Women perform Hajj as 'guardian' rule set aside
Pakistani pilgrim Bushra Ali Shah, 35, bids her husband farewell before departing to Hajj, for the first time without a male guardian, from her home in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah.–AFP
Bushra Shah, a 35-year-old Pakistani, says she is realising a childhood dream by making the great pilgrimage to Makkah, and under new rules she's doing it without a male "guardian".
The decision is part of social reforms rolled out by de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is trying to shake off the kingdom's austere image and open up its oil-reliant economy.
Since his rise to power, women have been allowed to drive and to travel abroad without a male guardian -- even against a backdrop of a relentless crackdown against critics of his rule, including women's rights activists.
The Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, is a must for able-bodied Muslims with the means to do so at least once in their lifetime.
For the young mother, making the pilgrimage with her husband and child would have been a distraction that would have prevented her from "concentrating completely on the rites".
Shah is one of 60,000 pilgrims chosen to take part in this year's Hajj, which has been dramatically scaled down for the second year running because of the coronavirus pandemic.
- 'Gift from heaven' -
Her husband, Ali Murtada, said he "strongly encouraged" his wife to make the trip alone, after the government's decision to ban children from participating in the Hajj this year.
He will stay in Jeddah to look after their child.
"We decided that one of us should go. Maybe she will be pregnant next year or maybe the children will still not be allowed to participate," the 38-year-old said.
Some even posted advertisements ruling out groups of unaccompanied women, in a sign of how the dizzying social changes are meeting some resistance in the deeply conservative kingdom.
That was the case for Marwa Shaker, an Egyptian woman living in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
"Hajj without a guardian is a miracle," the 42-year-old, who works for a civil society organisation, told AFP.
Now travelling to Makkah with three of her friends, the mother of three had tried several times to make the pilgrimage before the pandemic. But she was unable to because her husband had already been and was not permitted to go again so soon. "I feel enormously joyful. God has called me despite all the obstacles," she said.
For Sadaf Ghafoor, a British-Pakistani doctor, travelling without a male guardian was the "only option".
"We couldn't leave the children alone," the 40-year-old said of her three youngsters.
Her husband decided to stay behind, and Ghafoor headed to Makkah with a neighbour.
"It was not easy to take the decision to go alone... but we took this opportunity as a blessing," she said.