The voice of the intelligence is drowned out by the roar of fear. It is ignored by the voice of desire. It is contradicted by the voice of shame. It is biased by hate and extinguished by anger. Most of all it is silenced by ignorance. Karl A. Menninger
The Guardian newspaper wrote a powerful editorial (titled “The Osun State Uniform Palava”) published on 17th of February decrying the commotion caused at the Baptist High School, Iwo, Osun State when students turned up in school in a motley of religious attire. The Guardian editorial declares that the situation at the school represents “a dangerous recipe for violence and political instability, if it is not immediately contained.” I agree with this opinion. However, it is even more significant to establish that the bizarre charade at the Baptist High School was only made possible by the lack of foresight and sagacity by those inciting the kids to this type of anarchical behaviour, most of whom are intoxicated with hatred for anything Islamic. In a communiqué signed on Thursday, the 6th of February, by the president of the Osun Baptist Conference Reverend Paul Oluwole, the conference “mandate all our Christian students to wear their religious garments” since “the Baptist community in Osun State and Iwo community is vehemently opposed to the use of hijab in Baptist High School, Iwo”.
The protagonists of this charade are inflaming young boys and girls by the spirit of anarchy to carry out an act that is not mandated in their own religion, they claim, as a measured response to the Muslims that are carrying out a religiously-mandated act. It's a shame that we have Christians that are enraged to see girls dressed in a similar manner as Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ (AS), did. Even the idol-worshippers are not this putrid! How responsible is it that the conference called for students to wear choir robes to classes when the courts are there to decide and judge if they have genuine grievances? The champions of the conference should have seen that the discerning public would see its judgment as manifestly wrong and that its actions would fail to evoke empathic feelings. As they can now see, the only achievement of the mandate they gave is to complete people's opinion of them as mere political profiteers.
Certain Christian groups in this country seem committed to antagonising anything Islamic. They lay siege for Muslims to make legitimate demands, and like flies on rotten meat, they swarm around threatening and causing mischief in all ways. It is from this same mentality that ceaseless lies were spewed out when the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) introduced the Islamic banking model- the lies then was that the Muslims were going to use the model to Islamise the nation. The Islamic bank has now been with us for so many years and alas, the country's religious landscape is not affected in any way.
This latest incident, like many before it, is nothing more than a mere hoax fronting for the revivalist Christians' deep-seated hatred for Islam. This crop of Christians, even by the testimonies of other Christians, are the very incarnation of those who lived at a dark and despairing time, when Muslims are demonized for such arrant nonsense as worshiping an idol called “Mohemet”! When people make vilifying Islam their lifetime goal, when they see mindless denigration of Islam as a promotion of their own faith, or when, filled with hate, they antagonise for material gains that will perish, they betray the same faith they claim to represent and defend. Since this type of people are incapable of making a scholarly argument for what they believe and want, or why they are ideologically opposed to the legitimate demand of the Muslims, responding to them with an informed, factual argument may be giving them too much credit.
The Guardian editorial further states that “Beyond the purpose of identity, the school uniform suggests discipline and conformity. By its use, students learn the values of loyalty, comradeship and esprit de corps amongst those with whom the school attire is identified. Thus, as the term suggests, the school uniform is a symbol of uniformity. Any other attire, religious or otherwise, cannot in any way serve this purpose, especially as the basis for association in a public school setting does not rest on any religious affiliation.“ The author(s) of the editorial errs in simplistically equating deprivation of constitutional right with conformity and discipline. Yes, adorning the hijab for the Muslims is a matter of identity, an Islamic identity. And incorporating this form of dressing into the school uniform, into workplace uniforms, as long as they do not pose health and safety concerns, is a legitimate and reasonable demand that the Muslims will continue to make.
As we like to play the card of secularity when this issue comes up, perhaps it will be necessary to let those on the wrong side of the argument know that the use of hijab for Muslims, skullcap for Jews and turban for Sikh are acceptable as part of the school uniform, armed forces and police uniform in some great secular countries of the world. There is no single proven instance that prohibition on students wearing religiously-mandated head coverings serves any compelling interest of secularity. More so, Nigeria has been described many times by those who have the expertise in constitutional law as a multi-religious rather than secular country. If we talk about discipline and conformity, how about the values of religious tolerance, of inclusion and diversity? Muslims are entitled to assert their rights in the democracy they signed unto, when they fought tooth and nail, alongside other citizens, for the enthronement of democracy in this country. For decades, Muslims in this country have been forced to convert to Christianity, they have been coerced to change their names to Christian or “neutral” names to obtain education in public schools- something that should be made available to every Nigerian, without a price tag. In my own lifetime, Muslim students have been severely flogged for not purchasing or learning to sing from the Christian prayer book, the Songs of Praise, 4 days every week, in public schools.
The common practice in most public schools to date is for students, all students, to start their days at the school assembly with Christian prayers from Monday to Thursday, with Friday only earmarked for the Muslim prayer. How come this age old practice congruous to secularity and a piece of cloth on the head is not? Are all these also about identity, discipline, conformity and uniformity? It will be simplistic to rely only on the frame of reference of discipline, conformity and uniformity on the issue of code of dressing at school, while the context for the use of such religious is either dismissed or ignored. It will also be wrong to use that frame of reference in a situation where students in the Northern part of the country, the same “secular country”, are free to use the hijab in public schools, or not.
As can be seen from the good example of Ekiti State which recently allowed Muslim students to don the hijab to school in the state, the use of hijab is neither a threat to secularity nor divisive issue. Indeed as can be seen, embracing diversity enriches us all in a special way, and is a mark of political maturity. Thank God for the courage of men like Governor Kayode Fayemi who differed from the bad precedence set in Lagos State to see that every child is important and is not excluded, with or without a piece of cloth on her head. Hopefully the students of Baptist High School who are being tutored by their parents not to accept others, will not grow up with the bigotry they are forced to partake in.
For the sake of open and careful dialogue, it is important to try and clarify what we do in respect to the hijab and what we do not mean by it. The Qur`an is the holiest book in Islam and is a primary source of divine guidance for all Muslims. In the Qur`an, female Muslims from the age of responsibility are mandated to cover their hairs as part of God's legislation on their code of dressing. In a democratic country like Nigeria, people should be absolutely free to make a choice to use the hijab, or not. It should be the duty of the state to secure that right for them, be it at school, workplaces or any public space. It is state tyranny that we have governments in this country deciding that students are simply banned from the public educational system for choosing to fulfil their religious obligation.
The Qur'an commands the Muslim women to adorn the hijab in at least the following verses "Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty…And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and adornments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers...(a list of exceptions)" [Chapter 24, verses 30-31], and "O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons...that they should be known and not molested." [Chapter 33, verse 59].
At the core of the Muslim position on the use of hijab in the public is the unshakable commitment of observant Muslims to submit and obey in the matter of dress code legislated for Muslims in the Qur'an, similar to their submission and obedience on other aspects of the faith, like giving of charity, praying, financial transactions, marital relations, forgiveness and implementing justice. But the issue of hijab is far beyond its use in public school. Muslim women are routinely harassed at NYSC camps, workplace, at job interviews and at the Nigeria Immigration Service, FRSC (drivers licence), etc to make a choice between receiving education or services and fulfilling their religious obligation. If the choir robes of those students in Baptist High School is a religious obligation for them, they should secure this as a right under the constitution.
However, since they are not religiously obliged to don the robe once they are outside their homes, they only open themselves to ridicule, as they become pawns in the hands of religious bigots. The wider issue of discrimination against hijab goes beyond the ugly situation playing itself out in Osun State, and it is the same mindset of those inflaming their youth in bubbling fury that continues to represent a threat to national cohesion. The rage of those bent on using our public schools as incubation centres for open bigotry, and for creating a respectful place for intolerance and discrimination in our society, although alarming, will not dissuade the Muslims from demanding their constitutional right nor will it deter those of us advocating on their behalf.
What we are seeing in Osun State for most part are clergymen who have turned themselves into political gunslingers for selfish gains playing partisan politics dangerously. It is sad to see the kind of hypocrisy or double standards from those who claim to practice a faith that teaches sublime virtues of tolerance and love, and paradoxically find the idea of hair covering in a public school, something that is commanded in their holy book, utterly unacceptable. As it would be seen in the case of Lagos State which has refused education for Muslim girls in hijab through its discriminatory and tyrannical policy, conscientious people will not sit idly by as clueless politicians and public officials try to erode our constitutional rights. When Lagos State government finally has its day in court (something it has been running away from through spurious excuses for case adjournment), it will see that its discriminatory policy would not supersede the Nigerian Constitution.