In the last few weeks, the Lagos State government and the Muslim Students’ Society of Nigeria (MSSN) have been trading words over the acceptability or otherwise of hijab (veil for Muslim women) at state-owned public schools. Weekly Trust reports.
Her mien doesn’t portray her as a child who will gladly look for trouble. Neither did she even enjoy the unsolicited attention she has been getting in recent days. She is Aishat Ajayi, the 14-year old student of Kadara Junior Grammar school, Ebute Metta, Lagos whose principal allegedly removed her hijab forcefully.
At the onset, she was quite reluctant to open up to Weekly Trust. “Won ti yanju gbogbo re” meaning “they have resolved everything”, was the feeble response Aishat gave to Weekly Trust when approached “I have been told not to talk to anyone over this, anymore,” she said.
However after much persuasion, she narrated her ordeal in the hands of her principal, Mrs. E.C. Upaka, which ignited a state-wide protest from the Lagos State Muslim community.
“I was in the afternoon assembly when the principal spotted me and asked that I should come outside. She asked why I was putting on the hijab during school hours. She also asked if I was not aware that it is forbidden to use it during school hours. And before I could offer any explanation, she started flogging me. I received 44 strokes of thecane before she left me,” Aishat narrated.
The excuse of the teenager was that she was not aware of the rule. According to her, she has only passed out of Navy Primary School Ojuelegba and joined Kadara Junior Grammar School in September 2012 as a JSI student. “No one ever told me about the rule before that day,” she said.
Aishat experience triggered spontaneous reactions. At home, her mother who could not understand why her daughter has been beaten was the first to flare up. She threatened to meet the principal save for the prompt intervention of her husband who vowed to convey his family’s displeasure to the Principal.
“When my father got to the school, he couldn’t meet the Principal, but met the Vice Principal who was quoted to have also expressed displeasure with the way I was treated but that he was helpless because the principal is his boss. The VP pleaded with my father not to confront the principal, but to let go of the matter so that I won’t become object of persecution in the school,” Aishat narrated.
But if the Vice Principal succeeded in placating Ajayi’s family, the Muslim Students Society of Nigeria (MSSN), Lagos State Chapter can’t be so pacified. The chapter’s Amir, Abdulrasheed Alli contended that Aishat’s ordeal was just one out of the many cases the Society receives daily.
“That informed our protest to the Governor’s office and the Lagos State House of Assembly, the other day. We have had enough of inhuman treatments from school principals in Lagos State and if we fail to do something drastic about it, the trend would continue till it degenerates to the level we won’t be able to control,” Alli said.
Weekly Trust investigation reveals that there are many controversial cases of principals stripping students’ hijab in Lagos State. Sometimes in February 2012, a female student of Comprehensive Senior High School, Alapere was reported to have been so assaulted by her school principal for wearing hijab to school. Similar incident within the period was repeated at Itire Community Senior High School when the school principal, Mrs. G. A. Esan was accused of beaten a female student who wore hijab to the school.
And on March 12, 2013, few days after Aishat’s case, the Principal of Atunrase Junior Secondary School, Surulere, was also accused of stripping hijab from the head of a female student, albeit outside the school compound, after the school hour. The complaint to that effect was lodged at Alakara police station, Surulere and officers at the station had begun investigation into the matter.
When the question was asked as to why the incident has taken a rampant dimension, Aishat in her understanding said while her school principal was scolding her, she had spoken thus: “If you people are allowed to continuously wear hijab, a time will come when children of local herbalists and traditionalists will also be wearing ileke (Yoruba native beads) in their wrists and necks while coming to the school.”
Lateef Ibirogba, state Commissioner for Information, when asked if the state government has any specific statement on the wearing of hijab, he said “just as the state has no specific statement on allowing Celestial children to go to school bare-footed?”
For close observers of events, the stance of the Lagos State government might be spurred from the fact that it presides over multi-religious cum multi-ethnic state, but the MSSN Amir said in doing that, the state government is taking its “neutral” stance too far.
Indeed, the March 2012 stakeholders’ meeting Alli was referring to has become another bone of contention in the relationship between the state and MSSN. While the Muslim Student Society argues that officers of the state government who partook in the meeting either by acts of omission or commission actually tampered with resolutions reached, the state government claims nothing was changed in the resolutions.
According to the MSSN Amir, four resolutions were reached at the stakeholders’ meeting and these include: That female Muslim students shall observe whatever obligatory sallat (prayer) that meet them in school and use hijab thereafter; that female Muslim students whilst at school shall be allowed to use their headgear (hijab) during Islamic religious studies (IRS) classes and Juma’at prayers; that female Muslim students who wish to use the hijab on the way home after the school hours should wear full hijab and ensure that it covers their entire body without showing their uniform; that school principals should allow students who wish to remove their uniform and wear/use full hijab after school hours to do so.
“The government of Lagos State is not against the use of hijab by any student. We are only saying that every student must comply with the uniform of each and respective schools. If hijab is part of a school uniform, why not? But if it is not, why should we bring it in? The objective behind the idea of wearing uniform means, there is an agreement among stakeholders that a specific dressing code within the school is acceptable to all and everybody who attends such school must abide by it. The essence is to be able to recognize and identify who is from where. That is without prejudice to the fact that every individual have the liberty to practice his or her own religion.
“That I am a Muslim, I have the rights to observe my zuhr and asr prayers while in school, if they fall within the hours and I also have the rights to put on whatever regalia my religion dictates that I should wear so that I won’t carry out the prayer under the condition that is not permissible by my religion. And when I return to the classroom to continue my academic duties, I will revert to the stipulation of the uniform,” the commissioner said.
Although the explanation given by the Commissioner seemed to buttress the same stance being maintained by MSSN, yet that is not being reflected in the minute of the stakeholders’ meeting. For instance, resolution I and II of the controversial minute of the meeting contrasted sharply with the Commissioner’s and MSSN position. A copy of the printed minute obtained by Weekly Trust indeed read thus: That the use of hijab during Zuhr and Juma’at prayers in the school compound should not be allowed; and that Hijab no matter how small would not be allowed on school uniforms even after school hour, but students could wear full Islamic dress when going home after school hour.
While the MSSN believes the change of positions in the resolution might have been deliberately orchestrated; some observers insist it might simply be typo-grammatical errors by the government typists. Already, the minute printed on the letter head and signed by Gafar Shakiru, the Senior Special Assistant to the Governor on Religion (Muslim), dated March 1st, 2012, has been circulated to all major education stakeholders in the state including the school principals. This, the MSSN says has become the instrument often exploited by principals to descend heavily on their students.
After the protest organized by the MSSN at the state assembly in the aftermath of Aishat’s bitter experience, the lawmakers had set up a committee to look into the matter and report back to the house in one week. But in the account of Aishat who attended the first sitting of the committee, the lawmakers only asked her principal and “one other school principal from Mafoluku Oshodi area to go and sin no more since they have both apologised and promised not to be ruthless with the students again.”
Alli, however, said the MSSN is not totally comfortable with such gesture. If anything, he said, Muslims will pursue the case already instituted against the state government to a logical conclusion.