Lawyers chip in their thoughts on whether a law school student should be called to bar for wearing hijab.
Firdaus who graduated from the University of Ilorin with a second class upper degree, relayed how she refused to take off her hijab which is a piece of clothing worn by Muslim women.
Her decision meant she was denied entry into the International Conference Center, Abuja where the ‘call to bar’ ceremony was held.
The implication is that Firdaus would have to wait to be certified as a practising lawyer in Nigeria because she wore a hijab.
Some have interpreted the incident as an infringement on her religious rights as enshrined in the nation’s constitution.
Pulse has been speaking to a handful of lawyers and policy analysts about this whole hijab controversy and this is what they said:
Honestly, I know that it is against policy for students to dress in a particular way. There’s a dress code as set by the council of legal education.
The question is that, this dress code, does it in any way limit the right of a student to practise his or her religion or to express his or her religion in any form? That is my own contention.
I think that to an extent, if the person is being dressed reasonably—I saw the picture, the hijab was tucked in and she had a wig on her hijab—I think that kind of person should be allowed. She should be called to the bar.
It is against the law school policy, it’s against the dress code and everything but Section 38 subsection 1 of the Nigerian constitution allows for every Nigerian to have the freedom to practise a religion as they please.
Now the question should be, to the extent to which the dress code in law school is at variance with Section 38 (1), shouldn’t it now give way and allow Section 38 (1) to prevail? In a situation like that, the constitution is supreme.
The code of conduct cannot supersede the provision of the constitution. The moment you say you aren’t going to swear someone in because of an insinuation of religion, or because the person is dressed in a particular way, that begins to infringe on the person’s right.
Whatever is at variance with the constitution should give way to the constitution and allow the constitution to prevail.
It is still open for debate, but that’s my view.
One of the reasons why the rules are this way is because the counsel of legal education tries to see how they can ensure that as much as possible, it doesn’t look as though things are skewed in favour of a particular religion.
However, at the law school, you can wear your hijab around and all of that. You are not prevented. But the rules are that for the call to bar, everyone—Christians, Muslims, traditional worshippers—they all have to appear the same way. Particularly for the ladies. You don’t have to use makeup etc.
It is not even targeted against Muslims. You don’t have to make your hair, you use light makeup. Everybody appears the same way. That it is targeted against Muslims isn’t even an issue. It is not.
And these rules have been there for a long, long time to safeguard certain practices.
The challenge with letting the hijab fly is that every other person will start making requests, however unreasonable. And you cannot say, oh, you granted the Muslims the right to use their hijab and you would not grant a Christian the same right. You’d be plunging the institution into deeper problems. These are some of the challenges.
I personally feel bad because the hijab is really fundamental to Islamic practice.
I was called to the bar the same time as Dangote’s daughter. I don’t think anybody can be more Muslim because he is very, very much out there. She didn’t have any of those issues because she didn’t use the hijab. So these practices have been there for a long time.
I do not think that it’s a problem to temporarily just remove your hijab, get in there, do what you want to do and get out. It’s just a two-hour long event. The truth of the matter is that in court, nobody asks why you are not wearing your hijab or why you are wearing your hijab. Nobody asks you that kind of question. But for the purpose of the call to bar, everybody appears the same way.
The rules pertaining to being called to the bar, are already known beforehand. The call to bar ceremony typically begins at ten, but people arrive much earlier like 6:30am or 7am. Between the period when you arrive and when the call starts, a lot of people would be sent back, checks would be done, she would not have been taken unawares in that place. I’m pretty sure she had at least an hour to take out whatever it is that needed to be taken out. If she did not do so, then it’s entirely on her and it’s just unfortunate that this has to go this way.
On the issue of Section 38(1), I think people are missing the point. Our freedoms are guaranteed, especially as it relates to religion, freedom of worship and all of that. Our rights and liberties are guaranteed to that extent. But the truth of the matter is, this is a closed profession. You have to go through an entire procedure. And before you get through with the procedure, at various points you have to sign.
You have to sign that these are the rules and you must follow them. It’s the same issue we have with Covenant University. People have to sign. And when you affix your signature, what you are saying is that you’ve decided to abide by all these particular rules.
You can’t turn around, after signing those dotted lines, to say you won’t follow the rules.
At the law school, there are mosques and churches where people worship. No one stops you from worshipping. The law school is liberal when it comes to practising your religion. You can’t agree by signing and then turn around to use religion to disobey the law.
The law should respect human rights, including the freedom of expression. Law schools that repress free expression in their own affairs cannot safeguard freedoms for the wider society. This explains why Nigeria has thousands of lawyers and yet the people lack rights.
Re hijab: the question is not 'Did she breach the call rules of the Law School?' It is clear she did. Whether as an exercise of her right to protest or by accident. The question is: Why should these rules continue to exist? Are legal systems without these rules worse than ours?
Those who have a knowledge of both law and legal history know that our court dress is an anachronistic colonial legacy, originating under post-feudal systems predating the human rights era. Why do we still use these rules when we are no longer slaves to English cultural history?
Because, in the end, this is a question of culture. Is the hijab less dignified than the medieval gown? Is the fila less dignified than the medieval wig? Why do we insist on obeying rigid forms of colonial culture when even the colonialists have changed their own culture?
At the point of being called to bar, they tell all of them to remove their scarfs and use the wig only. Even if it’s a small cap, they tell them to remove it outright. That's where the issue lies. There’s no law against the hijab. The law does not permit its removal.
There is no written law against it. So, why are they disallowing it?
If there is no law stopping a lady from covering her hair for call to bar, why stop them? And the constitution supersedes any other law. A law school should know this.
Normally, the Supreme Court is the last option. But you allow people practise their religion all through law school and decide to stop their religious rights on call to bar day?
Other Muslims in other countries study Law and no one tells them to stop their religion for a second.
In 2013, my wife wore a cap under her wig to cover her hair on call to bar day. The woman at the entrance removed it and flung away the cap.
What's your take on the hijab debate? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.