How to Resolve the Hijab Controversy

How to Resolve the Hijab Controversy

People who don’t understand the imperative of lexical economy that column writing imposes on columnists wondered why I didn’t write more than I did last week on the hijab controversy in Ilorin— and why I didn’t suggest ways out of the problem I analyzed.

First, as much as this is a legitimately religious issue, it is really mostly a social class issue. Most upper-class and middle-class Muslims send their daughters to private schools where the hijab isn’t even an option, and they don’t mind. And many wealthy Christians have no problems with the religious restrictions in prosperous Muslim societies like the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere.

Only the children of poor people attend public schools where the hijab excites passions, where the politics of public displays of religiosity is invoked as a wedge issue. Wealthy people and their children don’t give a thought to this.

As I pointed out in my August 6, 2016 column titled “Nigeria as a Perverse Anarchist Paradise,” parents with even modest financial capacity have learned to not send their children to government-funded schools because public education has now become the graveyard of learning and creativity.

“This is precisely where the intergenerational perpetuation of social and economic inequality starts,” I wrote. “Only the children of the desperately poor go to government schools, which are hardly in session because teachers aren’t paid salaries. This ensures that children of the poor stand no earthly chance of breaking from the cycle of poverty and social oppression into which they are born.”

Nonetheless, we can’t ignore a controversy because we think it’s contrived or politically motivated. As I admitted last week, the hijab has evolved as a legitimate accoutrement of female Muslim identity all over Nigeria. It is unhelpful to simply dismiss it as foreign or a consequence of an emergent Islamic fanaticism because it didn’t exist before now.

At the same time, Christian resentment against the wearing of the hijab in historically Christian missionary schools is justifiable, in my opinion, in light of the fact that the schools started out as private Christian schools which, even after being nationalized, observed the traditions of their original owners for decades.

So, the root of the problem is the inexcusable takeover of the schools by the Yakubu Gowon military regime in the 1970s. The Gowon regime expropriated Christian missionaries of their schools in order “to provide stability, satisfy people’s basic educational and national needs, combat sectionalism, religious conflict and disloyalty to the cause of a united Nigeria.”

State governments adopted and adapted the federal law that nationalized missionary schools, with many of them in southern and northcentral states allowing the missionary schools to retain their rituals— and playing a prominent part in the appointment of key administrative staff. In Baptist Grammar School, my alma mater, for instance, no Muslim has ever been appointed a principal even though the school has been fully government-owned since the 1970s.

But missionary schools that were taken over by the government are still essentially public schools. No more, no less. Their staff are paid by the government. That’s why when teachers in public schools go on strike, all missionary schools in Kwara State grind to a halt.

So one of the most effective solutions to the nagging controversy over the wearing of the hijab is to lobby the National Assembly to repeal the federal law that nationalized Christian missionary schools. The law was obviously informed by a post-Civil War obsession with “national unity” and curricular uniformity. That imperative no longer exists. Curricular standardization and national cohesion can be achieved without the appropriation of private schools by the government.

What is more, several private missionary (including Islamic) and secular schools have been established after Christian missionary schools were nationalized in the 1970s, but such schools haven’t been nationalized likewise. Whatever justified the takeover of the missionary schools in the 1970s should extend to private schools that were established after the fact. If the government hasn’t found the need to nationalize schools that were established after the takeover of missionary schools in the 1970s, it should denationalize those that it did forthwith in the interest of fairness and equity.

I am aware that many governments in states where Christians enjoy numerical and symbolic dominion have returned Christian missionary schools to their owners. But as Miracle Ajah of the National Open University of Nigeria pointed out in his Stellenbosch Theological Journal article titled “Religious education and nation-building in Nigeria,” state governments that returned mission schools to their owners did so through mere memoranda of understanding, which have no legal force.

“Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) is not a law and cannot amend or repeal a valid law,” he wrote, pointing out that “the current trend in the return of mission schools stands on a false foundation, which an ambitious regime could overturn any day.”

That risk is almost zero in states where Christians are a majority, but it is always ever-present in a predominantly Muslim state like Kwara, which has never had an elected Christian governor, except for the Olusola Saraki-engineered brief governorship of Cornelius Adebayo in 1983 to spite Adamu Atta whom he also installed, since the 1970s.

The only logic that sustains and justifies the demand to accommodate hijab-wearing Muslim girls in historically Christian missionary schools is that the schools are public schools that are funded by public patrimony. I would be surprised if the Supreme Court rules that public ownership of a previously Christian mission school is not a sufficient justification to allow Muslim students to wear the hijab as part of their school uniform.

That means the only way to resolve this issue isn’t through the Supreme Court but for the law that made these schools public schools to be repealed. There’s no other way.

Of course, the denationalization of missionary schools will have an immediate adverse effect, which isn’t too much price to pay for peace given the violence that has attended the controversy. At least in the short term, enrollment will decline, and many teachers will lose their jobs. We have already seen that in some states where schools were returned to their owners.

Take Ogun State as an example. Ajah’s article shows that “in Abeokuta South Local government, where six schools were said to have been handed over to the original owners by the government, the total school enrolment of these schools in 2008 was 12 663. But by 2010, after the hand-over, students’ enrolment dropped drastically to 401 for the simple reason that school fees were high. Consequently, 12 262 students could not get access to secondary education. In Ijebu Ode, enrolment dropped from 8 729 in 2008 to 876 by 2010.”

As a parent in Ogun State— who displayed a protest sign that read “Missionaries are now Capitalists”— told Christianity Today in early 2012, “These schools are not for the poor; they are too elitist, even members who donated toward their establishments cannot send their children there. They should have told us they are running profit-oriented schools from the outset instead of using the word mission to raise money, get public support, and turn around to become unaffordable.”

But this is no reason why governments should hold on to schools that don’t belong to them, particularly when doing so is increasingly inviting communal distress and disruption. No law of nature says missionary schools should subsidize education for people. It is governments that have a responsibility to build schools, subsidize education, and allow religious groups to give expression to their sartorial rituals if doing so isn’t disruptive.

Before an enduring solution is found for the hijab problem, it helps to remember that no Muslim girl will lose her faith if she doesn’t wear a hijab to school nor will any Christian’s faith be hurt because a Muslim girl wears a hijab to school. That realization should inspire greater inter-faith tolerance.

Hijab as Red Meat of Bigotry

In my home state of Kwara, which used to be proverbial for its peaceableness and inter-religious harmony, recriminatory disputes over whether female Muslim students should be allowed to wear the hijab as part of their school uniforms in historically Christian missionary secondary schools that are now government-owned is fueling tension and fears of extensive internecine violence.\

This controversy is personal to me because I’m a Muslim who attended historically Christian missionary primary and secondary schools in the predominantly Muslim Baruten (former Borgu) part of Kwara State. Anyone who is familiar with Kwara State would know that the Baatonum-speaking Baruten Local Government in the westernmost fringe of Nigeria’s border with Benin Republic is the state’s least developed, most neglected area.

The earliest schools (and hospitals) in the area were established not by the government but by American Southern Baptist Christian missionaries who first appeared in my hometown in 1948. Until the early 1980s, Christian Religious Knowledge (or, as it was called then, Bible Knowledge) was compulsory in Baptist Grammar School, my alma mater, even though the federal government had urged the take-over of missionary schools by the 1970s.

I was in the second cohort of students who had the latitude to take Islamic Religious Knowledge as an option for religious education in my secondary school, but the school still observed its Christian traditions (such as requiring all students, most of whom were Muslims, to sing Christian hymns in morning assemblies), and the Nigerian Baptist Convention still determined who became principal and vice principal of the school.

Sometime in my final year of high school, a native of my hometown who lived in Sokoto for decades and returned with degrees in Arabic and Islamic Studies got a job to teach Islamic Studies at this Baptist Christian Missionary secondary school that was now fully funded by the Kwara State government. One of the first things he advocated was that Muslim students should have a separate morning assembly so that they won’t be required to sing Christian hymns and listen to Christian morning devotion.

I opposed him. And I was supported by other students, more than 90 percent of whom were fellow Muslims. When the man discovered who my dad was, he was mortified and decided to have a word with my dad about his “Shaytan” [Satan] of a son.

To his astonishment, my father, who also studied Arabic and Islamic Studies and taught it at the by then government-funded Baptist Primary School, said the man was wrong to disrupt the decades-old tradition of my secondary school. He reminded him that American Christian missionaries built the school with their money at a time the government didn’t even acknowledge people in my place existed, and that in spite of decades of proselytization, Christian missioners didn’t get many converts.

He advised the man to use his education and vast network to attract Muslim entrepreneurs to build a Muslim secondary school in the community to compete with my alma mater. My father said he would only draw the line if the school had insisted that Muslims convert to Christianity as a precondition to be enrolled in it (he missed out on the education American missionaries offered in the 1940s and 1950s because he refused to convert to Christianity like some of his siblings did), but stressed that no knowledge is ever wasted.

More than a decade after this conversation, the idea that no knowledge is a waste materialized for my father’s much younger first cousin who attended Baptist Grammar School at a time Bible Knowledge was required for even Muslim students. He had A1 in Bible Studies, but still remains a staunch Muslim. Now a medical doctor in Kaduna, he was caught in the crossfire of the sanguinary ethno-religious upheaval in Kaduna in 2000 that pitted Muslims against Christians.

In the same day, a Christian mob mistook him for a Fulani because of his light complexion and a Muslim mob mistook him for an Igbo for the same reason.

His entreaty to the Christian mob that he wasn’t Fulani was rebuffed by a counter claim that he was a Muslim because his forehead showed evidence of repeated contact with the ground. He lied that he was a Christian. The bloodthirsty mob baying for Muslim flesh asked him to prove his claims by reciting John 3:16. That was easy-peasy for a man who attended Christian missionary schools and got A1 in Bible Knowledge. He escaped the jaws of death.

Just when he was about to get to his home, he encountered a Muslim mob baying for Christian blood. He pleaded with them that he was a Muslim. They insisted he was Igbo and asked him to recite surat-ul-fatiha, the first chapter of the Qur’an, to prove his Muslim bona fides. He said he could do better than that; he recited Surah al-Baqarah, the second and longest chapter of the Qur’an, instead, which most of his would-be murderers couldn’t recite. He survived.

I lived in Kaduna and covered the upheavals for the Weekly Trust at the time. When I visited him and heard how he escaped death by the whiskers from two groups of murderous thugs who claimed to be fighting for their religions, I recalled what my father said about no knowledge being a waste.

Nonetheless, while Christian missionary schools have unquestionably done a lot to expand access to education and equip people with lifelong and lifesaving skills, we must recognize that Nigeria has evolved. Part of that evolution is the emergence of the hijab as a symbol of female Muslim identity.

In more ways than was the case when I came of age in Nigeria, many, perhaps most, Muslim women have been socialized to see the hijab as the definitive sartorial assertion of their Muslim identity. Perhaps precisely because of this fact, the hijab now stirs negative emotions in so many Christians.

We need to have an honest national conversation about why the hijab triggers such extreme bitterness and hostility in some Nigerian Christians. Why has it been weaponized to stir bile and reinforce toxic prejudices against Muslim women when its wearing doesn’t hurt Christians?

In Kwara State, two separate court judgments (a high court judgement and an appeals court judgement) have upheld the rights of female Muslim students to wear the hijab as part of their school uniforms in schools that were historically owned by Christian missionaries but that are now hundred percent government funded.

There are now only two options left for these schools: either appeal against the judgements by lower courts at the Supreme Court or obey the Kwara State government’s court-sanctioned directive that Muslim students be allowed to observe the hijab.

Instead, ChannelsTV reported on March 17, officials of Baptist School in the Surulere area of Ilorin, physically turned back hijab-wearing Muslim students from entry into the school in the aftermath of the Kwara State government’s reopening of former Christian missionary schools it had closed to protest the schools’ discrimination against Muslim students’ sartorial choices. The lawlessness by officials of Baptist School ignited violence.

Since these former Christian missionary schools are now public institutions that are fully funded (or underfunded) by the government, it isn’t reasonable to insist that Muslims enrolled in them can’t wear their hijabs— if they choose to— even after two court judgements say they can. That’s theocratic tyranny.

“State of harmony” is the number-plate slogan Kwara State cherishes about itself, but as Steve Goodier once said, “We don’t get harmony when everybody sings the same note. Only notes that are different can harmonize. The same is true with people.” In other words, it’s our ability to accept and live with our differences that can ensure harmony, not unnatural uniformity or mechanical sameness.

Author: Farooq A. Kperogi

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