Nigeria protests after Saudis deport female hajj pilgrims

Pilgrims at the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Nigerian officials said it had been agreed that Nigerian women could perform the rites so long as they were accompanied by local officials. Photograph: Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images

…Three planes turned back and 1,000 women detained after reportedly arriving without male chaperones Saudi Arabian officials have deported 241 Nigerian women from the annual hajj pilgrimage, and are threatening to send back hundreds of others said to be travelling without male chaperones, prompting a diplomatic row between the two countries.

Nigerian officials responsible for organising the hajj said three planes were turned back from the Saudi city of Medina, while a further 1,000 women were held in detention centres in Mecca, some for up to five days. Under Saudi law, women are minors who require permission from a male relative to work, leave the country or, in some cases, receive medical treatment.

But Nigeria’s Saudi ambassador, Abubakar Shehu Bunu, said it had been agreed Nigerians could perform the rites as long as they were accompanied by local officials once they were in Saudi Arabia. Bunu has lodged a formal complaint with Saudi authorities.

Many of the women who were sent back arrived in tears, some carrying babies strapped to their backs. “We are all so sad. I used my last savings to top up what my cousin provided to pay for a hajj seat, only to be treated like infidels who are not fellow Muslims,” said Halima Muhammad, who spent two days in a detention centre.

“From the airport we were all rounded up and taken to a facility that is not fit for humans. No one offered us anything, we had only water and slept on bare floors,” she said by phone from Katsina. Others said they spent hours in darkened planes and were sent back without disembarking.

Many Africans save for years to scrape together the £3,000 fee; rich Muslim philanthropists and politicians sponsor pilgrims each year. Approximately half of Nigeria’s 160-million strong population practise Islam, making it Africa’s most populous Muslim country. But women are generally free to move around on their own, even in stricter northern states that practise sharia law. All Muslims who can afford it are required to perform the hajj at least once in their lifetime, according to the five pillars of Islam.

Relations between the two oil-producing countries have been strained over the hajj in recent years. A Nigerian hajj official said some of the deported women had gone with male chaperones. “Their crime was that some boarded different aircrafts to the men who were supposed to lead them in. So some of them disembarked from the aircraft at different times to the men,” the official said.

Last year, Saudi Arabia said it had deported several thousand undocumented Nigerians from the country over a one-year period. The hajj visa allows visitors to stay up to 45 days, though the rites do not normally take more than four days to complete.

Saudi’s interior ministry says that it deports more than 700,000 foreign nationals each year, including more than 20,000 who overstay their visas after arriving for the hajj.

Nigerian Lawan Kaita, a Muslim leader from the city of Katsina and former governor, said Muslim elders in the city were calling for a “strong response from Muslims across the world”. “It’s a slap in the face for Nigeria and all Muslims. Saudi Arabia has the privilege of being hosts, but it shouldn’t stop others from coming to do the hajj,” he said.

Other African countries have faced similar woes in organising their citizens. Egypt’s foreign ministry reported 12 citizens were deported daily during the pilgrimage last year. In Ivory Coast, authorities overfilled their quota last year, eventually leaving several hundred unable to undertake the trip.

Around 2 million visitors will perform the hajj this year, with Saudi Arabia rejecting requests from 40 countries around the world to increase their quotas. Each Muslim country can send 1,000 pilgrims per million citizens.

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