By Prof. Syed Tanveer Nasreen
The second important reforms concerning Muslim women, after triple talaq, came in December last year. The patriarchy within the Muslim community and the orthodoxy represented by a section of the ulema in Deoband had raised strong objections when a committee constituted by the central government had earlier recommended it. While the reform on triple talaq is still a few steps from being effected, the one on the right of Muslim women to travel for Haj without a male companion, has been pushed through.
Following the winds of change across the world, Saudi Arabia has also taken up a number of reforms which look forward to providing a space to women. Saudi women have received the right to drive their own cars and they can now travel out of the country without a guardian, for purposes of higher education. In 2014, it had approved the idea of Haj for women without a male companion (mahram), or guardian. Keeping in line with this progressivism, the Narendra Modi Government has, from this year, declared that women above forty-five years of age may travel for Haj in groups of four or more, without a mahram.
This right to travel for Haj without a mahram definitely makes another very important step in the empowerment of Muslim women in our country. Within a few days of this announcement, Muslim women across the country applied for Haj with great enthusiasm. The largest number of applications came from Kerala and West Bengal, totaling thirteen hundred women. This has marked a significant step in providing Muslim women the autonomy and mobility they were seeking. Simultaneously, this decision of the Central Government also served the purpose of restricting the Molla-cracy within the community.
The right of Muslim women to travel for Haj without a mahram marks an old debate. The orthodoxy among Muslims across the world had always sought to resist this attempt at assertion of the identity of Muslim women. But, when the reform came from Saudi Arabia, a country that many Muslims still regard as the ‘guardian of the Muslim world’, they had nothing to say! The orthodoxy in India tried, in their last desperate effort, to stall the reform. Thankfully, they failed.
In India, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board has for a long time been the ‘self-proclaimed’ guardian of Muslims in India. It had been instrumental in rolling back the Supreme Court verdict on the Shah Bano Case. Understanding the resistance posed by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board in any reform that concerns the empowerment of Muslim women (we have seen their stand on the triple talaq!), the previous government had shown no initiative in allowing women to travel for Haj without a mahram. I am sure this is not the first time that the Indian Government has come to know about the concession already granted to women by Saudi Arabia. The previous UPA Government lacked the conviction to offer women their due space, in fear of antagonizing the orthodoxy, who present themselves as the only ‘real’ community leaders!
Indian Muslim women will ever be grateful for this great reform in their lives which offer them autonomy in the religious space, to begin with. As Haj remains one of the five fundamental pillars in the life of a devout Muslim, the declaration of the withdrawal of the Haj subsidy by the Central Government comes as another welcome step.
On May 8, 2012, Justices Ranjana Desai and Aftab Alam had cited Sura (chapter) 9, ayat(verse) 97 from the Quran to validate their landmark verdict that the government subsidy for Haj should be withdrawn by 2022. In 2011 itself, the Manmohan Singh Government had informed the Supreme Court that every single Haj pilgrim had paid sixteen thousand rupees as airfare and the government had to pay a sum of rupees thirty eight thousand per each passenger that year.
There has been a steep rise in the number of Haj pilgrims in India over the last twenty five years. In 1994, the total number of pilgrims was 21,035, but by 2011, the number had risen to 1,25,000. I can actually go into a detailed statistical report to show what pressure this yielded on the Central exchequer. More importantly, we can refer to the Quranic citation (3.95) that says only those who can afford it, should go for Haj. Travelling for Haj with government subsidy is not desirable for pilgrims, it is worse for them to be counted in the list of those privileged to travel in the ‘quota’ of ministers. It is also entirely undesirable for the government of a secular country to provide such huge subsidies for the religious pilgrimage of one particular community.
The bold decision of the present government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to withdraw this subsidy and redirect the Haj aspirants to the legitimate ways of Haj must be applauded. There could not be a more welcome announcement than the one made by Muqtar Abbas Naqvi, the union minority affairs ministers, that this money will, hereafter, be spent for the education and empowerment of Muslim women.
Muslim women, stereotyped in their hijabs and burqas, have been marginalized in society. The patriarchy had succeeded in shutting the ‘voices’ of these women for a long time.
Thank you, PM Modi! We look forward to our participation in an equal world free from discrimination, within the community and outside.
(The author is Professor, Department of History and Professor In-Charge of the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Burdwan, West Bengal, India, where she is teaching for the last two decades. She has done her PhD on the identity of Muslim women from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She led the movement for the ban of triple talaq and has been crusading for the equal rights of Muslim women. She is a regular columnist in several Bangla newspapers and appears regularly on television as a commentator on contemporary issues)