It is important to do our religious obligations according to the norms and manners prescribed for those duties. But it is no less important to accomplish these duties in secure and peaceful environments. It is obvious, for example, that because men and women must, when they can, go out to the mosques for their obligatory prayers, it is necessary for the individual and the community to ensure their ease and safety when they do so.
The duty of pilgrimage (hajj or `umrah) is particularly demanding of effort and resources because, for most Muslims, it entails a very heavy investment (personal and financial) in the preparation and in the performance of pilgrimage. Pilgrims, rightly, carry very high hopes and expectations from this effort of devotion; for many it is a once-in-a-lifetime commitment that promises the most profound inward changes in the quality and meaning of worship and the feeling of nearness to our Creator.
Women, generally, have always been easy targets of abuse and harassment by misguided, predatory men and hence it has rarely been safe for them to travel alone. That is why the Prophet advised that women when travelling in a potentially unsafe environment should be accompanied by close male relatives who are held responsible for their protection and safety. However, the Prophet also foretold that, in future, women would be able to travel alone, unmolested, safe and sound, throughout the land of the Arab peninsula. Thus freedom of movement and safety for women is what the Muslims collectively should be striving for.
Until very recently women could not obtain, from the authorities in Saudi Arabia,`umrah visas unless they were travelling with a husband or mahram. This was considered by many people to be injurious to the rights and dignity of women. Now Saudi authorities have lifted that restriction and a woman can travel and make stops alone anywhere in Saudi Arabia, including the two holy cities. We express our appreciation of the Saudi authorities’ for instituting this reform.
Certainly, a lot of women will be able to benefit from the new regulation. However, while it is new, we should be wary of rushing to take advantage of it until the Saudi security services have been able to provide all the necessary facilities for women travelling alone, and have adapted all the rules and norms of behaviour that affect women when they are travelling unaccompanied on buses, taxis, trains, and while they are staying alone in hostels or hotels. We have all heard too many stories of women being offended and harassed, some even assaulted and raped, in these situations to be over-confident about what the new regulation will deliver in reality. We should remember that the Prophetic sunnah commands both freedom of movement and safety for women, not one at the expense of the other.
That does not mean we should not welcome the new regulation. Rather, we should welcome it and praise it, and thank God for it. But, until the law and order situation has become accustomed to the new regulation, my advice for our sisters and daughters is not to rush to benefit from it. Instead, it would be safer for them to be patient in order to avoid any harm, great or small, that would ruin their experience and their memory of such an important religious effort as `umrah.
So, for the time being, I would advise that women travel in the company of husband or mahram, if that is an option. If it is not an option, then they should travel and make stops in a group of trustworthy women, one or more of whom have the protection of husband or mahram.
My purpose in writing this advice is not to create (or recreate) an impediment to the right of women independently to do their religious duties. Rather, my purpose is to help them avoid the danger and harm that may ruin their experience and memories of what can be a life-changing devotional journey.