Wary Nigerian church bans towering headgear

It's an indispensable fashion accessory, worn by every Nigerian woman at some point. Some are never seen without it, including Nigeria's finance minister who calls her modest headwrap her trademark. Others, such as Nollywood actor Abiola Atanda, are known for their foot-high towers at red carpet events.

But a Nigerian church has now banned its congregation from wearing large headwraps, called geles, saying they form a "barricade" when women sit side by side, and are a potential security risk at a time when attacks on churches by militant Islamist groups are a very real threat.

Churchgoers who wear geles that seek to reach for the heavens will have their "big headgears" confiscated from next month, the congregation at St Theresa's Cathedral Church in the south-eastern Nigerian state of Enugu have been warned. Other churches are debating whether to follow St Theresa's lead.

"In view of the present security challenges the church has urged women to stop coming to Sunday service with big headgear and bags, to enable security men to know when a bomb will be smuggled into the church," Reverend Father Uche Obodoechina said, adding that the headwraps made it difficult to identify people.

Catholic churches in Nigeria usually maintain that women must cover their hair during services.

Capable of towering two feet in gravity-defying folds and arcs of lace or stiff jacquard, geles are the crowning glory of traditional outfits typically worn to church and sometimes seen as status symbols based on size alone. I

Important occasions – of which weddings and churchgoing remain firm favourites – can prompt intricate geles, usually finished off with stone-encrusted sunglasses and flashy handbags.

"Women feel naked without their geles on special occasions," said Lagos-based makeup artist Kadiatou Sangare, who often helps women tie elaborate creations.

The crackdown on geles is one of a series of increasing security measures after Nigeria endured a spate of bomb attacks on churches and mosques from the fundamentalist group Boko Haram.

This year it has targeted at least six churches in northern and central Nigeria, prompting fears it is trying to ignite a sectarian war among Nigeria's evenly split Muslims and Christians. It has never struck a southern Nigerian state.

A military clampdown in recent months has curbed attacks, but church authorities said they were taking no chances.

"It is an unusual move but they must have their own information for doing so," said Monsignor Gabriel Osu of the Catholic archdiocese of Lagos. "Nigerians now are very security conscious and churches especially are very vulnerable. So rather than take chances, they will do anything to minimise the risks to their congregations; they're going that extra mile."

The move has divided opinion among churchgoers.

"It's a good thing," said taxi driver Idowu James. "There is no doubt some people carry big handbags to intimidate people lower down the ladder. Frankly, I don't think church is the right place for exercises in fashion parade."

Others see wearing geles to be as inalienable a right as going to church. "I've never heard such a thing and I don't think women in my own church will abide by that. Most of the week we women are working, so Sunday is the only chance to wear geles and dress up," said Lagos resident Grace George. "We want to look our best when we go to church, and you cannot do that if you expose your head."

Other churches have ramped up security as attacks have led to drops in attendance. Many restrict cars from parking in their vicinity during services. In at least two states – Plateau and Kogi – round-the-clock armed guards have been posted outside some churches. – © Guardian News and Media 2012

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


Subscribers only

How lottery execs received dubious payments through a private company

The National Lottery Commission is being investigated by the SIU for alleged corruption and maladministration, including suspicious payments made to senior NLC employees between 2016 and 2017

Pandemic hobbles learners’ futures

South African schools have yet to open for the 2021 academic year and experts are sounding the alarm over lost learning time, especially in the crucial grades one and 12

More top stories

Egypt, Seychelles get first jabs

The two countries have rolled out China’s Sinopharm vaccine, but data issues are likely to keep some countries from doing the same

Fashion’s future is bricks and clicks

Lockdown forced reluctant South African clothing retail stores online: although foot traffic in brick-and-mortar stores remains important in a mall culture like ours, the secret to success is innovation

What the Biden presidency may mean for Africa

The new US administration has an interest and much expertise in Africa. But given the scale of the priorities the administration faces, Africa must not expect to feature too prominently

Zuma, Zondo play the waiting game

The former president says he will talk once the courts have ruled, but the head of the state capture inquiry appears resigned to letting the clock run out as the commission's deadline nears

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…