Nigeria suspends Hajj flights over women deportation

Two of the women deported from Saudi Arabia talk about how they were treated

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Nigeria has suspended all Hajj flights to Saudi Arabia after the authorities there deported more than 170 women who had arrived 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 going to Saudi Arabia to complain.

There has been an understanding in the past that Nigerian women are exempt from travelling 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.

BBC Nigeria correspondent Will Ross says it is not clear if this action was taken as part of an effort to clamp down on people entering Saudi Arabia illegally to work.

'Victimised'

Start Quote

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”

End Quote Bilkisu Nasidi Would-be Nigerian Hajj pilgrim

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, she said the atmosphere at the airport was not good, and the women felt "victimised".

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

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. They're telling us that our government has been aware of what are the requirements for the visa application and granting our visas," she told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme

"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's Chris Ewokor reports from the capital, Abuja.

The deportations have heightened concerns that the situation is threatening to develop into a diplomatic showdown, he says.

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

More than two million Muslims are due to converge on Mecca for this year's Hajj, which is set to culminate over a four-day period somewhere between 24-29 October 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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