Hijab, Islamic assertiveness and female Muslim identity in Kwara schools


Dr. Leo Igwe

Dr. Leo Igwe

By Leo Igwe

In this piece, ‘Hijab as Red Meat of Bigotry’, Farooq Kperogi presented an imbalanced take on the hijab crisis and growing Islamic assertiveness in schools in Kwara state. His essay was biased because Kperogi was unable to unpack and tease out the intricacies and complexities of the hijab controversy. He quickly rushed to a conclusion blaming Christians for the crisis without adequately situating the red meat of bigotry and its strong Islamic undercurrents. Kperogi made it seem as if the bigotry raging in schools over hijab was more of Christian than Islamic. I beg to differ.

In the first part of the essay, Kperogi created an impression of someone who was well informed about the case in Kwara state. No doubt he is informed about the situation, given that he hails from Kwara. But that does not mean that he cannot be mistaken in his understanding and interpretation of the dynamics at play as I think he is in this case. One thing is clear. The hijab controversy is not a local Kwara state issue. The campaign to make hijab a part of the school uniform is national and transnational. It is an ummah agenda. This religious ill wind has been blowing from state to state. Kwara state is only the latest front.

Kperogi highlighted some well-known historical facts about the foundation of schools in Nigeria. Christian missionaries pioneered the establishment and management of schools as we know them today. But the Nigerian government unilaterally took over these schools shortly after the civil war, which was in the 70s. The author failed to mention the fact that Christian owners of these schools have been unhappy with the government takeover of schools. They have been asking the government to hand back these institutions. In northern Nigeria, Muslim majority states turned the erstwhile Christian missionary schools into Islamic state institutions. They made Islamic norms the basis of education and management of these schools. So what has been going on in the name of government take over of schools is not a secular and religiously unbiased management of these institutions. It is rather a gradual and incremental Islamic appropriation of former Christian missionary school assets. It has largely been a case of robbing Christians to pay Muslims. In northern Nigeria, the state take-over of schools has proved to be an exercise in bad faith, a trojan horse for Islamization of the education system. And this development has not gone down well with Christians and adherents of other religious/belief groups. The politics of state take over of schools has understandably fueled interreligious tension and mistrust over the years. It has pitched Christians against Muslims, Christians against governments in Muslim theocratic states like Kwara.

In the southern region, some states have handed these schools back to their Christian owners. Kwara state has not done that. So why can’t the government of Kwara state hand back these schools to their Christian owners and use its resource to build better schools? Look, the anger, grievance, and mistrust over the state’s take over of schools are at the root of the hijab controversy in Kwara and other states in the South West.

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Kperogi noted that the situation of education in Nigeria has evolved over the years and that hijab had become the symbol of female Muslim identity. But he failed to interrogate the emergence of hijab as a symbol of Muslim identity politics. One expected that the author should have delved deeper into the evolution of hijab presenting timelines as well as factors that crystallized this icon of female Muslim politics. Kperogi attributed the emergence of hijab to socialization of Muslim females. But other religious believers (both male and female) undergo similar socialization. Don’t they? Other religious believers have certain icons and symbols of religious identities. Haven’t they? And if other religious believers leave these symbols of religious identity at home or at the school gates, why shouldn’t female Muslims do the same? Are the uniforms that students wear in schools Christian emblems? Why does Kperogi think that icons of Muslim religious identity should be treated differently in state schools? What will the school environment look like if all students are allowed to dress according to their religious dictates? What value do these religious symbols add to the education of both men and women, Muslims or Christians, religious or non-religious folks?

Kperogi queried the reason behind the extreme bitterness and hostile reactions of Nigerian Christians. And it was in this part of his essay that he let out his prejudices and insecurities because he failed to mention the bitterness and extreme reactions of Muslims. I mean the author should have asked: Why are Muslims against uniforms in these schools? Why do they hate the school uniforms as they are? These dresses do not hurt them? Do they? Generations of female Muslims have worn these uniforms and these school dresses did not diminish their faith, identity, or Muslimness? So why are Muslims weaponizing hijab?

Kperogi did not tackle these questions. Instead in his conclusion, Kperogi alluded to two (high and appeals) court judgments that upheld the rights of Muslim students to wear hijab as part of their school uniform in state schools. But he forgot that the same rights apply to students of other religions and belief groups in the country. One cannot enforce the rights of Muslim students to wear their religious veil and then deny other students the same rights. Kperogi described measures taken by some schools to stop some hijab-wearing students from entering the compound as theocratic tyranny. Look, I wonder why Kperogi used the term, theocratic tyranny to describe the reactions of some school officials. These school officials turned away these hijab-wearing students not because they claimed that the Christian God told them to do so or because they wanted to impose a Christian habit on them. Nobody has shown that these school uniforms are Christian symbols. So what encapsulates theocratic tyranny is the imposition of hijab on state schools. It is the emergence and politicization of the Islamic veil, and the quest to make hijab a part of the school uniform for all Muslim girls. It is this move that embodies Islamic privilege and exceptionalism. As Kperogi acknowledged, the hijab controversy typifies female Muslim identity politics. But this icon of Islamic theocracy should be kept out of state schools. There should be no place for religious (Christian, Islamic, traditional) identity politics in schools. As a religiously pluralistic country, state schools must be religiously neutral, that is, unbiased for or against any religion. The school dress must be religiously neutral, that means school uniforms should not serve as religious icons. No religious symbol should be privileged. It is in the quest to realize this ‘state of harmony’ and accept and live with our differences that state schools sanctioned the same uniform for all students without discrimination based on religion or belief. Kperogi and all those who sanction and seek to legitimize hijab and female Muslim identity politics in Kwara state schools have missed the point.

-Igwe is a Nigerian human rights advocate and humanist