break-up of 125,025 to Haj Committee of India and 45,000 to private tour operators.

“Women usually comprise around 45 percent of the total,” Kaiser said. This is consistent with the global average for women pilgrims. In 2016, according to data from Saudi Arabia's General Authority for Statistics, this was 45.39 percent. In 2016, 601,567 foreign women completed haj from a total of 1,325,372 pilgrims. Male haj pilgrims have consistently outnumbered females from 2011 to 2016.

Photo: A Muslim pilgrim waves towards his relatives before leaving for the annual haj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, in Guwahati, India July 26, 2017. REUTERS/Anuwar Hazarika

‘WORKING AGAINST WOMEN’

The Indian policy works against women who may otherwise have travelled with members of their family or with a tour group.

In 2013, a 64-year-old woman sued the Haj Committee of India on whether “woman pilgrim proceeding for haj has to be accompanied by a mahram (a male member of the family within the prohibited degree of relationship) is correct or sustainable.”

Amina Kutty, whose son lives and works in Saudi Arabia, wanted to list a 60-year-old friend and neighbour as mahram. She lost the case in court, over the definition of the term, rather than the policy itself. Multiple calls to her lawyer, K. K. Mohamed Ravuf, were not returned.

Indian women wishing to apply without a mahram may also have to battle scholarly opinion. Guidance from one of the oldest institutions of Islamic learning in the world, Darul Uloom – a school that teaches revealed Islamic sciences according to the Hanafi school of fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence – specifies that women should not travel without mahram.

The guidance, which is not legally binding, includes examples of a 60-year-old widow wanting to travel with her nephew, and a 56-year-old woman wanting to travel with her cousin and her husband (also 56). In both cases, the ruling said that the women could not travel with non-mahram men.

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