New Telegraph

December 6, 2023

Hijab: The veil controversy

Public expression of hijab has, somehow, become a very controversial issue. It started on September 18, 1989, when three female students were suspended for refusing to remove their scarves in class at Gabriel Havez Middle School in Creil, northern France. Since then, Nigeria has cued into such needless debate. Ilorin, the Kwara State capital is currently in turmoil over the hijab issue. Isioma Madike, in this report, looks at the issue and factors fueling it

Ilorin, the Kwara State capital, is currently embroiled in religious controversy. Although Kwara is known with the sobriquet, State of Harmony, ironically, the conflict at the moment has since consigned that to an unenviable trashcan.

Trouble started when the state government unwittingly courted controversy by ordering all public schools, including those supposedly founded by Christian missions in the state, to allow female Muslim students wear Hijab to school. That decision heightened tension among stakeholders in the camp of Islam and Christian devotees. Hijab concept, believed in many quarters to be an Islamic concept of modesty and privacy, is said in other circles not to be unique to Islam, but embraced by other religions, such as Judaism (where the concept of modesty is called Tzuniut) and Christianity.

The concept, however, is most often expressed in women’s clothing. It ranges from simple head scarves to head-to-toe wraps. The first Professor of Arabic Education and immediate past Chief Imam of the University of Ilorin, Abdul-Ganiy Abdus-Salaam Oladosu, confirmed this when he said that Muslims have their own way of life and that their way of life is contained in the injunctions of the glorious Koran. Going by the glorious Quran, he added, Muslims women and girls are supposed to actually cover the whole of the body but these days, people have restricted it to covering the head, which they call hijab.

Oladosu said: “It is a straight forward instruction and as much as possible Muslim families would want to keep to that; to obey the injunctions of the Quran. But most people are not tolerant. You want to practice your religion the way you are instructed to and there are objections here and there.

“I think what we need is to understand each other. Let the Muslims understand the principles and practices of Christianity and the Christians to equally do the same by understanding the principles and practices of Islam. The issue is about understanding, tolerance and mutual respect for each religion.

“I also think it’s important to review the school curriculum. Let our curriculum reflect the principles and practices of these religions so that when you see them manifested in the way of life of Muslims, Christians or whatever religion that there is, when people come across it in practice, they won’t be surprised. I think we need to do that urgently and properly.

“I’d equally advise that we try to re-educate and re-orientate the masses so that this controversy should be put to rest once and for all.” In his reaction, the founder and head of Evangelical Ministries (Wisdom Chapel, Bishop Stephen Ogedengbe, called the hijab controversy a total distraction from the Kwara State government and the All Progressives Congress (APC) presidency.

He said: “You will recall the numbers of students that have been kidnapped in recent times and Leah Sharibu’s case that our government has abandoned till now. Nobody is doing anything about it. It’s also a shame for a Democratic government in Kwara State that knows that Nigeria is a Secular state to prioritize hijab over quality education.

“Where most students in public schools are studying under the trees and mission schools are forced to allow female students to wear hijab to class in the 21st century is quite unfortunate and totally unacceptable. Let me use this opportunity to tell the Governor and his associates that they are sowing a seed of evil that will destroy the legacy of his government even for generations unborn.”

In what looked like a direct response to Ogedengbe’s position, the Kwara State governor, AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq, had stated that the decision to allow every Muslim schoolgirl, who so wishes to wear hijab in public schools was taken in good faith, even as he warned parents to talk to their wards to stay away from trouble.

The governor had warned: “Any attempt to take advantage of the situation to foment trouble will be met with maximum punishment prescribed by the law.” AbdulRazaq reassured all the stakeholders that he would take care of the interests of all Kwarans according to the oath he was sworn in to.

“On February 26, the administration announced an official policy allowing any willing Muslim schoolgirl to wear the hijab in public schools. That announcement followed several days of consultations, meetings, brainstorming, and dispassionate weighing of policy options.

“We took that decision in good faith and in the overall interest of all. I swore an oath to protect every Kwaran. This oath includes looking at the bigger picture and doing everything to prevent a crisis before it occurs,” AbdulRazaq added.

The founder of Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), Professor Ishaq Akintola, in his contribution advised the state government to rename schools whose authorities have refused to obey court pronouncements and government’s directives on the use of hijab in schools.

Akintola, who hailed Abdul- Razaq for approving hijab, said the decision of the State government was bold, forthright and farreaching, while describing the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Kwara State chapter, disapproval as naive and shallow.

He advised CAN to accept the decision, respect the rule of law and eschew actions capable of causing any breakdown of law and order. He said: “It is obvious that the Kwara State chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) is determined to foment trouble. It has refused to obey court judgements.

It has also rejected government’s directive on the approval of hijab for female Muslim students. “Worse still, CAN incited its members in the state to occupy the schools. It was this direct and open incitement which culminated in the violence witnessed on March 17, in some of the schools.

This is open confrontation, militancy, thuggery and hooliganism on the part of CAN, the school principals and teachers. “At this stage, the state govern-ment should put its feet down; no responsible government will allow fanatical religious leaders who have no respect for the rule of law to cause anarchy under its watch.

It is in this respect that we commend Governor Abdul- Rahman for coming out boldly to assert his authority in the unequivocal policy statement issued on March 18. “However, the statement needs to be followed up with actions capable of demonstrating that the government has the political will to enforce its directive.

The state government must rename those controversial schools. They may be given names derived from the areas in which they are located. “I’d like to suggest that, by extension, all schools in Kwara State, which are still bearing missionary names, whether Christian or Muslim, should be renamed in as much as funding and the teachers’ salaries are still being paid by the state government.”

Disagreeing with Akintola, a Baptist minister, who doubles as the secretary-general of the Chris-tian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Kwara State chapter, Rev. Reuben Idowu Ibitoye, asserted that in principle and practice, schools in Kwara State are mission (government) grant-aided schools, and not general public schools and cannot be technically Islamized starting with the use of hijab.

“This will cause discrimination in schools and also allow terrorists to easily identify our children and ward,” said Ibitoye, who equally called for the return of mission school oversight to churches. CAN had, a few days ago, also moved against the hijab bill, which is said to have scaled through the second reading in the House of Representatives. It claimed that the bill is ill-timed and uncalled for.

The bill is titled ‘Religious Discrimination (Prohibition, Prevention) Bill 2021’. CAN’s opposition to the bill came through a statement issued on Tuesday by its secretary, Joseph Daramola, who argued that legislating the wearing of hijab in schools would lead to the trouble that the sponsors of the bill may not be able to handle.

While reacting to CAN’s statement, Akintola called this line of thinking “infantile and pedestrian”. He added: “How naïve and shallow! If the hijab can allow terrorists to identify Christian children, does it also help in identifying Muslim boys?” The professor of Islamic studies likened the current situation in Kwara to what happened in Osun State a few years back. He boasted that as efforts of CAN Osun chapter to frustrate the use of hijab in that State by directing Christian children to wear masquerade and church choir dresses to school failed so shall CAN efforts in Kwara would also fail.

He went on to describe CAN’s opposition to the freedom bill as conservative and reactionary, urging the lawmakers to ignore it and go ahead with the bill as it is not designed for hijab rights alone. Akintola argued that the bill also aims at liberating Nigerian workers and women from discrimination. The dispute began immediately after the governor’s pronouncement in February, when some head of schools sent Muslim students with head coverings away, in what many interpreted as a violation of Nigeria’s constitutional right.

The school officials at the time claimed that veils were against the original Christian heritage of the school’s founding missionaries. Although firmly rooted in Islamic tradition, hijab, according to many, is not strictly defined in the Muslim holy book, the Quran.

To this school of thought, it is often a personal and cultural concept, not a religious one. This may be why expression of hijab varies within the Muslim world and beyond. However, hijab clothing has somehow become a potent indicator of identity, with many non-Muslims viewing it as a political statement. Some communities also interpret hijab as a sign of Islamic fundamentalism, the refusal of immigrants to integrate into mainstream society, or the oppression of women.

Recall that following weeks of heated controversy and opposition to the wearing of hijab to the Christian schools, particularly by the Christians, the 10 affected schools were reopened on Tuesday under tight security provided by the government. Before the reopening, there were already disruptions in academic activities of the affected schools.

The affected schools are C&S College Sabo Oke, ST. Anthony College, Offa Road, ECWA School, Oja Iya, Surulere Baptist Secondary School and Bishop Smith Secondary School, Agba Dam. Others include CAC Secondary School Asa Dam, St. Barnabas Secondary School Sabo Oke, St. John School Maraba, and St. Williams Secondary School Taiwo Isale, St. James Secondary School Maraba, all in Ilorin, the state capital. In spite of what has happened, many are of the opinion that the crisis over hijab in Kwara State should not be allowed to linger or degenerate.

Those on this divide also believe there are lessons that can be drawn from Lagos, Oyo and Osun States on a similar issue. Lagos State had approved the use of hijab for Muslim female pupils in public schools in November 2018, after court pronouncement on the issue.

It however, said the hijab must be “short, smart, neat and in the same colour of the uniform (skirt)”. The state further directed public school managers to downplay comments and disciplinary actions on the use of smart hijabs. According to the directive, “No student should be discriminated against in any form on the basis of religion. All principals and teachers must be sensitized to comply accordingly.

You are enjoined to adhere strictly to these recommendations.” Just like in Lagos, the court also held that any act of molestation, harassment, torture and humiliation against female Muslim students using hijab constitutes a clear infringement on their fundamental rights. Section 38 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as amended) was cited to rest the ruling. While in Oyo State, the court advised parties involved in the hijab crisis to seek out of court settlement, saying “As Nigerians, be it Christian or a Muslim, you must learn to live in harmony and allow the nation to be peaceful at all times. We must not create unnecessary tension or heat up the polity to further divide this country.

“It will be proper if you can resolve this matter amicably and relate with one another as human beings. We will all regret it if we turn ourselves and the nation into such a state that we cannot sleep with our two eyes closed,’’ Justice Laniran Akintola of the Oyo State High Court in Ibadan, who ruled on the matter, had said.

The controversy over the Islamic scarf (hijab) was sparked on September 18, 1989, when three female students were suspended for refusing to remove their scarves in class at Gabriel Havez Middle School in Creil. In November 1989, the Conseil d’État ruled that the scarf’s quasi- religious expression was compatible with the laïcité of public schools.

That December, minister of education, Lionel Jospin, issued a statement declaring that educators had the responsibility of accepting or refusing the wearing of the scarf in classes on a case-by-case basis. In September 1994, a new memorandum, the “François Bayrou memo”, was issued, delineating the difference between “discreet” religious symbols able to be brought into classrooms, and “ostentatious” religious symbols (including the hijab), which were to be forbidden in public establishments.

In October of that year, students at Saint-Exupéry High School in Mantes-la-Jolie organised a demonstration of protest in favour of the right to wear the veil in classrooms. And in November, 24 veiled students were suspended from the same high school as well as from Faidherbe High in Lille. Between 1994 and 2003, around 100 female students were suspended or expelled from middle and high schools for wearing the scarf in class. In nearly half of these cases, their exclusions were annulled by the French courts.

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