RIYADH  - Saudi Arabia on Friday began expelling over a thousand Nigerian women on religious pilgrimage to the country because they had arrived without male guardians, the first time it sent back such a large group in enforcement of strict rules governing women. The government ministry that oversees the Haj pilgrimage said the 1,100 women had violated a longstanding law by travelling without an immediate male relative, adding that females of all nationalities under the age of 45 must have a male guardian during the Haj pilgrimage. “This is a rule that is generally applied to women who have applied for a visa to enter the kingdom,” the Haj ministry said in a statement.

In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to travel without a male guardian, such as a father, brother, uncle or husband, or at the very least permission from such a relative. In the past, authorities had allowed women over 45 to perform the annual pilgrimage without the guardians as long as they were in groups with male tour operators and pilgrimage officials. The annual pilgrimage, which this year comes at the end of October, is a religious duty for Muslims who are supposed to make the trip once in their lives. Many arrive weeks in advance. The expulsions may set the stage for a diplomatic confrontation.