Did Modi Govt Relax Rules For Muslim Women Traveling For Haj?

Saudi Arabia changed its rules to allow women above 45 years to travel in groups without a male companion. For those below that age, a male companion or 'Mahram' is mandatory for pilgrims across the world.

Narendra Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has claimed that his government has removed the restriction of having a male guardian or 'mahram' every time a Muslim woman wants to go on Haj pilgrimage. The prime minister said this in his monthly radio address 'Mann ki baat' on 31st December, 2017.

"It has come to our notice that if a Muslim woman wants to go on Haj Pilgrimage, she must have a ‘Mehram’ or a male guardian, otherwise she cannot travel.

When I first heard about it, I wondered how it could be possible! Who would have drafted such rules? Why this discrimination? And when I went into the depth of the matter I was surprised to find that - even after seventy years of our independence, we were the ones who had imposed these restrictions. For decades, injustice was being rendered to Muslim women but there was no discussion on it. Even in many Islamic countries this practice does not exist. But Muslim women in India did not have this right. And I'm glad that our government paid heed to this matter.

Our Ministry of Minority Affairs issued corrective measures and we ameliorated this restriction by phasing out a tradition that had been in practice for the past seventy years. Today, Muslim women can perform Haj without 'mahram' or male Guardian and I am happy to note that this time about thirteen hundred Muslim women have applied to perform Haj without 'mahram' and women from different parts of the country from Kerala to North India, have expressed their wish to go for the Haj pilgrimage."

Rules Eased By Saudi Arabia

While it is commendable that Muslim women desiring to go on a pilgrimage (Umrah or Haj) are getting an opportunity to travel without the restriction of having a male companion, what was left unsaid by the Prime Minister that the rule already existed. Any change in visa guidelines can only be made by Saudi Arabia and not by any other country unilaterallly as the prime minister's quote seems to suggest. For those countries willing to send its citizens as pilgrims, their guidelines have to be in line with Saudi Arabia's visa guidelines.

The suggestion to update the guidelines for Indian women pilgrims came from a five-member panel set up for drafting the New Haj Policy 2018-22 that said the condition of male " mahrams" accompanying ladies should be insisted only for women below 45, reported The Telegraph on October 8, 2017.

The Saudi Arabia embassy website shows the last updated rules dated 27-05-2015. The rules on the website also make it clear that when it comes to women below 45 years of age, the requirement of a legal Mahram has not been waived off - which means that no woman below 45 years of age can travel to Saudi Arabia either for Haj or Umrah without a male companion. A fact not disclosed during the PM's Mann Ki Baat address.

Saudi Arabia Screenshot of Saudi Arabia embassy website

Saudi Arabia's Rules Uniform For All Women Pilgrims

Prime Minister Narendra Modi also claimed that this was in practice in India for the last seventy years, the rule was changed for India thanks to his government's efforts. We looked at several other countries including the United States of America and Canada and found the same restriction for women below 45 years of age and the relaxation for those above that age. Click here and here.

Check out point no. 5 in the below screenshot taken from the Saudi embassy website that details the visa rules for US citizens.

Saudi Arabia Screenshot of visa rules for US citizens from Saudi embassy website

We looked at the Haj Committee website where the rules have been specified for women willing to go on Haj. Under the category of 'Eligibility for Haj', the rules state -

"Any citizen of India who is a Muslim, can apply for Haj except:

vi) Ladies in advanced stage of pregnancy, especially those who are in such a stage at the time of outbound flight to the KSA.

vii) Ladies not accompanied by Sharai Mehram except Ladies abobe 45 years of age, who wish to go for Haj but do not have a Male Mahram and their school of thought (Maslak) permits are allowed to travel in group of four (4). The group of such ladies should remain four (4) at all stages of Haj journey."

Rana Safvi, author and columnist who performed Haj without a mahram at the age of 48, expressed surprise that the prime minister chose to project Saudi Arabia's relaxation in visa rules as an achievement by his government. Safvi says that if at all, the government can only take credit for updating its rules according to Saudi Arabia's relaxed rules for women above 45 years.

As she argues in this Dailyo piece, Safvi says the real reform will be when Narendra Modi government opens up the skies to end Air India's monopoly during the time of Haj.

"Several Muslim politicians and citizens have asked for the subsidies to be ended by allowing other operators to fly on these routes and give competitive fares. Muslims do not need subsidies but Air India needs it for its survival, " said Safvi to BOOM.

BOOM spoke to several Muslim men who have undertaken Haj in the past. They said that Saudi Arabia has tightened rules in recent years even for men below 40 years of age wanting to travel alone. While the rules do not officially state such a restriction, this was brought in to prevent begging and job rackets that thrived on visas issued for pilgrimages. Many cases were discovered where men traveling alone violate visa rules and go underground to work illegally or were found begging during the time of pilgrimages. Such rackets were discovered when Saudi authorities cracked on illegal residents and deported them back to India.

BOOM also tried to reach the Ministry of Minority Affairs and the Haj Committee officials but none of them were available. We will update the story with their comments as and when we receive it.

Difference between Umrah and Haj

According to mysalaam.com, "The most obvious difference comes from the timing of both pilgrimages. Hajj occurs only once a year and within the first 10 days of the Islamic month Dhul Hijjah, while Umrah can be performed virtually any other time of the year. Umrah is a year-round ritual, and while the steps of Umrah are difficult, Hajj has many more steps in its process."

An estimated 1.7 lakh pilgrims went for Haj in 2017 and women constitute nearly half of that number, officials said in this Reuters report.

NOTE: We had earlier reported that the relaxation in visa rules were done in 2015 by the Saudi Arabia government. But there is no clarity on the exact date and we still await reply from the Saudi embassy. However, our fact check of Modi's statement taking credit for the visa relaxation remains unchanged as the revised rules came from Saudi Arabia and applies to women pilgrims from around the world.

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