Muslim Women Take Their Place at the Hajj
From CNN's Riz Khan
MECCA, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- In centuries past, the hajj, the holy Muslim pilgrimage, was a particular challenge for women. The physically arduous journey for months by camel caravan across the desert was considered too difficult for most women.
But today, hundreds of thousands of women take part in the hajj. And many of those traveling from more conservative Muslim environments are sometimes surprised to note how men and women often stay together during prayers and other rituals, rather than segregating as is done in many Islamic countries.
Even though many Western people view the religion as oppressive to women's rights, some female pilgrims from Western countries say those opinions are based on misleading interpretations of their religion.
"I know there's a very big gap between what Islam says and what Muslims are practicing, as it is with any religion," said Iman Badawi, a pilgrim from the United States. "The key is (that) people have to gain knowledge of what this religion is to practice it properly and to allow its beauty and its peace and its message to reach everyone."
Another American pilgrim, Tracy Nichols, converted from Christianity to Islam in 1996. Comparing the two experiences, she believes Islam is an "improvement."
"When people say that (Muslim) women are not treated well, it's not true. They're respected even more," she said.
For Nichols, the hajj has been an emotional, uplifting experience.
"Although there are so many people here, everyone is very respectful of each other and very welcoming of each other," she said.