MECCA, Saudi Arabia – The annual hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, required of able-bodied Muslims once in their life, brings the Islamic world together across its many languages, ethnicities and individual beliefs — something seen across the many faces of its female faithful.
Arabs, Africans, Asians, Europeans and those from the Americas all followed what tradition holds is the path of the Prophet Muhammad up Jabal al-Rahma, or the Mountain of Mercy. There, the Quran says the prophet delivered his final sermon calling for equality, unity and women's rights.
Women also walked along the path believed to be followed by Abraham's wife, Hagar, when she found the Zamzam water spring to save her son.
Wanting to follow those examples, a 25-year-old Ghanaian woman who gave her name only as Fatma over concerns about her personal safety carried her infant son Hisou slung over her back, walking long distances in a show of piety.
"I walked from Medina to Mecca to Arafat and I will continue to Muzdalifa then to Mina, carrying my son on my back because this is my faith to do it the right way," she said.
During the hajj, women wear the hijab, a scarf to cover their hair in deference to God. Some decide to return home and continue covering their hair in respect. But for others, their faith isn't tied to the scarf.
"I am not convinced that hijab is a must and sign of faith," said 36-year-old Lebanese woman Dalia, who gave only her first name out of concern of her views affecting her career. "I have been treating people in a way I believe is ethical and human. I will continue to do so after the hajj."
Although gender inequality persists today in parts of the Muslim world, women played a prominent part in the founding of Islam, with the Prophet Muhammad's wife, Khadijah, becoming its first convert. And today, the women who took part in this year's hajj say they found a peace and fulfillment for taking part in the pilgrimage.
"The hajj to me is a combination of childhood dreams coming true and it has taught me unity and diversity," said 29-year-old South African Fathima Akoo.
Here is a selection of images by Associated Press photographer Nariman El-Mofty showing the diversity among the women who took part in this year's hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.
Follow Nariman El-Mofty on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NMofty and on Instagram at www.instagram.com/narimanelmofty .
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