Due to my very tight engagements, I am finding it difficult to keep pace with the debate over the Hijab controversy at the recent call to bar ceremony. I always say debates like this expose the worse in us and I’m appalled by the level of anti-muslim bigotry, insensitivity and ignorance on display.
Opponents of the hijab based their arguments on two shaky foundations: one is that the Law School is only enforcing it is internal guidelines and the poor lady should know better when she signed on to become a lawyer.
But school laws, nay all human laws, are not cast in stone. They are updated to adequately respond to evolving challenges and keep pace with emerging social, political and cultural realities. The irony here is that the same people that are openly challenging divine laws are the ones saying human laws should be rigid and static.
Many Muslim women consider Hijab as a manifest demonstration of their Islamic identity. Therefore, asking a Muslim woman to choose between her hijab and her career is a clear case of discrimination. More still, the Law School guidelines are in clear breach of the Muslim woman’s fundamental rights.
It is shameful that this discrimination is coming from the Law School, the institution that should be at the forefront of dismantling all barriers to individual freedoms. In a normal society, it should be the Body of Benchers and the Nigerian civil society fighting for Fridaus’ right to wear the hijab and not fighting against it.
Few years ago, Abercrombie & Fitch was sued by a muslim woman, with support from Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the American Civil Liberties Union, for denying her job application because according to the company her hijab violates the company’s dress policy.
In June 2015, the US. Supreme Court ruled in her favor, confirming the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act which states that businesses with at least 15 employees must provide reasonable accommodation for wearing of religious garbs except in situations where doing so will compromise workplace safety.
The implication here is even in a business set up by your own funds, it is illegal to discriminate against the Hijab, not to talk of professional institutions like the Law School where individual rights of members are more guaranteed.
This has also been the line of jurisprudence in Europe until recent rise in islamophobia, both public and institutional, saw the ECJ in March accepting hijab ban on the condition that similar forms of political, philosophical and religious symbolism must be equally banned at workplace.
The second argument is that Muslim women have been complying with the said guidelines and there’s no need for ‘extremist’ Firdaus to stir the hornet’s nest. If they do that wilfully, so be it. But it is wrong to deny them the right to put on the hijab when they want to. But no matter how deeply entrenched a wrong practice is, it does not give it the validity of being right. If the law is unjust, no amount of compliance will give it the appearance of being just.
There’s a place for courage and nonconformism in human history. Lady Rosa Parks knew she was breaking the law when she confronted injustice, so was Muhammad Ali, so was Nelson Mandela and so was Gani Fawehinmi. If they had tarried a bit longer because the law was not favorable to them, the cause of justice would have been delayed much longer.
As I said earlier, anti-Muslim bigotry, insensitivity and ignorance are responsible for this blatant opposition to the harmless attempt by Muslim women to keep their hijab even at work place.
This anti-Muslim bigotry is real. Many non-Muslims are taught to view Islam from competing, mutually-rejecting perspectives. Muslim practices, no matter now harmless and decent, must be opposed and ridiculed. Muslims, unlike their Nigerian non-Muslim counterparts are not entitled to their religious, cultural and political rights and privileges.
There’s also the insensitivity in that religious accommodation does not matter and condoning the hijab will open the floodgate of requests from other faiths. But those new requests will only last to the extent of their authenticity and genuine intention.
When Aregbesola allowed Muslim girls to wear the hijab in Osun state, many non-Muslim parents protested that decision by sending their wards to school in different Christian and traditional attires. Today they no longer do so. Nobody stopped them but Muslim girls are still wearing their hijab to school in Osun.
That’s because the decision by those non-Muslims to wear their own religious symbols to school was not borne out of genuine expression of fundamental religious rights but out of blind opposition to Muslims’ own choice to wear their own. Therefore, if anybody has a reason to wear noninvasive religious garb out of religious conviction, they are free to do so. Only time will tell if the motivation is borne out of genuine conviction or bigotry and antagonism towards Muslim’s own rights.
Lastly, I would be dwelling on the ignorance of the self-declared secular folks. There’s nothing like Nigerian secularism. There’s only Nigerian multiculturalism. But even if there’s any, it is decidedly Christian in outlook because of Nigeria’s Christian colonial experience and it is therefore understandable when our laws display clear disregard for Muslim sensibilities and it is only logical that they are reviewed for greater inclusion and accommodation.
Secularism does not exist in a vacuum. Western secularism is merely the synthesis and re-synthesis of Western Christian political thought and civilization, from the renaissance under Francis Bacon to the reformation under Martin Luther, the same way that Turkish secularism under Ataturk has a distinct Islamic character.
Today, globalization has brought in new realities with its dismantling of geographic and ideological boundaries. Our world today puts more emphasis on tolerance and accommodation of our diverse realities because the challenges we face are similar and surmounting them require our collective synergy. The Nigerian Law School should not be living outside of that reality.