Woman Traveling Without a Chaperone
By Shaikh Sâmî al-Mâjid
The Islamic legal rulings that pertain to the daily affairs of life are always connected to the welfare of the people in their individual lives and in their relationships with each other. Such rulings, therefore, have causes that can be grasped by reason and understood in a clear and precise manner.
These rulings differ from those that pertain to acts of worship, since acts of worship are connected to the benefits of the Hereafter and our direct relationship with Allah. Such matters are generally not discernable to the human intellect. Many great scholars have tried to determine the wisdom behind why we do certain things in prayer and in pilgrimage - and quite often they have failed and said: "This is purely a matter that we must accept on faith. Allah knows best about it."
The ruling that a woman may not travel without her husband or a male escort from her immediate family (a mahram) falls under the first category of rulings. We can appreciate the reason for the prohibition. When we understand that the reason for this prohibition is the fear for her sanctity and honor and the fear that she might be taken advantage of or raped, then we know that the issue is one that needs to be weighed in light of the benefits and harm present in a given situation.
Therefore, we have the opinion in Islamic Law that it is permissible for a woman to travel without a mahram when she is reasonably assured of her safety or when traveling poses no more danger for her than staying at home. The latter situation is often the case in non-Muslim countries where walking down her own street can be more dangerous for her and full of temptation that sitting on board an airplane. The environment of an airplane is quite often safer and more wholesome than that of the neighborhood in which she lives.
From this point of departure, we shall present the evidence and juristic reasoning of the people of knowledge:
`Adî b. Hâtim relates that Allah's Messenger (peace be upon him) said to him: "O `Adî, have you seen al-Hîrah (a region in Iraq)."
`Adî replied: "I have not seen it, but I have heard of it."
Allah's Messenger (peace be upon him) said: "If you live long enough, you will see a woman departing by camel in a litter and traveling until she reaches the Ka`bah without fearing anyone but Allah."
`Adî informs us that he thought to himself: "Where are the robbers and bandits who run rampant through the land?" Then `Adî says: "I have seen a woman travel by camel litter from al-Hirâh to the Ka`bah fearing no one but Allah." [Sahîh al-Bukhârî]
This hadîth shows us that it is permissible for a woman to travel unescorted if the road is safe. Someone might argue that the statement of the Prophet (peace be upon him) is merely reporting that such a thing would one day take place, not that it is permissible. However, this argument is weak. This statement is made in a context of praising Islam and showing its future ascendancy. Therefore, it must be assumed that what is being used to indicate such praise is permissible in and of itself. Moreover, `Adî b. Hâtim saw this woman and did not condemn her action, nor did anyone else.
Al-Bâjî, in al-Muntaqâ, writes: "Perhaps what some of our scholars have said (regarding prohibition) refers only to cases where the woman is alone or with a small group. As for the great caravans and the secure major thoroughfares, they are to me no different than the places of residence that are filled with markets and merchants. In such cases, her safety is secured without the presence of a mahram or female companions. This opinion has been related to us from al-Awzâ`î."
Qâdî `Iyâd, when discussing the prohibition of a woman traveling without a mahram to escort her, says: "This refers only for a young woman. As for an older woman who is less enticing, she can travel anywhere she wants without her husband or a mahram. Ibn Daqîq al-`Id: considers this a specification of a general ruling in consideration of the meaning behind it."
The great jurists Mâlik and al`Awzâ'î - and also al-Shâfi`î in his more prevalent opinion - rule that a mahram escort is not a condition for a woman to make her obligatory pilgrimage. The only condition is that she will be safe on the journey. Al-Shâfî'î says: "Safety can be achieved by her being chaperoned by her husband or her mahram, or by the company of other trustworthy women."
Some scholars have said that if it is safe enough, she needs no one to accompany her. She can travel alone along with the caravans and be safe. This is indicated by the hadîth of `Adî that we mentioned earlier.
Permissibility is even more certain when a woman cannot find a mahram and her best interests are to be secured by her traveling. Permissibility is indisputable in cases where travel becomes a necessity for her, on account of the principle in Islamic Law that necessity makes unlawful things permissible. This is why the scholars have permitted a woman to travel unescorted to emigrate from a non-Muslim country to a Muslim one. In some situations, they even declare such a journey to be obligatory upon her.
And Allah knows best. And may the peace and blessings be upon our Prophet Muhammad.