Muslim women search for a place in the Hajj
MECCA, Saudi Arabia — One of the main rites at Islam’s annual hajj centers on the bravery and determination of a woman. According to Muslim tradition, Hagar, the consort of the patriarch Abraham, ran between two hills searching for water for her dying young son after they were abandoned in the desert here. Then God brought forth a spring that still runs to this day. Every year, pilgrims at hajj re-enact her desperate search, jogging seven times between two spots in Mecca marking the hills.
It’s a story that thrills Shahidah Sharif, an American Muslim on this year’s pilgrimage. But something about the rite galls her: While male pilgrims are urged to rush between the two places, women are told by many clerics to do it slowly, because they are “weaker” and will tire or because jogging is considered immodest.
“We are commemorating the act of a woman, someone who made a sacrifice not just for her child but to the building of an entire city,” Mrs. Sharif said, referring to the fact that the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine – and later Mecca itself – were built near the site of Hagar’s suffering.
“And she was going through these extremes to provide for her child, without thinking about gender, and here it is now [they're] making it forbidden for women to run,” said the 32-year-old pilgrim from Atlanta.
At the most ancient and sacred rituals of Islam, modern-minded women are trying to work out their place in their faith, even as they draw inspiration from it. They say the hajj gives them the strength to push for a greater voice for women in their religion.
The hajj is also an education in the broad range of attitudes toward women in Islam.
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