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Why the Hijab Controversy Persists in Nigeria’s Public Schools

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Picture: Brennan Linsley/AP – Nigerian boys and girls, wearing required Islamic white uniforms, sit on mats, segregated by gender, as they prepare to pray, August 23, 2000 in Abuja, Nigeria. While the use of the Hijab in public schools is highly controversial, there is a way to resolve these issues, says the writer.

By Adeyemi Balogun

Hijab use in Nigeria’s public schools has become highly controversial, in some cases leading to riots, fatalities, the destruction of school property and the closure of schools. Adeyemi Balogun, a PhD holder in the history of religion with research interests in Muslim culture and Muslim-Christian relations, sets out why the issue is so contentious, and what can be done to ease tensions.

What is the hijab?

The hijab has become a term used for all types of veiling among Muslim women. Some take it to mean a scarf or any piece of clothing that covers the woman’s head, face and body. There are a variety of veils in Muslim societies. The hijab is one. It covers the head with the face open and extends to either the ankle, abdomen or knees. Some Muslims refer to it as the khimar.

Another example of a veil is the burqa which covers the woman’s face except her eyes and the area around them. There is also the jilbab, an outer garment which covers the woman’s body from head to toe, leaving the face and hands from the wrist open.

What does the Quran teach about the hijab?

The Quran encourages women to see the hijab as a symbol of modesty and decency that leads to achieving piety. For many Muslims, piety is one of the greatest achievements of a Muslim in life. This explains why the hijab has been embraced by many Muslim women.

Some clerics say that, although God instructs women to use the hijab, He did not intend to force them to use it.

Are there penalties for not wearing a hijab?

There are scholars who believe not wearing a hijab should incur punishment. But there are also scholars who don’t hold this view. For some Muslim clerics not using the hijab is considered to be neglecting a Quranic instruction, which is tantamount to disobeying God. The penalty for this disobedience would then be for God to decide. And, if you ask some Muslims what that penalty would be, they will most likely say hell!

But for many clerics, it’s not possible to predetermine what God’s decision would be on any issue.

This is why the question remains contentious in the Muslim world.

Why is the hijab controversial in Nigeria’s schools?

There are many reasons.

First is religion. Those who use the hijab claim that veiling is a religious obligation. Meanwhile, the school is seen as a secular sphere where any form of religiosity must be suppressed.

But, in my view, the notion of secularism is inconsistent with the history of the school system in Nigeria.

Historically, schools were introduced by Christian missionaries as part of a project to spread the religion from 1843. This meant that missionaries embedded religious practices in schools. In primary and secondary schools, pupils pray in their assemblies and sing hymns.

When Muslims started establishing their own schools from 1896, they also introduced Islamic practices to learning.

Many schools in Nigeria continue to be managed or owned by Christians and Muslims, even though government took some schools from them in the 1970s.

In addition, Nigeria has Muslim and Christian associations as well as mosques and churches existing side by side with academic practices in its tertiary institutions.

That’s why I believe that the argument about Nigerian schools being secular is not only misleading – it’s baseless.

The second reason is about Muslim-Christian relations. The Christian Association of Nigeria, an umbrella body for Christians, opposed the wearing of hijab by Muslim girls. Its position is that wearing the hijab will lead to the Muslim faith being spread through schools. This argument contends that the use of hijab can encourage some Christian students to embrace Islam. And that the hijab would redefine the identity of the school as a Muslim school rather than a Christian or “secular” school.

The way I see it, these fears are genuine because they are worried about their own religious identity. And matters of identity are critical in the life of any group or society.

This brings us to the third reason why the hijab has remained controversial in Nigeria – the role of the government and the state. How has the government handled the issue of hijab in Nigerian schools, in workplaces and in public spaces?

In Lagos state, for instance, the government defended the secularity of the schools and said no to the hijab. But the Supreme Court recently ruled in favour of the hijab in Lagos schools. In spite of this, the state government has not directed its schools’ administrators to allow girls use hijab.

In Osun and Kwara states, hijab advocates are also in court.

Based on these cases it’s clear that the government has failed to find the right solution to the issue.

Is there any link between learning and dress?

The uniform students put on cannot determine their learning ability.

On the other hand, learners wear a uniform to give them an identity that separates them from those who are not undergoing a particular programme of learning. It is possible to use the uniform to inspire the performance and ability of the learners.

What is the best way to handle the controversy?

Some Nigerians argue that Muslims should have separate primary and secondary schools where they can wear the hijab. The problem with this solution becomes evident when you ask about tertiary institutions, workplaces and public spaces. Should Nigeria also have separate tertiary institutions and workplaces for Muslims only because they have chosen to wear the hijab?

We are talking about a multi-religious country where it is not possible for members of different religious faiths to not encounter one another. In workplaces, markets, communities and families, Muslims, Christians, atheists and African religious traditionalists would necessarily have to meet or have something that brings them together.

We cannot afford to create an “apartheid” system to achieve peace.

What I am therefore suggesting is, first, a dialogue through seminars, workshops and conferences between Muslims and non-Muslims. The government and school authorities should also be involved. With dialogue, each religious faith should understand each other’s religious practices.

Also, Muslims should recognise the fears of non-Muslims about the hijab in public schools and adopt ways to allay their fears.

Adeyemi Balogun is a lecturer at Osun State University, Nigeria.

* This is an edited version of an article first published in The Conversation.