Last Friday a number of Saudi newspapers carried a report
concerning possible new prayer arrangements for women at the
Grand Mosque in Makkah. The new arrangements are based on
proposals made by a special panel formed according to
directives from Makkah Governor Prince Abdul Majeed. The panel
was composed of representatives from the Makkah Governorate,
the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques Affairs and the King
Fahd Institute for Haj Research. It proposed that the present
prayer area for women at the mataf (circumambulation area) be
shifted to two other locations on the ground floor on the
northern side of the mosque. The panel members said that women
would thus get a larger prayer space in the new area compared
to the present one at the mataf. They said the new area was
away from places of overcrowding, the mass movement of people
and the focus of television cameras, thus ensuring the safety
and privacy of women and allowing them to see the Holy Kaaba
but avoid the disruption of tawaf (circumambulation).
As this proposal was made without considering the views of
women, I thought it my duty to express my opinion of it with
the hope that the panel’s proposal is rejected. It not only
goes against the message of Islam but also wounds the feelings
of Muslim women.
The main problem of this proposal is that it denies Muslim
women the right to pray at the holiest place on Earth, near
the Holy Kaaba, where prayers are answered and where the
faithful can achieve better devotion and closeness to God.
This is also one of the factors that differentiate prayer at
the Grand Mosque from prayer performed in hotels overlooking
it. Throughout Islamic history — from the earliest days of
Islam — women have never been banned from praying inside the
mataf or any other parts of the two holy mosques. There have,
however, been many recent restrictions on women praying and
this new proposal is simply further evidence of this.
The religion of Islam was revealed for both men and women.
Both sexes are equal when it comes to performing their
religious duties and in terms of rewards and punishments. The
Prophet (peace be upon him) has instructed that women must not
be banned from mosques. Despite these facts, we have observed
that the general trend at the two holy mosques is to restrict
the prayers of women and limit the areas where they can pray —
as if they were a nuisance to others and unsuitable for those
holy places. Some even think that the presence of women in the
mataf will affect smooth television coverage of prayers inside
the mosque and it would be better if the women had been
confined to their homes.
We have also seen people widely circulating certain
Hadiths, whose authenticity is doubtful, that it was better
for women to pray at home than in other places as if the
status of the two holy mosques is lower than that of a house.
Women, especially those coming from distant lands, face
many problems and constraints at the Prophet’s Mosque in
Madinah. The revered Rawda Shareef is open to women only a few
hours each day while most of the time, it is for men only.
Women, unlike men, are not allowed to face the grave of the
Prophet and can only pass by the side of it. The same is also
true for the graves of the early Caliphs Abu Bakr and Omar;
women can only pass by them — not face them.
Whatever the circumstances, no Muslim can seriously
entertain the idea that the presence of women in the Haram
disturbs worshippers and visitors. We don’t hear the same said
about the presence of men. Are the prayers of men somehow
better than those of women?
Let us return to the Grand Mosque in Makkah where women are
often driven away by officials — both male and female — who
tell them to complete their prayers quickly and generally
interfere with the women’s prayers and meditations. At
present, women are limited to an enclosed area in the mataf
from which, if they are sitting, they are not able to see the
Kaaba. The area is small, confined and similar to a prison and
is often moved depending on seasonal demands and a variety of
justifications. Now the proposal is to remove this prayer area
from the mataf once and for all.
My contention is that the panel should have made its
proposal without denying the rights of women. In Islam, the
only instruction regarding the prayers of women is that they
should not pray standing in front of men and, in our times,
woman pray in the last rows or on the upper floors of mosques.
In order to allow women to pray in the Grand Mosque in the
proper manner, let us allocate a special area for them
beginning from the Kaaba and ending at masaa (the running area
between Safa and Marwa). The width of this area could be
determined based on field studies conducted by the Haj
Research Institute on the number of women who come to pray at
the mosque. If this were done, the equality of sexes
promulgated by Islam would be achieved.
It would also protect women from prejudice and ensure that
no men prayed behind them. Moreover, women would be able to
pray in comfort, sit closer to the Kaaba and achieve maximum
devotion and closeness to God.
I request the officials of the presidency to look into this
suggestion with open minds and open hearts. I am sure they
will not accept the panel’s proposal which violates the spirit
and message of Islam that was sent for all of humanity without
— Hatoon Al-Fassi is a Saudi writer and historian based
in Riyadh. She can be reached at: