Hundreds of thousands of Muslim women descend on Mecca in Saudi Arabia each year to take part in the Hajj, but in recent weeks some female worshipers have told CNN they experienced incidents of sexual abuse or harassment while participating in the five-day pilgrimage.
Five women told CNN they were compelled to share their stories after a Pakistani woman’s account of being sexually abused at the Hajj went viral on Facebook last month. That post (since deleted) prompted an outpouring of similar stories from female pilgrims on social media.
The Hajj is a spiritual pinnacle for Muslims around the world, with up to three million pilgrims traveling to Mecca to participate each year. In 2016, almost 42% of all worshipers were women. Every Muslim who is physically and financially able to, is required to do the pilgrimage once in their lifetime. As one of the largest annual pilgrimages in the world, crowd control poses a major challenge.
Most of the incidents of sexual abuse and harassment reported to CNN happened during the tawaf ritual, a counter-clockwise procession around the Kaaba shrine. Only some of the women who shared their stories with CNN reported the incidents to police in Saudi Arabia but those who did said their complaints were ignored.
Responding to CNN, an unnamed Saudi official familiar with Hajj affairs said the Kingdom does not tolerate this kind of behavior anywhere, especially at holy sites and added that allegations made by the women were being taken very seriously by authorities.
“Anyone found guilty of committing these acts faces serious consequences including imprisonment and caning,” the Saudi official said. “By Royal Order, female police officers and investigators are now being added to the police force and security services including the Public Prosecution Department, so there will be a greater female security and police presence within the country and at the Holy sites to handle any issues that may arise.”
Saudi Arabia already issued a royal decree in September 2017 to outlaw sexual harassment. A new law is currently being drafted.
Below are the five women’s stories. They have been edited for clarity and length. Some women requested to remain anonymous because they fear a backlash within their communities.
Asra Nadeem, a Pakistani woman living in the US
I was 21 years old in 2006 when I did the Hajj for the first time.
First, I got stuck in the 2006 stampede during the Stoning of the Devil in Mina and that itself was very traumatic. It was horrible.
But a few days later I went back to Mecca to perform Umrah (a shorter form of the Hajj pilgrimage that can be performed at any time of the year). During that time, I was on my own, doing tawaf around the Kaaba.
The closer you get to the Kaaba, the more crowded it gets. Everybody wants to touch the Kaaba. I wanted to get closer to touch it, and in the last circle the crowd was moving really slowly.
I was next to the Kaaba and somebody grabbed my bum. I thought it was just the crowd; everyone was pushing. But then, when I moved up, somebody grabbed my boobs.
I turned my head and I saw this guy just smirking at me. I couldn’t do anything, and he was still holding my breast. So, I yelled at him, and then people started pushing me forward, shouting “yalla” (“hurry up”).
I reported the incident to the first two guards that I saw but both of them did not speak English and told me to move along.
I’ve met a few people who messaged me the same experience but in 2006 you didn’t want to talk about it, before Facebook or anything.
Hajj is a spiritual experience — you’re in a different state of mind. You’re praying for things, it’s very Zen-like. Your first instinct is that it cannot possibly be happening, but it’s there, in your face
I didn’t go back to do Hajj. It was very traumatic, first the stampede and then the harassment.
Anonymous British woman, now living in Asia
I had never been sexually assaulted before I went to Mecca, in 2007 when I was 32. The first time it happened I was heading into the Grand Mosque to perform tawaf. A man was heading out, towards the courtyard, and as he approached me he outstretched his arm and grabbed my breast. It wasn’t a clumsy brush. It was a grab. It was forceful and it hurt. He didn’t let go immediately. He squeezed and was looking at me the whole time.
The second time I was in the courtyard of the Grand Mosque and I felt something pressing into my lower spine. It was crowded and lots of people were bumping into each other. But the pressing continued. I turned around and saw it was a man and realized he was pressing his erection into me. He was pushing against me so hard he was almost driving me forward. He too was looking at me and holding my gaze. I ran off and found a policeman and told him (in English) what had happened. He shooed me away. He had no interest in listening to me. I even pointed out the man in the crowd and the policeman still ignored me.
The third time I was in a side street looking at Hajj-related merchandise. I felt a sharp jab from behind. An old man had put his hand between my buttocks with such force that his fingers were almost inside me. It happened really fast and I cried out in shock. He looked at me and smiled and said “Alhamdulillah” [“Praise to God”]. The person at the stall had his back turned and didn’t see anything.
I was assaulted each time in broad daylight with thousands of people around me. I was amazed at the audacity of the three men and I was angry that there was no recourse.
I was told before I left that I might get touched inappropriately. But it didn’t prepare me for the shock. I think assault happens a lot more at the Hajj than people — Muslims — would like to believe. It is the holiest place in Islam, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Talking about sexual assault is difficult enough and talking about it in connection with the Hajj, which is a pillar of Islam, is even harder because it is sacred.
I did return to the Hajj a few years later…but I was militant about my personal space. I would almost run to where I needed to be so nobody could touch me and did a lot of my work late at night or early in the morning when it was quieter outside. I didn’t perform tawaf and I would zip through the courtyard of the Grand Mosque. It was my second visit so I knew all the tunnels and shortcuts.
Anonymous woman, Indonesia
I am from Indonesia and I was going to Mecca for Umrah in 2011, when I was 17
First, I got catcalled. I was waiting in the hotel’s lobby for my room and there were two males that started to stare at me and laughed. I ignored them and they started to call me “cantik” (Indonesian for “beauty”), with smirks on their faces.
When I did tawaf around the Kaaba, another pilgrim walked behind me and stuck his erect penis into my back.
I felt angry and unsafe. I could not complain about it to anyone because of the situation and everyone thinks “it is the holy city — who would do that?”
I haven’t come back for Umrah/Hajj. I am not sure that I would. Even after it happened I could not focus on my prayer and worship, just counting down when would I leave Mecca.
It’s a terrible situation when you are in a mosque, in front of the Kaaba, where you should feel the closest to God and the worst thing happens.
I’ve told no one about this one until today. I don’t know, maybe I didn’t want to remember the situation or I didn’t like that people would be asking “Why are you walking alone?” or “Why you are not using a black abaya?”
Anonymous woman, Egypt
I was harassed two times, one verbally and the other time physically.
The verbal was while I was walking with my sisters and mom during Umrah. Heading back to the hotel after prayers, a shop clerk said something with the implication of “come over here, pretty girl.” Mind you, I was 13, I never forgot it. I was very confused and disgusted with myself.
The second time was during Hajj, at the Stoning of the Devil area in Mina, just east of Mecca. In the midst of the crowd, I felt someone grab my boobs, I looked back and it was a man with his wife next to him. He didn’t respect his wife nor the holy city so he won’t respect me either.
Again, I was confused and disgusted with myself and I was just 17. For years after I’ve always said it might’ve been by mistake or unintentional since it’s the holy city and Hajj — but Twitter made me realize I’m not the only one.
Anooshe Mushtaq, a Pakistani woman living in Australia
When I was 10 years old my family was posted to Libya. My father was in the Pakistani air force and was posted there for four years. In 1980, my parents decided to perform Hajj.
I remember I was very excited as performing Hajj is a privilege. My parents traveled to Saudi Arabia with their two daughters. My sister and I were looking forward to going to Mecca and seeing the Kaaba for the first time.
When we entered the Kaaba it was very crowded.
Suddenly a young man groped me from behind. I felt extremely uncomfortable. I grabbed my mother’s hand and moved in front of her. I didn’t know if I should tell my mum or not so I just kept quiet.
During Hajj we were supposed to travel on a bus from Mecca to Medina. As we sat in the bus my sister and I sat next to each other and our parents sat in the seats behind each us.
The bus conductor was checking tickets. The bus conductor stood beside my seat and acted like he wanted to fix something on the inside of my seat. He moved his hand on my chest and groped my upper leg and he would not leave it. I felt angry and disgusted but didn’t know what to do. He then reached out as if he was fixing the curtains while thrusting his groin in my face.
I didn’t tell anyone due to shame and honor of my family and I kept quiet. I never told anyone what happened during Hajj until I recently saw the sexual assault post.
If I get a chance I will perform Hajj a second time in the future.
— Tamara Qiblawi contributed to this report.
Originally published in CNN