Curious ISI’s hijab controversy


The ongoing crisis at the International School Ibadan (ISI) over the wearing of hijab by Muslim girls of the secondary school located in the University of Ibadan is needless and misguided. It is a dangerous misadventure that does not warrant the energy, time and emotion dissipated over it, given its far-reaching consequences.

Just as it was a few years ago in Osun State, when a similar problem incited students to an uncontrolled state of juvenile rascality, if the crisis is not immediately contained, it may escalate to religious violence and political instability in the state and its environs. Apart from being a test of the civility and liberal atmosphere expected in a secular university environment, it also provides an opportunity for all the parties to be educated about the legality, morality and cultural prospects of religious observances and practices.

According to a report about the crisis, a forum of Muslim parents, who had been clamouring for the use of hijab by female Muslim pupils had clashed with university students, causing the University of Ibadan administration to close the school. Whilst the forum had argued that depriving female Muslim students from using the hijab as part of the school uniform was a denial of their Muslim identity, the ISI management had responded by stating that ISI is a private, secular school, whose dress code, as stipulated in the school’s rules and regulation, does not accommodate the use of hijab. In the reckoning of the ISI management, by this clamour for the use of hijab, the Muslim parents’ forum attempted to breach the rules and regulations of the school. With no one shifting fences, the tension seems to be a recipe for disorder.

This is not the first time controversy has erupted over school uniforms. A few years ago in Osun State, the lofty educational ideas of Governor Rauf Aregbesola were tainted by school uniform controversy, when students, reacting to hijab-wearing students contravening the uniform dress code, stormed their schools in a motley of outlandish attires depicting their religious affiliations. Just like the International School, Ibadan, the hijab issue also sparked up in the International School, University of Lagos years ago, but was judiciously addressed and prevented from escalating to a burning controversy like ISI’s.

Although many watchers of the event lament the mind-bending technique and instrumentalisation of religious rights through the hijab controversy, the right of the female Muslim student to wear the hijab is a constitutional right granted by Section 38 (1) of the Constitution which states that: “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.”

However, it needs to be stressed that originally the hijab was not a religious attire but a mode of dressing of a given people, who for climate reasons and cultural identity adopted that mode of dressing for their girls and women. It did not matter whether the users were Christians or Muslims, for it was a symbol of modesty and feminine charm, and later on became a symbol of religious identity. With the rise of misguided radicalism in certain Muslim quarters, the use of hijab became an instrumentalised religious right for social mobilisation of Muslims for economic and political power. Indeed, the Constitution grants adherents the right to such freedom, which is not absolute in any case.

Notwithstanding, when it comes to the use of the hijab as a component of the school uniform of students in a secular, private schools like ISI, there is need for common sense and some level of public decency to prevail in order to avert disorder, threat to public peace that may arise from the clash of rights. Which is why both parties should also be guided by the provision of Section 45(1) of the Constitution which states: “Nothing in sections 37, 38, 39, 40 and 41 of this Constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society (a) in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or (b) for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom or other persons.”

As this newspaper counselled a few years ago, the hijab, as instrumentalised today and as the Muslim parents’ forum wants the public to believe is a dress code for religious identity. If that is the case, its purpose is different from that of the school uniform. While the hijab tells a beholder that the one vested in such attire is a Muslim, the school uniform identifies the wearer as one who belongs to this or that school. It does not tell whether the wearer is a Christian or a Muslim; and it need not do that, because the basis for association does not rest on any religious affiliation, but on the fact that one belongs to that school. Thus, if one must invoke the religious injunction on sartorial affairs, one must do that within the religious universe of the community that mandates such social comportment.

Beyond the purpose of identity, the school uniform suggests discipline and conformity. By its use, students learn the values of loyalty, comradeship and esprit de corps amongst those with whom the school attire is identified. Thus, as the term suggests, the school uniform is a symbol of uniformity.

To this end, the aggrieved parents of ISI would do well to discourage any fleeting and impulsive reaction associated with enthusiasts and activists who instrumentalise religion for mundane glory. They should reflectively ask the question: what value does the hijab identity offer to the wearer beyond a Muslim dress code for girls in a private, secular institution? If the dress code in itself possesses any religious, spiritual value beyond the observance and practice of the faith, why are the male students not instructed to do same? What would suffer if the hijab is not worn by female students in this time and age? Is it the dressing that defines the spirituality and moral life of the student? Does the girl become less of a Muslim, beyond the sartorial insignia, if she does not wear the hijab to a school that is statutorily shared by children of other religions? Does her not wearing the hijab to a secular school undermine her integrity as a true faithful?

For those who use the hijab to court trouble for the establishment and institutions of governance, it is very sad that this ugly situation subsists with the backing of people who ought to know when and how to dissuade bigots and religious instrumentalists from dragging our society into the cesspool of that growing global irrationality known as religious bigotry and terrorism.

In an age when middle class families the world over are getting better enlightened about the evils of terrorism and dangerous instrumentalisation of religion by extremist Christians and Muslims, and are making efforts to curb such evil and build a world of peace around common human values, it is indeed appalling that certain quarters would fan the embers of dissent, hatred and intolerance in an already volatile environment.

It is also a shame that the community that gave this country its first university could descend to such infamy with advertised effrontery like garage motor-park touts spoiling for a fight. Whilst we are aware that there are influential global personalities and institutions desirous of investing in religious crisis and intolerance, Nigerians should be wise enough not to heed to the misanthropic tendencies of these mischief makers. What should bother the minds of Nigerians is how they can harness their differences to make the country stronger and better.

The parents and guardians of ISI students should emulate the civility displayed by these institutions in addressing the issue with some modicum of common sense, and help inculcate the values of tolerance, fellow-feeling and peaceful co-existence in the students.

As we had stated in our comment when the same controversy was rife in Osun state, the ugly scenario being played out by the same hijab palaver is that children have unknowingly become the helpless puppets of the intemperance of some adult community in the University of Ibadan. “Children, who at once were feted as the beneficiaries of an ambitious legacy, were at the same time being initiated into the ignoble class of social miscreants.” This is a shame!

In agreement with the Section 45 of the Constitution as earlier cited, this newspaper wishes to state that anything that violates uniformity in a learning environment should be thrashed.

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