OPEN LETTER TO THE PRESIDENT AND SENATE PRESIDENT REGARDING THE HARASSMENT AND MOLESTATION OF HIJAB-WEARING GIRLS AND WOMEN IN SOUTHERN NIGERIA

The Muslim Congress (tmc)

National Headquarters

1, Thanni Olodo Street, Along Moshood Abiola Road, Jibowu Bus Stop, Jibowu, Yaba, Lagos. Tel.: 0802 346 2555, 0803 309 6636

Website: www.tmcng.net  e-mail: info@tmcng.net

Tuesday, 7th May, 2019. 

His Excellency,
President Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR
Federal Republic of Nigeria

His Excellency,
Dr. Bukola Saraki, CON
The Senate President
Federal Republic of Nigeria

OPEN LETTER TO THE PRESIDENT AND SENATE PRESIDENT REGARDING THE HARASSMENT AND MOLESTATION OF HIJAB-WEARING GIRLS AND WOMEN IN SOUTHERN NIGERIA

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest it.” – Elie Wiesel

May this open letter from The Muslim Congress (TMC) meet Our Dear President and the Esteemed Senate President in good states of health. The Muslim Congress is a registered Islamic organisation poised at keeping afloat the core Islamic values and culture in line with the Qur’an and Sunnah.

In recent times, TMC has been inundated with several complaints regarding the harassment and molestation of Hijab-wearing girls and women in public schools and places of work. It may interest Your Excellencies that there are a number of pending cases on Hijab in courts in several parts of South-Western Nigeria. We are shocked that in spite of the sensitive nature of this issue, the Federal Government of Nigeria whose jurisdiction covers the length and breadth of Nigeria would choose to be silent and unperturbed in the face of the injustice being meted out to a section of its citizens.

We believe that the Presidency and the National Assembly of the Federal Republic of Nigeria have very critical roles to play in improving the plight of Hijab-wearing girls and women in Nigeria, by seeing to it that their fundamental human right of freedom of religion is not eroded.

In retrospect, Nigeria has recorded some degrees of progress in addressing the issue of human rights as it relates to inheritance laws, especially for women. A notable case is the recent landmark judgement by the Supreme Court upholding the rights of the female child to inherit properties in Igboland. It is this type of progressive affirmation that we need for the progress and development of the nation. It is therefore surprising that in the same country, the same scenario is not playing out for Muslim girls and women regarding the protection of their fundamental human right to freely practice their religion without fear or molestation.

Why would a girl-child in the north be protected to attend school with Hijab and her counterpart in the south is denied same and is forced to choose between pursuing her education and abandoning her faith when we are all supposed to be treated equally under the same constitution? Is this how unity and oneness will be built in a democratic and heterogeneous society?

For long, Muslims of the South-West have been at the receiving end of the dubious classification of Nigeria as ‘Muslim-North/Christian-South,’ and have been robbed of several opportunities as bona fide citizens, including this renewed enterprise of restricting their access to such public good as education. To be emphatic, Muslims are a demographic majority in the South-West and would reject every attempt to be reduced to second class citizens.

We remind the Federal Government that there have been court pronouncements and verdicts that support the right of the Muslim girl-child and woman to don the Hijab in public places. What a government that swore to uphold the constitution ought to do, through the office of the Attorney-General, is to give effect to those legal pronouncements by criminalizing the victimization of Hijab-wearing girls and women by anyone.

As one of the voices of the Muslims in Southern Nigeria, TMC asserts that Hijab is the fundamental human right of Muslim females – a right protected by both the Qur’an and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. In the Noble Qur’an, it is stated,

“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands….” (Quran 24:31).

 

“O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognised and not annoyed. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful.” (Quran 33:59).

Similarly, the 1999 Constitution (As Amended) in Section 38 (1) and Section 42 (1) (a) supports the right of Muslim women to wear their Hijab. Section 38 (1) states that “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

The United Nations, the global human rights body, made a declaration through its Human Rights Committee in the case of the ban on the full-body veil in France. The declaration was that the ban was discriminatory and a violation of the rights of Muslim women. The Committee of 18 independent experts from around the world, stated in two rulings, that the right to practice one’s religion includes the wearing of distinctive clothing and head coverings. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

It is therefore surprising that there is a catalogue of abuses of Muslim girls and women that have reached endemic proportions in public institutions. To set the records straight, girls have been harassed in schools in Lagos as well as in Osun and Oyo States. The harassment in Oyo State was at the International School Ibadan operated by the University of Ibadan where the principal shut down the school when some female students wore their Hijab to school. In Osun State, Muslims took the Osun State government to court over the refusal of some ‘Christian’ public schools to allow female students wear Hijab. Justice Jide Falola of the Osun State High Court ruled in favour of the Muslims stating that the wearing of Hijab was lawful and the freedom to do that was enshrined in the constitution. The crisis engulfed the Baptist Girls’ High School in Osogbo, the Christ African Middle School in Osogbo and the Baptist High School in Iwo. Enforcement of the court judgement is of utmost necessity in the state so that our girls and women will not face unnecessary abuse.

In the case of Lagos State, harassment has continued even after the approval to wear Hijab in Lagos schools was given by the state government in late 2018. Quite a good number of the heads of schools refused to comply with the directive to the consternation of concerned Muslims. The circular with reference number ED/DISTVI/CCST/HI/14/I/63 was signed by the Tutor-General, O. A. Olukoya. “Since the case of the use of Hijab in Lagos is still pending in the Supreme Court of Nigeria, the status quo should be maintained to avoid contempt of court. That is, students should be allowed to wear Hijab on school uniforms but it must be short, smart, neat and in the same colour of the uniform (skirt),” stated the circular. The circular continued: “Furthermore, schools’ managements are advised to downplay comments and disciplinary actions on the use of smart Hijab until the final determination of the case by the supreme court. No student should be discriminated against in any form on the basis of religion. All principals and teachers must be sensitised to comply accordingly. You are enjoined to adhere strictly to these recommendations.”

Before the Lagos State circular, the Hijab case had been in court for a while. On October 17, 2014, a Lagos High Court ruled against the wearing of Hijab in Lagos schools while the Appeal Court upturned the judgement in 2016 in a unanimous decision of five judges stating that the ban was discriminatory against Muslim students. The Lagos State government then took the case to the Supreme Court and placed a ban on the Hijab in schools in August of 2018. We commend the government for this little relief but we must state that we feel shocked and disappointed at the weak enforcement of the circular. This feeling is justified because some weeks after the circular, two teachers of Army Cantonment Girls’ Secondary School in Ojo, Lagos, allegedly harassed and intimidated a 13-year-old Khadijah Adewunmi Ajayi, because she had her Hijab on her school uniform after school hours and they forcefully removed it.

Pathetically, there was also the case of the law graduate, Firdausa Amasa, who was barred from graduating by the Nigerian Law School simply because she wore Hijab to the graduation ceremonies. She was denied entry to the International Conference Centre, Abuja, on December 12, 2017, where the call to bar programme was taking place. The University of Ilorin law graduate objected when ordered to remove her Hijab as she claimed that such an order was an infringement on her human right. Firdausa Amasa was finally called to the bar after seven months thanks to pressures from Islamic organisations and series of coordinated petitions. The Body of Benchers agreed to a change of policy when it eventually ruled that wearing a Hijab would not deny any female lawyer from being called to the bar.

We are of the strong opinion that the on-going discrimination against Hijab-wearing girls is deliberate in order to discourage them from pursuing their education. Some Hijab-wearing students were allegedly denied entry into the examination hall during the recently-concluded JAMB’s Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME). The daughter of a former ace broadcaster was among several Hijab-wearing female students that were denied entry at a JAMB examination centre at New Ocean School, Megida, Ayobo, Lagos, by some JAMB invigilators and supervisors because they wore their Hijab. While this was ongoing, Muslims without Hijab and other Christian candidates were already writing the examination where all candidates were expected to stop at the same time. This is unwarranted, discriminatory and unjust. We urge the JAMB authorities to fully investigate these infractions and bring the culprits to book. Cases such as these have been going on at examinations conducted by other bodies such as WAEC and NECO. Sometimes these students are told to remove their Hijab before they could be photographed during registration for these examinations.

In the northern part of the country, wearing of Hijab has since become a norm probably because the North is seen as a Muslim-dominated area. In the Southern part of Nigeria, a problem arises virtually every time a Muslim girl or woman decides to wear her Islamic head covering either to school or to work. But Muslim women have taken on the challenge and are demanding their right to put on the Hijab even though this is coming with a lot of challenges. We have since come to the conclusion that there is a meticulous plan by the Islamophobic elements and enemies of religious diversity to either stop Muslim girls from being educated or to change their religion outright. Discrimination against Muslim women makes everyday life even harder instead of protecting and reaffirming their rights. It is also a direct threat to their wellbeing. This discrimination encourages hate speech which in turn widens the gulf in ethnic and religious differences. The question of the Hijab should not lead a Muslim woman to choose between her right to choose how she dresses and her right to work. This has the effect of discouraging Muslim women from being fully integrated in the society and may therefore discourage them from attending colleges or universities let alone working at their preferred places.

Denying women the right to work because of their clothing is certainly not compliant with the democratic and inclusive society the present government is trying to build. When her daughter wears a Hijab, a Muslim parent begins to fear that her child will not be protected by government; that she will not be accepted in the public; that she will be burdened by her choice; that she will be deprived of educational and professional opportunities; that she will be verbally or physically attacked in public. The government is daily talking about the empowerment of women but there is no empowerment greater than women having the freedom to make their own decisions about their own bodies. Muslim women ought to be protected to wear the Hijab without having to fear loss of jobs or educational opportunities. Their capacities and talents as people do not change by wearing a piece of clothing on their heads. Muslim women have been taking rejection after rejection for internships or jobs on the basis of their Hijab and some have slowly slipped into mental states of demotivation, alienation or even outright depression. How can religious and ethnic bigots continue to demand women take their Hijab off in order to participate in society or to receive equal opportunities without the government raising an eyebrow?

Your Excellencies, please invoke the instrumentality of government to force extremists and bigots to embrace the principle of neutrality where adherents of each religion are allowed to dress the way they choose. The wearing of religious symbols does not necessarily compromise the neutrality of the state as an institution or the independence of any educational institution as long as the people do their work according to laid-down rules and regulations. For Muslim women, a headscarf is not an accessory; rather, it is a part of their belief. So, just like one’s ethnicity, it cannot be changed or replaced.

What the Muslim community in the South-West expects from the Federal Government is to action the court pronouncements as a way of nipping in the bud the incessant drift of some individuals and organizations to cause religious uproar through unconstitutional acts that jeopardize the rights of other citizens.

We seize this opportunity to remind the Federal Government that hate crimes – which is on the increase in the country – usually start from attempts to construct a ‘narrow or constricted worldview’ that is intended to exclude a targeted community from the scheme of things and this attains a full cycle when it culminates in communal strife simply because those in authority choose to be indecisive or uninterested.

To refuse to stitch this ongoing persecution in the South-West in time is to allow the proliferation of self-help which is the precursor to anarchy to become the order of the day. Nigeria, as it is, is already battling serious security challenges in the North-East, North-West, North-Central and the South-East. Common sense and good judgement suggest that it will be better not to allow the South-West join in the spate of anarchy.

As peaceful, law-abiding and proactive citizens of this great country, we cannot but alert the authorities on an area of concern that if properly taken care of will make our country more developed and more progressive. According to Thomas Jefferson, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” We believe, that as a people, we are endowed with the human and material resources to successfully navigate our nation from the stormy waters of anarchy to a land of peace, security and abundance. This is why we expect that as responsible and responsive Presidency and National Assembly, you must be sensitive to the plights of your citizens. The Federal Government should act proactively. The time to act is Now!

 

Long live the Muslim Ummah!

Long live the Great People of Nigeria!

Long live the Federal Republic of Nigeria!

 

 
Dr. Luqman AbdurRaheem, MNIM, FAAE, FIFP
Amir, The Muslim Congress (tmc)

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