Photo: Muslim pilgrims pray around the holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque ahead of the annual haj pilgrimage in Mecca September 21, 2015. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood
With rules disallowing female haj pilgrims without a male relative, fewer women than men from Pakistan go for haj every year. For the first time, this year, a court ruling allows Shia women over 45 years of age to apply without mahram
Despite a new ruling that allows Shia women over 45 to apply to travel for haj without a male guardian, Pakistan’s sex ratio for haj pilgrims continues to favour men. The country has sent 43.75 percent of women and 56.25 percent men for haj this year, official data reveals. Last year, the percentage of men to women was even more skewed with 57.17 percent men among 71,646 pilgrims under the government haj scheme.
For haj 2017, 610 Shia women were selected by the Ministry for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony by computerised balloting systems to go for haj under the government’s scheme.
“A total of 58,200 Sunni men, 45,550 Sunni women, 1,149 Shia men and 610 Shia women are going for haj this year,” Imran Bashir Khan, the official spokesperson for the ministry, told Salaam Gateway.
“In haj 2016, 40,087 Sunni men and 870 Shia men travelled for haj. Sunni women were 30,260, while Shia women were 429,” Khan said.
The overall increase in numbers is attributed to the fact that the haj quota for Pakistan allotted by Saudi Arabia has been increased to 179,210 applications for 2017. The quota was reduced for all travellers in 2013 due to expansion work at the Grand Mosque, or the Masjid al Haram. For Pakistan, the number is divided between the government (60 percent, 107,526) and private tour organisers (40 percent, 71,684).
The Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony, Sardar Muhammad Yousaf, said in a public briefing reported by the official press agency that the number of applications for people going to haj has been increasing every year. “Since 2013, the government had been receiving more applications than the previous years ... The number of applications for the government haj scheme has increased by more than 300 per cent from 86,919 in 2013 to 280,617 in 2016,” he said.
MAHRAM POLICY UNALIGNED WITH SAUDI GUIDELINE
Saudi haj policy requires women to travel with a mahram, or male guardian, but current regulations 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 notarized No Objection Certificate from her mahram,” says Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Haj and Umra.
This information is commonly shared on government websites for pilgrims for many countries, including the U.S. and UK. The U.S. Department of State, for instance, says: “Women must travel with their mahram, or be met by them upon arrival; otherwise, they may experience significant delays and/or be denied entry.
“Women over 45 may travel within a tour group and without a mahram provided they submit a notarised letter of no objection from someone who could be considered their mahram, authorising travel for haj or umrah with the named group.”
In spite of this Saudi guideline, Pakistan’s latest government haj policy, announced in April 2017, says otherwise: “It would be mandatory for female pilgrim of any age to be accompanied by a mehram with her.”
However, private tour operators, which arrange haj packages for 40 percent of the nation’s pilgrims, say they accept applications of women over 45 years of age without a mahram. “Women over 45 are allowed to go. However, everyone prefers that they go with a close relative because women need to be taken care of during the arduous journey,” Hajj Organisers Association of Pakistan told Salaam Gateway.
|CHART: TOTAL GLOBAL MALE TO FEMALE HAJ PILGRIM NUMBERS 2011-2016|
Chart: Overall, more men than women perform the haj. For the full breakdown read our story here
POLICY CHANGE FOR SHIA WOMEN
This year, government haj policy has been modified to include an exception for Shia women over 45, in line with the current Saudi guidelines for all women over 45, and Shia Jafari fiqh, or jurisprudence. “[I]n case of Fiqah Jafria pilgrims, mandatory condition of mahram shall be implemented in the light of Saudi taleemat wherein female of 45 years of age is exempted from mahram,” the policy says. Jafari fiqh is the one referred to by most Shias.
The decision to allow some women to travel for haj without mahram under the government quota has been a hard-won victory, coming only when Syed Ali Hadi Kauser petitioned the Lahore High Court last year that Shia pilgrims had been facing discriminatory treatment, with Shia women denied permission to perform haj without a mahram because the online systems were not geared to accept any applications from women without mahram.
In a hearing on the subject, reported in local media in February, Lahore haj director Saeed Ahmad Malik said to the court of Justice Ayesha A. Malik: “New haj policy will be issued shortly and the requirement under Fiqh-i-Jafria to allow Shia women to proceed for haj without a mahram … will be incorporated in the policy and facilitated for the purposes of filing online applications.”
This was incorporated in the haj policy. “We changed the system for applying online and now accept applications from Shia women over 45 without a mahram. Their applications are now entertained because Saudi government has given permission. This is only Shia women; others are still not allowed. We follow the Saudi taleemat,” Khan said, despite the current Saudi guideline that allows women 45 and older to travel in an organised group and without a mahram.
Photo: A woman, returning from the annual haj pilgrimage in Mecca, hugs her relative after arriving at the Benazir International airport in Islamabad, Pakistan, September 28, 2015. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood
Khan said they do not have any information about how many women have actually applied to travel without a male relative. There is, however, demand for such travel. “Women ask us every year if they can travel. Some may say that their husband has died and they want to go for haj. But this is not in our hands; we follow Saudi rules,” Khan said.
The stance, which is said to have been endorsed by the country’s Council of Islamic Ideology (CII, an advisory body set up under the Pakistani Constitution) and was challenged in court in the case of Shia women, appears to be based on Saudi Council of Ministers Order No. 93, dated 10/6/1420 AH (1999) at the Ministry of Haj and Umra, which specified that “no umrah visa may be issued for woman unless she is in the company of mahram. No umrah visas may be issued for men less than 40 years old from the countries known for over-stayers unless they are in the company of their families.” (This guideline for umrah is based on the same for haj, and can be found here as point 18 under “The Key Umrah Norms in 1433 AH”.)
As far back as 2008, following its 170th meeting, where the CII recommended progressive reforms such as the mother’s name be included in all documents alongside that of the father, and that legal measures be taken to counter domestic violence, it also emphasised on women’s right to travel. “Women can freely travel inside and outside Pakistan. The issue of accompanying a mahram for haj or umra does not fall within the jurisdiction of Pakistan as it lies within the purview of Saudi Arabia,” the CII noted, as reported by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
While the regulation in Pakistan does not allow people who have performed haj in the last seven years to apply under its quota, men accompanying their wife, sister, mother or daughter and close female relatives as their mahram are allowed to apply.
“Any person who has performed hajj during the last seven years will not be eligible to perform hajj in 2017 under Government Hajj Scheme and five years for Private Hajj Scheme. This restriction will not apply to mahram of a lady,” the policy specifies.
However, this is not an issue currently being debated within the country, where other reforms to make haj easier are being carried out. This year, the media cell of the ministry has introduced a haj app, Rehnuma-e-Hajj, which contains relevant information on compulsory elements for performance of umrah and haj, travel advice, and embedded videos that can be used without data connectivity.
Khan said: “The app launch has been a big achievement. People used to carry a book and brochures. Now with the app everything is simpler. You can see, read and remember duas.”
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