In a historic move, Saudi Arabia has officially allowed women to carry out their Hajj pilgrimage in the city of Mecca without a male custodian. The country’s Hajj ministry has allowed women to make the pilgrimage without a mahram (a male relative and guardian in front of whom she can uncover her hijab), given that they go in a group. The decision is being seen as yet another reform measure taken up by the de-facto head, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud. In earlier decisions, the country leader had allowed women to drive and to travel abroad without a male guardian. The country’s rule earlier required to have at least one male companion under the age of 45.
Some women pilgrims have reported that travel agencies are still denying their participation without a male companion. Several operational travel agencies in the ultra-conservative nation have said that they won’t allow women without a male guardian.
The last month of every year (in the Islamic calendar) sees more than a million Muslims travelling en masse to Mecca over a six-day period. It’s a lucrative business—and a logistical nightmare. In 2019, at least 25 lakh pilgrims arrived to offer homage. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, only citizens and residents of Saudi Arabia have been allowed to take part in the Hajj pilgrimage this year. As per officials, 40 percent of this year’s participants are women.
The Hajj is being held amid surge in COVID-19 cases all over the world for the second time consecutively. Saudi Arabia authorities said that COVID related standard operating procedures (SOPs) have been implemented and the pilgrims have also been informed to strictly follow social distancing and wear a face mask at all times.
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Smart robots have also been deployed to provide sacred drinking water to pilgrims and sanitise the Kaaba’s courtyard on a regular basis.
The authorities also asked pilgrims to download the AI-based Shaaer smart card mobile application that was developed to assist the pilgrims throughout their journey. The app can display pilgrims’ personal and residence details along with accessing transportation in and around Mecca. Only fully vaccinated people, aged between 18-45 years, are being allowed to take part in this year’s Hajj.
It is a matter of prestige for the Saudi rulers to host the Hajj, which is one of the biggest religious congregations in the world, every year.