KANO - Hundreds of Nigerian women pilgrims have returned to their homeland after Saudi authorities denied entry to more than a thousand of female pilgrims who were not accompanied by male guardians or "mahram."
I have never been so sad in my life like in the past three days, tearful Maryam Abdullahi, one of the female pilgrims who returned to Kano international airport, told Agence France Presse (AFP).
We deserve human treatment and as women and mothers, we deserve to be treated with honor.
More than a thousand Nigerian female pilgrims were denied entry to Saudi Arabia for not being accompanied by men or mahram.
They began arriving at Jeddah airport on Sunday and some had been stranded in Saudi Arabia for five days before returning late Thursday to Kano airport.
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, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reported.
A total of 511 women arrived at the Kano international airport at 8:13 pm (19H13 GMT) on a flight from Jeddah, some of them in tears.
Some of them said they had been kept at Jeddah airport as long as five days, under what they said were humiliating conditions.
Some of us were kept in two halls for five days with little food, water and other basic needs and inadequate toilet facilities, said one of the women, Zainb Mohammad.
Many of us have cold and fever. We did not have blankets and it was cold, especially at night.
It is obvious that we will miss the Hajj, she said.
A statement by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria described the situation as an unprecedented and worrisome development.
On Friday, Nigeria decided to suspend flights to Saudi Arabia for the annual hajj pilgrimage following the diplomatic spat.
"The airlift operations have been temporary stopped ... It does not make sense to airlift people to be detained on landing," Uba Mana, spokesman of National Hajj Commission, told Reuters by telephone.
We will resume when all outstanding issues are resolved.
Facing angry would-be pilgrims, Saudi authorities defended its decision, saying Nigerian women had failed to abide by the rules for the annual pilgrimage.
The rules for the pilgrimage have been in force for several years and must be applied as they stand since nothing new has been introduced, Hajj ministry spokesman Hatem Bin Hassan Qadi was quoted by the official news agency SPA, AFP reported.
Women aged under 45 must be accompanied on the journey by a mahram', (a male with legal authority), the ministry said in a statement.
This is mentioned on the entry visas ... and those who do not respect the rules are not authorized to enter the kingdom, which is home to Islam's holiest sites in Makkah and Madinah, it said.
Saudi law requires each female pilgrim under the age of 45 years to have a male sponsor during the pilgrimage journey, regardless of nationality.
"The rule that a mahram should accompany a woman is applied to all who want to get an entry visa to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj and it has been in force for a long time," Qadi said.
"The Ministry of Hajj confirms the keenness of Government of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah to receive pilgrims from all over the world ensuring their comfort and freedom from worries but they should adhere to the regulations," he said.
However, some Muslim scholars say that a woman is allowed to travel for hajj without a mahram if she travels in the company of trustworthy women and men with whom she will be secure regarding her life, honor, faith and property.
The fatwa cites a change in travelling these days from what it was in the past, particularly group trips like that of Hajj and `Umrah.
In most cases it is safe and a person can be assured regarding his life, family, property, etc.
Muslims from around the world pour into Makkah every year to perform hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam.
Hajj consists of several ceremonies, which are meant to symbolize the essential concepts of the Islamic faith, and to commemorate the trials of Prophet Abraham and his family.
Every able-bodied adult Muslim who can financially afford the trip must perform hajj at least once in a lifetime.