It is a fashion statement. But not the sort when a girl dons jeans beneath a flowery satin top. So, in between, a belly button sizzles the eye of a lustful onlooker. That is fashion statement, human style. Curves, hips, the rise and fall of bosoms, the tints of skins, the half-bare shoulder or thigh and the half-vivid ideas they suggest. These images mark out a fleshly, material domain.
Parents frown and play cop of the corporeal. Not for them the wisdom of world-famous designer Hubert De Givenchy that “the dress must follow the body of a woman, not the body following the shape of the dress.” The former applauds licence, the latter obedience. So, such parents could ground the daughter or confiscate the attire.
In this case, it is fashion statement, God style. If the sinner’s eye courts body contours, the scarf smothers it. Hijab shields the female body from the chic, from the concupiscent contortions of the streets, the classroom, the office, even the mosque. The parents are the fashion police and enforcers. The couture is from heaven. How dare any human, school or government stand in the way of the holy command. That is what is sizzling beneath the burner of education in Nigeria. And, of all places, the Southwest.
While the Osun case has backed a retreat, we are seeing its potential cauldrons in Ibadan and Lagos. The International School, Ibadan has shut its doors over parent odium. They insist their wards must wear hijab to school in pursuit of their right to free worship. Others, including Muslims, on the school board say ISI is a secular body and it cannot brook a religious war within its walls. It is also a private school, so it is not beholden to the arguments of a public institution.
In Lagos, the Court of Appeal has already ruled in favour of hijab, and the Lagos State government seems to have bowed ahead of the Supreme Court verdict. So in Lagos, hijab is it. At least, for now. If we are to follow the directions of the court so far, it would mean that the ISI case may be settled in favour of the hijabists unless it sees the school as a private affair.
It will be the case of the rule of law. It is not just a case of a person who some see as fanatics, but as a test of our democratic credentials. Is it right for the hijab to swish side by side the Christian, the atheist and the Ifa worshipper?
It is not as simple to say the hijab is just a religious statement. Its supporters say it is a way of life, it is a mark of social and cultural identity, so a school or a government office cannot stop such expression. To them, it is an expression of freedom. To stop them is to stop their right to express themselves as units and exemplars of the democratic tradition.
They are democrats, too, if they call in their hearts for a theocracy, a government by God. In the United States, the gay rights movement has spurred Christians to deny gay services in their businesses in pursuit of their religious freedom. The far-right Christian says he has the right not to hire a gay or lesbian or transgender person or retail wedding cake to them because they collide with his beliefs. He expresses his religious liberty by denying gays any services. But the Supreme Court ruled against him, and everyone who does not sell wares to gay couples would have committed a felony.
It was a slim victory. It was the vote of Anthony Kennedy, who has now retired from the Supreme Court, that tilted it in favour of the progressives. I don’t know if the case will win under the post-Kennedy judges.
It shows how faith can be a delicate point even in the definition of freedom. Those who disavow the hijab case say this is a secular society. Every school has rules, and the rules apply to Muslims as they do to hijabists and ifa worshippers. They can wear their hijabs outside school, but not within the four walls of the institution. The argument has been made that the uniform is a Judeo-Christian attire imposed by colonial Britain. But that is wrong. The uniform takes its root in western Europe, not Israel. Their schools are products of their own culture, even though we cannot take away the Christian influence. In school prayers, curriculum, etc, we see Christian influences. Even those have ebbed away substantially since Europe and the Americas have fallen under increasing liberal prejudice.
If we pit ourselves as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, it does not profit us to bring religion into the public space. Hijab cannot in any way be seen as a mere way of life. Non-Muslims do not wear hijab, so it is a distinctively Islamic wear. It does not just signal a culture but a belief, and bringing it into the classroom is to stamp it on others as a special fashion. But it is a special fashion. Hence in ISI, some Christians and other religions are threatening to wear their own religious codes to school. What this promise is an anarchy of fashions. The hijab, the celestial white and the traditional hues will turn the school to an odd kaleidoscope, a platform of colliding colours and clashing designs. The students, rather than go to school for studies, will mimic what model Kimora Lee Simmons meant when she said, “always dress like you’re going to see your worst enemy.”
In ISI, it is a private school, and they have the right to enact and enforce them. But in a public school, we should tread gingerly. If a girl that has worn hijab all her life is asked to defrock, it’s like going naked. Private and non-Muslim schools can enforce hijab rule, but if we bring that rule to the public space, we shall have a problem that is beyond religion on our hands. When only well-heeled Muslims can afford to educate their kids in private Muslim schools, we run the risk of educationally disenfranchising poor kids who would rather stay home than go ‘naked’ into a classroom.
The danger is flooding society with so many young girls without education. It may dovetail into boys as well as the same parents would disavow their boys from infecting their minds with western education. The Southwest may now run into the northern problem of the girl child without education. This is not just a judicial problem, it is also a cultural problem and a social booby trap. We know how Boko Haram started. We should be wary of planting a mullah on the streets because we denied him a root in the classroom.
We should understand that we are trying to educate our kids, not indoctrinate them. We want to enlighten them. They are not in school to “dress to kill.” Those wearing Hijab wear it all day long, in and out of school. No other segment of society does it. It did not Islamise society 10 years or 20 years ago, why would it do so now?
It is because our minds have been abused over the decades. We have politicised religion and where faith has been innocent, we have planted suspicion. The battle should not be against wearing hijab, but against suspicion. The fanatics on both sides, though, have not let calm settle over the controversy.