It’s no longer news that the State of the Livingspring in Southwest Nigeria was harboring a time bomb that could explode into a full scale religious crisis anytime soon. And it’s no news again that it was the State Governor, Mr. Rauf Aregbesola, that set the bomb. When we’re supposed to be celebrating economic and development milestones in the state, we’re observing the hijab crisis in our public schools. There are reports that calm is returning to the state and we hope things keep improving but we still need to talk about this.
For those who aren’t aware yet, let me bring you up to speed. It all started in 2012. The state government wanted to restructure the elementary and high school systems in the state. Instead of elementary and high schools, they wanted the thing broken down into three: lower, middle, and high schools. So if you finish JSS 3, you’ll have to move to a totally different school to start SSS 1. Something like that. Since some high schools would be converted to middle schools (for JSS 1-3) while others would be converted to high schools (for SSS 1-3), that means the pupils would have to be moved from certain schools to others.
In addition, the government planned to unify all schools into a single uniform. Henceforth, all public schools in the state would wear the same uniform, approved and provided by the state government. No more identifying the pupils of a certain school by their uniform.
Previously, in Christian-named schools, Muslim pupils weren’t permitted to wear hijabs. These schools were established by Christian missionaries during the colonial era and when the government’s would take over the schools in 1975, the Christian evangelical values and leanings of such schools were preserved. Muslims established their own missionary schools too. Such schools were Muslim-named and afforded Muslim parents the opportunity to take their kids to schools where they would be taught Islamic values and allowed to wear hijabs. Meanwhile there were purely secular government schools with no hold by either religious community. A state whose population is almost equally divided between both religions had lived peacefully ever since with this arrangement. But in 2012, the stage government moved pupils from one school to the other without any regard for this unofficial but effective arrangement. This was the beginning of what would later be known as the ‘hijab crisis’.
So what happened next? The pupils who were wearing hijabs in their previous schools and who had now been transferred to a Christian-named school were prevented from entering their new school premises with their hijabs. The authorities of the Christian-named schools, who had never seen a hijab-wearing student in their school before, wouldn’t let that happen. They, in conjunction with authorities of the state chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), barricaded the school gates and turned back the Muslim female students. They feared the rich Christian history and values in their schools would be eroded by hijabs and their Christian evangelical activities would be washed away by the propagation of Islam through the wearing of hijabs. Some of them even felt that the Christian girls in the schools might be influenced by their hijab-wearing colleagues into wearing hijabs themselves.
So the Muslims felt cheated. They took the matter to court. They argued that it’s their daughters’ fundamental religious right to wear hijabs in schools. Christians and the state government argued that hijabs were not part of the dress code approved by the state education board. And the Christians particularly maintained Muslim female students could maintain their rights to wear the hijabs but that that should be restricted to the Muslim-named schools. And the legal battle that started 4 years ago got to a landmark three weeks ago when the State High Court delivered a judgement upholding the Muslim female students’ right to wear hijabs in all schools.
CAN wasn’t happy with the judgement and they immediately alleged judicial manipulation citing the fact that the judge is a Muslim as a factor. They filed for an appeal and then filed for a stay of execution, i.e., status quo should be maintained till the appellate case was concluded. But the Muslims weren’t buying that. Now their girls would be wearing the scarves to school. CAN threatened that their own students too would contravene the education board’s dress code by going to school in Christian garbs — Royal Ambassadors’ berets, choir robes, etc. The traditionalists too could go to school in their various costumes.
And yes, it started happening. Just like it happened in 2012 before the judicial process began, it’s happening now. Public schools in the state now look like a Disney costume exhibition or a Halloween party with various students adorning different garbs in addition to the school uniform.
I feel Aregbesola knew what he was doing. He surely knew that this would cause this crisis. I feel he just did this intentionally to destabilize the state. But is he really wrong? Nope. It’s a politically wrong action but legally, there’s nothing wrong with it. There’s nothing constitutionally wrong with this action. But he made a simple mistake (assuming it wasn’t a deliberate action). He assumed Nigeria was a secular society. Unfortunately, as I already explained in this article (click here to read it), constitutionally, Nigeria is not a secular state but a multireligious state. Our Constitution is not clear on that issue. This kind of action can only be possible in a properly secular state not in a country like Nigeria.
In a properly secular state, nobody would talk about a public school and then still be talking about its religious history and values. If you want to have a religious school, go establish one. Trying to convert a public school to a religious one can only happen in a nonsecular nation like Nigeria. Evangelizing or reciting the Quran on the assembly ground in public schools can only happen in a non-recurring nation like Nigeria. And also, no one would violate the official education board’s dress code on religious grounds. All this misbehavior from both communities was possible because we’re a non-secular society. Just like I explained in this article, Nigerian government is not one that’s ready to stay off religions but one that wants to meddle with religions. Their own idea of ‘secularity’ is ‘meddling with all religions in equal measure without appearing to cheat one for the other‘.
Where do we put the section 38 of the Constitution?
(1) Every person shall be entitled to…manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance.
(2) No person attending any place of education shall be required to receive religious instruction or to take part in or attend any religious ceremony or observance if such instruction ceremony or observance relates to a religion other than his own, or religion not approved by his parent or guardian.
(3) No religious community or denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of that community or denomination in any place of education maintained wholly by that community or denomination.
You see now? This is a confused part of the Constitution as far as education and religion are concerned. It’s important to note that this same hijab crisis has enveloped other parts of Southwest Nigeria. There’s a similar court case going on in Lagos and Ekiti states. These are places where the populations of Muslims and Christians are almost equal. In the North and the East where members of one religion far outnumber the other, this kind of thing has not really happened.
The Osun State governor hasn’t paid workers for months unending now. The government has not hired more teachers. They’ve not built more schools. They have lots of abandoned and unnecessary road and bridge construction projects but they’ve not equipped schools. They’ve not upgraded the curriculum. But they’re causing religious crises. The parents too haven’t taken the government up on these issues. Rather they’ve been more concerned about which religion wins a childish monopoly war. Shouldn’t we laugh at both religions? This is why we should keep religions out of our public life. That’s why folks should be told to keep their religions to their privacies. You’re free to practise your faith but don’t bring your faith into how we run schools or make policies. I’ll still write on my take on the hijab as a manner of dressing in a subsequent article.
Thanks for reading.