By Disu Kamor
Thousands of people across the world who would either be non-Muslims or Muslims who ordinarily do not wear the hijab will be decked in it on the 1st of February, 2014 in solidarity with the “hijabis” world-over.
This annual solidarity event tagged the World Hijab Day (WHD) seeks to create better understanding and awareness of the Muslim head cover at a time when the hijab has seen great assault, and when modesty of covering up is being ridiculed or associated with oppression and backwardness.
The event will also highlight the fact that the hijab is religiously mandated, and that millions of Muslim women are making the free choice to follow God’s
Many Nigerian Muslim women will mark the occasion of the WHD to reflect on the prevailing situation; the unwarranted hostility and discrimination they and their daughters have to suffer for making the free choice to put a piece of cloth on their heads.
The hostility and discrimination that manifest in various places, at workplace, in schools and sadly in the official quarters. Many Nigerian Muslim women endure untold hardship as a price to meet their religious needs concerning the head cover.
On October 28, 2013, the Nigerian embassy in Washington DC denied a Muslim sister in hijab (head cover) who had gone for a biometrics appointment necessary to replace her Nigerian passport any service on the basis that she had to expose her ears.
Even when the victim informed the attendant that she was wearing the hijab for religious purpose and as such could not expose her ears, an immigration attaché at the embassy intervened and insisted that the victim had to “because it is the law of Nigeria that ears must show”.
Interestingly, the way and manner the victim donned her hijab at the Nigerian embassy in Washington was the exact way she looks
every day – commonsense would have made it the best form of identifying her in her hijab whenever she carries the passport. This disturbing example fits into a pattern that is replicated at almost every immigration centre and other government agencies in the country.
Thousands of Muslim applicants of Nigerian passport, the drivers license applicants and other forms of ID cards are being harassed to “show your ears” or to totally remove their hijab by state officials claiming to be enforcing the “law of the land”.
Officials of the Nigeria Immigration Service in Nigeria and their counterparts in several other government agencies remain obstinate and maintain that they are enforcing a “law of the land” none of them has been able to produce for verification. Perhaps some of them assume there is such
a law since no one above them has deemed it fit to clarify the official policy and create a better understanding of the Nigerian law as it pertains to the work they do. On-going request to the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Interior to clarify policies regarding the use of hijab
in passport taken for ID purpose have met with complete silence.
Sadly, heads of the affected government agencies had ignored earlier requests sent directly to them, in a show of lack of sensitivity or sense of responsibility.
Of course, official clarification and pronouncements would have stopped the needless miseries that many Muslim women continue to go through.
The total abandon of responsibility on the part of the senior officials at these services on this issue is clearly responsible for the continued misbehaviour of the officials who are let loose on the hapless Muslim women.
If they are employing world-class standards and best practices to run the services, it will be easier and better to find unambiguous guidelines published on the websites of these services.
The equivalent of our own immigration service in the UK, in the United States and in Australia (all secular democracies) have user-friendly and clear guidelines which show that hijab (with ears covered) is allowed for passport and visa application. More importantly, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards which the Nigerian machine readable passport
complies to specifically spell out that head covering for religious purpose is acceptable.
As more people step into the shoes of the “hijabis” on the 1 st of February, they will see how securing freedom of religious expression serves compelling national interests.
The goodwill and flexibility in meeting both the religious needs of the Muslim women and the legitimate needs of those service providers cannot be mutually exclusive.
One wonders if Catholic nuns are asked to remove their habit or show their ears when taking pictures for ID purpose at the immigration centres, at the Nigerian Identity Management Commission, the driver licence issuing centres (FRSCN), etc – or is this just a “Muslim thing?”.
The testimonies of many past participants of the World Hijab Day will help us to better understand that it takes more than lectures and reading to share the experience and real commitment of those wearing the shoes in any situation.
Female staff and pupils at Pleckgate High School, Blackburn UK decided to step into the shoe and wore the headscarf last year. A participating teacher of the school had this to say: “A lot of the girls at the school already wear a hijab, and we have one as part of the school uniform.
I asked the head if we could ask all the girls to take part and around a third did. We also had a number of staff take part. I think World Hijab Day helps us to understand how Muslim women feel about their beliefs and faith.
“A lot of the girls were excited about taking part and many saw it as a fashionable thing and quite light hearted, while still getting the message across.” Pleckgate High School is a public funded school, and prides itself on the value it attaches to diversity.
It will be nice to get our public officials into the same mindset and make our public schools establish and promote a policy that would make every child priceless and valued equally – where every child feels truly included.
As it stands, existing policy in Lagos State for instance effectively bars any Muslim female student wearing the hijab.
Of course, the policy of discrimination sends a strong message of exclusion to all Muslims and non-Muslims of conscience, posterity will surely remember this period as a strange time when a state forbids education to a child unless the child violates the tenet of her faith.
Sadly, Muslim students in public schools of similar ages as those depicted in the Pleckgate High School story above will finish their education in Lagos State with memories of bias, exclusion and discrimination.
Perhaps the greatest lesson we all can take from event like this is that we actually do not know enough until we take the courage to step into other people’s shoes. As the organizers of the event stated on the need for a day like this: It will be a day for everyone willing to experience what it’s like to step inside the shoes of a Hijabi. Our hopes are no less than that.