New Delhi: A section of Indian Muslim women will head for Haj next year with chants of 'Talbiyah' -- a prayer invoked during the pilgrimage -- on their lips and a feeling of 'we too can'.
The Centre has for the first time decided to allow women pilgrims over the age of 45 to undertake the pilgrimage in groups of at least four sans 'Mehram' and started accepting applications under the category for next year's Haj though the Haj Committee of India (HCoI).
The term Mehram refers to a male, a woman cannot marry in her life (i.e. father, brother or son etc). Till now, women pilgrims would be required to be accompanied by 'Mehram' during the annual pilgrimage.
According to sources in the ministry, the HCoI has received 69,872 applications since November 15 when the process started. Of these, 55,001 were received online, while the remaining were submitted in hard copies.
Until now, 180 women have applied to travel without 'Mehram'. Among these, 164 applicants come from Kerala. From Uttar Pradesh, 8 women have submitted applications, while from Assam and West Bengal four women each have expressed interest in travelling without Mehram.
Kerala-based Safiya, who has applied under this category with three other members, is elated with the government's step.
She said some of her team members are widows or do not have sons and could not undertake the pilgrimage for want of a Mehram.
"But now they can go and perform Haj since there is no compulsion. Whether we all get a chance to go for the Haj or not remains to be seen, but we are happy that women are being allowed," she said.
India has a Haj quota of 1.70 lakh. But the number of Haj aspirants has always been much higher. Therefore, the applicants are short-listed through a computer-generated lottery.
The Haj Committee of India received nearly five lakh applications for Haj 2017, sources said.
Speaking to PTI, Union minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi called the move as a "very good reform.".
"Unfortunately, there was this ban on women pilgrims travelling to Saudi Arabia. The Modi government has taken initiative and lifted it. This is a very good step," Naqvi said.
The minister said the feedback the government has received from applicants till now is also "very encouraging".
The minister assured that both the governments of Saudi Arabia and India will ensure proper safety of women pilgrims.
"Smooth and safe for all Haj is our priority," he said.