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Hajj Flights To Saudi Arabia Suspended As Nigerian Women Detained

Nigeria has suspended all Hajj flights to Saudi Arabia following the deportation of more than 170 women who had arrived there without a male escort.

About 1,000 Nigerian women intending to make the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca have been detained since Sunday.

A Nigerian government delegation is headed to Saudi Arabia to complain.

There had been an understanding in the past that Nigerian women are exempt from traveling with a male relative – a requirement for women on the Hajj.

Nigerian diplomats say the agreement between the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria and the Saudi authorities allows visas to be issued for Nigerian women going to Mecca as long as they are accompanied by Hajj committee officials.

It is not clear if the Saudi action was taken as part of a concerted effort to clamp down on people illegally entering the country to work.

Since Sunday, hundreds of Nigerian women – mainly aged between 25 and 35, according to Nigerian diplomats – have been stopped at the airports in Jeddah and Medina.

Bilkisu Nasidi, who travelled from the northern Nigerian city of Katsina, told the BBC that hundreds of women had been sleeping on the floor, did not have their belongings and were sharing four toilets at the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah.

She said she was part of a group of 512 women being deported to five states in Nigeria on Thursday.

With many of them now facing deportation, Nasidi said the atmosphere at the airport was not good, and that the women felt “victimized”.

The main problem was that their surnames did not correspond with those of their husbands or male guardian on visa documentation.

It is a common practice for Muslim women in Nigeria not to take their husband’s name.

“Honestly both governments are to blame, ours and theirs,” Nasidi told the BBC’s Focus on Africa program. “They’re telling us that our government has been aware of what are the requirements for the visa application and granting our visas.

“We’re not happy about the situation. Other than the Hajj, we would not be interested in coming back to Saudi Arabia, but unfortunately, it is the holy land to us Muslims and we will have to look beyond the treatment and come back.”

Nigeria’s vice-president met the Saudi ambassador to Nigeria on Wednesday and gave him a 24-hour ultimatum for the situation to be resolved, the BBC reported.

The deportations have heightened concerns that the situation is threatening to escalate into a diplomatic showdown.

Nigeria’s speaker of the House of Representatives is leading a government delegation – that will include the foreign affairs minister – to Saudi Arabia in an attempt to resolve the situation.

More than two million Muslims are expected to converge on Mecca for this year’s Hajj, which is set to culminate over a four-day period between October 24-29, depending on lunar observations.

The Hajj is one of the pillars of Islam, which every adult Muslim must undertake at least once in their life if they can afford it and are physically able.

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