At the Hajj, Facing Islam’s Inconsistent Embrace of Women

Source: The New York Times


Our correspondent Diaa Hadid is one of millions of Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca

MECCA, Saudi Arabia — “Sister, where are your socks?” one of the women I was sitting with demanded. “Don’t you know you have to cover your feet?”

We were in the sprawling Grand Mosque that surrounds the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, during the hajj, the five-day pilgrimage of rites and rituals that ended on Wednesday. I could not decipher which of the four Saudi women in identical billowing black robes and black gloves was speaking to me because their faces were covered with not one but two veils, something I had never seen before.

They made space for me. I discreetly covered my offending feet with my own long, black robe, which I bought specially for the hajj, my first. These women who looked like black ravens poured me golden Arabian coffee from their thermos and fed me crunchy yellow dates while we waited for Friday Prayer to begin.

There it was again. I was at once frustrated by Islam’s nitpicky strictures on women’s dress and embraced by its warm sisterhood. Over and over again during this physical and personal journey, I was confronted by my conflicting feelings on how the faith I was raised in deals with gender, the very thing that had made me take off my hijab in college.

At its founding, 1,400 years ago, Islam was revolutionary for its time in seeing women as spiritual equals. But in its contemporary conception, the day-to-day gender roles trouble me.

My testimony in some Islamic court matters would count for half that of a male witness. Men can take four wives, women one husband each.

Yet Muslim women have a right to an education, to be scholars and in some cases jurists. We have as an eternal role model the Prophet Muhammad’s first, beloved wife, Khadija, a successful trader who popped the question to a man 15 years her junior.
“Treat your women well and be kind to them,” Muhammad himself urged in his last sermon, during his final pilgrimage to Mecca. “It is true that you have certain rights with regard to your women, but they also have rights over you.”

So, kindness and rights, but also women as something less than men. It can feel patronizing, and diminishing of our full humanity. It is why I started to lose faith after a childhood in an observant family and what I still struggle with, at 38, living a life that is secular but guided by Islamic values.

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