Trapped in the name of religion

Hasnaa Mokhtar

Trapped in the name of religion







Hasnaa Mokhtar



As I sat helplessly dialing numbers of emergency contacts in the Washington, D.C. based Saudi Embassy, my brain retrieved the memory of a powerful woman 1435 years ago: Khadijah Bint Khuwailid. Hours before my departure to Washington, D.C. from Jeddah, I discovered that my recently renewed Saudi passport was missing my travel permit. My male legal guardian “Waly Amr”, my husband, who at the time was in the US must issue and sign this consent form. Without this piece of paper, I’m legally trapped inside the country — despite the fact that my husband is aware and approves of my travel plans. The irony of the situation is that I’m the legal sponsor of my husband, since he’s not Saudi, and I get to issue him his exit-reentry visa every time he wants to travel outside Saudi Arabia.



Anxious, angry, and confused, I channeled my energy toward deriving strength from her. Khadijah was a shrewd businesswoman who took matters in her own hands. She was rich, smart and beautiful. She was the first woman in the history of Islam to earn the title “Muslim”. She was a strong believer in the religion that granted humans equality, justice and honored their existence regardless of their gender, race, color or status. What would be her reaction if she learned that a 37-year-old fully grown independent hard-working woman and mother of a 17-year-old young man is trapped inside the lands, where she became a prominent merchant and wife of the greatest man of all times, because of the missing liberty pass? All of which is done and practiced in the name of religion.



Calls to the embassy and consulates in the US were fruitless. A visit from my father to the airport in Jeddah to issue the permit was a waste of time. My husband was getting ready to drive to the Saudi consulate in New York to find a solution. The travel consent exists in the Saudi system based on the Prophet’s saying that a woman cannot travel without a “mahram” (a male relative whom she cannot marry). Any Saudi male who is 21 or older can travel anywhere in the world independently. The same isn’t applicable to a Saudi woman of any age and I mean even if she was in her 80s. More than a thousand years ago, traveling conditions were harsh, long, and dangerous. Riding camels for days in the desert was no fun — neither for men nor women. But these conditions are no longer relevant in the globalized world we live in today. If the traveling process has improved drastically, why aren’t the rules associated with it are still shabby and obsolete?



The responsibility that Allah bestowed on a man over a woman is not one that gives him indefinite control over her destiny. It shouldn’t be a life sentence of repression and humiliation. Islam granted women full ownership over their income and property, while husbands had the responsibility to provide for them even if women were well off. “Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth.” (4:34). Men are the providers and thus responsible for the livelihood of women. In a world where women have become an integral part of the economy and the workforce, providing for their parents, siblings, children and sometimes husbands, how do we interpret, understand and implement this verse? How can we limit the word of Allah that motivates men to provide financial and moral support to women to a signature on a piece of paper?



Thoughts raced through my mind as I was dialing the Saudi Embassy’s number in Washington, DC again and again. If no one processed the travel permit on time I was going to miss my flight and my schedule would be a mess. Honestly, that didn’t bother me so much. But the bitter taste of how vulnerable I felt suffocated me. How could I be in charge of sponsoring my non-Saudi husband and be responsible for his travel permits, when I can’t manage mine? Is it because he’s not Saudi? I’m not so sure.



Islam is not responsible for rules that make me feel like a second-class citizen or a juvenile. I’m a proud Muslim woman because religion honored and empowered me. Cultural practices imposed and practiced in the name of religion are to blame for discrimination against Muslim women. Unless Muslims recognize the reality of what hinders the progress of women and gender equality, we will continue to live in “jahiliyyah.” Socio-economist Camillia El-Solh wrote: “The living reality of Islam is permeated by much ‘cultural baggage’ to the extent that the boundaries between religion and culture may often be blurred.”



The London-based Exploring Islam Foundation launched Inspired by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in 2010. Challenging misconceptions surrounding Islam, the campaign stated that Early Islamic history saw the establishment of Muslim women as scholars, politicians, businesswomen, jurists and doctors. “Fatima Al Firhi founded the first university in 859 in Fez, Morocco; Razia Al Din ruled the Delhi Sultanate in India in 1236; Umm Darda, a scholar from Syria, taught imams, jurists and even had the 5th Umayyad caliph who ruled from Spain to India as her student. In fact some 8,000 accounts of Muslim female scholars have been documented, many of whom in addition to theology and jurisprudence, were skilled in calligraphy and philosophy, women who not only contributed to their society but actively shaped it.” Do you think these women had to obtain their “Waly Amr” signature on a piece of paper every time they needed to travel somewhere?



After countless attempts, the embassy answered my calls and the travel permit was processed 30 minutes before my departure. I was relieved to be finally on-board. Watching the city lights fade away as the plane ascended, I promised God I won’t ever give up. I will devote my life to honoring His words and defending the rights He granted me to the best of my knowledge and capabilities until the day I die.



— Hasnaa Mokhtar is a second year graduate student at Clark University, in Worcester, Mass. She is studying International Development and Social Change with a focus on women's and gender studies. She can be reached on hmokhtar@clarku.edu