By Kunle Sanyaolu
The interface involving the Nigerian Law School (NLS) graduand, Amasa Fridau who was recently prevented from entering the hall where her colleagues were being admitted into the Bar has again demonstrated that the age long controversy surrounding the use of veil, otherwise called hijab, by Muslim women is not about to end soon. When it appears that normalcy is gaining ground, something happens to remind us all that it is not over.
In the case of Amasa Fridau and the law School, it is a straight fight between law and tradition. While the odds seem to be in favour of the law, tradition is a diehard factor, and its justification in certain cases can be stretched to the ridiculous. The present case is more interesting in that if wearing of the hijab is protected by the Nigerian constitution, as many people have argued, the Nigerian Law School, being a custodian of the law, ought to be leading that protection.
The fact that this is not happening shows that the matter is not straight forward. So far, the authorities of the NLS have not spoken on the issue, as if to suggest that what happened against Amasa had no official backing of the school, or the Council of legal Education. In a sense, the controversy could have been provoked by the exuberance of its security personnel. But can the NLS security bar a prospective graduand, without the consent, directly or otherwise, of the school?
Expectedly, most of the reactions have come from Muslims who felt appropriately infuriated that Muslims were not being allowed to practise their religion. Yet, the country is operating a secular system whereby the state is precluded from adopting any religion as official; and individuals, under the fundamental rights provisions in the constitution, have freedom of worship.
Indeed, there have been numerous cases where the use of hijab has been controverted and subsequently referred to the courts for adjudication. But apart from the law school, which may very well be warming up for a law suit from Amasa’s lawyers, other authorities, including state governments, have been taken to court over their objection to the use of hijab by students in public schools. It happened in Osun where government acceded to the campaign of some people that use of hijab be banned. But the High Court in the state lifted the ban.
In Lagos, the Court of Appeal reversed the decision of the Ikeja High Court which on October 17, 2014 banned the use of hijab in the state’s primary and secondary schools. The Appeal Court held unanimously that such ban was discriminatory of the affected students. That was on July 21, 2016. There are indications however that the state is seeking intervention of the Supreme Court with a view to reversing the Appeal Court judgement.
So far, it seems clear that the law is in support of the use of hijab, at least pending a decision to the contrary by the Supreme Court. One is at a loss as to why the hijab should prove to be so controversial, considering that it is used by Christians, Muslims and even people of other sects. It can be argued that Muslims use it more preponderantly. Even then there is no cause for the level of brickbat its use has attracted.
Chief Femi Fani-kayode is of the opinion that hijab should not be worn during “secular ceremonies” such as Call to Bar; but the ceremony is for members of all religions who have the rights under the constitution, to practise their faith without discrimination or hindrance, at all times; subject of course, to the restriction placed on fundamental rights by the same constitution to safeguard public order, public health and public morality, among other cogent reasons.
Notably too, the controversy on use of the hijab is global, because while most international communities are not averse to its use; and are in any event bound by the United Nations Conventions protecting the rights to use hijab, some countries have cause to tinker with the rights from time to time. Nigeria toyed with the idea of banning it in some parts of the North to prevent the spate of suicide bombings that have claimed thousands of innocent lives. Norway at the moment is proposing a bill to ban the full-face hijab in all schools, to facilitate communication between students and teachers; while France, the Netherland, Belgium and Bulgaria among others have imposed restrictions on wearing full-face hijab in public places.
In Nigeria, factors of security, traditions and social considerations will continue to affect the use of hijab in certain places and on certain occasions. But it is high time these factors are harmonised with the unflinching provisions of the constitution, and the firm resolutions by the courts, so as to put a permanent end to the public fiasco on use of hijabs. The Nigerian law school, as a major custodian of law, and key stakeholder in legal education, should jettison its conservatism and assume a leading role in seeking this permanent solution.
●●Sanyaolu, a lawyer and journalist, is based in Lagos.