It’s embarrassing that, in 2021, we still treat the Hijab as a weapon. Despite the din of eloquent debates and sheets of flowery prose in the past years to defuse these bigots or tame their phobia, it’s shocking that targeted harassment of innocent Muslim women is still a pastime of people with functional sense organs. Since this hijab crisis broke out in Kwara state, it has revealed the worst of us and, in all honesty, the quality of the exchanges has been ridiculous.
The hijab question is a cliché, especially in the Southwest, because it had recurred and had been rebuffed so many times, it ended up in the court. Sometime in 2013, two girls in Lagos sued the state government for the controversial hijab ban, and after years of litigation, the state finally bowed to a court ruling and lifted the ban. In 2019, eleven female students of the International School Ibadan (ISI), Ibadan were barred from wearing hijab to school. This ugly episode attracted national attention when a video of some of the students went viral on social media. They were being forced to take off their hijabs before entering the school premises.
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Parents of the Muslim students instantly intervened and sued the University of Ibadan, which owns the school. They asked the court to declare the action of the school “a violation of the (students’) rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom from discrimination… and right to education as guaranteed by the constitution of Nigeria.” Quite an objective submission. Amidst the protests and counter-protests, the school was temporarily closed.
One would think that these cases and the consequent outrage, which all transpired in the Southwest, are enough deterrence for the neighboring Kwara state. The school administrators who insist on this no-hijab policy in a state with vast Muslim heritage rushed to cite why their case is different. Theirs are missionary schools, they said. But that’s a simplistic and misleading representation of the reality.
The Kwara State Government clarified that it took control of the schools in question, which are leftovers of our colonial experience, in 1974, and designed them to function as other public schools owned by the state and adhere to the laws and policies of the government. The schools, it said, retained their nominal affiliation to the missionary bodies that established them as an honour for their contribution to education in the country, and that such is not a proprietary badge. That schools funded by taxpayers’ money are refusing to accommodate the identities of another group in a plural society, is an unmistakable show of intolerance.
It’s unfortunate that the woman is often the first causality of any conflict around identity politics. Having endured centuries of our patriarchy, their vulnerability is well-known and often exploited to drive an agenda in which they have no part. A few years ago, in Abuja, a female friend called and asked me to accompany her to Transcorp Hilton Hotel. The hotel had denied her entry, as they had other single women. She had a meeting and was running late. This lady was the country director of a distinguished multinational organization, and yet being harassed by male security guards who won’t even be qualified to be her personal assistant.
This story of my friend emphasizes the gender of power in our society, and such power, either in politics or religion, easily identifies the woman as a soft target. This is also the case with Islamophobia. Most demonstrations of this fear of the Muslim have the woman as the primary victim. She’s mocked for simply adhering to the dictates of her religion, especially covering her Awrah—the parts of her body forbidden from public exposure—with hijab. She’s mocked for being powerless.
The hijab crisis in Kwara State has only brought to the fore this ancient targeting of the Muslim woman, which is already a global pastime. It’s even more frightening that this Islamophobia holds in an unlikely place: the Yorubaland. Aside from being noted as the most tolerant of Nigeria’s three major ethnic groups, the Yoruba have a demographic balance of Christian – Muslim ratio. It’s also the most educated of this group, and their centrist posturing on divisive issues is probably why the hijab crisis has been confusing to me.
But my good friend and a Yoruba Muslim from Osun state, Sodiq Alabi, provided an insight in a pithy commentary on this Kwara crisis on social media. “We – the Yoruba – are not as tolerant as we like to portray,” he wrote. “It’s just the rank intolerance of many other ethnic groups in Nigeria that make us look better in comparison.” On the one hand, we have those who brought these Judeo-Christian values to our land, reassessing their system, from London to New York, to accommodate the hijab in public institutions. On the other hand, we have their experimented demographics adopting the values to drive some Stone Age divisions.
Our Western influencers are learning, although slowly, to acknowledge that the hijab isn’t just a personal fashion, but one clothing that aligns with the Islamic requirement for women as stated in the Qur’an. We must, like them, also acknowledge the plurality of our society and explore this democracy to serve one another as long as no group is harmed or rationally undermined. The hijab harms no one. It’s not a weapon. What’s a weapon is the mindset that treats the hijab as one.
Nobody should apologize for their beliefs and identities, and nobody should be bullied or threatened to give up their identity, individual preference or freedom. Our diversity is a reality with which we must never interfere, for it’s what defines us. We must resist attempts by any group, whether religious or ethnic – secular or political – to impose its values on others the same way we must never condone declared hatred of, and intolerance towards, any group.