Hi­jabis face fear and ig­no­rance

The de­bate about what Mus­lim women in Nige­ria can put on their heads is get­ting more heated

Mail & Guardian - - Africa - Shola Lawal in La­gos

Fir­daus Amasa’s class, wear­ing black robes and white colo­nial-hang­over wigs, grad­u­ated from the Nige­rian Law School in De­cem­ber 2017. De­spite pass­ing all her ex­ams, Amasa was not among the stu­dents. The 24-year-old was de­nied en­try to the cer­e­mony in Abuja be­cause she was wear­ing a hi­jab. It was hardly vis­i­ble, tucked neatly into the high neck of her stiff white shirt, but the law school’s pol­icy was rigid: no hi­jabs at grad­u­a­tion.

Amasa, like in­creas­ing num­bers of fe­male Mus­lim stu­dents in Nige­ria, had to make a choice that day be­tween com­plet­ing her ed­u­ca­tion and re­spect­ing her re­li­gion. She donned her hi­jab.

“I knew that was what was go­ing to hap­pen,” she told the Premium Times at the time. “All we are clam­our­ing for is to al­low hi­jab in [the] le­gal pro­fes­sion be­cause it is our right.”

In Is­lam, men and women are re­quired to dress mod­estly. The hi­jab, a scarf that cov­ers the head and hair, is a means to that end. In Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity north­ern Nige­ria, most women wear hi­jabs.

In some ar­eas it is com­pul­sory. But in the east of the coun­try, which is mostly Chris­tian, hi­jabs and niqabs, which cover the face, are rarer and are banned in most pub­lic schools. West Nige­ria, mean­while, has al­ways been a mid­dle ground for Mus­lim women: Nige­ria’s Yoruba pop­u­la­tion is tra­di­tion­ally lib­eral and at­taches less sig­nif­i­cance to modes of dressing. This may be chang­ing, how­ever, as the de­bate about the hi­jab gets louder and more heated.

Just last month, a group of fe­male stu­dents were kicked out of the In­ter­na­tional School of Ibadan for com­ing to school with their heads cov­ered. In anger, some par­ents staged mul­ti­ple protests against the prin­ci­pal, call­ing for the rule that bars fe­male stu­dents from wear­ing a hi­jab to be scrapped. Out­side the school com­pound, scores gath­ered, lift­ing boards with in­scrip­tions.

“How does my hi­jab af­fect you?” one plac­ard asked. Other par­ents, in favour of the hi­jab ban, had their own plac­ards. “Let our uni­form be our uni­form”, read one. Some Chris­tian par­ents said that, if hi­jabs were al­lowed in school, they would en­cour­age their chil­dren to wear church robes and nun habits.

Sup­port­ers of the hi­jab ban be­lieve that reli­gious cloth­ing should be kept away from pub­lic schools, to pro­vide an at­mos­phere free from reli­gious trap­pings.

An ed­i­to­rial in Nige­ria’s The Guardian put it like this: “Re­li­gion is a strictly per­sonal af­fair whose man­i­fes­ta­tions in pub­lic spa­ces must be re­duced to the barest min­i­mum. Pupils should be en­cour­aged to per­ceive one an­other as to­gether and alike in­stead of be­ing sep­a­rated along eth­nic, class and reli­gious lines at that pupa state of devel­op­ment.”

There is an­other per­spec­tive. Ruqaya Giwa (24), a Mus­lim woman who lives in La­gos, was not al­lowed to wear a hi­jab at sec­ondary school. “I went to a fed­eral sec­ondary school, which should be all-en­com­pass­ing, yet that’s not the case,” she said. “I feel naked when I don’t have it on.”

Al­though con­sti­tu­tion­ally a sec­u­lar state, the sep­a­ra­tion of state and re­li­gion in Nige­ria is hardly prac­tised. Politi­cians swear by the Bi­ble or the Qur’an when they take of­fice. States spon­sor pil­grims to Mecca and Jerusalem. And there is a si­lent and gen­eral agree­ment that, if the pres­i­dent is Mus­lim, then the deputy must be Chris­tian, or vice versa. In this con­text, it is dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand why the hi­jab — a mere head­scarf — is so con­tro­ver­sial.

Giwa be­lieves op­po­si­tion to hi­jabs is rooted in Is­lam­o­pho­bia. Maryam Hasan, an Abuja-based lawyer and fem­i­nist, who is also Mus­lim, at­tributes it to fear and a lack of un­der­stand­ing. There ap­pears to be a per­pet­ual dread of the hi­jab and what the hi­jab rep­re­sents, she said. Re­search sup­ports this the­sis: in a sur­vey con­ducted by Pulse, a Nige­rian news site, more than half of re­spon­dents an­swered “I get scared” when they see a hi­jab or niqab.

In this there are un­mis­tak­able echoes of a sim­i­lar de­bate about what Mus­lim women are al­lowed to wear in Europe, which has been stoked by ris­ing anti-mus­lim rhetoric fu­elled by far-right move­ments that play on fears of in­se­cu­rity and na­tional iden­tity. Hi­jabs are banned in schools in France, where for­mer pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Sarkozy de­clared them “not wel­come”.

It’s a crim­i­nal of­fence to wear the niqab or burqa in at least 10 coun­tries in Europe. Do­ing so can at­tract a fine of up to €10000 in Switzer­land, for ex­am­ple, or a sev­en­day jail term in Bel­gium.

The hi­jab has also been chal­lenged be­cause it does not align with Western fem­i­nist prin­ci­ples. Some fem­i­nists ar­gue that the hi­jab is a tool of oppression, and point to coun­tries such as Iran, where it is manda­tory for women to cover their heads — and where Mus­lim women are fight­ing for the right to ditch them.

The scale of dis­crim­i­na­tion faced by women who wear the hi­jab in Nige­ria is hardly com­pa­ra­ble with what hap­pens in Europe, or the United States, where Mus­lim women have been as­saulted. But there is no doubt that the is­sue is com­ing up more and more fre­quently in Nige­ria, and not just in schools.

Hi­jabis face dis­crim­i­na­tion in the work­place too, said Safeeya Peters, an eco­nomics grad­u­ate. Last year, she was told to dis­card her hi­jab be­fore she could be em­ployed by one of the big four ac­count­ing firms. Nige­rian banks have a rep­u­ta­tion for deny­ing jobs to women who cover their heads and the armed forces don’t al­lowed hi­jabs.

Hasan, a hu­man rights lawyer, said this prac­tice is il­le­gal. “Deny­ing women the right to wear their hi­jab amounts to dis­crim­i­na­tion based on re­li­gion, ac­cord­ing to the Nige­rian Con­sti­tu­tion.”

Nige­ria’s courts tend to agree. A La­gos high court ruling that banned the hi­jab from schools in La­gos State was over­turned on ap­peal, and a judg­ment in Osun State con­firmed that fe­male Mus­lim stu­dents at the Bap­tist High School could wear the hi­jab to school.

Even the Nige­rian Law So­ci­ety has re­con­sid­ered its po­si­tion. Af­ter Amasa’s protest caused a na­tional furore, its rules com­mit­tee amended the grad­u­a­tion dress code to al­low for hi­jabs.

In July last year, Amasa fi­nally grad­u­ated. Her hi­jab was al­most in­vis­i­ble un­der the white curls of her lawyer’s wig.

Some fem­i­nists ar­gue that the hi­jab is a tool of oppression. Mus­lim women in Iran are fight­ing for the right to ditch them

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