A view of this event captures an incredible sea of worshippers flowing like a human river in the footsteps of the prophet Mohammed, who it is said arrived at this spot some 1400 years ago to pay homage to Abraham.
The role of the woman as it is understood through the ritual reenactments are quite different from the unequal stance which is often assumed of Muslim women today, with Hagar and Ishmael given tribute as well. Exiled to the dessert valley that would become Mecca, Hagar would give birth to the numerous Arab peoples, and would be enabled to do so by the salvation of the angel Gabriel. In many ways, this story parallels the matriarchal role of the Madonna to Christianity, who was likewise guided by an angel in a time of crisis. Islam tells that Gabriel was sent down to bring water to Hagar in the desert in the midst of her frantic search. With quick-footed urgency, the pilgrims reenact this pivotal event by rushing between the two mountains where this was said to take place, seven times back and forth. This tradition helps to reinforce the important place of motherhood in the Islamic faith. Indeed, the sight and notion of thousands of Muslim men paying tribute to their spiritual mother is a moving demonstration of the spiritual importance of women and the high regard in which they are held by the original pretenses of the modern faith.
Following this event, on the 8th day of the Hajj, the pilgrims walk to the Mina valley, five full miles from Mecca. There are some traditions which are concerned with mass actions of a horde of worshippers, engaged in aggressive ritual reenactments of the religion's prophets. It is herein that we capture a glimpse of the hysteria and danger that are inherent in crowds of this scale, and which also test the limits of the state of ihram. In the al-jamarat, which witnesses the pilgrims reenacting Abraham's stoning of the devil in retaliation for tempting him to disobey god, three pillars are representative of Satan. The millions who have carried stones along the way of their pilgrimage will for days crowd the pillars and pelt the center. This can be a very dangerous event in which, historically, hundreds of people have been annually crushed and killed in a rush of enraptured bodies. Such traditions as this one make the Hajj a place of some peril to women. It is thus that the Hajj falls under the watchful umbrella of the Sh'riah. Here, it is demanded that women who will be making the pilgrimage travel either with a husband or with a male family member. As the legal code dictates, it is considered unacceptable for a women to travel for a length of more than two nights from home without this type of accompaniment. This is largely regarded as a means intended for the general protection of women against aggression, exploitation or unwanted sexual engagement which applies with specificity to the undertaking of the Hajj and its inherent demand that one spend roughly two weeks away from home. (Al-Uthaimeen, 1)
Another aspect of this pilgrimage which distinguishes the approach to be taken by men and by women in the performance of ritual also refers to everyday ritual and prayer in the Islamic faith. The counsel regarding even the audibility of the praying is considered with men and women instructed differently on the subject. Namely, it is said that "a man raises his voice when saying this and a woman says it so that only one beside her may hear her." (Al-Uthaimeen, 1) There are a number of ways to interpret this instruction which will depend largely upon the perspective of the interpreter. The Western perspective, already biased to the position the Islam is inherently gender unequal, will interpret this as a means to undermining female worship or a means of socially restraining the public presentation of women. However, a more neutral interpretation will again suggest that the connection inherently stated between woman and God in the context of motherhood denotes a lesser need to so vocally prostrate one's self.
This repeated focus on the high value placed upon the role of motherhood in the Islamic faith is underscored by the textual and social doctrines consistent in Islam, which promote familial obligations above all others. In relation to the defined importance of its legal coding, Islam is intensely focused on "the crucial role of the family in human society and therefore insists on assigning different well-defined roles to men and women." (Murad, 1) Particularly, women are assigned a role of domesticity that is forged by matriarchy. With motherhood serving as the cornerstone to the perpetuation of a religion that emphasizes shared community values as a means to preserving itself, women are considered to be responsible for the household and all which occurs therein. To the interpretation of the faithful, this is a very positive role for the women in the context of Islam.
Men, nonetheless, are seen as the household's head, responsible for bringing income to the home, for doling out authority and for determining the family's social rank. The religion will make the contention that the distinction in roles does not represent a hierarchical separation but an equality based on shared responsibility. However, as we will touch upon in discussions on the current disposition and contexts in which Islam is practiced, the extremity of Sh'riah interpretation often results in the subjugation of women, who in many settings are not permitted to pursue the same social, educational or professional opportunities as are men. Likewise, the practice whereby modesty in women is enforced by the requirement to remain covered in public implies a sense of ownership for the man which cannot be transgressed.
This is an issue which can be explored to its greatest depth with consideration of the head-covering tradition which serves as one of Islam's most visible symbols and as one of its most consistently criticized traditions. An article which engages differing viewpoints from within the Muslim faith on the subject helps to move this discussion into an illuminating direction. The article printed by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network recounts the discourse engaged by a panel discussion on the Kosovo-based television show, Life in Kosovo. Here, a number of professional women prescribed to the Islamic faith help to illuminate the gender implications of the rising tide of highly observant variations on this religion in the free, post-war period. The discussion, which centers around the Islamic tradition requiring women to cover their heads and faces when in public, is revealing of the way that gender roles and the way that these roles are communicated are likely to be perceived in a wide range of different ways by men and women alike. The debate featured in this article pits several ideas regarding the 'meaning' and communicated implication of the head-covering against one another as a means of offering the audience a fair diversity of positions on an emotionally sensitive subject.
Indeed, in Kosovo as well as in many of the western nations which fought to see it liberated from ethnic conflict, many intellectuals and mainstream institutions tend to view the scarf as a symbol of gender oppression. As the panel discussion demonstrates, there are practitioners of this expression of faith that hold the position that they are free to demonstrate faith in any manner which they see fit, and that the covering is produced not by societal pressures but by the good fortune to feel the loving embrace of Allah. It is this, and not gender imbalance, such women stress, that invokes the humbleness and modesty thereby implied. As a female language interpreter asserted, as a pointed response to what may be seen as the more mainstream secularism in many societies, "a woman raised in Islam has more freedoms and rights,' she continued, 'but people are not aware of the rights that the Koran gives women.'" (Life in Kosovo, 1) This is a contention which does run counter to expected ideas, from a position external to the faith, presenting an antithetical explanation for what many cultural contexts invoke their inhabitants to perceive as being pointedly sexist and demeaning. This bucks conventional views on that which is communicated by the head covering, and also calls into question the perspective held by some of the panelists here that they are equal to the task of being humble and virtuous before Allah without marking themselves publicly as a sex to be treated differently than man.
In the Birdwhistell text, we are given reason to pay due respect to distinction between positions taken here. Though in western culture it is a convention to draw a number of expectations based on presumptions regarding the relationship between women and Islam, and further, between this relationship and the decision to wear a head covering or the decisions not to. Specifically, it is appealing for many westerners who had adopted an increasingly gender-equal position, at least…