Ramzano Begum has no unfulfilled wishes left, after she managed to make the spiritual journey of Haj last month, for which she has been saving for almost a decade. She and 4,314 other Muslim women pilgrims from India travelled alone to Mecca this year, a year after Saudi Arabia lifted the rule which required women to be accompanied by a Mahram (a male companion from the bloodline) in order to perform Haj.
Ms. Begum, 57, who sews clothes to earn a living in Delhi’s Patparganj, lost her husband Panna Lal eight years ago. Since then, the only thing she has been saving for is Haj, which is one of the five fundamental practices of Islam and a mandatory ritual for all Muslims. This was her fourth attempt to embark on the spiritual journey; previously, women without a male companion could only embark on Haj as part of large groups of other women.
Chance of a lifetime
In 2023, the Saudi government allotted a quota of 1,75,025 people to India for the annual pilgrimage. According to the Ministry of Minority Affairs, India sent the “largest-ever contingent of women on Hajj without a Mehram” this year.
For Haneefa Akhtar, 49, a divorcee from Baramulla’s Gund Kha Qasim area in north Kashmir, it would not have been possible to perform Haj if the condition had not been lifted.
“I have a son who is in Class 8. Either I had to wait for him to grow old or was dependent on my brothers to perform Haj. However, the lifting of the ban made it possible for me to perform Haj. I have been yearning to undertake this journey for many years,” said Ms. Akhtar, who sees the Saudi government’s decision as a major leap for Muslim women across the globe.
To celebrate this historic milestone, Air India flew a special flight from Kozhikode to Jeddah with all-women cabin crew and pilots, which ferried only women Hajjis. The ground crew and baggage handlers for the flight were all women as well.
By reaching Mecca on their own, these pioneer women Hajjis have not only managed to conquer the mental and societal blocks preventing women from embarking on the spiritual journey alone, but also paved the way for other women from their community to follow in their footsteps.
“My husband told me that I may not return alive from the Haj. It was scary initially. However, the fact [is] that all women without Mahram were put up together. They helped each other at every juncture,” said Shaheena Malik, 70, a resident of Srinagar’s HMT area.
She shared how women who were educated helped those who could not read and write, reading the sign boards for them.
“Indeed, there were women who could not use a water purifier or even know the ways to perform rituals. Still, we all managed to complete Haj and umrah by helping each other,” recalled Ishrat Parveen, 67. The Dehradun resident sold a property and kept a share from it to perform Haj as that was her only source of income after the death of her husband.
The women stayed in Saudi Arabia for over a month, from June to July. Most female pilgrims, split into groups, said that they created human chains so that others managed to safely perform rituals — such as namaz, or throwing stones at evil — even in the midst of the crowds.
Saudabi K.K., 46, a Hindi teacher from Wayanad was one of the volunteers sent by the Kerala government to help the women Hajjis. Though it was the first time she had left her teenage children for so long, she readily agreed to do it, because she felt it was a “divine” task.
“Who gets an opportunity to go to Haj at my age, and with a divine task of helping other women, mostly elderly, to take this spiritual journey? Every time I used to help a Hajji, she used to place her hand on my head and shower blessings. It was an experience that couldn’t be explained in words,” said Ms. Saudabi.