By Rotimi Fasan
It’s been a week since Saudi authorities deported nearly 170 pilgrims, aside many more that had earlier been kept in camps, back to the country for no other reason than that they were women. For that is what the whole episode boils down to: The unequal treatment of people on account of their sex.
According to the Saudi authorities, this set of pilgrims from Nigeria had made their way to Saudi Arabia without male guidance/companion. Mind you, we are not here talking of minors who need adult/parental consent to embark on certain activities. Nobody has yet told us that the 169 pilgrims from Katsina, Taraba and Oyo were too young to take care of themselves in Medina from where they were deported.
They were simply considered persona non grata, in fact, unfit to be part of this year’s pilgrimage because they are women. The matter is as simple as that. But the fact of this embarrassing treatment aside, were the women justified in travelling to Saudi Arabia in the first place? I shall return to this issue shortly but a point or two to note first. Nigerians, for both justifiable and totally unjustifiable reasons, have for long been the victims of unfair treatment by Western countries.
Now, it’s the turn of Saudi Arabia to do the same thing. Surely, this won’t be the first time Nigerian pilgrims would be having a hard time with Saudi authorities during pilgrimage. Neither would this be the first time that pilgrims from the country would be deported. But this must be the first time Nigerians would be deported in large number on account of their sex.
The question to ask now is if the pilgrims or the authorities in charge of this yearly ritual that parades a high government delegation (Jerusalem-bound pilgrims also get endorsed by a high government delegation), people sent at the expense of the state, to take part in a private experience- we need to know if those concerned were ignorant of the regulation which stipulates that female pilgrims, no matter their age, must be accompanied on pilgrimage by some male guardian.
Or is it the case that the Saudi authorities are only just now invoking the demands of an old regulation that Nigerian pilgrims and authorities in charge of pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia have comprehensively abused over the years? If this is the case, that is if it is proven that Nigerian pilgrims have simply failed or refused for whatever reasons to obey simple regulations, religious or otherwise, they should calmly accept their fate and be grateful they didn’t have to suffer anything more than deportation.
They should go away and be of good behaviour next time around. But if the Saudis are only invoking the regulations for the first time and, perhaps, simply because these were Nigerian pilgrims, we need to know why. And this is the sense in which our government could ask serious questions of the Saudi authorities. Anything else would be sheer waste of time.
So, did the Saudis just get tired of our shenanigans, serial abuse of their hospitality and laws and decided they were better off without us? For indeed, it’s trite knowledge, almost a cliché, to say that some Nigerians, always a negligible few, have done more than enough to besmirch the reputation of the majority of us- from trafficking in hard drugs or trading in prohibited goods to engaging in prostitution even when we do know that the Saudis are not themselves free from these social infractions.
Why, however, should Nigerians export them or why should the Saudis allow foreigners to try such nonsense with them? But whether there is an existing law or laws that demands females on pilgrimage to Saudi be accompanied, there is still something fundamentally the matter with such regulation.
The basis of such regulation cannot now rest on justice and whatever circumstances informed it in the first place can no longer be justified in the world we live in. But we find such discrimination against women and other categories of people in different parts of the world. Many of such discriminations are justified mostly on grounds of religion. At other times it is culture that bears the brunt of such wicked treatment of others.
We cannot, however, criticise such treatment of women in other parts of the world without appearing hypocritical. For does the regulation not exist here in Nigeria that a woman must get the consent of a male relation or any other such authorised male to apply for and get a passport? If indeed we have such regulation, enforced or not, why should the Vice President, Namadi Sambo, seek a waiver for our deported pilgrims to Saudi Arabia when a similar regulation exists at home?
Don’t we need to find out first if these women haven’t infracted against our own law? And if they have, shouldn’t the battle that might be fought on the diplomatic turf between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia begin from home? Is there any reason to believe that the women who were deported got their passports illegally?
Are the Saudis aware of the existence of that regulation of ours that requires male consent for women applying for passport? Or even worse, do they suspect that our authorities might be colluding with our women to violate the regulation that requires male guidance for female pilgrims by matching such pilgrims with other male pilgrims or even officials of the pilgrims’ commission who pretend to be their guide?
What does the deportation of Nigerian pilgrims from Saudi Arabia say about the state and practice of freedom in the Arab world and other parts of the world, including Nigeria, where the principles that informed the deportation of the pilgrims still have firm hold?
Or what, in the face of the kind of contrived violence and protests, that have swept parts of North Africa, Asia and Europe- how should people with a different orientation to the perpetrators of this kind of extremism react to this latest treatment of Nigerian women? And if the women who have been deported decided to protest on what grounds would they be doing so?
Would they be invoking the so-called liberal principles of Western democracy which some used to come to power in Egypt and other parts of the Muslim world and have since gone to abuse in the name of God or would they call for a change in or modernisation of many of such principles that justify the wicked and unequal treatment of people on account of their sex?
If they call for such change, would that imply they are no longer true to their religion? These are questions we must answer before we begin a lost battle on the diplomatic turf.