IMPERVIOUS to the provisions prohibiting both states and the Federal Government from adopting any religion as state religion in the 1999 Constitution, the House of Representatives is considering a bill on the wearing of hijab in Nigerian schools and establishments. Entitled, ‘Religious Discrimination (Prohibition, Prevention) Bill, 2021,’ the bill has designs on legalising the use of the Muslim veil in the country. The proposed law is controversial and provocative, and is capable of fuelling the dangerous descent into violent religious sectarianism in the country.
Unequivocally, the constitution establishes in Section 10: “The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.” It is argued that diversity comes in many forms: thought and speech; dress and physical appearance; language; religion; values, attitudes, and lifestyles. What is important is that one should not be suppressed against or promoted above the others. One cornerstone of liberal democracy is religious tolerance, which presupposes that adherence or non-adherence to faith is an individual choice. Therefore, it is the duty of the government and the right of the people not to tolerate the intolerant in the society.
Hijab, a veil worn by Muslim women, has deeply polarised Nigeria. In the past few weeks, the school system in Kwara State has not known peace over the wearing of hijab. An attempt by the state government to impose hijab on Christian missionary schools is being resisted by the in-grant Christian colleges. At the same time, the Muslims are adamant that a court has already declared hijab to be worn to school. The stalemate has led to the destruction of church and school property and protest rallies by the antagonists. While hijab has become the cause célèbre, education, the bedrock of modern society, has become irrelevant, a victim of the squabbling over religion.
The question is: Should hijab be allowed in Christian-named schools? The blunt truth is that Nigeria is not managing its religious pluralism rightly. It is simply not right to conclude that these schools have been taken over by the government. The argument is that veils are against the original Christian heritage of the schools’ founding missionaries. Just in 2016, Osun State underwent a related cataclysm when its then governor, Rauf Aregbesola, implemented a similar policy. In some schools, pupils went to school wearing the dresses of their faiths. The chaos was unimaginable. In Lagos, the hijab issue is pending before the Supreme Court after the appellate court decided that the veil could be worn to public schools. It is unfortunate that the Kwara government failed to learn from these experiences.
By getting entangled in the hijab controversy, the House has lost its focus, neglecting the pressing issues of development. This should change. It should concentrate on critical legislative imperatives like the Petroleum Industry Bill, the repeal of the Railway Act 1955 and laws to enhance economic development and security, and reduce corruption. It is a shame on the lawmakers that the PIB has suffered undue delay in the National Assembly since its original introduction in 2008. Nigerians are undergoing transport pains, but the main hindrance – the Railway Act – is left untouched. The outcry over restructuring to preserve the federation is just noise making to the pampered parliamentarians. Although the 2023 general election is not too far away, the National Assembly has yet to undertake a comprehensive review of the Electoral Act to make elections in Nigeria transparent, free from violence and conform to international standards.
Across the globe, the hijab issue has caused serious divisions, but Nigerian states can learn from the British example. Essentially, the decision was decentralised, even though a unitary system operates there. As such, there is no ban on Islamic dress in the United Kingdom, but schools are allowed to decide their own dress code after a 2007 directive which followed several high-profile court cases, states the BBC. States in Nigeria should consider this common sense formula.
All forms of religious extremism should be condemned and fought to a standstill. Where was the National Assembly when Mubarak Bala, head of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, was seized by the police and charged for blasphemy? Where are the lawmakers each time bottles of alcoholic drinks are seized from non-Muslims and are irritatingly destroyed by Hisbah police? Does Sharia law have effect on non-Muslims? The arrogance of religion is seriously undermining the peaceful co-existence of Nigeria’s various religious groups. It is a verifiable fact that countries that promote political religion are either economically backward or perennially struggling with the challenges of nation building.
One of the greatest tragedies of education in Nigeria was the brazen take-over of mission schools in the military era. Undoubtedly, that is the foundation of the current crisis in which state governments are able to dictate to public schools without taking into consideration the sensibilities of religious practices when the missionaries established the schools. It was an impetuous, centralising decision that has served no real purpose. Using legalism alone might not suffice to resolve it. States have to think. All faiths and non-faiths should be treated equally. There are good reasons for wearing school uniforms. School uniforms nourish a sense of equality and promote a feeling of community. There is also a longstanding aversion to public expressions of faith in schools. The rational approach is to return these schools to the missions that established them originally. Additionally, students who attend a school belonging to a particular faith should abide by the uniform code of that school, no matter their own faith.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Muslim News Nigeria
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