Bushra Shah, a 35-year-old Pakistani, says she is realising a childhood dream by making the great pilgrimage to Mecca, and under new rules she’s doing it without a male “guardian”.
The hajj ministry has officially allowed women of all ages to make the pilgrimage without a male relative, known as a “mehrem”, on the condition that they go in a group.
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.
“It’s like a dream come true. My childhood dream was to make the hajj,” Shah told AFP, before setting off from her home in Jeddah, the major port city in western Saudi Arabia.
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.
Only citizens and residents of Saudi Arabia, chosen in a lottery, are taking part. Officials have said that 40 percent of this year’s pilgrims are women.