8 February 2018

Africa: Beyond the Hijab Controversy

Photo: The Guardian
(file photo)
opinion

The Nigeria legal system is not only conservative; it is elitist. More and more the system is programmed to inculcate in lawyers a mechanical adherence to elitist practices that are dangerous to progressive evolution of law. The hijab of Firdaus is not a case about religion; it is about a lady challenging a contradictory status quo.

The decision of the authorities of the Nigerian Law School to prevent Firdaus Amasa from being called to the bar due to her mode of dressing has generated a media circus. Following the trend of debates on the issue, it is obvious that the element of religiosity involved in the matter largely incited the frenetic debates that followed. Unfortunately, religion being the delicate concept it is in human society, the debate is descending into contention between secularists and sympathisers of a particular religious sect. Yet, the Firdaus' experience could have presented us with a platform to critically review certain faulty principles in our legal education and jurisprudential system.

That we are having this debate at all reflects the deeply rooted legal or jurisprudential conservatism that Nigeria shares with other former European colonies. Legal practitioners in Nigeria perhaps believe that their uniform - the flowing robe and horsehair wigs - set them aside from other professionals, just as a [medical] doctor's white coat distinguishes him or her. What is not considered is that some of these mystified legal cultures are legacies of colonialism, outmoded and long discarded in the nations of their origin. Eighty-six days before the 2017's call to bar ceremony was held, an opinion was published in the Washington Post, with the brazen title "It's been 50 years since Britain left. Why are so many African judges still wearing wigs?"

The author of the piece claimed correctly that "[T]he British gave up their last colonies in Africa half a century ago. But they left their wigs behind... Not just any wigs. They are the long, white, horsehair locks worn by high court judges (and King George III). They are so old-fashioned and so uncomfortable, that even the British barristers have stopped wearing them." Some cultures peculiar to the legal profession in Nigeria are just unfathomable why they still exist despite their apparent inconvenience and contradictions to our environment. Imagine the harmattan heat and a lawyer dressed in that suffocating contraption of a robe making submissions in a typically congested Nigerian courtroom; it would be a lot more convenient if the official dress-code has taken comfortability of the legal practitioners into consideration. If formal dressing alone (as it is the culture among legal practitioners in America for example) is what it takes to appear as an advocate in a courtroom, the drama over the Firdaus' hijab would have been avoided - because hijab being a sort of sacrosanct identity peculiar to a sect in society would have raised no fuss when combined with other forms of formal clothing.

The Nigeria legal system is not only conservative; it is elitist. More and more the system is programmed to inculcate in lawyers a mechanical adherence to elitist practices that are dangerous to progressive evolution of law. For example, at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, it is a norm that radical law students (especially the student activists among them) who question unfavourable policies of the university authorities risk being delayed from progressing to the Law School if they receive as much as a query from the management that require them to explain why the unfavourable policies of the management is being challenged. In the policy of the Law School, prospective candidates are supposed to be well-behaved, and challenging authorities over clearly oppressive policies happens to fall under the scope of "bad behaviour"; and tools such as "query", "suspension" and other forms of "legal" instruments of political victimisation employed by universities' authorities form an incontrovertible criteria for authorities of the Nigerian Law School to automatically designate candidates as badly behaved. It could be opined that the Nigerian Law School has been making this grave mistake, which has continuously threatened civil and democratic rights (especially the freedom to speak against perceived injustice), only because of her unwitting trust in authorities of tertiary institutions. But the Law School has its own similar culture of repression of democratic rights. It is in fact considered sacrilegious to protest any policy in the law school; and the school has a standing policy that exempts students with background in students' unionism from standing in elections usually conducted to elect student representatives. Some law schools, in line with prevailing Nigerian standard of party democracy, have a virile zoning system that is more effective than among mainstream political parties in Nigeria - this is because an attempt to challenge the Law School's zoning arrangement holds the prospect of termination of studentship which students do not wish for.

The implication of the clearly undemocratic practices in the Nigerian Law School forebode a dangerous uncritical attitude among lawyers to jurisprudence, and a zombie-like loyalty to an imperfect status quo. If our lawyers are nourished on the values of uncritical, unquestioning submission to every rule, whether justified or crooked, then the chances of our laws evolving progressively from the sort of expert evaluation they ought to offer society is pathetically low. It gets to a point, which is feared we already are, that the border between secularity and religiosity becomes blurred. This becomes the case when the custodians of our laws and jurisprudence approach law with the same unquestioning fervour that a faithful gives the doctrines of his faith. If anything should be assured in society, it is the freedom of intellection and expression; and if that is denied, we are all at the risk of remaining on the same spot due to the fact that it is not allowed to think radically or to challenge the wrong prejudices, sometimes called legislation, of a few powerful elites forced on society by different manipulative methods, including our popular rigged electoral system.

The Firdaus' case is not about religion; it is about a lady challenging a contradictory status quo. Considering the deep contradictions in the legal practices in Nigeria, this debate should ordinarily open a Pandora's box for every authority connected with legal education in Nigeria. The fact that most of our laws and codes are cloned after the British system, without the consideration that we could have better laws crafted in the image of our country, makes it important for us to cultivate critical, radical minded law students. Our law schools and education institutions should be humble enough to allow criticality!

*Wole Olubanji is a graduate of the Department of Philosophy, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. He writes from Ado-Ekiti, Nigeria.

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