In November last year, it was reported that the Modi government had lifted the ban on Muslim women, aged above 45 years, travelling to Hajj without a male guardian (Mahram). The same was said by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his radio address Man Ki Baat yesterday.
While the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) objected to this move by the Modi government (their objection came only after Prime Minster mentioned it in his radio address to the nation), some journalists and ’eminent personalities’ have been peddling a totally different narrative:
As seen in the above image, an article published on India Today’s DailyO claims that Saudi Arabia and not the Modi government should be receiving credit for women being able to travel alone for Hajj. The article in the content quotes these guidelines provided by Saudi Arabia, when it comes to women Hajj travellers:
“Women over the age of forty-five (45) may travel without a mahram with an organised group. They must, however, submit a no-objection letter from her husband, son or brother authorising her to travel for haj with the named group. This letter should be notarised.”
Even though the article was giving credit to Saudi Arabia for letting women travel alone, it strangely didn’t mention as to when did the Saudis actually bring in such a reform.
A journalist associated with the Telegraph though claimed that the rule was changed by the Saudis, ‘last year’:
This is because Saudi Arabia relaxed ‘mahram’ rules over a year ago, allowing women over 45 to go for Haj unaccompanied by a male relative. https://t.co/fQTYM2MBQN
— Anita Joshua (@anitajoshua) December 31, 2017
As a result of all this, many, such as this ‘journalist’ and senior Congress leader, decided to attack the Modi government:
The year starts well “Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed personal credit for a recent relief granted to women Haj pilgrims, which was actually the result of a relaxation of rules by Saudi Arabia.”https://t.co/PVOWLhy6cj
— Rana Ayyub (@RanaAyyub) January 1, 2018
No male mehram for lady doing Haj welcome but Saudi not Modi’s decision. Next he will claim giving driving rights to women. Cat n 900 rats?
— Salman Khurshid (@salman7khurshid) January 1, 2018
So what is the truth of the matter? Did the Modi government unfairly claim credit for a reform, where he played no role in?
It is true that the government of India can not change the rules for entry into Saudi Arabia. However, unlike what is claimed by the Telegraph journalist, Saudi Arabia had not made any visa rule change ‘last year’ to enable women above the age of 45 to go to Hajj without a male guardian. Such a rule appears to have existed for long.
This article published way back in 2001, which sought to guide United States’ Hajj pilgrims about the procedures to get a visa for their pilgrimage, talks about this relaxation for women above 45 years of age.
Apart from this, even a 2012 CNN report talks about Saudi Arabia sending back 1000 Nigerian girls for not being accompanied with male guardian, stated that, “Saudi law requires each female pilgrim under the age of 45 years to have a male sponsor during the pilgrimage journey, regardless of nationality” i.e. a distinction for women above 45 years of age was available much before ‘last year’ as some journalists are claiming.
This ironically was also confirmed by AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi, who said that such a regulation was issued ‘many years ago’ by Saudi Arabia:
Saudi Haj Authority regulations says any women under the age of 45 must be accompanied by a Mehram and this regulation was issued many years ago so any woman over 45 years can go without a mehram but PM has to take credit for an existing Saudi regulation
— Asaduddin Owaisi (@asadowaisi) December 31, 2017
Owaisi though contradicts himself when he blames Modi for taking credit while acknowledging that such a regulation was issued many years ago. Then shouldn’t have a Prime Minister changed the rules ‘many years ago’ to bring it in sync with Saudi visa rules? Why were rules not changed untill Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister?
This though raises another question, what ‘ban’ did the Modi government actually lift, when as per Saudi regulations there was no such ban at all?
First of all, rules have been changed for those applying through the Hajj Committee of India i.e. those seeking the Hajj subsidy and wanting to travel though the official travel channel between Saudi Arabia and India. These rules are framed by the Government of India, and not by the Saudi Arabia.
Kamal Farooqi, a member of the committee that recommenced to do away with the requirement of having a Mahram for women above 45 years of age, had said in October last year that this was done after consulting various stakeholders. Nowhere he said that this change in rule was required because of any change in visa rules by Saudi Arabia.
Further, if one checks the website of Embassy of Saudi Arabia where Hajj visa details are given, the clause about Mahram requirement has not been changed at least since 2013 (older snapshots are not available on archive.org and in all probabilities the rules would have been similar to those for other countries i.e. women above 45 years of age allowed without Mahram when traveling in groups).
So the claim that there was any “recent change” in visa rules specific to Mahram requirements for women above 45 years of age does not appear to be based on any documentary evidence. It is more likely a rhetoric to put Modi government in an embarrassing position.
Essentially, Saudi Arabia allowed Indian women above 45 years of age to travel in groups without a Mahram for many years, but the Hajj Committee of India had stricter rules. These rules could have been relaxed earlier, including during the UPA years, but was done only this year. And if Modi government is taking credit for it, it is not unfair.