Friday, 01 March, 2024


Hijab activism

There is the unpardonable attempt by hijab activists in Kwara State and in the government of Governor Abdulrahman Abdulrazaq to disrupt the peace of Ilorin, capital of Kwara State. Even the tumultuous clashes between APC and PDP in the 2019 elections never produced the kind of disharmony that the hijab crisis is foisting on the hitherto peaceful town, where Muslims and Christians have co-existed peacefully for many years. All of a sudden, somebody has chosen to wake up the tiger.

Sometime in February this year, an Okada rider took a female student wearing a hijab to a mission school called Saint Anthony Secondary School, in Ilorin. On getting to the gate of the school, the girl alighted from the motorcycle, and removed the hijab. As she made to enter the school, the Okada man, obviously a busybody or a nosey troublemaker called the girl back and asked why she removed the head covering. The girl responded: “We are not allowed to wear it within the school premises.”

The Okada rider, as if to confirm his credentials as a troublemaker, instructed the girl to wear the hijab and that he would escort her into the school compound. Of course, the school authorities would not accept her mode of dressing, since it was not part of the prescribed school uniform. The Okada rider, who had anointed himself as the girl’s official chaperon, raised shirted hell, and called as many Muslims as he could to come and witness something that may have seemed to him like discrimination or a denial of the girl’s right to dress as she wished to a school that has had its prescribed uniform for ages.

From then onwards, the dam broke. The crisis snowballed into a major crisis and the state government decided to shut down 10 missionary secondary schools that it gives subvention to, if they were not ready to allow hijab-wearing girls into their classrooms. The matter did not start today. We can trace the root of this conflict to the so-called takeover of missionary secondary schools in the 1970s during the Yakubu Gowon administration.

In Kwara State, the then Military Governor, Brigadier General David Bamigboye, said on July 3, 1972, that “there are 78 post-primary schools in the state. Of these, only three are owned and run directly by the government; the remaining ones are voluntary agency, community, and private schools.” When he decided to “take over” the schools built and run by the Christian religious bodies, he said it was an “intervention,” not a “takeover.” To avoid confusion, he quickly gave reasons for the intervention: (a) The need to have job security for teachers in voluntary agency schools; (b) The need to improve as well as unify service condition of teachers in all voluntary agency institutions; (c) The need for uniformly high standard between government and voluntary agency institutions; (d) The need to narrow, with the ultimate aim of closing, the gap in educational provision among the various areas in the state; (e) The need to ensure adequate staffing for all schools.

Governor Bamigboye made it crystal clear that the government was taking over staff management of grant-aided institutions and not the institutions themselves. He said further that the schools retained their ownership rights, that the names of the schools would remain unchanged as given by the proprietors, that religious orientation and practices in the schools would remain generally undisturbed, and that their right to nominate members of the board of governors for the day-to-day management and welfare of the institutions would remain. Nothing could be more explicit than these clarifications.

The relationship between the government and the owners of these schools has remained relatively peaceful until Nigeria began to experience an upsurge in religious extremism and separatism for their own selfish ends. Cases have been heard on this matter at the Kwara State High Court and at the Court of Appeal. At the Court of Appeal, the court asked both the government and the voluntary agencies to go home and settle their differences amicably, since both sides had spent money on the schools.

These issues are now in the Supreme Court. In this matter, the jury is still out, but we can interrogate some of the issues here. One, are the mission schools public schools simply because government supported them with subvention? Judging by the facts supplied by Governor Bamigboye at the “takeover,” the intention was not for the government to own the schools, otherwise, it would have paid compensation for them. Did the governments that came after Bamigboye pay compensation to the school owners? If they did, then the schools can be appropriately called public schools. If they did not, then the schools remain private schools despite the provision of subvention to them. The government cannot, therefore, exercise proprietary rights over these schools. If it cannot exercise such proprietary rights, it cannot prescribe what uniforms must be worn by the students.

In any case, if a school has existed for decades, as the 10 schools in controversy have, it means that they already have a prescribed uniform. Any student who wants to attend the school is doing so fully aware of the prescribed uniform and is ready and willing to wear it. I don’t think it is the duty of pupils to go to an existing school, a Christian school, and prescribe a Muslim apparel for themselves. I am also sure that there are Muslim schools in the state where the wearing of hijab would not be a problem, where such pupils can attend. Anyone who knows the existing rules in an institution and goes there to insist that the rules there must be bent to suit him or her is a troublemaker. In this world there are choices and each person must make the choice that suits his circumstance, philosophy or orientation.

I say so because, if everyone of us insists that the world must be organised to suit his whims and caprices, then there will be disorder and confusion.

Are Muslim women in Nigeria who are lawyers allowed to wear hijab in court? The answer is, No. Are Muslim women who are judges allowed to wear hijab in court? The answer is No. Why are they not allowed to wear what is not part of the prescribed apparel for their profession? The reason is that such prescription is what preserves institutional discipline and preserves the cultural etiquette of their respected institutions.

Allowing schoolchildren to wear different types of uniform to school other than the officially prescribed one is a way of breeding indiscipline in the name of religion. I have been to several Muslim countries such as Tunisia and Egypt and I notice that they have modernized the religion to suit the demands of a modern era. Even Saudi Arabia that never allowed women to drive cars has now given them the go-ahead to put their feet on the throttle and their fingers on the steering wheel.

I was at a Human Rights Conference in Cairo, Egypt, some years ago. The lady sitting next to me was a lawyer. She wore a miniskirt and wore no head covering whatsoever; no scarf, no hijab. I asked her why she didn’t wear a hijab. She told me, “I am a modern Muslim woman.”

I think that our governments are doing a lot of disservice to this country by causing unnecessary tension and disharmony on religious matters. Any government that chooses to dabble into religious matters as a matter of official or semi-official policy is courting trouble.

I doubt whether the governor of Kwara State will be able to tame this tiger he has woken up. Religion is a purely personal matter and the 1999 Nigerian Constitution does not prescribe any state religion. A wise ruler must treat religious issues with extreme care and evenhandedness, if he wants to have peace in his community. Nigerians have become incredibly touchy about issues of religion because our ruling elite have been milking this issue for political profit. That is why when appointments are made by the Federal Government, people make it their duty to identify the person’s ethnicity and religion and then to do a headcount of those in the commanding heights of the administration who belong to which tribe and which religion. Such entreme religious sensitivity can lead to extreme repercussions, which have in turn produced the kind of crisis in which Nigeria is enveloped today.

We must note that the problem of education in Nigeria is not about uniforms or religion, and any government that pays attention to those issues is an idle government. The real problem comes from the low level of commitment to education by the ruling elite. This manifests itself in poor funding, poor infrastructure and poor treatment of teachers, which has led to several months of strikes and the loss of many hours of teaching and learning.

Many years ago, students preferred to go to government colleges because they were top-notch. Today, private secondary schools are the preferred choices of parents for their children because they are better equipped than most public schools, although they are more expensive.

This hijab controversy is totally uncalled for. If Mr. Abdulrazaq does not want to be buried by this controversy, he should call a halt to it now by showing fairness and evenhandedness. This is a war he doesn’t need, a war he cannot win.

By Ray Ekpu

Credit: Daily Sun


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