Hijab And The Bar, By M.B.O Owolowo

In reality, it is the Law School that has imposed its intolerance on some Muslim women for decades – the paradox for a noble profession meant to uphold the law and custodianship of human rights.

A law student in Nigeria, Firdaus Amasa Abdulsalam fulfilled all academic requirements to practice the legal profession but was barred from the call to bar ceremony by the Law School’s Body of Benchers in Abuja on December 12, 2017. The reason for her being barred was because she wore, along with her professional habiliments, her hijab neatly tucked under the barristers’ wig.

Apparently, there’s another case that is not yet as publicised as that of Firdaus. Another graduating law student, Aisha Zubair was harassed at the same call to bar ceremony – she was not only forced to remove her hijab but had it trampled on, and had her certificate seized by obviously uncouth Law School personnel.

Since the show of shame occurred, there have been arguments for and against the matter. The matter has taken a polemical life of its own and sides have been taken – some disappointingly extreme at that!

Personally, I find it appalling that the wearing of hijab by a professional is being debated in this day and age – 2017! Some of my friends and colleagues in the West are quite shocked by the development and wonder when Nigeria will get on with the times. Considering that the Western world has adopted the hijab in almost every professional sphere, it is rather peculiar that the Nigerian Law School has chosen to be the antithesis of modernity.

In the legal profession, the international community has embraced diversity, but locally some of the advocates are hinged on colonialist traditions imposed upon subject colonies. Ironically, the West has, to a large extent, abandoned the donning of the barristers’ wigs in court and generally accepted the wearing of hijab by female Muslim lawyers.

For instance, a US Judge, Carolyn Walker-Diallo was sworn in with a Quran in New York and she donned her head-dress proudly. So it is rather strange that oaths can be taken by Muslim lawyers with a Quran, but female Muslims cannot wear their hijab to a call to bar ceremony in Nigeria. A quagmire has emanated from an inherent loophole – an avoidable contretemps nonetheless.

The president of the Nigerian Bar Association, A.B Mahmoud stated that the association would embrace diversity and tolerance, and address the matter. He further shared a picture of his daughter wearing the hijab during her call to the New York Bar.

The situation can simply be rectified by the country’s legal institutions deliberating on the matter and seeking redress to an anomaly that has tainted the Nigerian Law School since its creation in 1963. This is an obvious contradiction that needn’t exist.

Surely, a suggested dress code convention and many other inherited colonial practices ought to have evolved with the times.

A few arguments have been raised against the hijab, and I cannot overemphasise the otiosity of some of these arguments, but for the purpose of fairness, these arguments must be addressed. I have identified seven arguments that address the issue:

(1) Imposition; (2) Comply and Complain; (3) Temporary Inconvenience; (4) Other Religious Requests; (5) Foreign Culture; (6) State Secularity, and (7) Legality and Constitution.

1. Imposition

I posit that the hijab is not an imposition if the wearer has not imposed it on anyone else. I wonder how a piece of cloth on someone’s head threatens the existence of others.

In reality, it is the Law School that has imposed its intolerance on some Muslim women for decades – the paradox for a noble profession meant to uphold the law and custodianship of human rights.

Some of the Muslim women who previously fell to the sword of the Law School’s unconstitutional imposition have started feeling oppressed and naked without their hijabs, but they admitted to not being courageous enough to challenge the injustice meted out to them for various personal reasons.

The stance of Firdaus that fateful day has brought to the fore the sufferings of many women and would hopefully bring an end to this modern day absurdity.

Women who have freely chosen to wear the hijab state, unequivocally, that they feel liberated in it and anything contrary to wearing the hijab is humiliation – that is their choice and people must learn to respect this choice. So it is quite ludicrous to speak on behalf of people who wear the hijab without their reasoning or opinion.

2. Comply and Complain

Some have argued that Firdaus should have ‘obeyed before complaint’.

For the sake of argument, assuming that Firdaus obeyed, what will be the basis of her complaint? She will be accused of hypocrisy. Some of those castigating her bold stance would be the first to label her a fake activist or attention seeker. Firdaus would probably have been accused of insincerity; that if she was genuine she should have protested by not obeying the dress code convention.

At times, civil disobedience might be the most effective mechanism to address a social injustice and effect change.

On civil disobedience, Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated:

“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

In this regard, if a law is unjust, discriminatory and violates human rights, should such a law be obeyed? In the case of Firdaus, it is a dress code convention, that she and others consider discriminatory, that has been disobeyed and not a law.

Evidently, some people are more courageous than others, whilst some may withstand oppression and discrimination, others will definitely not.

In terms of the Rosa Parks analogy: On a fateful day of December 1, 1955 in Montgomery Alabama, Rosa Parks decided to disobey an unjust law by initiating a protest against segregation.

Before that day, many people had complied with the unjust law.

Some people argued that the use of hijab in a professional setting would lead to a floodgate of requests for the use of other religious regalia in a professional setting. There is a fundamental point which those pursuing this puerile argument are missing. There’s an explicit scriptural religious injunction backing the etiquettes of public appearance the hijab wearer has chosen to adopt.

However, it must be emphasised that there are those who the unjust law did not affect; to those the law didn’t discriminate against, it was not an unjust law.

Rosa Park’s singular act of rebellion against an unjust law emancipated many affected people. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a 13-month mass protest between December 5, 1955 and December 20, 1956 that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional.

Rosa Parks, by her own admission, was a ‘rebellious’ lady and Malcolm X was one of those she was inspired by. Malcolm X once stated that:

“A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything”

If Rosa Parks had obeyed an unjust law that was discriminatory towards her and other affected people, the injustice would have persisted.

Study history and you will find exceptional individuals who challenged the status quo: those who chose to fight a selfless battle that would benefit others in the future. The world celebrates and benefits from the struggles and sacrifices of such people today.

I celebrate Firdaus for being courageous enough to sacrifice her being called to bar to initiate a debate about an injustice and human rights infringement that has been perpetrated against those who choose to practice their faith and the ambit of the legal profession.

Ask yourself, what you have done with your life, what cause have you stood for and what will you be remembered for after you are gone!

3. Temporary Inconvenience

Some have argued that it is only a temporary inconvenience – which it is just a few hours! The hijab wearer practically feels naked without her hijab! So would those proposing she takes off her hijab for a few hours be willing to go be naked for a few hours as well? Will such people, with any decency, walk around naked for a few hours or even allow themselves be photographed in the nude for just a few hours?

Modesty is relative and we must respect the modesty of others. It’s a free world after all! I posit a critical advancement in human history is the evolution from the primitivity of nakedness to the civilisation of being clothed.

If certain people want to regress to the era of ‘uncivilisation’ by practically being ‘naked’, ironically in the name of ‘civilisation’, then there shouldn’t be a problem with those who choose to express their interpretation of civilisation as wearing a scarf on their head. We should learn to be more tolerant – live and let live!

From the Muslim’s perspective, Islam is a complete religion – complete in every sense of the word, with guidelines on how to live every aspect of life. One of those aspects is the etiquette of public appearances, which some Muslim women have chosen to abide by in their daily lives. The scriptural injunction states:

“And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment. And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, O believers, that you might succeed.” – Quran 24:31

It must be emphasised that Islam allows individuals the choice of living by these guidelines or not, because there is no compulsion in religion.

“There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error. And he who rejecteth false deities and believeth in Allah hath grasped a firm handhold which will never break. Allah is Hearer, Knower.” – Quran 2:256

However, for those who women have chosen to follow Islam and use the hijab, it is a dressing etiquette for public appearances.

4. Other Religious Requests

Some people argued that the use of hijab in a professional setting would lead to a floodgate of requests for the use of other religious regalia in a professional setting. There is a fundamental point which those pursuing this puerile argument are missing. There’s an explicit scriptural religious injunction backing the etiquettes of public appearance the hijab wearer has chosen to adopt. Furthermore the hijab is protected under the law and has triumphed in court on numerous occasions.

To the best of my knowledge, the adherents of other religions clearly do not fulfil these same conditions. However, although other religions may not have such an explicit scriptural religious injunction on the etiquettes of public appearances, the adherents are within their rights to legally pursue and logically prove the cardinal requirement of their religious regalia for daily public appearances in a court of law.

In addition, except the adherents of any faith are ‘men of the cloth’, there’s no requirement to always don religious regalia publicly. For the everyday people, such religious regalia, if any, are usually worn occasionally.

Actually, the donning of religious regalia daily could create other societal problems because such an exhibition in any milieu may warrant a critical examination of the exhibitor’s mental faculties.

Notwithstanding, if others feel that strongly about donning their religious regalia daily, the courts are open for such cases. The hijab has already taken the initiative and had its days in court, and won. Various court cases have deliberated on and favoured the hijab in a professional setting across the globe.

For example, female lawyers who have chosen to express themselves within their rights to wear hijab are called to bar and allowed to practice law in US, UK, Canada and many other countries. So it’s really not a big deal!

In view of this, it is irrational and unfair to castigate or denigrate anyone courageous enough to fight for their rights. When dealing with matters of rights, consistency is paramount. Laws were made to protect rights and are subject to review as the world evolves. In this instance, a lady has put her call to bar on the line to address an ongoing issue of rights infringement, which is backed by the constitution.

Firdaus has acted within the ambit of the law and has not broken any known law; rather she is only challenging a pertinent rights infringement issue.

The hijab may not be important to others but very important to some, so we must respect that. As a similitude, the Sikhs wear their turbans (Daastar) everywhere, and have, in some instances, legally fought for their rights and won in court. So Sikhs who studied law are allowed to be called to bar donning their Daastar proudly.

The world has seen the hijab conform to most professional uniforms – the armed forces, police, and pilots. Even the sports industry has embraced diversity. For example, the world’s top sports brand, Nike, pioneered the sports hijab, with its Nike Pro Hijab range. Also, Mattel, the Barbie manufacturer launched its hijab doll, which was inspired by the US Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad.

5. Foreign Culture

Some have argued that the hijab is foreign and is an adopted culture. The foreign culture or tradition argument is as old as time. I am certain every reformer in history was confronted with this position. Ironically, even the last Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (PBUH) was accused by his fellow Arabs of going against their ancestors, culture and established traditions with his preaching of One God.

For the sake of argument, the hijab is just a piece of cloth and its meaning is covering, which is often worn on the head. The hijab can be made from any material and combined with any outfit across all cultures. The material that piece of cloth is made from varies across world cultures and is subject to interpretation.

I have seen women don their gelé in Nigeria and certain hats in the West as interpretations of head covering.

I posit that a probable reason why the scarf (hijab) is so popular is because of its practicality. The scarf, regardless of one’s cultural background, is convenient and easily adaptable to any outfit, especially in a professional setting.

The world has seen the hijab conform to most professional uniforms – the armed forces, police, and pilots. Even the sports industry has embraced diversity. For example, the world’s top sports brand, Nike, pioneered the sports hijab, with its Nike Pro Hijab range. Also, Mattel, the Barbie manufacturer launched its hijab doll, which was inspired by the US Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad.

The hijab and Muslim fashion industry is a multibillion dollar enterprise. According to a 2015 Thomson Reuters report, consumers spent about $266 billion on clothing in 2013 and are projected to spend $484 billion by 2019.

As a sociologist I will extrapolate that the world has adopted a lot of things globally and the hijab is just one of those things. In anthropological terms, the adoption of the hijab can be appreciated as acculturation. Even concepts of cultural appropriation or misappropriation are forms of adoption. It is rather simplistic to equate the prominence of global integration and the coalescence of cultures to the deliberate desecration of autochthonic ethos.

Historically, from the African context, the use of head covering is not exactly a foreign tradition. Also from a religious viewpoint, in Christianity, there are certain verses in the Bible that mention the covering of hair within specific contexts:

In 1 Corinthians 11:5-6: “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head — it is the same as having her head shaved.”

Also: “For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.”

Generally people are influenced by socio-cultural and socio-religious factors.

So why all the fuss? Why not embrace diversity and promote peaceful coexistence?

For instance, there are many things the world adopted from the Muslim world that are still benefitting humanity. The Arabic numerals, algebra and algorithms have especially assisted humanity in the area of technology, particularly computing.

The etymology of algorithm is another good example of a foreign adoption, because it is named after its Muslim inventor, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. Algorithm is actually a combination of the Latin word ‘Algorismus’, named after Al-Khwarizmi, and the Greek word ‘Arithmos’, which means ‘Number’.

Among other adoptions, the West will be particularly grateful to the Muslim Moors of Africa who introduced Europe to innovative hygiene concepts – soaps and public baths. Although there’s a long list, here are some other items the Muslims introduced to the West, and these include: surgical instruments, cotton, street lamps, salt, silk, pepper, handkerchiefs, perfumes, windmills, and carpets.

Also, there are many English words with Arabic origins that we all use today, a few of which are: alchemy, alcohol, arsenal, cipher, coffee, hazard and zenith.

Interestingly, the etymology of the word ‘average’ transcends the Arabic ‘awāriyya’, Italian ‘Ava ria’ and French ‘Avarie’. Except a person is into linguistics, how many people know or care if its origin is Arabic?! We are more interested in its usage.

The crux of these examples is to highlight that cultures adopt from one another, especially the beneficial aspects. These cultural interdependencies benefit humanity.

6. State Secularity

The Secularism Conundrum!

The word ‘secular’ is not explicitly mentioned in Nigeria’s constitution, neither are any of the word’s derivatives mentioned. The proponents of the secularism argument often quote Section 10 of the constitution.

Chapter 1 Section 10 of the 1999 Constitution of The Federal Republic of Nigeria states that:

“The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.”

In view of this, some people have misinterpreted this section to mean Nigeria is a secular state. Secularism relates to matters of State and dominance of a particular religion and not about curtailing an individual’s rights to practice any religion.

A critical analysis of the term ‘secularism’ is inherently problematic because of the ambiguities associated with its interpretation and practical implementation across the globe, particularly in a multi-religious State.

Contemporarily, secularism suggests the non-religiosity and independency of the state, but does not adequately address the religiosity of individuals that run the state. Surely, their religious inclinations have the potential of influencing certain matters.

Historically, secularism was not explicitly the antithesis of religion. The etymology of the word ‘secular’ shows that it is from the Latin word ‘Saeculum’, which translates as ‘Worldly’ – about the ephemerality of the world.

The ambiguous aspect of the law, which has obviously been abused by the law school, must be addressed by the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA). The law is clear on fundamental human rights and the courts are open to any aggrieved parties.

The relation of secularity to religion emerged around the 18thcentury, during Europe’s ‘Enlightenment’ – when the dichotomy between Church and State was unfolding. A development that can be traced to the abuse of power by Church-backed monarchs, hence the revolt and subsequent reformations. This was a situation primarily exclusive to Christianity and not other religions.

In view of these complexities, secularism can be appreciated as a misnomer – a platitudinal appeasement that somewhat pacifies those threatened by the undue influence of religion in state matters.

A probable reason for Section 10 in Nigeria’s constitution is to attain a religious equipoise and avert any theocratic eventualities that may promote religious dominance and imposition.

However, Section 10 does not affect individual religious freedoms nor does it limit religious association. Sadly some lawyers deliberately and quite mischievously misinterprete the meaning of that Section 10 to buttress a bigoted narrative against the hijab – obviously in futility!

7. Legality and Constitution

The constitution does not limit individual freedoms nor does it deny universally accepted fundamental and inalienable human rights.

According to the 1999 Constitution of The Federal Republic of Nigeria, Chapter 4, Section 38, Subsection (1) states:

“Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

Also, Chapter 1, Section 1, Subsection (1) and (3) respectively state:

“This Constitution is supreme and its provisions shall have binding force on the authorities and persons throughout the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”

“If any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this Constitution, this Constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void.”

Furthermore, Chapter 1, Section 15, Subsection (2) states:

“Accordingly, national integration shall be actively encouraged, whilst discrimination on the grounds of place of origin, sex, religion, status, ethnic or linguistic association or ties shall be prohibited.”

The Nigerian Law School and its dress code convention against the use of hijab are clearly discriminatory and grossly in breach of fundamental human rights.

From the universal fundamental human rights perspective, the use of the hijab is also protected.

Article 18 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 United Nations states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Also, Subsection (1) of Article 26 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 states:

“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”

In addendum, the Preamble ofThe Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 states:

“Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.”

The action of Firdaus can be seen as a ‘recourse’ or ‘last resort’ in response to the oppression faced by a segment of society that the rule of law has evidently failed to protect.

There are numerous cases that have favoured the use of the hijab based on the constitution, so no need citing all cases here. The pith of all recent emanating legal verdicts is to emphasise that the use of the hijab is established legally and a conventional dress code of the Law School cannot supersede the constitution.

The ambiguous aspect of the law, which has obviously been abused by the law school, must be addressed by the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA). The law is clear on fundamental human rights and the courts are open to any aggrieved parties.

The House of Representatives has weighed in on the issue and would specifically deliberate on the human rights violation aspect of the matter.

Hopefully, logic and reason will be employed and the rule of law shall prevail.

M.B.O. Owolowo wrote from the UK; Email: m.b.o.owolowo@gmail.com.

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