By Leo Igwe
02 Jan 2019
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 especially
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 state 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
In parts of Nigeria where Muslims are
dominant, the Islamic establishment employs the majoritarian device to secure a
special treatment for 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 the fact 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
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. Nig