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Kenya: Making a Statement - Understanding the Hijab

opinion

Kenya's population is heavily Christian, but Islamic culture has always been a part of the country's foundations. Today, however, the hijab - a part of that culture - is becoming a divisive topic, especially in schools. Is it a religious necessity or a show of inequality? By Everlyne Mosongo

Jamila's standard dressing, like most Muslim women's in Mombasa, was a bui bui or mui mui, a simple, flowing, anklelength dress. In the confines of her home, my friend's glorious silky brown hair usually hung loose around her shoulders. But she never left home without a hijab - a head covering that concealed her hair, neck and ears. And neither did her two daughters, who even when they weren't old enough to need a bui bui each donned a hijab on top of their chequered green and white school uniforms. This simple garment has been around almost as long as the Islamic religion, but it's been the cause of an uproar in the Muslim community as a result of its ban in some public institutions throughout the last few decades.

Hijab Battles around the World

In France, the ban is a battle of principles. On one side, it goes against liberty, equality and fraternity, the core values the country was built on. On the other, it doesn't fit in with the absolute separation of Church and state, a principle that was severely fortified in 2004 by then-President Jacques Chirac. Since then, students have been prohibited from wearing signs, or clothing, that conspicuously manifest their religion in public schools, and the controversy surrounding the decisions has maintained a steady buzz with occasional peaks. This year, Muslims in the country took to the streets in protest when they were banned from wearing the burqa in public.

In 1990, in Britain, two Muslim girls were sent home for wearing the hijab to school. However, Kevin Kinyanjui, who frequents the United Kingdom, says the situation in the country is not as pronounced as in most European countries. "You have to realise first that the UK is a multi ethnic place. But while doing the International Language English Test, you have to take off the hijab if you're doing it at a centre." While Muslim women are given the option of doing the exam in front of a woman, they still have to take off the hijab. "But in school I didn't see any problem apart from school ID where you also had to take it off. I think the UK is more tolerant."

Trinidad and Tobago, whose population is mostly Muslim, has also prohibited Muslim girls from wearing the hijab to class. In the United States, a Moroccan American woman sued the Walt Disney Company claiming that she was while working. A woman in Minnesota was jailed for wearing a hijab during a shopping trip as this went against the state's law, which prohibits people from concealing their identity with a robe, mask or any other disguise, unless it's for entertainment purposes.

The list of clashes over this religious attire goes on, but the issue has only recently hit home in Kenya.

The Ban in Kenya

In July 2009, a Muslim student from the reputable Kenya High School sued the school and the board of governors for banning Muslim girls in the institution from wearing the hijab. Being a minor, her mother filed the case on her behalf. "Look at the nuns, do they not cover their hair? Look at the statues of the Virgin Mary, does she not have a scarf on her head and a long dress? Why? Because that is what her religion demands of her. So why is it so difficult to accept the same from a Muslim?" asks Anisa Bashir, the student's mother.

Bashir's daughter, according to Islam, had been wearing the hijab from primary school, but when she joined Kenya High in 2008, the school's regulations did not allow it. Parents of Muslim students sat down with the school's principal and the board of governors asked not to wear her headscarf and explained that the girls should wear the hijab according to their custom. "We did not wake up one day and decide to take the school to court," Bashir explains. When their request was denied, they filed a petition, which was signed by members of the public, the National Muslim Leaders Forum and the Kenya Council of Imams and Ujamaa. After that they held a meeting with Muslim Members of Parliament.

"In that meeting, the Permanent Secretary Karega Mutahi was there. The Minister of Education issued instructions to the PS that he write a memo to all the education officers and all the district education officers to inform the heads of schools that no one should be expelled," says Bashir. The Kenya High School principal then told her she had no problem with the girls wearing the hijab, but that she needed to receive the instruction from the Minister of Education first. "We kept seeing her over the issue. Eventually, she denied having received the memo and yet other schools had received it." From the directive received from the ministry, schools like State House Girls and Pangani Girls allowed Muslim students to wear hijabs. "So you can see the sequence of events. That takes time. That is the reason why when we went to court [my daughter] was already in form two."

However, in a twist of events, courts recently declared the order from the Permanent Secretary unlawful on grounds that it hadn't been issued directly from the Minister himself. "According to the judge, it was supposed to be issued by the Minister and not the Permanent Secretary, so it was more of a procedural technicality than substantive," explains Omwanza Ombati, the advocate who represented the Muslim students from Kenya High. Ombati has been practising for eight years and takes cases with the possibility of changing the law or setting precedence. He says that he believes in his clients' causes, like Bashir's daughter's, explaining that, "To be able to make a proper representation of the cases and do justice to them, I have to."

The Kenya High School, originally designed as a Christian institution with a strong Anglican background, has grown to accommodate students from different religions, as have most Kenyan schools. However, they do this within reasonably defined and generally accepted standards. As public institutions and centres for learning, they need to create equality among students who come from different backgrounds - hence the uniforms. To level the playing field, some schools even ask their students to wear shoes from certain shops, like Bata, and those who don't adhere to this can be sent home. So does the hijab shift this balance of equality?

"Making a statement: Understanding the hijab" continues tomorrow...

Originally published in the Novemer 2012 issue of Destination Magazine, authored by Everlyne Mosongo.

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