By Disu Kamor
April 15, 2014
Not long ago, such important values as tolerance, inclusion, diversity and peaceful co-existence were the pride of Lagosians. Lagos State, once prided as the true melting pot of the nation’s diverse cultures and a bright beckon, took the message and meaning of national cohesion and dialogue of religions to be fundamental to all of us. The two great religions of Christianity and Islam, each preserving its distinct identity, approached and related with each other with respect and dignity. During this period, based on mutual understanding, suspicions were removed from our hearts and we tried to understand and be lenient with the small differences which are assigned amongst the different religions. The glory of such a glowing past has now become obsolete, and in its place is a new reality; a new dawn that is darkened by the posturing and actions of some dark hearts, whose only credo is hate, is upon us. The heritage of such a rich tradition is being destroyed, block by block, by extremist elements and bigots drawing strength and inspiration from a culture of Islamophobia that is festering in our society. A phenomenon that is just reaching its maturity.
As the Muslim community in Lagos State is reeling from the tyranny of the official policy of the Lagos State government to exclude Muslim students in Hijab from the public education system in the state, more Islamophobes are stepping forward to flagrantly manifest their hate and intolerance against female Muslims in Hijab. Three Muslim nurses at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) and National Orthopaedics Hospital, Igbobi hospitals in Lagos State have been prevented from providing the services they are employed to do because certain individuals within the two organisations are not happy with their shoulder length Hijab. In a bizarre twist to the sisters’ ordeal, in the case of the victim at LUTH, she was detained for several hours by the police and the hospital’s security personnel for being on the hospital premises while her ordeal lasted.
The loose cannons at the two hospitals are showing their antipathy against the Hijab, and their pathological hatred for the guts of the sisters to use Hijab at work. Lawal Fasilat Olayinka, Sekinat Sanusi (both of National Orthopaedics Hospital) and Sekinat Folake Abdulfattah (LUTH) have incurred the wrath of these individuals for daring to exercise their rights under the constitution like any other Nigerian. In fact the Nursing and Midwifery Council of Nigeria has already prescribed a standard uniform for all nurses in Nigeria, and its circular, entitled Nurses Uniform, in part specifies that female nurses wear either a Nurse cap or a shoulder length Hijab”. These three sisters have not done anything outside the guidelines of this directive. In actual fact, the work of the Nursing and Midwifery Council of Nigeria might have been unnecessary if employers and hospitals like the LUTH and National Orthopaedics Hospital, Igbobi will do the sensible thing at their own discretion and secure for their staff members the rights that are enshrined in the Nigerian Constitutional- those of freedom of expression of religion and right to personal dignity. The Director of Administration at the National Orthopaedics Hospital simply ordered one of the victims to “obey first and then complain” when confronted with this issue.
Secularism and liberalism are the principles that govern Western democracy. Secularism is usually cited as the major reason why the Muslims must be denied their constitutional rights to freely express their religion, yet it is clear that just like discrimination on the basis of colour is outlawed in Western democracy, so is discrimination on the basis of religion. The Hijab for the Muslims, skullcap for the Jews and turban for the Sikh are all allowed and fully incorporated into the standard police and the armed forces uniforms in both America and the United Kingdom, amongst other secular countries. In fact, the United States has laws protecting women who wear Hijab specifically.
While the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution bar federal and state governments from making laws or rules that prohibit women from practicing the Hijab, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) provides additional protection at the federal level by barring the United States federal government, its agencies and its officials from restricting women’s ability to practice the Hijab. Many states in America have adopted their own versions of the RFRA or interpreted their own state constitutions to provide the same heightened protection. Furthermore, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Act bars government officials from restricting the use of Hijab when they are confined to any institution that receives federal funding. An American civil rights law, the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibits an employer from firing, refusing to hire or disciplining a woman because of religious practice like Hijab. In fact the US’ Equal Employment Opportunity Commission specifically states that refusing to hire or retain a worker because of a concern that customers or co-workers may be “uncomfortable” with Hijab is illegal.
These are just a tip of heaps of laws protecting employees from discrimination, threats and harassment obtained in some secular countries around the world. Sadly, prejudiced individuals in Nigeria who continue to inject the poison of their hate-filled propaganda into the public discourse on this issue would like us to believe that secularism is antithetical to the practice of religion in the public space. As a multi-religious society that Nigeria is, should we not in fact be doing much better that those secular countries? Why is the sight of Hijab or its use at workplace a burden on the organization? Why are the Nigerian law-makers, at both the state and federal levels, unable or unwilling to enact adequate and appropriate laws to protect freedom of religious expression, something that is guaranteed to them in our constitution? Is it that they lack the political will and maturity to do this? Or do they consider it not important enough to warrant their attention?
How can we build a united and prosperous nation if we are willing to accept to live in the muck of religious intolerance that has proven, time and again, to be one of the worst impediments to national cohesion? Why can’t Nigerians be valued at work for their skills and the contents of their character rather than excluded for the use of a piece of cloth on the head? Lawal Fasilat Olayinka, Sekinat Sanusi and Sekinat Folake Abdulfattah are only three of thousands of others that are willing to stand up for what they believe in and speak out against discrimination. All Nigerians of conscience should find their courage and resolve praiseworthy and stand with them as to repel tyranny and discrimination. It will be intolerable if some crackpot bigots post online comments to denounce or disparage the Hijab but for the National Orthopaedics Hospital’s Director of Administration, in the presence of other management staff, to order someone subjected to a discriminatory treatment to “obey first and then complain” is sickening.
It is sickening to know that an employee’s legitimate complaint, however unreasonable it may be considered, can actually be dealt with such crudity and blatant insensitivity. The question that must be asked the Director of Administration is this: will he tell his daughter to strip naked “and then complain later” if a superior officer at work orders her to strip naked? Yet, asking a Muslim woman donning a Hijab to remove it in public for her, not less than asking her to strip naked in public. One would have thought that the Director of Administration would be well equipped to understand and accept that the National Orthopaedics Hospital discriminatory policy cannot supersede citizen’s rights under the constitution even if it is unwilling to comply with the unambiguous directive of the nursing council on nurses’ uniform.
It is important to fully understand the effects of the ills of Islamophobia on the society, and why it is most important that we all see ourselves as stakeholders in building a society that values all its citizens equally. In 1996, the Runnymede Trust established the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, chaired by Professor Gordon Conway, the vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex. The Commission’s report, Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All, was launched in November 1997 by the British Home Secretary, Jack Straw. The Runnymede Report provides a great insight into the phenomenon of Islamophobia, including its principles and objectives. In the report, Islamophobia is defined by the trust as “an outlook or world-view involving an unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims, which results in practices of exclusion and discrimination.” The report goes further to contrast “open” and “closed” views of Islam, stating that the following eight “closed” views should be equated with Islamophobia:
Islam is seen as a monolithic bloc, static and unresponsive to change.
It is seen as separate and “other.” It does not have values in common with other cultures, is not affected by them and does not influence them.
It is seen as inferior to the West. It is seen as barbaric, irrational, primitive, and sexist.
It is seen as violent, aggressive, threatening, supportive of terrorism, and engaged in a clash of civilizations.
It is seen as a political ideology, used for political or military advantage.
Criticisms made of “the West” by Muslims are rejected out of hand.
Hostility towards Islam is used to justify discriminatory practices towards Muslims and exclusion of Muslims from mainstream society.
Anti-Muslim hostility is seen as natural and normal.
Professor Gordon Conway and his colleagues could have written his report based on the experience of Muslims in Nigeria at this moment. Muslim men and women are routinely harassed at every opportunity and ill-treated for no particular crime they have committed. At best the crimes of a very marginal group, operating outside of the fold of Islam, and who is indiscriminate in their terror campaigns, is cited to justify the collective and wide-brush attack against the entire community. Muslim women are told they should show their ears in order to obtain Nigerian passport, the drivers licence and in some more bizarre cases, some have been told to remove the Hijab completely. In many companies and organizations around the country, female Muslims in Hijab are either excluded by senseless policies or forced to remove the Hijab at the workplace.
Not doing this, to the Islamophobes, will imply that the woman “is a trouble maker” or not willing to pay “a reasonable price” to keep her job. Some even go to the extent of producing Muslim women that are not normally donning the Hijab as the cliché and “final proof” that their victims are the “extremists” who need to keep their heads down and conform. They deny these women their rights to their Islamic identity and try to deny them the right to protest against it. None of those in the business of enforcing such a discriminatory policy have had the sense to understand the simple fact, one that has been repeated too many times, that donning the Hijab outside the home is a Quranic injunction, that it is an obligation on all Muslim women at all times and in all places. Nor have they bothered to ask those Muslim women not observing the Hijab to know why they are not observing something that is commanded in their faith. In a twisted logic, the exception is the norm, and those standing strong against discrimination are the “trouble makers” that must be dealt with and silenced.
The Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) and National Orthopaedics Hospital, Igbobi hospitals have shamed themselves by earning the well-deserved labels of a safe haven for bigots and for enforcing a discriminatory policy. Nigerians should be appalled that hospital authorities can stop nurses from providing their services because the nurses wear a shoulder length Hijab, prescribed in the nurses’ council’s directive. It is in our national interest to ensure that all Nigerians are valued equally.
Every conscientious Nigerian and all Nigerians who strives to live in a society that values its citizens equally should praise the single-minded devotion and steadfastness of these latest victims and many thousands like them that are being subjected to tyrannical treatment- simply because they chose to comply with the command of their Creator. For the observant Muslim, God’s commands should not be a matter of argumentation. Knowing that they are from God is enough reason for one to abide by these commands. To show respect for these commands and respect the rights of those who believe in them is at least expected from those who belong to a different belief or those who are not convinced. This is the right path.
To follow the right path requires reason and courage. Reason allows us to go beyond the obvious to discover what is really behind the surface in order to understand. Reason allows us to absolutely and mercilessly reject intolerance wherever it exists- whether it involves us personally or not. We need courage to unlearn tolerance and reject our prejudices- to look inwards and critically examine our values and our claims- to love, when we allow hate to dominate how we relate and deal with others simply because they do not share our belief system. It takes courage to unlearn intolerance. To realize that no one loses with tolerance and that tolerance of other beliefs and ways of life implies no commitment to one’s own faith or beliefs. If we are only passive receivers of opinions, impressions and thoughts, we can manipulate them but cannot see beyond them, and in our false sense of self-righteousness, we lose our God-consciousness. We become losers.
We ought to have learnt from experience that intolerance serves no compelling personal or national interest and that it is a disservice to our collective future. So, to turn a blind eye to the injustice being perpetrated by Islamophobes and anti-Hijab employers running rampant amongst us will only detract from who and what we are, not add value to it.
Of course, certain things never change, and the naked aggression of those bent on making the path of practicing Islam in Nigeria inconvenient must not be left simply to our appeals to their conscience. The government has the duty to ensure that all Nigerians enjoy equal protection under the law in the practice of their religions. What we need at this time is the political sagacity and courage to enact appropriate laws to secure those rights enshrined in our constitution are secured by Nigerians. The Nigerian Constitution already provides the right to freedom of religious expression, and many court judgments, up to the Supreme Court, have sided with the Muslims in the many cases brought before them involving the use of Hijab (perhaps this is the main reason why the Lagos State government has ceaselessly pleaded for case adjournment in its case with the Muslim Student Society on the use of Hijab by students in public schools in Lagos State)
While the Nigerian Muslim community is appalled by the ceaseless attack on Muslims in Hijab by governments and employers, we are united in our resolve and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these courageous sisters and many like them that are engaged in the struggle to make the free choice to use the hijab and to live in a society that respect their choice.