Good News Bad News

Things must really be picking up at the cosmic level, relative to the hajj. First I have that stupid dream and I don’t really dream very much now. Then I get this “in-gear” feeling about returning to the blog—which, fortunately is still with me. Then yesterday I get a notice from the agency about the visa processing from the Saudi embassy.

I guess I should start this off by saying this was the ONE THING that worried me the most about being able to make the hajj this year. Saudi Arabia has a “no women travel alone” policy that affects both its own citizens and millions of other women who wish to perform the lesser or greater pilgrimage. A woman must have a mahram. Now a mahram is a male relative, usually understood to be in the guardian role. That means he starts off the father of the female person, or an uncle. When she marries, it is the husband who gets to be the mahram. A brother or even a son would suffice if they are adults and there is no husband, father, or uncle. Yes, it is patronizing patriarchy at work here, but it is pretty comprehensive.

In 1982 I tried to make hajj from Egypt. I was barred twice. And although I managed to get over the first two hurdles, I could not get over this, the third: woman, where’s your mahram? There are a few ways around this: legally Saudi women can get a permanent pass from their mahram which says they are permitted to travel. And they do, as much as anyone who has the means to travel. With regard to hajj or umrah, the tour agencies worldwide, including in Egypt, can sort of become the mahram. So even that year I was denied, a female friend of mine (another American woman) made umrah a alone because she worked it out with the tour agency.

This year, I am just plain old old. (Double OLD intended.) I am old enough to travel without a mahram. So actually I am not as nervous about that as I am about the second extenuating circumstance. In 2005 when I accepted an invitation to lead a mixed-gender public ritual prayer on a Friday in March, Saudi Arabia was one of two countries that issued a fatwa—a legal ruling against the permissibility of the woman-led prayer. It’s hard to know if that would affect my exclusion from Saudi Arabia forever. In fact, when I connected with this tour company, I asked about the procedure for getting visas and mostly focused on the mahram. All I got was a generic answer so I still had no idea about my chances even after I committed the two-thousand dollar deposit.

Instead, I just followed all the steps and just after Ramadan I surrendered my passport along with the filled-in visa application, immunization record, waiver, six passport-size photos, and the remaining balance of the cost of the trip. Of course I didn’t hear anything from the tour company, so I called them to make sure everything was in order. Still nervous two weeks later, I called again to ask about the visa. I was told they would hold on to everything until the actual time of the hajj.

That was a problem for me.

I have a trip outside the country which requires a passport, so I kindly asked for it to be returned. At first I was told flat out, no. The thing that made no sense to me was the communication that they wanted to have all the passports when the embassy opened—or maybe it was when the embassy opened its visas for hajj office. I still think it’s pretty dumb. How do Saudi embassies manage three million people requesting visas if they only open for processing within a month or so of the hajj itself? Seems to me they would alleviate some of their own pressures if they processed all along, with the dates for the hajj; or maybe for a girth of time or a specific duration. Indonesia renders a 30-day visa upon arrival—and so a 30-day visa, a 14-day visa, etc., could be standard, then used according to people’s actual date of arrival.

Anyway, I digress.

I told them that whenever they began the processing I would FedEx my passport back to them for processing. Travel is my life and I needed my passport back. Just having it sit in their office when I could be using it was not the right fit for me. So they delayed, but eventually I found in it in the mail one day. This disagreement was only one nail in the coffin of our poor communications. They did not ask the dates of my travel.

So yesterday when I got the email note it said, something like, the embassy is open for processing hajj visas. It has reported that it will take 10-12 business days. My trip is too soon to get my visa processed even if they still had it before the Berlin dates, and too late to process if I go to Berlin and try to get it done after I return. In other words, as the guy put it, either take your trip or get your hajj visa. Not much of a choice really. I mean, it’s not like comparing apples and oranges.

So, today when the post office opens I will surrender my passport to FedEx. I hope the tour company will get it to the embassy on Friday. (Who knows, they may just wait until Monday). I have then to compose my letter of decline for the event in Berlin. I’ve gone several times to these annual events focused on the study of progressive Islam. I’ve presented at a few of them, but mostly I am invited—all expenses paid—to be part of the general conversation around progressive Islam.

To date, the study of progressive Islam is given more scholarly consideration either in Muslim-majority countries that have some semblance of democracy coupled with freedom of speech, or in Europe. Nothing much to speak of in Australia; and a very skewed (almost always) politically charged discourse in the U.S. or North America. Here’s the basic idea: Islam is a system which continues to grow or progress. Those who refer to it only as something static and unchangeable may even be the majority, but actually it is changing.

Those who are part of the change, or at the very least, interested in the change, form a different kind of relationship with it as a whole. Of course, work on Islam and gender falls into this category of progressive. Maybe for no other reason than the idea of gender as an arena of discourse, or part of identity, is a new. Sure, lots of people want to return us to the old patriarchal constructions of the past—but then that is not progress, is it?

How far we can progress and at the same time claim Islam, respect its traditions, is really the nuts and bolts of the discourse about progressive Islam. It is important for my sanity to have places where this conversation can go on at a somewhat rigorous pace. Otherwise, I get lost in baby diapers and/or my own offspring. As delightful as that is on one level, I must admit my mind turns toward the ideas of Islam and change all the time.

I retired early from US academia not because I wanted to keep myself away from Islamic thought or Islamic studies, but more because I had come to the end of my capacity to do so within the constraints of our academic system. At some point I hope to discuss this matter specifically as it relates to Islam and gender studies—if for no other reason than that I was at a similar progressive workshop last weekend focused on that area, and have lots of thoughts running around my head about that topic. This would definitely take a long time, so better not to try to start it here.

So, the good news is that things are picking up; the embassy is processing hajj visas at last. The bad news is, I have to miss the opportunity to travel again to Berlin and engage with friends and colleagues over the other light of my heart: Islam and change. Still, I linger long over the wisdom of Ghandi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Maybe I won’t get to talk about it next week, but I will continue to live it; Islam as living system accountable to my life just as my life is accountable to it.