11 September 2006

Wednesday September 6, 2006

Restrictions on women


IN 1993, I had one of the most profound experiences of my life. I went on the umrah (lesser pilgrimage) to Mecca and Medinah, Islam’s holiest cities, an experience that left me with two distinct impressions.

Firstly, there was no difference in what was required of men and women to perform the umrah. And secondly, that some of the rituals, particularly the sa’y, which commemorates Hajar’s search in the desert for water for her baby son Ismail (later to become a Prophet), were tributes to women, womanhood and motherhood.

I completed my umrah feeling newly enlightened and affirmed in my belief that Islam does not discriminate between men and women.

The saying goes that “man proposes and God disposes” but sometimes people act as if God only makes recommendations that we can chose to accept or ignore. This past week, according to news reports, Saudi clerics have proposed imposing restrictions on women’s access to the holiest site in Islam, the Kaaba. “The area is very small and so crowded. So we decided to get women out of the ‘sahn’ (Kaaba area) to a better place where they can see the Kaaba and have more space,” they said.

There are several problems with this explanation. Firstly, it is not so much a question of being able to see the Kaaba as being able to be near the Kaaba. If all Muslim men and women merely wanted to see the Kaaba, we can look at it on TV. But we know that touching al-hajar al-aswad (the black stone) at its south-western corner is the ideal way of initiating the tawaf ritual (circumambulation), and we love to caress the Kaaba’s walls and clutch the kiswa (the black cloth draping the Kaaba). Being shunted off to some remote corner of the Masjid-il-Haram effectively denies women access to this.

Secondly, and even more importantly, this is the first time in 1,400 years that anyone has proposed this. The Masjid-il-Haram or Forbidden Mosque (that is, forbidden to non-Muslims) is the only place in the Muslim world where men and women are not separated in worship. This has been ongoing for almost 15 centuries, linking us through a continuous chain of historic tradition that binds us to the Prophet in a deeply profound manner. All of a sudden, somebody decides that chain needs to be broken.

In Surah 66 of the Quran, titled Al-Tahrim or Banning, God asks Prophet Mohamad: “O Prophet! Why bannest thou that which Allah hath made lawful for thee?” While the context was specific to a particular situation, nevertheless the theme of these divine words is clear: what God says is halal, humankind cannot turn into haram (and vice versa). It stands therefore that for 1,400 years, God has had no problem with women praying at the Kaaba. Why change now?

Sure, there is a crowd problem at the Masjid-il-Haram especially during the Haj season when over two million pilgrims descend on the Holy Cities. But why solve this through gender discrimination? When the numbers of all-male pilgrims start to be overwhelming, would ethnic discrimination be the next way to solve that problem?

In Surah Al-Ahzab, God responded to complaints by women through the Prophet that there is no mention of them in the Quran and therefore some people had interpreted this as meaning that women do not matter. “Lo! men who surrender unto Allah, and women who surrender, and men who believe and women who believe, and men who obey and women who obey, and men who speak the truth and women who speak the truth, and men who persevere (in righteousness) and women who persevere, and men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their modesty and women who guard (their modesty), and men who remember Allah much and women who remember – Allah hath prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward.” (33:35).

The message of this ayat is that God viewed both men and women as His creations and therefore both had access to His attention if they believed in Him. In other words, God does not discriminate between the sexes. Why, therefore, should we?

I read about this new restriction on women with dismay. My experience in Mecca had affirmed my belief that my religion, Islam, is one that upholds equality and justice. I had faced no restrictions during the umrah and it remains in my memory a most moving and humbling experience. I stood by “God’s House” where, for centuries, millions of men and women had come to do their duty to God and had felt equally God’s mercy and beneficence. In imposing these new restrictions, does that mean that women are now undeserving?