Recently two states, Osun and Lagos, in South West Nigeria have been embroiled in a dispute over the Islamic veil, and as usual a tensed atmosphere has pervaded in the region as judges and politicians scramble to appease or to be seen to be appeasing the aggrieved religious groups. In Osun state, following a court order that upheld the right of Muslim girls to wear the headscarf, female Muslim pupils came to school with their hijab and their christian counterparts turned up dressed in choir and other religious costumes.
The state governor, Rauf Aregbesola, a muslim, has distanced himself from the crisis while threatening to sanction any students, (not hijab wearing students) who disobeyed the school rules!
In Lagos, an appeal court has overruled the judgment of a lower court that prohibited wearing hijab as part of the school uniform. In an earlier judgment, a Lagos High Court has ruled that the ban was not discriminatory and was consistent with the secular character of the Nigerian state as contained in section 10 of the constitution.
Now that the appeal court has set aside this judgment, are we going to witness a replay of the Osun state scenario in Lagos? Are pupils going to attend schools in the hijab, choir, and aladura garments as school uniforms? Wole Soyinka has sued for peace by appealing to all the religious warring parties to sheath their swords and keep their religious battles off our children’ schools. But will they heed his thoughtful advice? I am afraid his appeal would fall on deaf ears. It will not change the minds and hearts of those who are agitating for more Islamic presence in our state schools. It would not persuade them to understand the divisive nature and implications of this agitation.
This is because there is more to the quest for the Islamic veil than meets the eye of state schools. If there isn’t, why are we not having gele crisis or shokoto crisis in states across the South West? Are these not cultural and religious wears? Why are the same people not going to court to seek an enforcement of their right to wear fila in classrooms? Why are parents not agitating for their children to put on buba as part of their school uniforms? Are such agitations not consistent with cultural rights? Why insist only on the religious right to wear hijab?
So on the surface, one may think this is merely a controversy over the Islamic veil, hijab, but right beneath, it is much more than that. The hijab crisis is a religious crisis and has shown the intriguing dimensions and disturbing trends in interreligious relationship in South West Nigeria. Christians, Muslims and adherents of other religious and belief systems in the region have been known to have coexisted peacefully and harmoniously as compared to their counterparts in the North where the relationship between the adherents of the two religions is often characterized by violence and bloodshed.
However, simmering tensions exist, persist and lurk beneath the surface of religious harmony. Frictions, rancor and fury due to religious differences rage and occasionally bubble to the surface. In the past years, there have been contentions and clashes over the position of the cross at the university of Ibadan, agitations for sharia law, the practice of indigenous religious rituals and as witnessed recently the dispute over the wearing of the Islamic veil in state schools.
The contention over the wearing of hijab in state schools is indeed a long running and lingering issue, which states have continued to grapple with limited success. We have witnessed similar crisis in Kwara and Oyo state schools and institutions.
The bone of contention here isn’t that states banned the wearing of Islamic veil by female muslim pupils but that students are not allowed to wear it as part of their school uniform in ‘state schools’. Unfortunately, this school policy has not gone down well with some segments of the muslim population who see it as an abuse of the religious right of students.
The hijab crisis indicates a problem in our educational system and a misplacement of our educational priorities. This is because the hijab crisis has more to do with the quest by muslim groups for more influence on the state school system than on the quest to improve the quality of education and learning. The hijab crisis is rooted in grievances that are connected with the way that formal school system was introduced in Nigeria.
As in other parts of the country, christian missionaries introduced the formal educational system. They built schools, which they used as tools of evangelism and proselytization. The muslim groups later joined in this school business but the christian groups had more schools and parents from different religious backgrounds sent their children to these places to learn. Thus children from other religious families who attended these schools had to comply with the mode of worship and dressing that the various christian schools sanctioned. The take over of schools by the government in the 70s put parents from non-christian backgrounds in a better position to influence what goes on in the state school system and islamic groups have been agitating for more presence in the state school including agitating for the introduction of islamic religious knowledge and the construction of mosques and prayer centers where none existed before.
Meanwhile, the state schools have retained what they call ‘their tradition’ which in this case means the school uniform that largely does not indicate the religious or sectarian identity of pupils. This mode of dressing has not gone down well with some segments of the muslim population who think that their girls should put on hijab as part of the school uniform – as is the case in ‘muslim schools’- and they have been agitating to make hijab part of the school uniform for muslim girls in these state schools.
Now let us take a critical look at this unfolding drama. First of all we need to ask: If muslim pupils are allowed to dress in accordance with their ‘religion’ in Osun and Lagos states and other girls are asked not to do so, is that not discriminatory? Does one tackle purported discrimination against a group while sanctioning discrimination against others? As a state school, shouldn’t the school uniform be religiously neutral, be at least in principle unbiased for and against any religion? What the Islamic enthusiasts are actually saying is that wearing the school uniform without the hijab discriminates against them, right? Are these state school uniforms christian clothes?
Now in Osun state, if the government will not allow children from christian, aladura and ifa worshipping families to come with their religious wears as full or part of the school uniforms, why should muslim girls be allowed to use their religious clothes as part of the school form? In fact what is the educational value in asking all students to dress according to their religious or cultural beliefs? Does that improve their scientific or critical thinking? Are state classrooms religious houses? Is the state school a religious school? Why can’t we keep church (mosque) and state separate? I ask again, how does wearing muslim or christian headscarf in classrooms improve the quality of their learning and add value to the education of our children? Why girls, and why not boys? Is it not sexist to insist only on hijab wearing for girls and ignore fila or shokoto wearing for boys? Why are the muslim groups more interested in what girls and females are wearing and not what muslim boys or males are putting on in schools? Why can’t we allow our children to learn in an environment that is free from religious division and discrimination?
Why can’t religious groups leave state schools alone and allow state managers to determine school policies in line with the constitution? Muslim groups decide what goes on in the mosques and in muslim schools, right? They determine how women and girls dress, stay and pray when they are in these places. Muslim groups also want to dictate for the state what should be the school uniform. I mean, if the state does not interfere and try determining what muslims and christians wear in their churches and mosques or in their schools, muslim groups and their christian counterparts should stop interfering in the management and policies of state schools. They should take their christianization and islamization agenda elsewhere so that our state schools can remain free, open and secular for children from religious and non-religious families to learn and interact in an atmosphere that is characterized by dignity, equality and inclusiveness.
Leo Igwe is a human rights activist and the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement. He was the Western and Southern African representative to IHEU, the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He can be reached by email HERE.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.