Saudi Arabia this week turned back more than 1,000 Nigerian women pilgrims who were not accompanied by male guardians or “mahram.”
Saudi’s Ministry of Pilgrimage (Hajj) released a statement on Friday defending its decision, saying that it will “not allow the entry … of those who don’t comply with terms and requirements of the entry visa to Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj.”
Saudi law requires each female pilgrim under the age of 45 years to have a male sponsor during the pilgrimage journey, regardless of nationality.
“This rule is applied to all women in general who want to get an entry visa to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj,” pilgrimage ministry spokesman Hatim bin Hassan Qadhi said in the statement.
So far, there has been no official explanation from Nigerian authorities on what might have happened.
The last of the women arrived Friday night in Kano, Nigeria, after being stranded for four to five days at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport, Nigeria’s state-run News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reported, quoting several women.
“This is the most dehumanizing situation I have ever experienced in my life,” one arriving female, who did not want to be named, told NAN.
Saudi authorities denied any ill treatment.
The Ministry of Hajj stressed in its statement that the Saudi government is keen “on receiving the pilgrims from all over the world with ease and comfort in accordance with the applicable instructions.”
Most international pilgrims arrive in Jeddah via air or sea, then make their way to the nearby mountainous city of Mecca to perform the Islamic pilgrimage rites.
Nigeria started flying its citizens back home on Thursday after sending a delegation, led by speaker of the House of Representatives Alhaji Aminu Tambuwal, to discuss the incident with Saudi officials, NAN reported.
Alhaji Hamman-Adama Tukur, one of the Nigerian clerics who helped the stranded women in Jeddah, told NAN that the women were actually accompanied by male escorts, but that the checking system at the Jeddah airport was such that men were checked, cleared and asked to proceed.
“When it was the women’s turn to be checked and cleared, the security claimed they were not accompanied by their guardians — mahram — and were unwilling to listen to any explanation.”
Saudi officials normally separate men and women upon arrival as they check passports and paperwork.
Islam requires every Muslim, who is capable physically and financially, to perform Hajj in Mecca, where the Saudi government says it receives almost 3 million pilgrims over a period of about 10 days every year.