By Prisca Sam-Duru
German sociologist and economic theorist, Karl Marx was absolutely right when he said that religion is the opium of the people. At least we have seen how individuals who thrive in crisis have, with religion as weapon, created rifts between otherwise united peoples in Nigeria as well as all over the world.
The ongoing hijab crisis in schools in Kwara State, is ill-timed and in fact, the least of issues that the State should lose sleep over at the moment. Nigeria’s unity is at the brink with religious bigotry, agitations for secession springing up from several ethnic groups, etc, and so, does not need the current hijab crisis which could snowball into a more catastrophic situation if poorly handled.
Unfortunately, a matter as inconsequential as clothing, has disrupted studies and created hostility in schools across the state. Since the crisis erupted, there have been several comments and statements showing diverse views; some made out of mere religious sentiment while very few were objective. In all of that, there are indisputable truths about the matter especially as regards ownership of the concerned schools and whose right it is to dictate how it should be administered.
A historical account shows that these troubled schools and many other state-owned schools all over the country were originally owned by the missionaries. In pre-colonial times, southern Nigerian societies managed an educational system that promoted their own values and moral standards which were laid down as guiding principles for their children.
That system inculcated a sense of communal responsibility in the people. In the nineteenth century, the Christian missionaries came, bringing with them, European culture and traditions. The nature of politics, especially in south eastern Nigeria, during the nationalist period (1945-1960), resulted in further re-evaluation of the fundamental role of missions in secular education.
The military which took over power in 1966 thought the idea of eliminating mission schools in the country’s educational system was best and consequently, in 1974, which was few years after the Nigeria-Biafra war, the Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon passed a decree that gave the state governments right over these missionary schools. In the case of Kwara state, earliest schools (and hospitals) in the area according to an indigene of the state, Farooq Kperogi, were established not by the government but by American Southern Baptist Christian missionaries who first appeared in his hometown in 1948.
“All the schools are government controlled and fully funded, they are not Christian schools”, Governor AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq of Kwara state was quoted as saying recently. “No doubt, the schools were started by missionaries in Kwara State but in 1974, Yakubu Gowon’s government passed a decree taking over all the schools in the state, so, the missionaries lost schools to states. Kwara State took over the schools but out of sentiment, did not change the names of the schools like most other states did. So when the Hijab issue came up in some states, they went to court and it was ruled that the students who wish to wear the hijab, could do so. Any private school can have their own uniform and insist on what their students must wear but female students in government school can wear their hijab, that’s what the court said”, he added.
The governor who said he had the privilege of attending some of these schools said his father’s Muslim school was also taken over by the government. To ensure a peaceful resolve of the issue, Governor AbdulRazaq who was said to have spoken with CAN, the organisation he said should know better now that the schools are no longer Christian schools, noted that he has nothing against Christians, but that the state is only obeying the court’s ruling. It’s also important to state that the schools are no longer owned by the missionaries although they retained their names.
Looking at how issues have played out with the ensuing violence, the governor must thread with care because it is very possible that some of the parents and other stakeholders pushing for female Muslim students to wear hijab as part of their school uniform, are not doing so innocently as part of their sartorial religious identification but to fuel crisis in the once peaceful state. They could be political foes! After all, female Muslim students can attend lessons comfortably with or without the hijab.
Meanwhile, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has said that Kwara State Governor, AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq, should be “held responsible if the crisis over hijab wearing in schools degenerates”. CAN through its General Secretary, Joseph Bade Daramola, in a statement said “it was AbdulRazaq’s pronouncement on hijab in violation of the court directive on the matter to maintain status quo until the matter is finally resolved by the court that led to this trouble”, adding “the state government ordered the reopening of the closed schools without resolving the crisis.
The governor, it was reported, reopened the schools so that they could register for WAEC exams especially after the months lost to Covid-19 locdown.
CAN said churches and mission schools are being vandalised with impunity by those “banking on the state government’s support in the pretext of enforcing the policy. It is disheartening and unfortunate that a government that was installed democratically will become insensitive to the plight and the yearning of the people as if the governor was voted into the office primarily to protect his religion. This is unfair, ungodly and reprehensible.
“There are public schools and schools that belong to some Islamic organisations where those who wanted to be wearing hijab can be attending without causing the ongoing needless crises rocking the state.”
Reacting through a statement, Kwara government said, “Arguments over the years that these schools still belong to either the Muslim or Christian missionaries have been flatly rejected by the court. So, the government totally rejects the claims some organisations are still laying to these schools because such claims are not known to the law. That some of these schools retain the names of their founding organisations is purely honorary and in memory of their contributions to education….”
The law today is that willing Muslim school girls cannot be stopped from wearing hijab in public schools. Anything to the contrary will be in violent contravention of provisions of Section 38 of the Constitution….it is important to clarify that the government is not imposing the hijab. It is not mandatory for all our school girls to wear hijab. Rather, the state government approves hijab for any Muslim schoolgirl who wishes to use it…”
Adding his voice, publisher of The Cable, Simon Kolawole wrote; “Kwara, a relatively peaceful state, has been engulfed in a religious crisis over the issue of wearing of hijab in public schools. I saw some disturbing videos of violent clashes in the state capital during the week. Unlike most northern states, religion is the least of issues in Kwara. I have never hidden my view on hijab: I have absolutely nothing against people wearing it to school, same way I don’t care if you wear “Deeper Life” scarves. The schools where crisis has erupted are owned and funded 100 percent by the state, not by any church or mosque. Anybody who feels aggrieved by government policy should please go to court rather than stir strife. Self-help will only worsen matters.”
Also, on the unity-threatening crisis, Prof. Moses Ochonu wrote, “There is now definitive evidence that the Kwara State Government’s directive applies only to publicly owned and funded schools, including former Christian missionary schools that were taken over by the government in the 1970s.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a State Government, especially in a Muslim-majority state such as Kwara, directing that Muslim students who want to wear hijab on their uniforms be allowed to do so in all public schools. It is also now clear that the policy neither makes hijab mandatory for all Muslim students nor requires non-Muslim female students to wear it. The policy, moreover, does not apply to private schools, which are at liberty to set their own school attire policy”. He added that “Neither Nigerian law nor the basic principle of religious freedom contradicts the new policy”.
Kolawole advised that CAN “can renew the long-running but largely abandoned struggle for public schools with missionary pedigrees to be reverted back to their Christian denominational ownership…” This sounds good to many who believe that Nigeria’s education sector began crumbling as soon as government took over missionary schools.
Also, Newspaper columnist, Farooq Kperogi wrote; “…nonetheless, while Christian missionary schools have unquestionably done a lot to expand access to education and equip people with lifelong and lifesaving skills, we must recognize that Nigeria has evolved. Part of that evolution is the emergence of the hijab as a symbol of female Muslim identity.
In Kwara State, he continues, “two separate court judgments (a high court judgement and an appeal court judgement) have upheld the rights of female Muslim students to wear the hijab as part of their school uniforms in schools that were historically owned by Christian missionaries but that are now hundred percent government funded.
There are now only two options left for these schools: either appeal against the judgements by lower courts at the Supreme Court or obey the Kwara State government’s court-sanctioned directive that Muslim students be allowed to observe the hijab”.
Since these former Christian missionary schools are “now public institutions that are fully funded (or underfunded) by the government”, he believes it is theocratic tyranny to insist that Muslims enrolled in them, can’t wear their hijabs if they choose to after two court judgements in their favour.
In her article titled “Hijab or no hijab: This thing called religion”, Tara Aisida believes that students wearing several variants of uniform make their appearance chaotic. “…It is common knowledge that prior to the takeover, both religions had schools set up by their orders, and students were bound by the rules and conventions in those schools. The mission schools were well run and produced students that competed favourably anywhere in the world and that was the reason adherents of other religions were willing to attend them in-spite of their religious differences”.
She pointed out that “Legally speaking, the fact that these schools were “once” missionary schools or bear Christian names does not make them Christian schools. They are now being run as public schools funded by the government and not the missions and though the Missions may have some say in how things are run they have no authority to insist on anything”. Tara however wrote that she finds “the clamor to wear Hijab in schools most unnecessary and the actions of the government unwarranted”, since the wearing of the Hijab is not a religious right.
It is a shame that the once peaceful Kwara state is sliding towards the way of some northern states famous for religious violence that has made social cohabitation impossible, all because of an issue that is completely inconsequential to quality education. For crying out loud, we should be more concerned with having the best and well-equipped schools all over the country that will produce the best across the globe. This will encourage investment in education and, discourage the rich from sending their children/wards abroad to get educated and that means, ending capital flight.
CAN has alternatives; take the matter to the supreme court, demand for a return of all missionary schools taken over by government and or, build schools that will accommodate not only Christians but people of diverse faith because the Lord Jesus Christ whom Christians follow after, is the God of all who loves peace, unity and tolerance. It is hoped that the warring parties would give peace a chance.
In as much as the Kwara state government has the court backing its policy on the hijab, for sake of peace, unity and more importantly, social co-habitation, it will be highly appreciated if at the end, no one will be able to tell the religious affiliation of students simply from their sartorial identity. The school is a place of learning and not religious fashion exhibition. Moreover, hijab wearing or not, does not translate to excellence in education.