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Women at hajj see different roles in Islam

Tuesday, February 3, 2004

MINA, Saudi Arabia -- In their air-conditioned tent in the female section of the pilgrim camp, as evening fell on another stage of their spiritual journey, the two women turned their conversation ever so gently to a sensitive subject.

"In societies where women and men mingle, like my country, mingling is not equated with corrupt behavior," said Fatma Mahdi, a journalist in her mid-30s from Egypt.

"Women should not mingle with men. It is not sanctioned," responded her tent-mate, Anisa Hakim, a Saudi housewife in her early 40s.

The women were both making their first hajj, or pilgrimage, to Islam's holiest shrines. Now, sitting on cushions in the tent, they were talking about the sermon they had just heard from Sheik Abdel Aziz Al al-Sheik.

In the mosque by Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his last sermon in 632, the leading Saudi cleric addressed the faithful about a range of issues -- Western influences, terrorism and the duties incumbent upon all Muslims -- male and female.

He reminded them that girls commonly were killed in infancy until Islam rose in the 7th century and lifted women's status. He warned that "Islam's enemies" want women to be a "toy in men's hands ... to mingle with men."

Hakim, the Saudi, is a product of a society that strictly segregates the sexes. In Mahdi's Egypt, mixing is a normal part of social and professional life.

"I, of course, agree with his talk about how Islam has honored women," Mahdi said, choosing her words carefully but sounding relaxed and confident. "The prophet on many occasions advised men to be kind to women."

But "Women can mingle and still preserve themselves," she said.

Hakim disagreed. A woman could work outside the home in dire financial situations, she said, or in a job such as teaching female students.

"She can do whatever she wants to, so long as she is around women only," Hakim said.

The pilgrimage to Mecca, a sacred duty for all Muslims, brings believers from all over the world. They spend at least five days in vast encampments in dwellings that range from humble and open-air to the more comfortable tents that house upper-class women like Hakim and Mahdi.

With these millions of pilgrims comes a range of cultures and opinions.

One topic generating debate this year is the cosmetics and loose head scarf worn by a European journalist staying in the camp and covering the pilgrimage.

"I do not care if she has to appear on television or wherever, she should have more respect for the sanctity of the pilgrimage," said Hakim, sitting upright and gesturing disapprovingly.

That sanctity is subject to pilgrimage rules that are uniform for all, regardless of their culture back home.

Women and men perform all the rituals of the pilgrimage without segregation, but women must be escorted to the hajj by a mihrim, or male guardian, usually a husband, brother or father. They must dress to hide the body's curves, leaving only the face, hands and feet exposed.

Mosques generally have separate prayer areas for men and women, but in the Grand Mosque housing the Kaaba, a holy stone structure in Mecca, women pray next to men.

Women can appoint a male proxy to perform the devil-stoning ritual for them, but many women choose to do it themselves, despite the knowledge that it can lead to stampedes like the one on Sunday that left 251 dead, 111 of them women.

Many pilgrims visit the mosque over Muhammad's tomb in Medina, Islam's second holiest site. There, women pray separately from men. While men can get close enough for a full view of the tomb, a shield limits women to seeing only its top.

It is believed that Saudi authorities put up the shield because women would weep aloud on seeing the tomb, and would go there to seek the prophet's intervention, a practice fundamentalists disapprove of.

Mahdi and Hakim both took pride in the basic equality of male and female pilgrims praying together and fulfilling their spiritual obligations.

After a while, the debate on women's roles died down. Hakim picked up her Quran, stretched out and returned to prayer and reflection.


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