Travelling Without a Mahram: The Elaborate Ploy Against Muslim Women
The Issue

Travelling Without a Mahram: The Elaborate Ploy Against Muslim Women

It is safe to say that travelling as a Muslim woman is something that is seen in binaries. As an individual who has been travelling all my life whether via planes, meandering through museums of stolen goods or with words on pages; travelling is escapism, education and assurance.

I can easily root my desire to travel back to my mixed heritage which exposed me to new charters beyond where I lived. These childhood holidays were never luxury, but a first-generation immigrant dipping her feet in the many worlds that made so much more sense but at the same time confused the whole image. Travelling can be conversations with different generations, dissecting authentic recipes and donning responsibilities. I am grateful for these formative years as they were the flint to the spark of my desire to travel. I chose travelling as a way to live.

The Tradition of Travel in Islam: 

Travel is a means of connecting to my Deen. It’s much more than Instagram photos, it is a means to discover cultures that developed in interdependent ways that show us how united we are, honing back to the unity of the Shahadah.

I see travel as a means to truly understand my religion. Travelling isn’t just a treat for the end of the year, it is a way of life. It is in a way being human. It is a way of being Muslim. We are all travellers in this Dunya.

‘Abdullah bin ‘Umar said, “Allah’s Messenger (PBUH) took hold of my shoulder and said, ‘Be in this world as if you were a stranger or a traveller.” 

This hadith stays lodged in my consciousness, the use of ‘Gharib’ stranger or traveller implies a position of humility and modesty, the stranger, an outsider reflects the constant state we should feel in this Dunya, which is a temporary test and not our everlasting abode. It also keeps us in a state of discovery and searching for knowledge; the traveller’s thirst for experience, learning and life. 

We all travel about our days, our minds wander, we travel mentally as experiences unfold and we learn or make mistakes. Travel may typically imply long distances, but long distances are subjective, in the grand picture of our life, we all know our final destination that passes like a snap of a finger.

In terms of traditional travelling, travelling to foreign lands, hearing the melodies of new languages, feeling the pace of a new city, savouring new flavours and smells and observing the new symbols and patterns of a country, this is exactly what this well known Ayah encourages:

“O humanity! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may ˹get to˺ know one another. Indeed, the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you,” 49:13

Seeing the unity in human behaviour, not falling for the colonial illusion that there are fundamental differences in the biology of people and therefore their culture and way of life. 

Travelling as a Muslim Woman

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However, as women and Muslims, our identities, motives and aspirations seemed to always be questioned. Travelling seems the antithesis of the position of a ‘Muslimah’, it is too transient, too unpredictable, it makes you too unattainable and too incomprehensible. It goes without saying that within the view of certain communities women should be the opposite of all those things. A woman should be steady. Women’s actions are endlessly policed, and expectations of Muslim women are marred by cultural and traditional regulations. One of these laws used against us is the notion that Muslim women cannot travel without a mahram.

I am not here to say whether travelling without a Mahram is Halal or Haraam. I can only offer an alternative insight that highlights that it is Islam that permits me to unite my very existence as someone who loves to travel to my Muslim identity. 

I think it is key to recognise how Hadiths are disseminated in patriarchal realities. 

The Hadiths We have are Only About Hajj and Umrah

Ibn ‘Abbas r.a. reported: The Prophet ﷺ said,

 “No man must not be alone with a woman except in the presence of her mahram. No woman should travel except in the company of a mahram.” A man said: “O Messenger of Allah! I have been enrolled for such and such expedition, and my wife left for Haj.” He ﷺ said to him, “Go and perform Haj with your wife.” 

[Al Bukhari and Muslim]

This widely-known hadith is used as one of the main reasons why Muslim women are prohibited from performing Hajj alone. Its constant repetition and its rationalisation via scholars paired with the notion that Hajj is the only pillar that is not compulsory if your situation does not allow it meant that single women or women with no mahrams were prevented from performing hajj based on the manipulated rationalisation that their situation (decreed by God) meant they could not travel alone. Ironic as men used God’s omniscience to prevent Women from performing a pillar of Islam.

However, as many like to do, some hadiths are omitted and swept under the rug in the favour of others. 

Within the lifetime of the Prophet PBUH allowed his own wives to travel to Hajj with non Mahrams;

Ibrahim narrated from his father, that his grandfather narrated that Umar in his last Haj allowed the wives of the Prophet PBUH to perform Haj and he sent with them Uthman bin Affan and Abdul Rahman bin Auf as escorts (Al-Bukhari, 1999).

The Hadiths Must be Contextualised to the Times of Conflict and War

It is narrated by ‘Adiy bin Hatim that the Prophet PBUH said: If you live a long life you will see a woman travelling from Hirah (Iraq) to perform tawaf (in Mecca) fearing no one except Allah (Al-Bukhari, n.d.)

This hadith highlights the temporary nature of the more widely spread hadiths we are familiar with when it comes to travelling as a woman alone. Furthermore, it highlights that the Prophet may peace and blessings be upon him predicted there would be a time when the security of women could be guaranteed woman travelling could be a reality. 

As Muslim women, we know the Deen, Quran and Sunnah came as a way to protect us from the evils of mankind, yet again the line between protection and prevention became blurred. 

Whilst, all things are unpredictable and harm can come from any direction, it is unfair to place more probability of harm in travel, than in everyday life of going to work or school. It is within our responsibilities as Muslims, to properly prepare and seek protection through prayer, dua and our adhkaar. 

The Hadiths are Based on Social Realities from Antiquity 

At the time of these Hadiths, modes of transportation were extremely limited to animal transportation such as camels and horses and trading or merchant caravans. Furthermore, travelling was dangerous for men themselves;

The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, “Were people to know of what I know about the dangers of travelling alone, no rider would travel alone at night.” (Riyad as-Salihin 958, Book 7, Hadith 3). Men could often hire the services of a local guide or even join caravans to avoid the danger of tribal conflict and harsh environments. It goes without saying that we have many means of travel nowadays which are much safer. 

The added rulings in Saudi Arabian law regarding the prohibition of women travelling without a mahram render this another reason for those who view Saudi Arabia as the Gatekeepers of Islam, although an entirely different topic, it is difficult to trust the country that oppresses the very people it’s duty is to protect for the sake of material wealth.  

It is a Question of Safety 

These concerns surrounding a woman’s travel are heavily based on her security, one of the major threats being men themselves. Many Scholars have discussed that a woman must ensure she prepares and takes care of her own safety (Imam Al-Nawawi, Ata’, Sa’id bin Jubayr, Ibn Sirin, Malik, al-Awza’I and al-Syafi’i). However, it is still mostly out of our hands, women travelling to Mecca with Mahrams have still suffered the traumatising experiences of sexual harassment which shows us that even within the house of Allah, a woman’s security cannot be guaranteed because of the general patriarchal mindset that continues to breed a low nafs in men. 

This issue points out how, no matter what a woman does to protect herself, even in the house of God, men will trespass onto evils, it cannot be said that a woman is not allowed to be there as it is her duty to worship as much as it is a mans. So we are left with the uncomfortable notion in a world of patriarchy that men should be the ones to fix up. 

Al-Awza’y said, “She should go only with persons of good reputation.”

Malik said, “She should go with a group of women.”

Ash-Shafi’i said, “She should go with a free, Muslim, and trusted woman.” Some of his followers said, “She could go alone in case she is secured.”

Women are Not Weaker

For these hadiths to be understood, we need to discard toxic foundational beliefs that plague patriarchal understandings of a Woman’s position in Islam. Women are not the weaker sex, they are not objects that require protection. Rather it points to men being weaker and more guided by their lower nafs, it is unfair to place the blame on women as a temptation for just being. For just breathing? 

(4:28) Allah wants to lighten your burdens, for man was created weak.

Instead, wouldn’t it make more sense to accept what God has decreed rather than find ways to manipulate the divine word. Men are of a weaker fitra and must work harder, in face of these obstacles. The very way in which this elaborate construction of women not even being able to leave the house, let alone perform Hajj and travel just highlights the extent that men have gone to hide their true potential and weakness.

Assia Hamdi

Assia Hamdi is the Spotlight and Newsletter Editor for The Muslim Women Times. She is a graduate of History and Arabic at SOAS University of London. She is also a lover of travel, writing, spirituality and food.

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