Nigeria resumes pilgrimages to Mecca, ending row over women

ABUJA Tue Oct 2, 2012 9:48am EDT

ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigeria has resumed flights to Saudi Arabia for the annual haj pilgrimage, ending a diplomatic row over the detention of hundreds of female pilgrims for arriving unaccompanied by men, the country's haj commission said on Tuesday.

Saudi authorities have deported more than 600 female Nigerian pilgrims and detained hundreds for trying to visit the Islamic holy city of Mecca without male relatives. Nigeria suspended flights to Saudi last week.

"Since the resumption of flights ... on Sunday a total of 8 flights have been operated conveying 3,786 pilgrims to the holy land," the Hajj Commission of Nigeria said in a statement.

"This success was recorded largely as a result of the directive given to state pilgrims' welfare boards, agencies, to ensure that only female pilgrims that have the appropriate Muharram (male companion) are boarded."

Women in Saudi Arabia are regarded as minors and require the permission of their guardian - father, brother, or husband - to leave the country, receive some kinds of medical treatment or work. They are not allowed to drive and are often expected to be accompanied in public by a male chaperone.

In Nigeria, where there are 80 million Muslims, many practice a less restrictive form of Islam in which women are more or less free to move around as they like.

All Muslims who are able are required to perform the haj pilgrimage at least once, as one of the five pillars of Islam. Numbers taking part have risen sharply over the last 80 years from around 20,000 in 1932 to nearly three million in 2011. (Reporting by Camillus Eboh; Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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