MECCA, Saudi Arabia – One of the main rites at Islam's annual hajj centers on the bravery and determination of a woman.
According to Muslim tradition, Hagar, the consort of the patriarch Abraham, ran between two hills searching for water for her dying young son after they were abandoned in the desert here. Then God brought forth a spring that still runs to this day. Every year, pilgrims at hajj re-enact her desperate search, jogging seven times between two spots in Mecca marking the hills.
It's a story that thrills Shahidah Sharif, an American Muslim on this year's pilgrimage. But something about the rite galls her: While male pilgrims are urged to rush between the two places, women are told by many clerics to do it slowly, because they are "weaker" and will tire or because jogging is considered immodest.
"We are commemorating the act of a woman, someone who made a sacrifice not just for her child but to the building of an entire city," Sharif said, referring to the fact that the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine -- and later Mecca itself -- were built near the site of Hagar's suffering.
"And she was going through these extremes to provide for her child, without thinking about gender, and here it is now (they're) making it forbidden for women to run," said the 32-year-old from Atlanta, Georgia.
At the most ancient and sacred rituals of Islam, modern-minded women are trying to work out their place in their faith, even as they draw inspiration from it. They say the hajj gives them the strength to push for a greater voice for women in their religion.
The hajj is also an education in the broad range of attitudes toward women in Islam.
This year's pilgrimage drew some 2.4 million people from around the world, who on Monday were starting to head home after the rites ended a day earlier. They brought an extraordinary mix of cultures and backgrounds together in a small space over lass than a week. Every stripe of Islam can be found -- from die-hard ultraconservatives who insist on complete separation of men and women, to Westerners accustomed to rights women have won in their countries, to Southeast Asian women pressing for the right to divorce.
Women, as well as men, say the overwhelming feeling from hajj is the spiritual experience -- closeness to God, the cleansing of sins, the sense of unity and equality among Muslims. But there are occasional incidents that for some women smack of a second-class status -- like lower quality facilities, less access to some sites, or the occasional scolding of a woman for laughing or talking too loudly at the holy sites.
For Kameelah Wilkerson, it was an incident at a public bathroom at one of the holy sites struck her. As the lines of people waiting grew, men barged into the women's toilets and drove out the women. What surprised Wilkerson, born and raised in Los Angeles, was that the women said nothing.
"I was saying, 'Ladies, why y'all sitting there, move over and take your space!"' said Wilkerson. "I just wanted to bum rush over there and tell them (the men), 'Move back on the other side."'
The hajj takes place in Saudi Arabia, which is far more conservative than most other parts of the Islamic world with rules banning the mingling of the sexes and barring women from driving.
Malaysian pilgrim Nori Abdullah proudly calls herself a feminist. Back in her home country she is part of a women's group called Sisters in Islam that works with clerics to bring progressive ideas into traditional Islamic law.
"We have a tradition of justice and equality (in Islam), but it's been lost along the way because of interpretation," said Abdullah.
Their main focus is family law and other rules governing women. The head of Malaysia national bank -- a woman -- "can't get married without a wali," Abdullah said, referring to the male guardian -- a father, husband or other relative -- required to approve of many official steps a woman takes.
Another point is divorce, since traditional Islamic law allows a man to divorce his wife by a simple verbal pronouncement, while a woman must go to court to demand one, if she's allowed to at all.
"Is that what our religion really says? Are we really second-class?" she said. "How can they say God is compassionate and merciful ... then why are these things happening?"
Performing hajj, she was amazed that at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which houses the Kaaba, men and women prayed side by side, a contrast to most mosques around the world where they are in separate sections. It reminded the 32-year-old Abdullah that Islam at heart empowers women.
"Everyone can pray wherever, and there (could be) a man next to you," she said. "There is a real sense of a level playing field."
Back at the campsite delegated to American pilgrims, Sharif has just settled her 14-month-old son to sleep.
This year she had to juggle worship and motherhood -- and a unique role she plays at hajj. She is a female guide of pilgrims, a rarity. Most pilgrims come to hajj through tour groups in their home country, and almost all guides for the groups are men.
Sharif is a co-owner with her husband of HajjPros, an Atlanta-based company that organizes pilgrimages. Besides helping run the business, she helps her clients through the complicated hajj rituals -- and, she says, eases the culture shock for Western women.
In Islam, "women do have a role to play, (one) that respects the role of women and the role of men," she said. She also educates her clients about the women who played a significant role in early Islam and how "we are coming in their footsteps."
One woman on her tour, Medinah Muhammad, a 33-year-old Atlanta doctor, said the hajj has made her feel lucky to be an American.
"You feel fortunate to be in a country that allows women to have the freedom to have an education and to pursue job opportunities," she said. "It takes coming all the way to the other side of the planet to really appreciate it."
But, she said, coming to Mecca has been a reaffirmation of sorts about women's role.
"When I look at women as a whole, I think we're amazing. Even with all the cultural circumstances, women are still able to work and take care of their families whichever way they can," said Muhammad, lightly touching the earrings dangling from her ears. "Hajj has confirmed that for me."