Going on pilgrimage is a religious obligation that every Muslim is expected to perform, at least, once in his or her lifetime if he/she has the means. For the Christians, it is Jerusalem, in Israel, that they head to every year to perform their pilgrimage. The Muslims go to Mecca and Medina to observe theirs.
But by far, it is the Muslim pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia that attracts the highest number of faithful all over the world every year. With this also comes the high publicity that is attached to the yearly ritual. Apart from the yearly pilgrimage, many Muslim faithful also visit the Holy land for Umrah or “Lesser Hajj”. However, this is done at anytime of the year without really engaging the attention or the probing eyes of journalists and other media commentators.
The popular yearly hajj, which culminates in ram-slaughtering, the Id-El- Kabir festival, is undertaken two months and a few days after the Muslim’s 30-day fasting period known as Ramadan. This yearly hajj is a very big event as so many activities are involved in it. Good enough, the Saudi Arabian government has put several measures in place to accommodate the large influx of Muslims to the country on the annual religious ritual. But in spite of all the measures put in place to ensure hitch-free hajj operations, some of the pilgrims have run into one problem or another while in the Holy Land. In most cases, the Saudi Arabian government has always risen up to the occasion by attending to any issues that may arise during the annual pilgrimage.
Surprisingly, this year’s pilgrimage by Nigerian pilgrims has attracted a huge controversy because of the forced deportation of some female pilgrims. The dust raised by the action taken by the Saudis is just about to settle with the flurry of diplomatic meetings and shuttles embarked upon by the Nigerian government, particularly the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Aminu Tambuwal, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and his team also dashed to the Kingdom on a one-day fence-mending visit. Finally, the Saudi government softened its stand on some of the pilgrims who had earlier been repatriated to Nigeria. That incident itself is the crux of this discourse.
‘What usually happens to the hordes of women who are reportedly ‘arrested’ by Saudi security forces for breaches of the social and moral rule only to be off the streets for the night or a couple of days and be back ‘doing their thing’ afterwards?’
The first thing is that, side-by-side our generally accepted Western attitudes and values that lay emphasis on the freedom of the individual adult to act according to his or her own needs and general personal desires, Islam is a different ball game, especially with regards to women. Simply put, women are generally seen as minors who require permission from their husbands or father or the adult male equivalent in the family. Generally speaking, choices for women in Islam on a lot of things simply follow a well-guarded path with little or no room for any ‘creativity’ on the part of the woman. Of course, this tradition is most jealously upheld and guarded in Islamic environments were Wahabism – a stricter, more extreme version of Islam – is practised such as you find in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Taliban-controlled-Afghanistan and a few other places, including among many Muslims in northern Nigeria.
This is where, in hajj, the issue of mahram (chaperon/guardian) comes into the picture. One thing though, it is not true that the issue of a chaperon has only just come to be recognised in hajj. It’s just that the practice has, over the decades, been bent to accommodate modern political and social nuances. In short, the practice of mahram for women on hajj has merely learned to recognise the fact that because of the peculiarity regarding the number of pilgrims of various backgrounds from even one country, it cannot be practical for every single woman going on hajj to necessarily have access to a family member who is an adult male to act as chaperon. Hence the waiver that had been in existence for Nigeria’s female pilgrims since the 1980s. Under this arrangement, the leader of the delegation (the Amir-ul Hajj) from each country is sufficient to act as the chaperon/guardian of all female pilgrims from that country.
So, what went wrong this time? Well, an exhaustive answer may only be provided by both the Saudi authorities and their Nigerian counterparts. But it is first worthy to note that even by the regulations on hajj and the chaperon/guardian issue, it is permissible for any woman who is 45 years old or older to go on hajj without a mahram. This also brings us to the issue of the category of women who have so far been denied entry into Saudi Arabia in the current controversy. It is, perhaps, not ordinary happenstance that while some older women have been granted entry with the minimum of fuss, most of the ones who have been denied entry are young women all under 34 years of age and even much younger. In the case of one contingent from Kano, it was allegedly discovered that a whole plane only had three male passengers, with all the other passengers being female.
And it certainly begets curiosity as to why a passenger plane could have such a lopsided composition of passengers. It becomes more interesting when we throw into the fray Nigeria’s history with regards to the behaviour of some members of our contingents at such gatherings of mass proportions abroad. It is a well-documented development that it is usually a hard battle preventing some members of our contingents from absconding during sports meets anywhere in the world. And unless we are bent on calling a spade by some other name, we cannot feign ignorance of such incidents often taking place with our contingents on pilgrimage whether to Jerusalem or Mecca. Even where some of these people – in this case, the women – do not abscond outright, there have been alleged cases of various unwholesome activities on their parts such as prostitution, begging and the like. And unless we insist on wallowing in self-denial, many such stories abound about our pilgrims’ conduct in Saudi Arabia.
Therefore, it might be safe to assume that in the case of the current controversy, our legacy has simply preceded us. In essence, the Saudis may have finally caught on to the antics of our people and decided to try and put a stop to it, starting, of course, with the crackdown on that (in)famous three-male-out-of-hundreds aeroplane incident from Kano.
If this is the case, then perhaps the Saudi authorities are absolved of all blame, right? Well, not quite. Firstly, it is highly implausible that the Saudis have only recently caught on to this attitude and have, even more belatedly, found a noose to throw around the problem. In addition, as a retort to a question on why more and more men are becoming adulterous around the world, a psychologist once asked: “Who do you think these men are sleeping with?” Perhaps, it is similarly legitimate for us to ask: After all other pilgrims have returned to their countries, which men then patronise the Nigerian women who often decide to stay behind and hawk their bodies for money in Saudi Arabia? What usually happens to the hordes of women who are reportedly ‘arrested’ by Saudi security forces for breaches of the social and moral rule only to be off the streets for the night or a couple of days and be back ‘doing their thing’ afterwards? Could the possible answers to these questions be the main reason the Saudis have allegedly not given any reason for their new-found brazenness in injuring their country’s diplomatic ties with Nigeria while not offering any explanation for the sudden aggressive treatment of Nigeria’s female pilgrims this year? Well, maybe, as they say in Yoruba, oro p’esije (too serious beyond response).