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ANALYSIS: Religious Dressing Increasing Fault Lines In Nigeria’s Education Sector

By Adejumo Kabir

Some Muslim students sent out of school for wearing Hijab on their school uniforms in Kwara. Photo: Vanguard Newspaper.

Nigeria currently has the world’s highest number of out-of-school children. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), at least 10.5 million children are out of school in the country. This estimate means that about a third of children in the country are not in school and a fifth of out-of-school children worldwide are Nigerians.

“Millions of Nigerian children have never set foot in a classroom – and this is a travesty. Perhaps equally tragic is the high number of children who make it into a classroom, but never make the transition from primary school to secondary school – thereby cutting off their chances for a secure future,” UNICEF Representative in Nigeria, Peter Hawkins, stated in January.

While children in Northern Nigeria are affected by displacement, emergencies, or living in near abandonment on urban streets as Almajirai, due to the Boko Haram insurgency and ‘banditry‘, schools in other parts of the country have been embroiled in disputes over whether female Muslim students should be allowed to wear the hijab, the Islamic head covering, as part of their school uniforms in government owned schools. 

Before now, students of public institutions in the Southwest of Nigeria and government-missioned schools in the country have had to adhere strictly to the prescribed school uniforms by the state governments. 

Mission schools are religious schools originally developed and run by Christian missionaries during the colonial era. Government, however, took over the schools during the administration of General Yakubu Gowon in 1975. 

These prescribed uniforms often prohibit the use of hijab or other head coverings. But in recent times, Muslim students in southern Nigeria adopt the use of hijab as part of their uniforms. 

The development has caused a monumental challenge in the Nigerian education sector as Christians and other religious groups rose up to kick against the use of hijab by Muslim students. 

While the affected students often claim that the conventional dress code violates their fundamental right to practice and observe the tenets of their religion, others argue that neutrality in public spaces, especially schools will naturally guarantee religious peace and tolerance across  the nation that already suffers from fault lines.

The controversy surrounding this has, however, in recent years led to violent reactions  in Lagos, Osun, Oyo and Kwara states. It has also been characterised by bloodshed among communities known to have coexisted peacefully and harmoniously in the past. 

Despite reoccurring frictions, rancor and fury due to religious differences, the affected states haven’t achieved much success in finding a solution to the problem.

Bloody crisis in Kwara 

A bloody crisis broke out in early 2021 when 10 government grant-aided Christian Mission Schools in Ilorin, the state capital of Kwara, Southwest Nigeria asked government to reverse its policy on the use of hijab by Muslim female students. 

The schools were C&S College, Sabo-Oke; St. Anthony’s Secondary School, Offa Road; ECWA School, Oja Iya; Surulere Baptist Secondary School, and Bishop Smith Secondary School, Agba Dam.

Students protesting in support of the use of hijab in Kwara State. Photo: Leadership Newspaper.

Amongst them were also CAC Secondary School, Asa Dam road; St. Barnabas Secondary School, Sabo-Oke; St. John School Maraba; St. Williams Secondary School, Taiwo Isale, and St. James Secondary School, Maraba.

The schools believed that the policy by the state government was biased and skewed against the Christian community in the state. They, therefore, in their agitation called for the reversal of the policy, insisted that they will not allow such in mission schools.

After bloody clashes, the government shut the schools and set up a committee to look into the controversy.  It later announced that all public schools should respect the rights of Muslim students to wear the head covering and be reopened for academic activities. It stressed that it will not condone any act of insubordination over the hijab controversy. 

While the dust raised by that crisis was yet to settle, trouble again started on February 3, this year, at Oyun Baptist High School, Ijagbo in Oyun Local Government Area (LGA) of the state after the school turned back some female Muslim students over their refusal to remove their hijab.

The action elicited stern rhetoric between the Muslim society and the leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in the state. The incident later led to the death of Idris Habeeb, and no fewer than 11 people reportedly sustained injuries. The government and police later waded in and shut down the school to avoid more casualties.

The government also constituted a 12-member Inter-Religious Council (IREC) chaired by the Emir of Shonga, Haliru Yahya Ndanusa, to serve as an advisory body to promote religious interaction, understanding and harmony between the two principal faiths in the state. 

Repeated crisis in Oyo

The prolonged crisis rocking the University of Ibadan (UI) International School over the wearing of hijab had witnessed various protests since 2018 as parents of Muslim students at the school accused authorities of harsh treatment of female students demanding to wear hijab.

The crisis led to repeated closure of the school and an unstable academic calendar. It later metamorphosed into litigation as Muslim Parents Forum sued the school, its principal, and Chairman of the secondary school board.

The Oyo State High Court on June 26, 2019, however, struck out the suit on the ground that the petitioners were not supposed to file the case jointly. Four months after, the school also suspended a female Muslim student, Ikhlass Olasubomi Badiru for wearing hijab within the school premises.

As this lingers, parents of affected students leave no one in doubt about their determination to achieve their long-pursued clamour for the use of hijab by all Muslim students wishing to abide by Islamic mode of dressing.

With the refiling of fresh cases before the Oyo State High Court by the Islamic Parents Forum, it is glaring that the crisis in UI International School, Ibadan is far from being over.

Same challenge in Osun and Lagos

There was drama in Osun in 2016 following a court order in a suit filed by Osun State Muslim Community wherein they sued Osun State government to seek a court order to allow female Muslim students enjoy their fundamental rights to use hijab in public schools.

In reaction to this, the state chapter of CAN directed Christian students to feel free to wear all sorts of garments, including choir robes, sultana and clothes of many colors to schools, threatening that the court order would lead to chaos and breakdown of law and order.

Students of Iyun Baptist High School putting on choir robes and sultana in protest against use of hijab by Muslim female students. Photo: Alfred Olufemi/Premium Times.

The traditional worshippers in the state also demanded  that those who believe in the Sango deity come up with dressing that conforms with their beliefs while Yemoja worshippers should do the same.

In Lagos, an appeal court in 2016 overruled the judgment of a lower court that prohibited wearing hijab as part of the school uniform. In an earlier judgment, a Lagos High Court in October 2014, ruled that the ban by government was not discriminatory and was consistent with the secular character of the Nigerian state.

Despite the court judgment, many schools have denied students from wearing hijabs. In one of the cases, five students of Isolo Senior Secondary School were denied entry to the school premises on September 18, 2018 for wearing hijabs. 

What the law says

There is also controversy as to the provisions of the law. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, provides in Section 10 that: “The Government of the Federation or of a state shall not adopt any religion as State Religion” due to the peculiar nature of the Nigerian state being a pluralistic nation with diverse religious and ethnic groups.

The same law says in Section 38 that every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and the freedom to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

As the constitution presents a bit of ambiguity, there seems to be a continuing crisis and various court battles from high court to supreme court.

“There is no two ways to this, people of different religions will feel discriminated against if they see their Muslim colleagues wearing hijab and they cannot. We need to see beyond court judgment or religious bias. We should concentrate more on living together as one. Unity in diversity is what we should preach,” Sunkanmi Azeez, a lawyer said.

Happenings in other countries

At the beginning of January, a dispute pertaining to school uniforms was reported in the Indian state of Karnataka, when some Muslim students of a junior college who wanted to wear hijab to classes were denied entry on the grounds that it was a violation of the college’s uniform policy.

The development triggered a major concern as activists claimed that the ban violates religious freedom. It later metamorphosed into violence as it spread to other schools and colleges across the state, with groups of Hindu students staging counter-protests by demanding to wear saffron scarves.

On Feb. 5, the Karnataka government issued an order stating that uniforms must be worn compulsorily where policies exist and no exception can be made for the wearing of hijab. 

In some cities of Russia, a ban on hijab in schools or colleges was imposed in 2012 and it developed into a crisis. The matter was taken to court on which it was upheld.

In 2011, the French government also completely banned the wearing of hijab in schools. Apart from these, it is also generating controversy in Syria, Belgium and Netherland. 

Need for alternative disputes resolution

Since the law and court decisions are difficult to help resolve the religious crisis rocking Nigeria’s education sector, it appears alternative disputes resolution channels would help, religious leaders told HumAngle.  

This was evident in 2017 after a Muslim female law graduate, Amasa Firdaus, was denied the prestigious honour of being called to the Nigerian bar for refusing to remove her hijab at the venue of the ceremony.

Firdaus did not go to court to seek redress against the Nigerian Law School, instead stakeholders waded in to reach an amicable settlement and she was eventually called to bar on 10 July 2018.

“The matter would have dragged on longer and triggered religious tension if the matter was not settled amicably. Exploring alternative dispute resolution for the crisis would go a long way to reduce tension,” Azeez added. 

A cleric of Christ Apostolic Church in Oyo, Biyi Samuel also said “Christianity preaches that we should love our enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those  who mistreat us. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him also the other. This is simply dispute resolution and it is the same in the Quran.”

Lukmon Rabiu, an Islamic scholar and lecturer in Clearpath Islamic Academy added that “Prophet Mohammed said the believers are but a single brotherhood, so make peace and reconciliation between two (contending) brothers; and fear Allah, that ye may receive mercy. This is simply an alternative to litigation in the settlement of religious disputes.”

The governments are, however, advised to set up an interreligious regulatory body to educate religious leaders on the values of religious tolerance. In the end religious tolerance and harmonious coexistence is in the interest of de-escalating rising tensions across the country.

This reporting was supported with a grant from ICFJ in conjunction with Code for Africa.

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