Last Sunday (18/11/2018), I attended the Grand Finale of the 10 years’ anniversary of the pre-eminent Muslim organisation in the South-Western part of Nigeria (Muslims of South West Nigeria – better known as MUSWEN). In attendance was – among others – His Excellency, Governor Abiola Ajimobi. Not known publicly as the most devoted of Muslims – it is fair to say His Excellency doesn’t carry his Muslim badge on the forehead – Professor Dawud Noibi, Executive Secretary of MUSWEN stepped forward just ahead of the Governor’s speech to intimate the audience of how forward-looking His Excellency had been in terms of relations with Muslims of Oyo State.
This Governor who is not ‘in your face’ with his Islam would appear one of the best-ever in the history of the State as far as creating enabling environment for Muslims (and Muslim pupils) to practice their faith is concerned. Among the many encomiums poured on him (and Professor Dawud Olatokunbo Noibi does not praise people cheaply) is the fiat with which he pronounced the permissibility of the hijab on school uniforms in Oyo State. A settled matter as far as Oyo State is concerned.
But here we are! The hijab is in the news again – and, ironically, from Oyo State. The gates of the International School, Ibadan (ISI) are currently closed as parents of Muslim children insist their children should be allowed to wear their hijabs. I am aware that ISI is an ‘independent’ school which does not come under the purview of the Oyo State Government. I will address this ‘independence’ very soon. My mission here is to explain to our non-Muslim friends why this hijab issue keeps coming up.
Among the many comments I have read from non-Muslim (and some Muslim) commentators is that allowing Muslim children to wear the hijab would invariably lead to agitation by people of other faiths to be allowed to wear similar outfits that are consistent with their faiths. This is where (Christians especially) get it wrong.
Hijab is compulsory for all Muslim girls once they attain the age of puberty – which I understand can be from as young as the age of 11 years. The argument from non-Muslims is that those who go to Celestial Church of Christ, for instance, would equally ask to be allowed to wear their Sultana. Apologies to my Christian friends, but this is a faulty comparison or analogy. Hijab is compulsory for Muslim girls once they are in an environment in which they can be seen by non-family; the Sultana is not compulsory – at least not outside the church. You can extend this argument to all other faiths – including those who follow the African Traditional Religion.
The one simple fact that non-Muslims refuse to embrace is that our girls (other than in situations of lack of understanding or weakness of faith) do not have a choice on the hijab. It is a must-wear once they are in a public space. If there are similar items of clothing (compulsory) for non-Muslim children to wear in a public space as a mark of believe, Muslims world-wide would support the struggle to ensure such are respected and honoured. For the sake of emphasis, the hijab is compulsory and is not comparable to white church garments, Eku that masquerades wear or other pieces of clothing that non-Muslims have a choice about.
What about the argument that Muslims who wish for their children to wear the hijab should take them to Muslim schools. This cannot be tenable in schools funded by the government. Effectively, Muslim children would be denied access to very good schools which are neither privately owned nor solely funded by non-Muslims. How can this be fair? I have heard the argument that ISI is an independent school. This independence needs to be defined because ISI is an integral part of the University of Ibadan – which is a Federal Government institution – owned equally by Nigerian Muslims, Christians and Atheists. How can you leave a critical section of the community out of this institution on the basis of their religion?
So, how come no one demanded to wear the hijab in the 55 years or so of the existence of ISI? We (as Muslims) accept the blame for this, but can people be wrong for gaining increased awareness of their faith and striving to be better Muslims?
Can Christian children come to a Muslim school and ask to wear their Christian outfits? No. For as long as it is a Muslim school, privately funded and established as a school for Muslim children. By the same token, Muslim children cannot go to a private school, privately-funded and clearly marked as a school set up for Christian children, and demand to wear the hijab. ISI is not a Christian school. It belongs as much to Muslims as it does to Christians.
BEST PRACTICE EXAMPLES FROM THE UK
FACT 1. My daughter (my own biological daughter) did part of her secondary school in London. She wore her hijab for every day that she was in that London school and no one saw it as an issue. The same girl had previously completed her primary school in another part of London where Muslim girls wore their hijabs free of harassment or questions. Neither of these schools was a Muslim school.
Christianity came to Nigeria from the UK. If the very people who brought Christianity to us do not have an issue about girls wearing their hijabs in state-funded schools, why is it an issue for us in Nigeria?
FACT 2. Before my very eyes, the Metropolitan Police in London introduced the hijab as part of the uniform to be worn by female police officers who wish to do so. You do not even have to be a Muslim to wear it; it is free for all. As I write, female Muslim police officers (who wish to do so) wear the hijab in the UK. Christian officers have not, as a result, asked for a special uniform for Christians. Why? Because they understand the simple argument that the hijab is compulsory for mature girls and women in Islam. This is maturity.
FACT 3. Two or three years ago (and I shared the post here with a link to the original story), the UK Education Authority voluntarily changed the dates of the GCSE Mathematics and English examinations because the original dates fell in Ramadan. The dates were changed, not because the Muslims asked for it, but because the education authority does not want the Muslim children disadvantaged. This is the height of religious tolerance from the home of Christianity and you wouldn’t find a better example elsewhere.
FACT 4. Two years or so ago when the argument raged over the refusal of the Council of Legal Education to allow Firdaws Amasa her right to be called to the Nigerian bar, the then president of the Nigerian Bar Association published photographs of her daughter as she was called to the American Bar donning her hijab. Trump’s America. Most senior lawyers took the view that the Council of Legal Education could not successfully defend their position in Court. Today, Firdaws has been called to bar – and she was called wearing her hijab.
FACT 5. Muslim girls wear their hijab freely to school in northern Nigeria without it being a subject of discussion. Is Southwest Nigeria not part of the country?
If this hijab is so compulsory, how come so many Muslim ladies do not wear it? As I wrote earlier, this merely shows either a lack of understanding, but most likely a weakness of faith. This does not make it the standard. And you would be surprised that the same lady who does not herself wear the hijab, is the one fighting for her daughter to be allowed to do so. There you go! Most of us (Muslims and Christians alike) are more religious than our parents – just as our children are likely to be more religious than us. Isn’t this our prayer?
In conclusion therefore, the most important of all the points that I have made here – and the one that I want non-Muslim friends and associates to take home – is that the hijab is not optional. It is not something you choose to do or not do. It is compulsory – be it in school, hospital, bus stop, motor park and even at parties. If we understand this point – and I believe I have made it clear enough to understand, then no non-Muslim can legitimately advance the argument that it would lead to agitation by adherents of other faiths to also wear symbols of their faith. And this includes the cross.