MECCA â€• The suggestion that women be excluded from certain areas of the Grand Mosque in Mecca has generated a massive debate across the Muslim world. Not surprisingly, the loudest comments have come from Saudi women.
The new arrangements, proposed by a special committee of Saudi clerics, suggest that the present prayer area for women in the â€œmataafâ€ â€• the open, white-marbled area in the immediate vicinity of the Kaaba â€• be shifted to two other locations on the ground floor of the majestic Grand Mosque. The Kaaba, a black silk covered cube-shaped structure in the center of the mosque, is Islamâ€™s holiest shrine. It is toward Kaaba that Muslims around the world turn when praying.
â€œThe mataaf area is very small and crowded. So we decided to get women out of the â€˜sahnâ€™ or â€˜mataafâ€™ to a better place from where they can see the Kaaba and have more space,â€ Mr. Osama Al-Bar, head of the Mecca-based Institute for Haj Research, was quoted as saying by news agencies last week. â€œWe have to take into consideration that it is very difficult to expand the mataaf,â€ he said.
â€œSome women think it isnâ€™t good, but from our point of view it will be better for them … We can sit with them and explain to them what the decision is all about,â€ Mr. Al-Bar said. â€œThe decision is not final and could be reversed,â€ he added.
Saudi women remain unconvinced and say the move smacks of discrimination. â€œThe main problem with this proposal is that it denies women the right to pray near the Kaaba,â€ wrote Ms. Hatoon Al-Fassi, the Riyadh-based Saudi historian, in her widely-discussed article in Al-Eqtisadiah Arabic daily.
She says, and rightly so, that throughout Islamic history â€• from the earliest days of Islam â€• women were never banned from praying in the mataaf or any other parts of the Grand Mosque.
Saudi columnist Ms. Abeer Mishkhas argued on the same lines. â€œSince the dawn of Islam, women have prayed near the Kaaba and now, after more than 1,400 years, they are suddenly found to be blocking menâ€™s way and so have to be moved. How strange it is that we, as a society which constantly talks of traditions and how we value them, seem about to cast aside one of the oldest traditions of our blessed religion,â€ she said.
Many people no longer know the situation decades ago with regards to women at Saudi Arabiaâ€™s two holy mosques. Huge numbers of pilgrims only started arriving in the kingdom in the 1980s, due to the proliferation of affordable air transport. Before that time, outside the seasons for Haj and Umrah, the holy mosques were largely the province of Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Arabs from nearby lands.
Older women in Saudi Arabia remember that going to the Grand Mosque in Mecca was a casual sort of weekend outing. They would bring their children to the mosque and stay there with friends and family for hours. Dates and biscuits would be packed to keep the youngsters quiet and nursing mothers had no hesitation in putting their infants to the breast while engaged in quiet contemplation after evening prayer.
â€œYoung children would hold on to their mothersâ€™ robes as they performed tawaf (circumabulation). It was even common to see women carry babies in arms during the rituals. The atmosphere then was relaxed and carefree,â€ recalled Umm Kulthoom, a Saudi mother of three, with a tinge of nostalgia.
Some of the supporters of the new arrangements say the main reason why the authorities want to move the women out of the mataaf is because the area of the courtyard in which women sit does get very congested. Apparently, there are various incidents of people falling over, being crushed and pushed around in this area.
â€œThere are a number of reasons behind this,â€ said a longtime British resident of Mecca. â€œOne, people slowing down for istilam (the ritual that is carried out at the beginning of every circuit of the circumabulation at the Black Stone); two, people joining the throng of circumbulators to begin the tawaf; three, people wanting to pray their two units of prayer immediately behind the Maqam-e-Ibrahim; and four, people walking in the opposite direction after finishing their tawaf,â€ he said.
He continued, â€œTo add to this there is a large number of women who sit in the womenâ€™s allotted area behind the Maqam-e-Ibrahim next to the Kaaba; it is highly popular and there is a lot of competition to sit in that section. Usually the number of women is so high that many women end up sitting in the menâ€™s areas close by and also on the areas that are supposed to be empty as gangways for people to walk.â€
The British expatriate feels that by moving the womenâ€™s section away from mataaf the chaos and crowds on the side where the Maqam-e-Ibrahim â€• represented by a little structure with a small golden dome â€• is located would decrease.
â€œWhether the women accept the proposals is another thing altogether,â€ he added.
Ms. Al-Fassi has requested the officials not to accept the new arrangements. â€œ(They) violate the spirit and message of Islam that was sent for all of humanity without any discrimination (between men and women),â€ she concluded.