ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — The detention of hundreds of female Nigerian pilgrims heading to Mecca at Saudi Arabia’s busiest airport over a rule requiring them to travel with a husband or male relative is threatening to bring a diplomatic dispute between the two nations.
Saudi authorities are holding 908 Nigerian women in poor conditions “with some needing urgent medical attention” at King Abdulaziz Airport in Jeddah and threatened to deport them, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria said in a report submitted to Nigerian lawmakers yesterday.
The report said female pilgrims who had landed in a smaller airport in Medina had been unaffected.
However, Fuwaiba Muhammad, a pilgrim, told an Associated Press reporter at Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport in the northern Nigerian city of Kano that she had been deported yesterday from the Saudi Arabian city of Medina, along with dozens of others.
Uba Mana, a spokesman for the National Hajj Commission, said no pilgrim had been deported by Saudi authorities yet, but that the commission had asked for female pilgrims who did not meet the Saudi immigration officials’ requirements to temporarily be brought back to Nigeria to avoid deportations.
“Medina is a small airport,” Mana said, “and if we allow people to get deported from there, the pilgrims won’t be able to return to Saudi Arabia for another five years, and by no fault of their own,” he said.
This is the first time pilgrims have faced the possibility of mass deportation over the male escort issue, the commission has said. According to the report, an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Nigeria exempts female pilgrims from requiring a male relative to escort them for the mandatory Hajj pilgrimage, which costs about $4,000 per person.
Until now, state pilgrimage officials had been allowed to stand in the place of a male relative or husband. Muhammad, for instance, said that she had been travelling with a Hajj official who is not her relative.
But Saudi authorities have proven much stricter this year. They even stopped women who did travel with their husbands.
“Islam allows wives to bear the names of their parents and not necessarily that of their husbands,” the report argued.
All able-bodied Muslims who can afford it are expected to perform Hajj at least once in their lives, leading people to go to great lengths to make the trip.