•Untold story of 3 ugly days in Medina
•The Shahra Mansour Quarters angle
From DESMOND MGBOH, Kano
The huge airbus finally taxied to a stop at the other end of the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano, on Wednesday, throwing up a whirlwind in its trail and ending weeks of anxiety of its occupants.
Inside the plane, owned by Max Air, hundreds of distraught female pilgrims from different states of the Northern part of the country heaved a sigh of relief and offered prayers to Allah that they were home at last.
The pilgrims, young and old, strong and weak, had unpleasant stories to tell about their sojourn to Saudi Arabia, where their dream to perform this year’s hajj was aborted by Saudi authorities’ stance that women should be accompanied by their chaperones (Muhram).
Indeed, as the women disembarked from the airbus with their respective dark green luggage at about 5.30pm, they were a sharp and tragic contrast from the joyous contingent that left the country a few days ago.
Apparently humbled by cold, hunger and disappointment, they wobbled as they went through Immigration procedures. When they eventually embraced the open air, some shed tears of joy while some cried and cursed as they departed for their respective homes that Wednesday night.
Unlike them, about a hundred more stayed back inside the Max Air plane and were later flown to their home state, Katsina. But that was not the end. Ever since, batches of gloomy pilgrims, overwhelmed with pains of unfulfilled dreams are dispatched from Saudi every day.
But unlike those who returned Wednesday, the authorities have elected to fly in most of the pilgrims secretly, preferably under the cover of the night to reduce their exposure to public glare.
That was exactly what happened on Thursday in Kano when a large contingent of detained Nigeria female pilgrims, about 511 in all, landed at Makia. These were mostly female pilgrims from Kano, Jigawa and Katsina States. A few of them were from Zamfara, Kebbi and Sokoto States. Another batch of 502 pilgrims arrived Makia at about 2am on Friday even as more were being expected as at press time.
Many of these distraught mothers, it was gathered, had no money or relatives resident in Kano. They may have to be transported to their respective homes by the Kano state government or their home governments.
Accounts of the tragic experience by these pilgrims were similar. It was reported that about 1000 were stranded at a facility in King Abdulazeez International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
A few others whose plane had landed at the Prince Muhammad Ibn Abdulazeez International Airport, Medina, which was said to be a smaller airport, were not even allowed to disembark from their planes. They were simply flown back by the planes that brought them soon after it was established that they were unqualified for entry into the country.
On arrival at the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport, some of the women had to cover their faces with their clothes as they sauntered into the waiting buses. But a few of the pilgrims, despite official disapproval at the airport, volunteered to speak to the media.
In all, they chorused the same sad song. They lamented that it was a shocking, painful and dehumanizing experience as they suffered untold hardship in the hands of their religious hosts whom they least expected would visit them with this kind of treatment.
According to Hajia Aisha Ibrahim Mohammed from Taraba State, they spent three ugly days held in custody in Medina, Saudi Arabia, adding that they starved for the whole of the period.
She lamented: “It was very, very cold out there. We were kept at a place all this while and denied entry into Saudi Arabia. We were hungry; we did not eat anything I tell you, not even tea. They were that wicked. It was a very difficult experience for all of us. We even asked for our passports but they refused to give them to us.”
But Hajia Aisha added that she had taken everything in her stride. She hoped to perform her hajj when another opportunity offers itself or as soon as the contending issues were resolved by the Nigerian and Saudi Arabian authorities. She prayed that it should be soon.
Hajia Medinatu Jalingo wept openly and felt cheated by fate as she gave account of her experience. She expressed disgust at the treatment that was meted to them adding that at some point, “we shouted, screamed and we were about to protest, but they sent their officers after us. We truly wanted to protest, but their immigration people were there”.
Alhaji Mustapha Abdullahi had a different experience. He is the husband of one of the deportees and was at the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport to pick his wife. Later, he was informed that the pilgrims from Katsina State were being flown home by the airline and would no longer disembark in Kano. That prolonged his devastation because all he wanted was to take his family out of their precarious fate.
He told Sunday Sun that he saw off his family barely 24 hours ago, adding that they departed the country by about 2.17pm the previous day. He said that he was surprised when he was communicated by phone that the pilgrims were scheduled to come back home, due their inability to enter Saudi Arabia.
He recalled that on receipt of the news including the time of their arrival, he drove to Kano to pick them home. He expressed sadness over the controversy and the cost implications materially and psychologically, adding that the matter could have been handled better by the authorities.
But why were Nigerian female pilgrims denied entry into Saudi Arabia to perform this year’s hajj? Sunday Sun was told that those who were deported fell short of the immigration laws of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as there were Nigerian female pilgrims who were not barred by the Saudi Arabian authorities.
The issue in contention was the policy of Muharram (guardian). It requires that a female pilgrim must be accompanied by a guardian or chaperon. The conflict arose when the names in the passports of some of the female pilgrims did not correspond with the names of their guardians.
It was gathered that the policy was not exactly new. A Muslim scholar who did not want his name in print, noted that the policy had been in existence since the eighties and beyond, adding, “what is obvious is that they (Saudi Government) decided to be strict on its implementation this year compared to the previous years”.
There are debates about the policy itself. Not all Nigerian Muslims concede to the idea of its strict application. It was gathered that the differing positions regarding the extent to which the policy should be applied followed the interpretation of two prominent schools of thought in Islam, mainly the Maliki and the Hunbali schools.
While most Muslims in Nigeria and in most of the West African countries are of the Makili school, the Saudis are mainly of the Hunbali school which places stronger emphasis on the use of Muhram (guardian) for female travelers.
It is said that the Maliki school agrees that women should travel accompanied by their guardian but they accept a waiver that where and when such a woman is traveling as a group or in a company such as a caravan or a contingent, a leader of the whole group could stand as a guardian of all.
Indeed, it was in the light of this background that the leaders of the various states’ Pilgrims Welfare Board or their nominees were assumed to be the guardians of the unaccompanied female pilgrims.
It was not clear why the Saudi authorities decided to scale up the entry requirements this year. It could as well be for purely religious purposes. However, there are those who were convinced that the strict application of the policy this year might be linked to other variables.
These Muslims were quick to remember that not too long ago, the Saudi authorities came up with a policy encouraging pilgrims who had performed the pilgrimage before, to tarry for five years before embarking on another pilgrimage. They held that it could be part of the moves to scale down the size of the ever-growing Nigerian contingent.
Some respondents also alluded to instances of Nigerian female pilgrims who found their way around immigration regulations, and decided to stay back in Saudi to eke a living after their pilgrimage was over. The source pointed that in areas such as Shahra Mansour Quarters, one finds a good population of female Nigerians resident or working there. This could be the reason the Saudis insisted on a male chaperon.
It is generally believed that the topic will dominate the Friday sermons in the North. But in the interim, some of the Muslim faithful who spoke to Sunday Sun in Kano under the condition of anonymity, condemned the posture of the Saudi Arabian authorities and suggested that the Federal Government should review the entire hajj exercise for the better.
Executive Secretary, Kano State Pilgrims Welfare Board, Alhaji Laminu Rabiu, who was at the airport to receive the returnees on Wednesday, condemned the hard stance of the Saudi authorities on the issue of the use of a chaperon and felt that the case of the affected Nigerian female pilgrims ought to have been reconsidered given that they were women and mothers and were in the country for a religious duty.
Also speaking, Muhammad Zikrullah Ado, the Secretary of the Writers Forum of the Muslim Students Society, Bayero University Kano, felt that, “If the Saudi Government thinks that this is what is right for them to do, because of the challenges they face with the Nigerian pilgrims, then I think that there is no problem. My only suggestion is that they should have announced it, made it clearly known to us, so that intending pilgrims will know what to expect.”
While pointing out that he was not an Islamic scholar yet, he agreed that the denial of entry to Nigerian female pilgrims was unfair to the country and to the affected pilgrims.
He appealed to the authorities in Saudi to allow the pilgrims that were already in the Holy land to complete the hajj.
He declared that if the Saudi authorities felt that the failure to be accompanied by Muharram (guardian) was wrong, then it is wrong, adding that, “Anyway, my stand is going to be in support of whatever Islamic scholars say on this issue. What the scholars say on this issue is going to be my stand”, he concluded.