Religion is one subject that never fails to tickle Nigerians. I could set up a school where I teach children that the earth is flat, that climate change is a farce concocted by western scientists, and that religion is superior to science and I may never get a single visit from a concerned parent. If I take that nonchalance for granted and decide to challenge other conventions such as whether female students should wear hijab or not, or choose learning IRK over CRK, I would be inviting a rage from hell. Religious leaders of all hues will suddenly be awakened to start a turf fight not to preserve the children’s future through educating them to develop critical thinking abilities but as well-configured zombies who will always fill up religious houses.
Religion is slippery, and that is why the issue of Ms. Firdaus Amasa and her hijab debacle with the Council on Legal Education needs to be approached as a matter of sheer principles. Otherwise, those who find it expedient to use liberal ethics to validate their case in this instance will not be so charitable when a similar argument that does not match their set religious prejudices emerges in future.
The president of the Nigerian Bar Association, Abubakar Mahmoud, who waded into the debate by tweeting a picture of his daughter who was called to bar in New York wearing pants and with her hijab on called the debate “needless.”
It is almost laughable that Mahmoud thinks that the United States (and other western cultures) merely accepted the hijab because they believe in religious freedom. No, that right was acquired through decades of vigorous contestations that preempted their current level of openness. His convenient severance of issues from their context misses the fact that even in those western societies, religious accommodation is an unfinished battle; legal principles and constitutional statutes still conflict.
One instance is the question of religious freedom for Christian confectioners who will not bake wedding cakes for gay people. What is at stake, for those who choose not to be naïve, is more than the cake itself; it is a resolution of the clash of religious values with the secular guarantee that everyone would be treated equally and as citizens. These societies still go to court to argue out issues as they arise; they do not merely disregard them as “needless.”
Ironically, some of the people who led the hijab battles in western countries have been Christians and atheists, with nothing more at stake for them beyond the principles of the law. They want the society to accommodate diversity for the sake of minorities and the marginalised. They are the ones who also fought for the rights of gay people to be married and to have the same access to privileges as straight couples. If the debate on homosexuality were to be re-opened in Nigeria today, would Mahmoud regard the discourse as “needless” and sue for tolerance simply because his daughter lives and practises in New York, one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan cities in the world? I guess he would not be so quick to declare a stand without considering that perhaps our society also needs to use its instrument of jurisprudence to work its way towards understanding and establishing diversity as an ethic.
Tolerance and inclusion, I have learned, cannot be imported the same way our culture mindlessly imports shows like Big Brother from western societies. We can only steadily progress towards those ideals through substantial and principled contestations. That way, we will also learn that tolerance is never in isolation of other cultural issues. For instance, you cannot argue the right of one woman to express her religious freedom through hijab and then deny another woman the right to abjure religious values on matters of abortion and body autonomy. The dilemmas of the law are eternal; that is why principles matter.
Principles are also important in these issues so we can shoot down the paternalism of people like the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar III, who equate hijab with female modesty. At an occasion where he was represented by Wazirin of Katsina, Prof. Sanni Abubakar Lugga, the Sultan was quoted as saying that wearing the hijab transcends religion and should be done by “every decent woman…who wants to preserve her chastity in public.” Those who approach the Amasa issue with liberal ideologies need to be on their guard against this manner of fatuous thinking that defines female modesty based on something as mundane as clothing. They must not mistake the strident calls of fanatics for openness as sincere virtues about inclusion, tolerance, and diversity. Those who are playing victims today by yelling “Islamophobia” will be quick to jettison the argument to curtail others’ free expressions when it suits them.
No man, regardless of his religious or political authority, should define female decency; not even when such fallacious conclusions derive from a mindset that takes its moral code from laws given to people who lived in medieval times. We do not define male chastity or decency based on men’s clothes, do we? So, why would any man think it is his place to instruct women on the sartorial choices and preservation of their chastity? Both the Sultan and Lugga, I presume, would consider it unfair if I make a moral judgment on their decency based on the cost of their overflowing agbada relative to the number of children out of school in regions where they live and hold sway. Based on the endemic poverty in his home state, should the Sultan have accepted a N700m house acquired for him in Abuja by the state governor, Aminu Tambuwal, some months ago?
Given that the debate about hijab is one that will not go away, Nigeria needs to come to a definite conclusion once and for all. Personally, I look forward to the Supreme Court deciding this issue not because of the hijab itself but because of the implications of their decisions for social relations and public accommodation. My hunch says that the women who want to wear hijab will win this battle. What they are fighting for – the right to not conform to cultural precepts that exclude their subjective values – is legitimate. Those who are counter-arguing based on their idea of the supremacy of the law forget that no law, religious or constitutional, was ever produced in an ideological vacuum. They were based on the limits of people’s knowledge and bias at every historical moment. That is why they are subject to revisions. Even Saudi Arabia with its extreme conservatism is now recognising that some of their anti-women laws are senseless. They are taking gradual steps to minimise infantilising women so they too can take decisions that affect their lives like other adult females all over the world do, daily.
Finally, I believe that if a woman wants to wear hijab to the law dinner, she should be accommodated. If tomorrow, a follower of a marginal religion like Guru Maharaji wants a touch of red on their dinner outfit because it is an expression of their religious freedom too, the law should once again be revised to accommodate them. Yes, that would lead to a needful debate about tolerance creating anarchy but for now, it is imperative to remind ourselves that there should be nothing like absolute conformity and uniformity in a diverse society. Laws are meant to reflect the character and diversity of the culture and people that practise it. To insist that everybody live to make us comfortable is oppression.