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Muslims crowd Makkah ahead of Hajj – Male guardianship should apply only to marriage: Saudi cleric

MAKKAH, Saudi Arabia, Sept 8, (Agencies): Close to 1.5 million Muslims from around the world had descended Thursday on Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, undeterred by last year’s stampede disaster but with Iranians absent. As temperatures exceeded 40C (105F), pilgrims crowded into Makkah’s sprawling, air-conditioned Grand Mosque complex to walk around the Kaaba — the black cube that Muslims across the globe face while they pray. In one of the first rites of Hajj, which formally starts on Saturday, whiteclad pilgrims take their turn circling the Kaaba in a procession that continues 24 hours a day.

Pilgrims who cannot walk are pushed around the mosque in wheelchairs by workers. Regularly-spaced taps provide thirsty pilgrims with spring water, and visitors can eat under large fast food signs at a commercial centre inside the complex, where they are also able to shop. But as soon as loudspeakers sound the call to prayer, the shops are shuttered and the faithful line up to worship.

Outside at all the Grand Mosque’s entrances, Saudi police control the movement of pilgrims between green plastic barriers. Step out of line, and a policeman calls through a megaphone to order them back into place.

At prayer time, access to the Kaaba is suspended and the walk around it is stopped to avoid overcrowding. It is one of several safety measures authorities say they have implemented after, according to data from foreign officials, close to 2,300 pilgrims died during the Hajj stoning ritual last year.

The stampede and security had been on the mind of a pilgrim from Ivory Coast, who gave her name only as Mrs Coulibaly, 49. “But since arriving at the airport we have been taken charge of and well supervised. So I feel at ease and totally dedicated to my prayers,” she said. For the first time in almost three decades Iranians will not join the pilgrimage after talks between Tehran and Riyadh on logistics and security fell apart in May. Iran sent 60,000 pilgrims last year, and claimed the largest number of stampede fatalities, at 464.

A senior member of Saudi Arabia’s top Muslim clerical body has said he believes the kingdom’s system of male guardianship should apply only to marriage, a local newspaper reported on Thursday. Saudi women are required to have male guardians their entire lives, regardless of age.

A woman must obtain her guardian’s consent before she can travel, marry or be released from prison, and in some cases to work or access healthcare, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch.

Sheikh Abdullah al-Manea’s comment to the Arabic language Okaz newspaper is unlikely to bring immediate change in the status of women, but may be an opening for women’s rights supporters to press for relaxation of strict social traditions.

Manea made his comment in response to a question about an online campaign calling for an end to the guardianship system. The country’s top religious authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, earlier in the week had described such a call as a crime against Sunni Islam and the teachings of the Holy Quran. Manea, who sits on the powerful Council of Senior Scholars, said that adult women who are capable of managing their affairs had the right to make their own financial and legal decisions, except on the issue of marriage, Okaz said. “All rights that a man has, she has the same,” Okaz quoted Manea as saying.

“There is no guardianship for anything, except in marriage, which has a condition that her guardian must approve.” Manea is something of an unlikely ally for women’s rights activists. The cleric said in 2009 that the excessive “movement and jumping” needed in football and basketball might cause girls to tear their hymens and lose their virginity. His comments on guardianship were welcomed by Thuraya Obaid, a female member of the advisory Shura Council. “He’s presenting Islam as it should be presented,” she said. “Because of who he is, it is a significant statement.”

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