The debate about what Muslim women in Nigeria can put on their heads is getting more heated
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 €10 00 in Switzerland, for example, or a seven-day 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.