A Christian with conscience Femi Owolade wrote:

Amasa Firdaus and the Hijab imbroglio

I’ve stayed up all night to collect as much evidence to discard all the nonsensical talk spewed by bigoted Nigerians on this issue, like hogwash that men set before swine. The unfortunate result is that I have to miss church today, but I’ll do that a million times over to defend the truth.

Can we blame unwitting Nigerians, who consistently display their hypocritical tendencies, for having an inflexibly bent or is it hell-bent view on Islam? YES.

The so-called liberals who cast aspersions on Amasa Firdaus and mock her fundamental right to practice her religion in the most complete way by wearing the hijab are the same set of hypocrites who wrote long epistles to support Aisha Ahmad’s right NOT to wear the hijab. Is doublespeak not fast-becoming the lingua franca of these hypocritical liberals?

Without further elaboration, we must now address the material issues here.
The key argument pushed by those who support Firdaus is that, like most laws and regulations in Nigeria, the laws of the council of legal education are outdated, stripped of autochtony
and MUST be reformed with immediate alacrity.

Before we go into a thorough examination of the law, I think it’s important to state here that we are not asking for much. We want the laws of the council of legal education to, in consonance with section 38 (1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999), provide an environment where Firdaus and all women of faith can practice their religion in the most comprehensive form. Thus, we ask for the laws of the council of legal education to reflect -and not be repugnant to- the principles of fairness, equity and natural justice, as articulated by Frederick Lugard when he initiated the first Nigerian legislation in 1900.

As the Hijab is a veil of headscarf traditionally worn by Muslim in Nigeria and across the world, we expect that Firdaus ought to be allowed to exercise her rights of religion by wearing a headscarf to her call to bar ceremony. After all, Code 8 of the Law Society of Kenya’s Advocates Dress Code states: ‘ADVOCATES WHOSE FAITH REQUIRES THEM TO WEAR HEAD GEAR MAY WEAR THE SAME SO LONG AS THE COLOUR OF THE HEAD GEAR IS CHARCOAL, BLACK, WHITE, GREY, NAVY BLUE AND OTHER DARKISH COLOURS’. This is Kenya, an ex-colony of the British with the same legal system as Nigeria, with 83% christian population and a modest 11.2% Muslim minority that can practice their religion in the most comprehensive form while the 52% Muslim majority (according to Pew survey, or 53% according to DHS) in Nigeria can’t do the same. It is quite clear that this infringement is not consistent with the principles of fairness, equity and natural justice.

We accept that the Federal Republic of Nigeria only has one ‘secular’ Bar. We also concede to the fact that Nigeria’s Call to Bar ceremony is a spiritual, ritualistic, official and corporate exercise with a very strict dress code. The rules are clear that a prospective Barrister must adhere to the dress code, and Firdaus’ hijab is a breach of that code.

But it is exactly this code that we have come to challenge. The constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria forms the underlying basis for the country’s legal system- it’s referred to as the ground norm. Any law of the council of legal education that is inconsistent with this constitution is void. In layman language, the constitution of Nigeria is the supreme law of the land, and will for this reason trump every other law- be it the dress code of a work place or the laws of the council of legal education.

S 38.(1) of the Constitution is clear on the issue of a Nigerian’s freedom of religion, when it states: “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 in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance”.

This statutory provision has been reinforced in a number of cases, like the famous court of appeal case: Lagos State Vs Miss Ashiat Abdkareem CA/L/135/15. In a key ruling, Justice Gumel held that the use of the Hijab was an Islamic injunction and also an act of worship hence it would constitute a violation of the appellants’ rights to stop them from wearing the Hijab in public schools. Also important to this issue is the ruling in the case of Provost Kwara State College of Education, Ilorin vs Basirat Saliu Suit No. CA/IL/49/2009, where the Court of Appeal, Ilorin Judicial Division held that: “The use of veil (Hijab) by female Muslims qualifies as a fundamental right under section 38 of the Constitution”.

Though, the facts of these cases do not necessarily correspond to the issue we are faced with here, the precedence is certainly NOT inconsequential. I must admit that I am not so much conversant with the Nigerian legal system, as I didn’t read law here; but I know that like England and Wales- where I studied Law, Nigeria is a Common law Jurisdiction (with an adversarial system of justice). In common law jurisdictions, the decisions of important cases usually set legal precedents for subsequent cases to follow. For these reasons, Firdaus ought to be allowed to wear a headscarf- in accordance with her religious tradition- to her call to bar ceremony.

I think I’ve said enough to make my so-called liberal friends have a change of heart, but I must add a few more points

Nigeria’s legal system was coercively enforced by the British, whose colonial system ill-served the shari’a practiced in northern Nigeria (the region formerly constituting the Sokoto Caliphate and Kanem-Borno Empire) for almost 100 years before the advent of colonialism, and 300 years in places like Kano where Sheikh Al-Maghili’s highly sophisticated constitution titled ‘The Obligation of Princes: An Essay on Muslim Kingship’, dealt with virtually every topic contained in the constitutions of modern states, from the conduct of rulers to the rights of citizens, but from an Islamic perspective.

From 1809 till 1903, the whole of Usmaniyya or the Sokoto Caliphate (i.e. present day ‘Core North’ and the Middle Belt region- where Firdaus undertook her Bachelors degree in Law) was governed under a legal system known as the Maliki fiqh with further commentaries added by Abdullahi dan Fodio, the younger brother of Usman dan Fodio, who wrote several works on law and how legal practitioners (lawyers of those days) must conduct themselves. All of these were coercively replaced by the British colonialists. Today, we find ourselves in a situation where a lawyer from northern Nigeria is subjected to wearing a Whig and gown in the scorching heat- a practice fit for no other purpose but to massage the ego of our long gone colonial ‘fathers’. How can we possibly think this is okay?

Firdaus may eventually fade into obscurity and I’m predicting that she will eventually be called to bar, but the bigger issue of how Nigeria and other former British colonies will have a legal system that is autochthonous (original to Nigerians) will certainly not go away. For this reason, there’s nothing wrong in taking the bull by the horn as soon as practical, and deciding once and for all to start destroying the usable colonial legacies we have today, as this is the only act that can ensure that Africans
release themselves from the psychological chains of European colonialism. This idea may not sit well with many Nigerians, who are too lazy to challenge the coercive status quo and too comfortable ‘enjoying’ some of the second-rate and rather useless legacies of colonialism, but as we’ve seen in the past 60 years, African heroism in the post-colonial epoch is measured by nothing but the brave resistance to useless norms and laws put in place by our European colonial ‘fathers’. Just think of African heroes like Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah,
Gamal Abdel Nasser, Muammar Gaddafi, Leopold Senghor and even our own Aminu Kano, who fought tirelessly to liberate Africa from futile colonial influence. I’m not asking anyone to be like Robert Mugabe or Idi Amin, and exercise a mindless disdain for everything European. We can of course still make use of some European legacies. All I’m asking is for us to shine our eyes and start questioning some of the unusable laws that regulate our professions and everyday behaviour.

By Femi Owolade