May your tenures be peaceful and fruitful. I am writing this letter to you in pursuit of dialogue, an essential ingredient of peaceful coexistence. I am motivated by my passion for peaceful coexistence. I urge the close aides of the incoming governors of Yorubaland to bring this message to their notice if they do not read it by themselves.
I know that governance is a very difficult task and these gentlemen work round the clock. They may not notice this article coming from an inconsequential classroom teacher. But I am aware that the crop of governors we now have in this region are God-fearing. What they need is information and sound reasoning from whoever has a case.
I hereby put the case of Muslims of this region before Your Excellencies. Yorubaland has stood out for its ‘tolerance’ and ‘mutual co-existence’. Christians, Muslims and traditionalists live peacefully among themselves. There has never been any serious breach of the peace arising from religious misunderstanding. My prayer is that this situation should subsist. Yet the signals coming from certain recent incidents in the region are symptomatic of the existence of a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads and something needs to be done urgently to arrest the situation before extremists from outside capitalize on it to foment trouble.
I am referring to the ongoing debate on the use of hijab by female Muslim students in public schools. This imbroglio may escalate if not properly handled. Already, Muslims in the region are alleging Islamophobia on the part of school administrators. When leaving home, Muslim parents train their female children to use hijab on top of the school uniform and to remove them only at the school gate. The children are expected to put on their hijab once they are on their way back home.
Unfortunately school administrators appear to have been high-handed in their reactions to the hijab saga. In an obviously overzealous move, the school principals instructed teachers to beat up students who wear the hijab outside the school premises. Anxious to out-Herod Herod, the teachers have been carrying out this Draconian order. The result has been near-catastrophic as clashes have been reported in Surulere, Lagos Island, Agege, and as far away as Iwo in Oshun State.
Astounded at the sight of ‘strangers’ bullying their children on the streets and in public buses, parents have pounced on some of the teachers. I personally intervened to stop a planned demonstration of Muslim parents in Ajangbadi area of Lagos about two years ago. I advised them to write the school authorities instead.
The hijab episode in Iwo snowballed into open demonstration by Muslim parents, school children and many Islamic organizations. It took the skilled diplomacy and personal involvement of the state governor to douse tensions. Yet the last may not have been heard of these unpleasant incidents. What is interesting here is the insistence of Christian leaders that Muslim children should not be allowed to wear hijab.
Such a development compels an historical analysis. Today was born from the wombs of yesterday. If we do not know where we are going, at least we should know where we came from. Islam arrived in Nigeria in 1085 and had penetrated most parts of Yorubaland by the 17th century, about two hundred years before the advent of British colonialists. Though Muslims in Yorubaland were already accustomed to doing things the Islamic way, the colonialists forcefully reversed this trend.
Your Excellencies, permit me to assert that the school uniform which is in use in public schools in the South-West today is one of the legacies of the British. What the Muslims are saying today is that fifty-five years after independence, they are still being compelled to wear Christian colonialist school uniforms. It is high time we sat down to discuss what type of uniform we want. That is what is done in civilized societies. It is alright if the uniform suits Muslim norms but the reverse is the case.
Muslims regard colonialist uniform as an assault on moral decency, particularly on female students. Puritanists in the campaign for decent dressing camp find it contradictory that our society retains a uniform fit only for night clubs while at the same time we claim to be fighting HIV and AIDS, early pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, etc.
Democracy thrives where the method is participatory, not exclusive. The Muslims in the South-West are saying they have never been allowed to make their choice since independence. The present school uniform was designed by the British colonialists. The designers were Christians. They did not consider the values of the Muslims while introducing the design. Now that they have been gone for fifty-five years and the Muslims are asking for a uniform which respects their value system, why don’t we listen to them?
It is natural and quite understandable that Christians in the South-West are comfortable with the uniform designed by the Christian colonialists. But there is a moral question where they pressure government not to accede to the demand of Muslims for a design that suits Islam. Peaceful coexistence flourishes where people live and let live, where people wish for themselves what they wish for others, where no group enslaves the other, where there is mutual respect.
What is in a school uniform? Muslims strongly suspect that a cut-throat game of numbers lies behind the opposition of Christians to Muslim demand for use of hijab in schools. This needs explanation. People know how important it is to ‘catch them young’. If children are trained to do something they are likely to stick to it in future. The reverse is the case if they are robbed of the opportunity to do certain things in childhood. They are most likely to drift to other things they are used to.
Simply put: if Muslim children are allowed to use hijab they will remain devoted Muslims whereas if they are disallowed they become easy targets for another religion. In essence, Muslim children are being rendered useless for their parents by denying them the use of hijab. The result is a clash of cultures in Muslim homes. Muslim parents cannot convince their children to use hijab after their long stay in school without it. You can only bend a sapling, you cannot bend a tree.
Christian opposition in this regard is therefore a strategy to debilitate Muslim population in the region at the expense of Christianity. But should state governments allow the use of state machinery and funds to promote such a parochial agenda? Can this foster peace?
We want to continue living in peace with our Christian neighbours. We want to do everything in our power to banish religious violence from the region. We want to banish Boko Haram propensities from Yorubaland but we need the political will of Your Excellencies: the will to ensure that the dividends of democracy are extended to Muslims in the region. The right to use hijab with school uniform is part of our dividend of democracy. Section 38 (i) and (ii) of the 1979 constitution guarantees religious freedom, including the ‘right to manifest’ that freedom. That is why all except one of the court cases involving this hijab palaver have ended in favour of Muslim litigants.
The only negative court decision regarding hijab occurred in Lagos. In this regard, I want to advise Lagos Muslims who have appealed the case to withdraw it in order to allow a political settlement. Thereafter, Akinwumi Ambode can set the machinery in motion for dialogue with Lagos Muslims. A circular similar to the ones issued in Ekiti under Governor Fayemi and in Oyo under Governor Ajimobi can emanate from Alausa to settle the controversy once and for all. If Lagos Muslims were docile under a Muslim governor, they are not likely to remain so under Ambode, a Christian governor.
The incoming governors of Lagos and Ogun must ponder seriously over the hijab issue because theirs are the only two Yoruba states yet to allow Muslim children to use hijab. If Muslim pupils in Ekiti, Oyo and Oshun are allowed to use hijab on their school uniforms, I do not see what excuse Lagos and Ogun states have to deprive Muslim children in their states of this great dividend of democracy.
If it is true that ‘Change’ is the ideology-loaded slogan of the ruling party in Lagos and Ogun, that ‘change’ must be allowed to manifest in the lives of Muslims in the region. We demand freedom from religious persecution. The policy in government schools in Lagos and Ogun must no longer be seen to be anti-Muslim.
‘Change’ must also imply liberty from religious oppression. We reject a system which subjects Muslim children to Christian domination using the instrumentality of government schools. Those schools are funded with the tax payers’ money and all of us (Christians, Muslims and others) are tax payers.
Is it not curious that female Muslim students use hijab in public schools in the North? Is it not the same Nigeria? How can Muslims be denied this right under the wrongful notion that Nigeria is a secular nation? If it is so, why are they using hijab in Northern public schools? Does Nigeria possess two different constitutions? The fact is that Nigeria is not a secular state. It is a multi-religious state. A secular state is one that does not recognize religion. But that is not rue about Nigeria. This is a country deeply in love with religion.
Why is it that all private schools established by Muslims in the South-West also use the hijab? It proves without any iota of doubt that this is what the Muslims want. The Muslims will fully support Christians in their choice of what they want as design of their own uniform. If they are satisfied with the status quo, they should, in the interest of peace, equal right and justice, hold their peace and allow the Muslims to have what they want.
For the avoidance of doubt, the ideal school uniform of a female Muslim student is a three-piece affair: a loose gown reaching below the knees, a trouser underneath that matches the uniform’s colour and a hijab on top of the head. This is the type of uniform used in public schools in the North.
Nonetheless, this is not a campaign that can be forced down anybody’s throat via violent protests or by attacking one another. I therefore urge Muslim parents and the youths to remain calm and law-abiding. Let us wait for our governors. We cannot afford to destroy properties belonging to our relations and neighbours all in the name of religion. That will be a disservice to the cause of Allah.
Professor Is-haq Akintola,
Lagos State University,
P.O. Box 10211,
LASU Post Office,
HO 102 101,