Bushra Shah, a 35-year-old Pakistani, says she is fulfilling a childhood goal by undertaking the grand pilgrimage to Mecca, and she is doing so without a male "guardian" under new restrictions.
The hajj ministry has officially permitted women of all ages to go without a male relative, known as a "mehrem," as long as they travel in a group.
The decision is part of de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's social reforms aimed at shaking off the kingdom's austere image and opening up its oil-dependent economy.
Women have been permitted to drive and go abroad without a male guardian since his ascent to power, despite a continuous assault on critics of his regime, including women's rights advocates.
"It's like a dream come true. My childhood dream was to make the hajj," before leaving her home in Jeddah, a large port city in western Saudi Arabia, Shah told AFP.
The hajj, one of Islam's five pillars, is a requirement for all able-bodied Muslims who have the means to do so at least once in their lives. Making the journey with her husband and kid would have been a distraction for the young mother, preventing her from "concentrating totally on the rituals."
Shah is one of 60,000 pilgrims chosen to do the hajj this year, which has been drastically reduced for the second year in a row due to the coronavirus outbreak. Only Saudi nationals and residents who were picked by a lottery are eligible to participate. According to officials, women make about 40% of this year's pilgrims.
"Many women will also come with me. I am very proud that we are now independent and do not need a guardian," Shah said.
Her husband, Ali Murtada, claimed he "strongly urged" his wife to travel alone after the government banned minors from doing the hajj this year. He will remain in Jeddah to care for their child.
It is uncertain when the hajj ministry abolished the restriction, and some women have claimed that travel companies are still hesitant to allow women journeying to the hajj without a male partner. Some even put posters prohibiting gatherings of unaccompanied women, demonstrating how the astonishing social shifts are encountering some opposition in the highly conservative country.
Previously, authorities required the presence of a male guardian for every female pilgrim under the age of 45, prohibiting many Muslim women from doing the hajj. This was the situation with Marwa Shaker, an Egyptian woman residing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
The mother of three had attempted to make the trip numerous times before to the epidemic and was now travelling to Mecca with three of her friends. But she couldn't since her husband had previously gone and wasn't allowed to leave again so soon. "I feel enormously joyful. God has called me despite all the obstacles," she said.
Traveling without a male guardian was the "sole option" for Sadaf Ghafoor, a British-Pakistani doctor.
"We couldn't leave the children alone," the 40-year-old mother of three explained.
Her spouse chose to remain at home, and Ghafoor travelled to Mecca with a neighbour.
"It wasn't easy to make the decision to travel alone... but we saw this as a blessing," she added.
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