A Feminist in Mecca

I’m back after a whirlwind 6-day trip to perform the Umrah, the minor pilgrimage in Islam. I traveled with my family from Karachi to Jeddah, from Jeddah to Madina by plane, and after two days in Madina, to Mecca by car. Another three days in Mecca and then back to Jeddah and on a late-night flight back home to Karachi. My mind is filled with so many impressions and thoughts, my physical body is feeling the toll of the Umrah, but my heart is completely at peace and my soul feels fulfilled.

A feminist probably wouldn’t choose to go to Saudi Arabia based on all the reports coming out of the Kingdom about the discrimination against women, enshrined in Saudi law thanks to a very very (very) conservative interpretation of Islam that has been in place for decades. Social and religious conservatism has been the hallmark of Saudi Arabia for longer than the reign of the House of Saud, and yet the combination of religion and politics had taken on a particular intensity since its rule.

The latest Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman had embarked on a modernization drive over the last five years which has seen women being allowed to drive, travel without mahrems or male guardians, and a host of other advances. The activism of Saudi feminists had a lot to do with the pressure put on the Kingdom from inside and outside to even things up for women. I have no lived experience of what things were like before the reforms, and in a six day trip I couldn’t possibly begin to understand or absorb the changes and their effects on women. For that you’d have to consult a woman activist. I have had Saudi friends over the years, however, who assured me that things weren’t as they were portrayed in the media.

I knew that in going to Saudi Arabia, I’d have to comply with a strict dress code. So I purchased several abayas and hijabs, skull caps and hijab pins to keep myself appropriately dressed. I might disagree with needing to be covered from head to toe politically, but I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from performing my pilgrimage. Besides, I thought to myself, perhaps effacing my own intellect and ego for the sake of God might be good for me. I’m always certain that I dress in a manner that gives me utmost dignity in my everyday life, but when going to the House of God, as the Kaaba is known, it doesn’t hurt to be extra careful. I could sacrifice a few days of my usual clothing in order to bare my soul to God and beg for His mercy and forgiveness in the afterlife.

Yes, I’m making a public confession here: I’m a believer, and I try to maintain a level of piety that I don’t talk about publicly, preferring to let my actions do the talking instead. I hate bragging about my religious beliefs or shoving them on to others in order to make myself feel superior. I like to keep my practice to myself. I used to think that the biggest compliment was when someone could not tell what religion I followed, or that I followed any religion at all. You could call this a reaction to growing up in the Zia era, when an Islamic martial law dictator equated piety with political loyalty, and everyone began to perform Islam in order to prove how loyal and patriotic they were to the country.

I had three abayas: one in black for travel (it hides the grime much more easily), one in sage green, and one in peach. I intended to keep the colored ones for Madina and Mecca, for the heat of the midday sun, and for the sense of occasion. Although pilgrims are not allowed to wear fragrance or makeup, I wanted to look my best for God.

I changed into my Islamic getup before we landed in Jeddah, but the flight attendants told me that wearing an abaya and hijab was no longer required for foreign women. The decision was taken by Prince Salman in order to encourage tourism in 2019. As a Muslim woman, though, I wasn’t sure that the new law applied to me, and I kept the abaya on, although I was fearful that it would be too much for me in the heat. I’d heard horror stories of female shurtas, the religious police, hitting women if they weren’t dressed appropriately, hair uncovered, an ankle showing.

When I looked at myself in the mirror, I still recognized myself, albeit a version of myself that was on her best behavior. Ihram is about much more than clothing: your actions, your attitude and your manner must also become as pure as possible, but the clothing is an outward reminder of how you must maintain your inner state.

While transiting in Jeddah Airport, every woman I saw had on an abaya and a head covering, whether it was a scarf, a hijab, or another form of the above. Except for one woman, who left her hair open and loose down her back. But nobody said a word to her. I might have done the same, but I thought it best to practice for Madina and Mecca (I’d had many trial runs back home of trying to move around in the outfit, and I even practiced praying in it, but when I went into a full sajdah on the floor, the headscarf fell off my head).

Every Arab man I saw was in traditional attire: the long white thobe and kandoora (the red and white checked headscarf with the black rings, or ghufran) if they were Saudi, or other colors of thobes, skull caps, scarves tied around their heads. If they were pilgrims on their way to Mecca, then they were dressed in the ihram, which for men consists of two pieces of white unstitched cloth, belted around the waist with a money belt or other contraption, and the other worn around the shoulders. I felt a little jealous of them being able to walk around so uncovered, but then I thought about going under the hot sun and getting burned, and I couldn’t decide which was the better deal.

We reached Madina and settled in for the evening, and some of my family went out to explore the Prophet’s Mosque and pray there. I was on my period at the time, so I could not enter the Mosque, and had to content myself with sitting in its outer courtyard for zhikr and other types of worship. During the five daily prayers, I sat with the women who were praying in the outer courtyard, but I did not pray. Nobody questioned me about why I was or wasn’t praying.

It does make you feel a little left out, not being able to pray while you are not in a state of purity, while men never experience that exclusion. Is it fair? Perhaps it’s practical; you don’t always feel well during this time, so being given a little break from it can seem like a small mercy, or a huge disappointment. (As for the ruling that men should pray in the front and women in the back — I’ve never minded that one, as I don’t like the idea of men looking at my backside while I’m down in prayer. Let them take the embarrassment of that situation).

Umrah is a minor pilgrimage, so you can complete the rituals in half a day, and time it so that you are not menstruating on that day, if you’re lucky. But yes, women do take tablets to delay their periods so that they can complete the Umrah and Hajj rituals, and those who can’t do that, or their period arrives unexpectedly, as it can do during perimenopause, run the risk of missing out if they are not through with their period. These are biological realities and risks that men simply do not have to undertake. Is that complete equality for women? Not in absolutist terms.

As for me, I did my research and talked to a scholar or two and learned that I could enter the state of ihram even if I was menstruating, but I would have to delay the rituals of tawaf, circumnambulating the Kaaba, and the ritual of sa’ee, or running back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwa, until my period ended. The consideration given to women is that they do not have to leave Mecca and go to the place of meeqat to make their intention for Umra again. They can do this while on their period, and simply take a purification bath in Mecca to complete the rituals when they are done.

So I waited. Went to the courtyard of the Masjid e Nabawi. Sat and prayed on my tasbih and recited the prayers I knew by heart. Listened to the prayers of other people. Drank the water of the holy well of ZamZam, which was brought in from Mecca and distributed via water fountains. I watched the beautiful giant-sized parasols open during the day to shield worshippers from the sun, and in the evening, they closed again, like flowers, so that the green-lit minarets of the mosque stretched into the night sky, lighting the darkness.

I watched as visitors bargained for prayer mats and prayer beads and dates and keepsakes and mementos in the shops to take home for friends and family. Several times a day I walked with what seemed like a flood of people toward the mosque, everyone moving in one direction. One day I sat among a group of Indonesian women, wearing white hijabs and bearing bags and backpacks emblazoned with their tour companies’ logos. I sat while the women who were not in “haidh”, or menstruating, prayed. There were young women, teenaged girls, women my age, and rows and rows of elderly women in wheelchairs and on folding chairs.

On Friday, the holiest day of the Muslim week, I parked myself among a sea of women from an Arabic-speaking African country, possibly Sudan or Somalia, where children wore dresses of matching fabric and sang and amused themselves while their mothers slept, talked, waited for the Juma prayer. Suddenly, mosque guards came to shoo them away from the mats where we were all sitting. I thought we were being thrown out until I listened carefully and realized the guards were allowing the women to go into the Prophet’s mosque with their children for a short while before the prayer began (Normally children are not allowed into the mosque at all, which is why the women were waiting outside).

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After Friday prayers, we set off for Mecca by car. It’s a four to five hour journey, but it took us a good six hours, and the traffic coming in to Mecca, through mountain tunnels, was horrendous. During Hajj, I’m told it’s complete gridlock, but even still it took us a good hour from the outskirts of Mecca to our hotel right opposite the Haram. We were exhausted, but my brother and sister insisted on performing their Umra late in the night, while I rested in the hotel room after having eaten my dinner at midnight. I am a creature of routine, often neurotically strict, because of a stomach condition that I suffer from, which precludes me from fasting, but I decided that my body would listen to me for once and cooperate with me through the delays and interruptions that the trip was necessitating.

It was already announced that Friday evening was the start of Ramadan, the Muslim Holy Month of fasting, which meant there would be no restaurants open during daylight hours. My brother and sister decided to fast the next day, while I surveyed the room service menu and felt skeptical about my dining choices. But I wasn’t going to complain, as long as food was available. Besides, it would be fun to see what happened at Iftar; and of course, the fact that we were performing Umra during Ramadan meant that all the blessings and rewards of our worship would be doubled, trebled, perhaps multiplied by the thousands. We certainly felt very lucky to be here in this month, with no Covid curbs but with the crowds still low.

The next morning, my parents went for their Umra. I accompanied them, to give them moral support, especially as they weren’t sure if they’d find a wheelchair person to take my mother into the Haram and for her tawaf. As soon as we descended the ramp from the hotel area, a man with a wheelchair was sitting at the foot of the bridge, materialized by my mother’s prayers. I ran towards him, signaled and gesticulated and brought him back to where my parents waited. His wheelchair was made comfortable with a thick prayer rug laid on it as a sort of cushion for his passengers; my mother gingerly sat herself down in it. “Where are you from?” he asked us. “Pakistan,” we replied. “Oh!” he laughed. “I thought you were from South Africa.” I entrusted them to the wheelchair attendant and to God, then and then I sat in the shade and coolth of a wind tunnel created by another ramp going to a parking space, and watched the people coming to and fro.

Most were dressed in ihram, but with women, you can’t tell. Due to Covid, only pilgrims were being allowed to perform tawaf, but women seemed to have open access because they dress the same in ihram as they do in ordinary times. There were no shurtas anywhere, just guards directing people which way to go, asking them if they were performing Umrah and directing them to the appropriate gate (There are 210 gates to the Haram, 5 of which are counted as really significant, and each gate is named after important people, places, or incidents in history).

The day was already becoming hot. I just looked at the walls of the Haram and marveled. The front where I was sitting, nearest to the King Fahd gate, was covered in scaffolding and construction was going on everywhere. That’s the sound of Mecca: the voices of pilgrims, the call to prayer, and the noise of construction as the Haram is being expanded in a project called the North Pass Expansion. There was an intense pull coming from within, like a magnetic force. I felt myself on the verge of tears because I couldn’t go inside just yet, and I wanted to, so badly. But I comforted myself with praying zhikr and making dua. I was within steps of God’s house, I had to remain steadfast and patient for just a little while longer.

I waited an hour, then got restless and stood up, stretched my legs, walked back up to the ramp. Seated on the ground along one of its railings was a young woman reading the Quran in a sweet voice. I sat down next to her to listen to her recitation. When she took a break, we got to talking; she was an Indonesian woman, working in Dammam. She and a friend had decided to come for Umra together, and she was waiting on the friend, reciting Quran until then. I asked her what it was like living in Saudi Arabia. She said it took a while to get used to it, but she enjoyed it.

Meanwhile I was getting text updates from my father about his progress; he’d finished his tawaf and was now heading for the sa’ee. My mother called me soon after that, worried because they’d been separated. I assured her that everything was all right with my father, bid farewell to the Indonesian woman, and then I went back inside into the cool of the mall I stopped to pick up chocolate gelato from a gelato stand, astonished that it was open right within meters of the Haram. Then I ran upstairs to my room, clutching it like a greedy child, fearing that someone would take it away from me if they knew I was going to be eating. As soon as I got to my room, I ate it in huge gulps. And then, all of a sudden, my parents had returned, their Umra complete. We hugged and congratulated them; there’s a particular joy that arises when Umra is completed, and I couldn’t wait to feel it for myself.

Four down, one to go. My parents and siblings had come out of Ihram and could wear their normal clothes. I still had to remain in Ihram until the completion of my Umra. The time passed in a way that made you feel like it wasn’t passing at all. Every couple of hours, a PA system in every hotel room clicked on and broadcast prayers from the Haram, which enabled people resting in their rooms to pray in unison with the congregation. The products in the bathroom were unscented, to keep in line with the rule of Ihram which doesn’t allow you to wear any fragrance.

Our view from the hotel room was on the opposite side of the Haram, so I spent a lot of time looking at the brown mountains and buildings dotting them. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before: dust and mountains and roads. A few buses sat forlornly in a gathering station. During Hajj the whole place is packed with buses and pilgrims, two million of them, but for now, the roads were relatively uncrowded. The way the buildings rose up out of the mountains reminded me of Hong Kong, although there were no skyscrapers and no greenery. But it was compelling in its own way. I thought about how the Prophet lived here in the 7th century. He would not be able to recognize his city now. We won’t be able to recognize our cities in the future either.

Saturday evening saw the first Iftar, the breaking of the fast. We gathered in the hotel’s prayer room, men on one side with a partition and women on the other side of the partition. The anticipation of the Maghrib azaan combined with the hunger and thirst and tiredness had everyone a little giddy. As soon as the call to prayer came, women broke their fasts with a few dates and water. Two girls from Dubai offered me dates, mamool cookies in packets, and hot tea from a thermos. Then the prayer began. We were on a high floor, 25 stories up from the Haram, but the windows of the prayer room were angled so that you couldn’t see the Kaaba itself, just some of the courtyard and a lot of the construction cranes.

It was a difficult task to find our allotted hall for the Iftar meal after the prayers, but after a few tries, we located our place in the basement ballroom. A veritable feast was laid on for the several hundred pilgrims. Arabic dishes of all sorts: Moroccan tagines, Saudi roasts (a large part of a cooked animal sitting on top of rice in giant tureens), Egyptian mahshi (stuffed roasted vegetables), and all the mezze you could dream of. Plus biryanis and pulaos and Chinese dishes, fresh bread cooked in a small indoor tandoor, salads galore, and separate tables groaning with fresh fruit and small cakes and Arabic desserts like Umm Ali and baklava. As fun as it was to eat all that food, it was even more fun to see all the people: mostly Arabs, dressed in their robes and abayas.

After the meal, which doubled as Iftar and dinner, my parents returned to their room to rest, and my brother and sister and I decided to go down to the mall and do some shopping for gifts. We went to an attar kiosk, where the young men selling the attar made us try all the fragrances, dabbing our wrists with perfumes with names like Attar-e-Madina, Rose Musk, Jannat-ul-Firdaus, and so on. The Prophet liked fragrances and wore attar a lot, so Muslims emulate him and wear it too. The fragrances were delicate, even though attar is known to be heady and strong. After a while my nose got confused and all the scents blended together. We bought bottles of it for our friends to give as gifts to our friends back home.

It was only hours later, back in my hotel room, that I realized with a jolt: I’d broken my Ihram by wearing the fragrances. A few moments of frantic Googling “what is the penalty for breaking Ihram” and “How much does a sheep cost in Mecca” while my heart pounded and I berated myself for forgetting. But it was the very act of forgetting that meant I was forgiven for the infraction, and I had only to redo my wuduu and ask God for forgiveness. Phew, I wouldn’t have to leave Mecca, don my Ihram all over again and return in the space of a night.

I woke up for the fajr prayer, then a few short hours later, I was awake, showering and ready to make my way to the Haram. I had a quick breakfast, then went to tell my parents I was leaving. They gave me their blessing and prayed that I would be able to complete my Umra safely. I was almost too impatient to wait, but it was also the emotional significance of the moment. You’ve heard the phrase, walking as if your feet had wings, and I’d always laughed at it, but that’s exactly how it felt as I raced out of the hotel, down to the lowest floor (25 floors below the hotel’s lobby), out through the mall, and toward the Haram. The ground was air and I was flying.

I went to the wrong gate at first, confused between my siblings’ and my parents’ instructions (“Go to Gate number 96! No! Go to the King Fahd Gate!”). The guards sent me back to the King Fahd gate, where I hustled through the checking and on to the entrance. It was a wide one, and I tried to walk and take off my shoes at the same time, slipping them into my bag and walking in my socks. I almost couldn’t balance but there was no place to sit down and besides I was in too much of a hurry to do so.

When you first see the Kaaba, they say you should shut your eyes and only look up when you’re ready, so that all the prayers on your lips are granted, as long as you keep your eyes fixed upon it and don’t blink. But that’s for the luxury of those people who are accompanied by someone else, who can guide them and hold them by the arm and say “Don’t look, not yet, keep your eyes closed — all right, now, NOW.”

I was alone, I had to keep my eyes open to make sure I didn’t stumble into anyone else. And before I was even ready to see it, it was there upon me, clearly visible through the arches and the warm morning light. The Kaaba. The object I’ve been directing my prayers toward, five times a day since I was 27 years old. It was right there in front of me. And it was real.

I felt a great joy, starting deep in my stomach, rising up toward my chest, and through my throat and face. If I believed in chakras, I would say that all of them were suffused with this joy, this utter happiness, pushing out everything else that had ever existed. I smiled: the Kaaba was so normal-sized, so near, so real — and so human. That’s not the right word for God’s house, for something divine and majestic, where the prophets had walked and kings and queens had prostrated. I’d heard people say they trembled and wept when they saw it, but all I felt was warmth and happiness.

I didn’t even stop to pause, to think. I just walked with the other pilgrims toward the courtyard. I had a small guidebook with me that I consulted to make sure I was praying the right prayers and doing the right rituals at the right times. I was very conscious of not making any mistakes. But I knew deep inside that it didn’t matter — that God knew all and forgave all mistakes before you’d even committed them. The blessing, the sawab, was in the trying and the doing, and here was a place where there was no failure.

There were about thirty or forty pilgrims doing tawaaf, and I walked straight towar them and joined in. You have to start at the Black Stone, a rock set in a silver frame at the eastern corner of the Kaaba. I’d always heard the stone was a meteor, but Islamic tradition says it is a stone that fell from Heaven and showed Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, where to build an altar. It was white in the beginning but has turned black from the sins of all the Muslims that it absorbs. Or, its black color might symbolize detachment and poverty, the annihilation of the ego, or any other spiritual value you might assign to it.

You’re supposed to touch the stone, or even kiss it if you can, but that was not allowed because of Covid. So we all started our tawaaf by holding up our right hands to salute it and saying the takbir, “Allah hu Akbar.” Men and women walked together; there was no separation between us. I was lucky enough to be right in line with the Kaaba, my left shoulder facing it, separated only by a roped cordon (also instituted for Covid; in normal times people touch and cling to the Kaaba).

I lost all self-consciousness, totally absorbed in the ritual of walking, praying, saying the takbir and raising my hand at each circuit. At the Yemeni corner, the prayer changes to Rabbana Attayna Fid Dunya (Our Lord, give us in this world that which is good, and in the Hereafter that which is good and protect us from the punishment of the Fire). Then back to the Black Stone, a takbir, and again on the next circuit.

After about the third or fourth time, I began to feel tired. It was so hot. I wasn’t sure if I could continue. My legs started to hurt. I almost started to panic. But then I put it all aside and kept walking. Let me die here, my heart said. This is the best place to die.

Of course, I didn’t die. I kept going, with the others, and more and more joined us. We looked like a swirling star from above, the Kaaba our nucleus. The group changed shape, sometimes a star, sometimes a throng, growing, shrinking. I was sent by sheer momentum to the outskirts of the circuit, but I’d had my chance to be closest, so it was all right with me.

I finished the seventh circuit in a little panic, wondering if I’d forgotten where I was and remembering what I’d told myself before — that here, there are no mistakes. I went to the Station of Ibrahim, a glass case containing a square stone with the imprint of Abhraham’s feet. This is where Abraham stood, Ismail on his shoulders, when the Kaaba was being constructed. Here I touched the case, Covid be damned, and then went back a little ways to offer two rakaats of prayer. But for the first time in my life, I was actually praying in front of the Kaaba, rather than on a prayer mat thousands of miles away with the image of the Kaaba imprinted on my mat.

I sat in the shade to catch my breath. And then moved myself to the water fountains to gulp down a few cups of Zamzam water. It cooled me down after the heat and sun of the tawaaf. But my legs were trembling. I quailed at the thought of the next ritual: walking between the hills of Safaa and Marwa. Bibi Hajra ran this distance, about 3.6 km, in search of water for herself and her infant son, the baby Ismail, in punishing heat and in fear for her and her child’s life.

This is done at another part of the Haram, in an enclosed area that is air conditioned and spacious. A track is built for people to walk and run; in between is a wheelchair track for people with mobility issues. My legs would not carry me seven times on the sa’ee; I already knew this. So I made my way upstairs, to the second floor, where my father had rented a scooter for his tawaaf. I would do the same for the sa’ee.

Anyway, this blog post is a work in progress, and I’ll take a break here to continue a little later. Stay tuned; the page will get updated as I am able to process my thoughts through the coming days.