For Muslim Women at Holy Sites, It’s a Man’s World

While they may feel equal before God, females get second-class status in Jerusalem and Mecca shrines

For Muslim Women at Holy Sites, It’s a Man’s World
Pilgrims in Al-Haram Mosque, Mecca, Saudi Arabia / Mansoreh Motamedia / Getty Images

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I vividly recall how being in Jerusalem felt like a flow of back-to-back powerful and often overwhelming experiences. Clichés can get boring with overuse, but while in Jerusalem in June 2012, I kept thinking about my hometown and the popular expression “Sarajevo is Europe’s Jerusalem.” It felt true while walking on different streets and observing the architecture in the Old Town and while listening to curious tourists who flocked from all over the world and chatted with craftsmen about the provenance of their souvenirs. Those noises were blending with equally familiar sounds of the church bells and calls to prayer from the nearby mosques. I sensed a similar melancholy in the air as well, the echoes of a rich multicultural history and painful episodes of grim violence. They are gorgeous cities.

The aura of the holiness in Jerusalem was inevitable though. Spending a day at the Temple Mount (or Haram al-Sharif: “the Noble Sanctuary”) — which includes the Dome of the Rock, several mosques and 11 historic gates — was one of the most formidable experiences of my life. For us Muslims, heading to Jerusalem means going to the next-holiest place after Mecca and Medina. Visiting Al-Aqsa Mosque is a sort of pilgrimage, because we believe it is the site from where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven and spoke to God during the miraculous Al-Isra’ wal-Mi’raj (“the Night Journey and Ascension”).

Yet in order to reach the stunningly beautiful golden Dome of the Rock, which is situated on top of the Noble Rock from where the physical ascension took place, I had to overcome a few obstacles. First, I recited the Surah Al-Fatiha, the first chapter of the Qur’an, to armed Israeli police outside the entrance gates to the compound, in order to prove my Muslim-ness, for I guess my appearance was judged doubtful according to their preconceived notions of what a Muslim woman looks like. After that, I had to deal with the Palestinian guards, who thought my long dress and shawls, which I knowingly prepared in advance and carried over my shoulders and head, were insufficiently covering. So, I purchased the only chador available at the spot, in order to cover my body from the top of the head to the ground. And I sighed that my Muslim-ness was judged again for the second time.

But there I was, so excited — no matter the obstacles — to get to that blessed site. I was admiring the interior of the Dome of the Rock and about to enter a small cave inside the Foundation Stone underneath it. That so-called “Well of Souls” is where souls of the dead are said to wait for Judgment Day. So I felt shocked when I was stopped yet again by another man. I don’t speak Arabic, but I didn’t even need to understand the language to see that what this old man objected to so loudly was a tiny strand of my hair, which was apparently visible on my forehead under that chador, and then the nail polish on my toes. Yes, it was red, but my socks were on, though in light color. Those two apparently bothered the man so much that he yelled and literally kept pointing to the exit until I’d go out and fix it. It was obviously not my first time in such an environment, so I knew the etiquette and would not disrespect it. That strand of my hair that might have been visible was certainly minuscule, as evidenced by the photos that my spouse, who accompanied me all along, and I took there. I was there, spiritually present, physically exhausted, compliant in full mosque gear. And there he was, wrong and rude, the guardian of a woman’s modesty with his self-righteous permission to protect my access to a sacred place. I remember we went out because I had no strength to argue with what we thought was still a ridiculous objection. So, I wore a new hijab underscarf that I added to my head. Then I returned and went back to the “Well of Souls.” In the photo on the stairs from that cave, I look terrified. I think I still carry a scar from that day.

Less than a year later, in April 2013, my spouse and I hopped on a plane from Istanbul, where we had lived at the time, and headed to Mecca in Saudi Arabia with his mom to perform an “umrah” (lesser pilgrimage). In our Turkish and Bosniak families on both sides, there are individual members who practice religion more or less, but we keep our faith close to our hearts and minds, and let freedom lead the way of our choices. I am not going to lie: Tears just started gushing the moment I saw the Kaaba. That cube-shaped black stone, which Muslims turn to when praying from every spot on Earth, and the holiest pilgrim shrine, was stunning. I felt fireworks of indescribable emotions exploding inside. My body’s reaction was not unique, but being there in person felt singularly phenomenal.

We performed “tawaf,” the ritual of circumambulating the Kaaba seven times, drank water from the Zamzam well and walked on “sa’y,” another ritual commemorating the search by the Prophet Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) wife Hajar (Hagar) — who walked between these two hills, the Safa and Marwa, back and forth seven times — in search of water for her son Ismail. But it wasn’t just the last year’s experience from Jerusalem that kept me aware of the gendered perspective of women’s pilgrimage experiences while performing and observing others during those ritual events in Mecca. I was now witnessing in person at that holiest place of Islam, next to a building that represents God’s house on earth, the oddest combination of spatial restriction and segregation of women combined with the most extraordinary sight of unison. (Those who are interested in learning in more detail about related practices from different perspectives and scholars should check out the book “Muslim Women’s Pilgrimage to Mecca and Beyond,” the first edition of which was published in 2020. The editors explain: “Analyzing female pilgrimage practices by applying a lens that includes power and hierarchy means looking at the myriad ways in which specific intersections of identifications shape women’s desires and opportunities for mobility as well as the restrictions they face.”)

Observing and being among the fellow believing men and women circling together around the center of the Grand Mosque’s court was beautiful. Next to us was a large group of Turkish pilgrims repeating short phrases about remembering God, and men in the same gray clothes walked in a circle formed around women who all wore blue to better distinguish themselves from the crowd. I later learned that many groups do this to protect women from sexual assaults during these ritual performances — though I had a hard time at first understanding that such assaults may happen in the holiest place. At the time of the prayer, my mother-in-law and I were in the women-only back section where we couldn’t see the Kaaba, while my husband could attend prayer where he could find space and relish the sight. But there was a time during the day too when some men and women, including my husband and me, managed to prostrate to God next to each other. It felt amazing. Isn’t that the ideal, I thought, men and women, equal before God even when unequal in the eyes of the guards?

Throughout the decade since those visits, I’ve kept learning as well as voicing my opposition to many similar inconsistencies, regulations and restrictions on Muslim women’s movement and religious practice and social participation. I thought of them too when I read the essay “The (Downplayed) Story of Female Scholars, Teachers and Leaders in Islam” by Mohamad Jebara that we published in New Lines last week. In the essay, Jebara rightfully acknowledges various forms of constraining gender norms for Muslim women in different places. He powerfully debunks ultraconservatives’ justification for their inhibitory treatment of women based on archaic cultural norms as well as their claims about religion – Quranic references like “qawamah” translated as “guardianship” and “nushuz,” which Jebara argues is often mistranslated as “rebelliousness.” He also says:

“Prior to the advent of puritanical or fundamental movements, the more constraining view of women needing guardians instead of support was not the dominant view. This view seems widely accepted because it has been emphasized in public discourse to the extent that it has become normative within the Muslim community. This, in turn, makes it difficult to discuss the alternative view without sounding revisionist. In other words, this is not a problem of original sources but of ideological indoctrination.”

Jebara doesn’t disparage different readings yet uses facts from rich Islamic history including from the time of the religion’s very beginnings, manuscripts and “highly authoritative” works to showcase “the legacy of outstanding Muslim women,” as imams of communities, educators, scholars, patrons of the arts, rulers and prominent public leaders. In his essay’s conclusion, Jebara leaves us with important reminders and some questions:

“Where does this leave us now? From the largely forgotten legacy of Muslim women, we learn that the development of women’s potential and their leadership is not inherently against an Islamic framework of values; it has, in fact, figured prominently throughout Muslim history. Yet we witness other voices, both in history and in our contemporary world, which present a much more constraining perspective toward women. Hence, the fundamental question is not whether Islam encourages or constrains women’s empowerment and exercise of leadership but rather who controls the narrative.”

I keep these thoughts in my mind while reading news about this year’s hajj regulations for women. It starts in less than a month, on July 7, and 1 million pilgrims are expected from around the world. Recent media reports highlighted the Saudi authorities’ decision for the first time to allow women ages 18 to 65 to attend umrah pilgrimage without a “mahram” (male chaperone) if part of a group, as well as the revision of that decision to apply the new standard only to women 45 or older. So, women who are younger than 45 still cannot do the hajj or umrah without a male guardian. Just like so many other important decisions related to Muslim women’s religious practices, spiritual fulfillment and mobility, this issue of the permissibility of pilgrimage without a male guardian is another subject of ongoing contention among men. (As this newsletter was being published, the rule was possibly still subject to modification.)

Some of the claims about women’s safety, even when the goal is to protect women, contradict the spirit of religious sources and scholarly opinions as well as disregard too many modern realities on the ground. The result is but another variation of myriad arguments for keeping women away from public and religious life. But so many Muslim women have yearned to be able to participate, and it is certain interpretations of Islam that have controlled whether they could have many of their rights fulfilled. As Jebara explained:

“According to the worldview of the Taliban and other patriarchal interpreters, these concepts designate men as naturally superior to women and invest men with the control and responsibility of guardianship over them. In this worldview, women cannot be trusted to make decisions on their own and are regarded as susceptible to error and corruption.”

Today, just like in the past, Muslim women have continued producing knowledge and research. The difference with the past is that they no longer can be disincentivized or easily silenced from (re)claiming the space, authority and rights of reward that God granted to them.

From this week (June 6 – 10, 2022)

How Wahhabism Led the Fight Against the British in the Gulf | Read more

Podcast: Arab History Through Medieval Spanish Eyes | Listen here

The Gruesome Battle of Donetsk | Read more

Climate and the Threat to Archaeology | Read more

Breastfeeding, Nutrition and Colonialism | Read more

Johnny Depp: Arab Men’s Favorite Pirate| Read more

In India, the War on Journalists Is All-Encompassing | Read more

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