30 March 2013

Nigeria: Hijab - Much Ado About a Headscarf!


Nigeria definitely faces several existential threats - Boko Haram, Alamieyeseigha, APC vs. PDP - to contend with. So one wonders where some people get the extra time, and extra energy, to discuss and blow hot air on less weighty issues such as the right of Muslim school girls to wear the hijab (head covering). But that, unfortunately, is what is happening today. And those people have dragged others, who would rather discuss Amnesty vs. Pardon, down to their level. How sad!

On Palm Sunday, I was watching the NTA Network News when a video of people in white apparel and generous headscarves to match came on the screen. Looking closely, to my surprise, the people in the video turned out to be all male, celebrating Easter with palm fronds in hand. My wife and I commented on the spectacle; males wearing the equivalent of the Islamic hijab! It was decidedly new to us as we always thought that in Christianity it was women that covered up, not men.

My wife and I were later to get the shock of our lives when, not long after that spectacle, we saw a full-page advertorial on the Guardian (costing perhaps half a million Naira) placed by the Osun State Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) condemning the Muslim hijab - castigating the State Governor Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola of trying to 'Islamise Osun State' because of the government's liberal attitude towards this modest head covering for Muslim girls. The advertorial was, to say the least, beneath the calibre of the leading religious clerics that signed it.

A few years ago, I was a book launch at Abuja's ThisDay Dome when the Chairman of the occasion, a venerable Christian professor who had been a serial minister, invited a distinguished lady on the high table to offer the opening - Christian - prayer. The whole hall waited as the lady (who had her hair uncovered) ran frantically from one woman to another around the hall trying to borrow some apparel to cover her head. She finally got a head tie from another woman, and her prayer, and the book launch, got under way.

The distinguished lady at that ThisDay Dome event was complying with the Biblical instruction, in 1 Corinthians 11:5, that said: "But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head - it is the same as having her head shaved." We - the ThisDay Dome audience - understood her, appreciated her, applauded her for complying with the dictates of her religion.

Now, haven't we all seen pictures of Nigerian Christian women pilgrims worshipping at the churches of Palestine recently? Did we not notice them wearing all-white apparel, covered from head to toe, be-hijabed, not unlike Muslim women? Were those nice Christian women not complying with the dictates of their religion? Why then should it be different for Muslims when it comes to such compliance? Why, for example, would anyone begrudge Muslim girls who want to appear like the Virgin Mary, for example?

In a story which made the rounds last year from Rome, Italy, titled "Minister Refuses to Sign Ban Against Hijab", it was reported that a certain former Italian Minister of the Interior Roberto Maroni, who headed the federalist Northern League political party, strongly opposed a decree banning the Islamic female dress code, known as hijab. Maroni was reported to have said: "How can I sign a Hijab ban law when we see all the pictures of the Virgin Mary wearing the exact same thing? If the Virgin Mary appears wearing a veil on all her pictures how can you ask me to sign this law?"

This recent Nigerian hullabaloo - really a storm in a tea cup - is the same as the one which gripped the country last year during the Jaiz Bank controversy. It is the same thing as the loud controversy that greeted the appearance, so many years ago, of Hauwa Baba-Ahmed donning the hijab on NTA Network News. "Islamising The Airwaves!" screamed many a Nigerian newspaper. Yet not a whimper was heard when a certain Christian newscaster appeared on the same airwaves wearing a large cross. Muslims did not complain that the latter was 'Christianising the airwaves'. Because she wasn't.

One fundamental question to ask is: Does wearing the hijab by Muslims impinge on the rights of Nigerian Christians? The answer is a big NO! Does anyone complain when a Jew or a Sikh or a Christian kept a beard? No! But were a Muslim to do so he is automatically branded 'fundamentalist'. Does anyone complain about the Sikh turban? No! But a Muslim turban is a No-No! When nuns don their hijabs, no one complains; but if a small Muslim girl in Lagos and Osun wears a simple headscarf, all hell breaks loose! She attracts the ire of teachers, the Principal, the Government, and even CAN! Haba!

In Lagos State, following the victimisation of some Muslim students for wearing the hijab in the state's secondary schools, an ad-hoc committee was set up to hear the matter and make recommendations. The Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC), a Lagos-based Muslim NGO, submitted a memorandum to the committee, excerpts of which are quoted here:

"MPAC supports the use of hijab in all public places (including all public schools). Like prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and certain religious celebrations, dietary and clothing requirements are obligatory practices of the Muslim faith. Although Islamic religious practices have similarities to elements of other religions, the details of procedure that define what is proper religious practice may differ. In the case of hijab, there are prescribed forms which make it easy to embrace a wide range of forms of hijab in different circumstances and avoid the mistakes of ostracizing or excluding people based on their religious dress code.

"The hijab is allowed in most public secondary schools of all secular states around the world and even already integrated into the official uniforms of the Army and Police in such great democracies as United States, United Kingdom and Sweden. The hijab has been around for more than 1400 years; it enriches our multiculturalism; it does not threaten our secularism and diversity.

"Such religious expressions are protected by the Nigerian Constitution which protects the free exercise of religion. Section 38 (1) of the 1999 Constitution guarantees this right to practice our religion. It states that 'Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to...manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.'

"The Nigerian judiciary recognises these rights: the female Muslim students of Kwara State College of Education, Ilorin, Kwara State, won a landmark victory on Monday May 8th 2006 in their case against the Board of the College which had...banned the niqab (a form of hijab). The High Court in Kwara State...ruled in favour of the students and declared that the content of the Article 'J' of the school's new dress code 'is unlawful, unfair, discriminatory, unconstitutional, null and void, and of no effect whatsoever'. "In another landmark judgment on Thursday November 18th 2008 the Lagos State High Court ruled that ban on hijab was a breach of articles 38 and 42 of the Nigerian Constitution.

Therefore, please allow those small Muslim girls to wear their hijabs - they only want to copy the Virgin Mary.

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