Protests and scuffles over the use of the Islamic veil by Muslim schoolgirls have recently been sweeping across Nigeria. The hijab crisis, as it is called, has led to the disruption of educational activities, litigations in courts, and a simmering religious tension in Southwest Nigeria.
In Osun state, the crisis took a very dramatic turn. Muslim families insisted that their girls who attended state, not private, schools must wear the hijab and the local government obliged. In reaction, children from non-Muslim families came to school the following day in their various religious costumes. In Lagos, the government is challenging at the Supreme Court an appeal court ruling that allowed Muslim girls to wear hijab in schools.
Oyo state is now the latest front in the campaign for the hijabisation of the educational system. The international school at the nation’s premier university in Ibadan was closed down after some Muslim parents insisted that their girls must wear hijab as part of the school uniform. The case is now before a state court in Ibadan.
The hijab controversy is not new to Oyo state. In early 2000, school activities were disrupted following the agitation for the use of the Islamic veil in state schools. The crisis lingered for a while but later petered out. Of course, there was the case at the law school in Abuja where a student refused to remove her hijab during the call to the Bar. She was not allowed to perform the ceremony. But the Law school later approved the use of hijab and issued her a certificate.
In this piece, I argue that the hijab controversy is part of a broad campaign to enthrone Islamic privilege in postcolonial Nigeria. First, let’s provide some background to this development. At independence, Nigeria was a nation that was divided along religious lines-Islam was the dominant religion in northern Nigeria, and Christianity was the main religion in the South. The 1804 Jihad of Sheikh Uthman dan Fodio made Islam a dominant faith while the activities of western missionaries established Christianity in the South. Since independence, the Islamic and Christian establishments have been pitched in a battle for the control and domination of the Nigerian state.
This is primarily because colonialism was seen to have privileged Christianity. The state was largely perceived as Christian and western. The Islamic establishment treats the ‘state’ with suspicion and mistrust unless in situations where it is qualified as Islamic. Muslim ideologues believe that the project of statecraft was rigged against Islam, and to deny Islam the privileges that it had long enjoyed.
So, the post-colonial Nigeria has been characterised by a fierce and sometimes, vicious battle and competition for religious influence and control. And sections of the country such the central and Southwest Nigeria, where the two faiths do not command an absolute majority have been fierce battlegrounds. In an attempt to reassert Islamic privilege in postcolonial Nigeria, the Islamic establishment has used two main strategies. They are the majoritarian and human rights strategies. How do these strategies work?
In parts of Nigeria where Muslims are dominant, the Islamic establishment employs the majoritarian device to secure a special treatment Islam and for Muslims. They insist that the state and society be organised on the basis of Islamic norms because Muslims are in the majority; they outnumber those who belong to other religions. For instance, in the Muslim majority states of Northern Nigeria, the Islamic authorities have imposed sharia law, established sharia courts and police, forcing non-muslims to live according to the law and dictates of Islam. During the Sharia crisis in the early 2000s, Muslim authorities claimed that sharia law would apply only to Muslims. But that did not happen. Today, sharia is applied to everyone, both Muslims and non muslims alike. In line with their majoritarian strategy, the Islamic authorities capitalise on their number to get everyone to abide by Islamic norms while ignoring that this approach infringes on the rights of non-muslims.
In parts of the country where the Muslim population is a minority or not as significant, the strategy is different. The establishment uses the human rights mechanism to realise a special treatment for Muslims and Islam. It portrays Muslims as victims of human rights abuses and persecutions, and Islam as an endangered religion. For instance, in Lagos, Oyo and Osun states, Muslim authorities have argued that refusing the use of hijab in state schools constitutes a violation of human rights. They have made a similar case in their agitation for the construction of mosques in Cross River and other states in southern Nigeria. Islamic authorities use litigations to secure special status for Muslims. Actually, they take the cases to state courts where Muslim judges constitute the majority and are compelled either by personal faith or religious pressure to rule in favour of the Islamic establishment.
With their majoritarian and human rights strategies, the Islamic authorities are seeking to establish or re-establish Islamic privilege across the country and to get all Muslims in various parts of the nation, whether they are in the majority or in the minority, to enjoy rights and advantages which people of other faiths or none in the country do not possess. It is evident that in the campaign for the hijabization of the school system, the Islamic establishment is overstepping its boundaries. It determines what happens in private Islamic schools, and in the sharia state schools including what students of all faiths and none wear as the school uniform. The ‘state’ does not dictate what the students wear as the uniform in Islamic private schools. Other religious establishments do not have a say regarding what their children wear in the sharia state schools.
If the ‘state’ or other religious establishments do not decide what their children wear in Islamic or sharia state schools, why should the Islamic authorities want to dictate what Muslim school girls wear as the uniform? If the Islamic authorities are allowed to decide what their children wear in state or non-muslim private schools such as the International School in Ibadan, then other non-muslim religious establishments should also decide what their own children wear, including parents whose children are attending schools in sharia-implementing states in northern Nigeria. If Muslim girls are allowed to wear the Islamic veil as part of their uniform, then other children should also wear their religious veils and symbols as part of their school uniform. Anything short of this is patent discrimination and a slippery slope into anarchy, chaos and confusion in schools. The stubborn refusal by the Islamic authorities to understand the destabilising potentials of their hijab campaign is quite disturbing. Their unwillingness to accept that what applies to Muslim school girls equally applies to all school children drips with fanaticism.
So the Islamic establishment is vigorously campaigning to undo the secular character of the Nigerian state. Hijab has become the latest symbol of Islamic assertiveness in postcolonial Nigeria. Nigerian authorities must carefully monitor the campaign for the use of hijab in state schools and take urgent measures to resist, contain or counteract, as the case may be, the enthronement of Islamic privilege before this jihadist initiative spirals out of control.