A week ago on 17 June, the Supreme Court of Nigeria in the matter of Lagos State Government v AsiyatAbdulKareem (a minor), a case pursued for up to a decade right from the High Court of Lagos, the Supreme Court in summary allowed schoolchildren in public to wear the hijab as part their uniform in exercising their rights to freedoms of religion, thought and conscience, freedom from discrimination, etc.
Others thought the judgment was mistaken and/or had other implications and spoke out about it, on of whom was my friend, Malcolm Omirhobo. In his article 2 days later entitled, ‘Hijab: Why the Supreme Court Erred’, he made the point about the secularity of the Nigerian state and the implications of the appearance making one religion above others, and what it would look like if every religious adherents wanted their religions reflected in their appearances as well, including professional outfits!
On Thursday, he shocked everyone when he appeared at the Supreme Court robed as a lawyer but reflecting his traditional religion. He may be communicating something others may miss.
Years ago, I followed arguments in the US of keeping the monuments of 10 Commandments in court houses, schools, legislative buildings and other such public buildings for reasons the proponents gave. Some even offered to fund the process from their pockets. The evangelical Christian groups insisted that America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles which must reflect in their public life.
One day, I got the shock of my life when members the Satanist Temple unveiled an image of an idol Baphomet, a rather grotesque humanoid statue, half goat-half human with wings and horns, and insisted on placing in front of a legislative buildings where the statues the 10 Commandments were.
Their message was simple: what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If Christians (or Jews) want the 10 Commandments which is a symbol of their religions, they as citizens too deserved to place a symbol of their own religion/belief system, or else leave it neutral to accommodate everybody. And if anybody felt uneasy, uncomfortable with their ‘idol’, such was their own feeling every single day having symbols of another religion dominating public buildings. The message sank, at least for me.
What Chief Omirhobo did on Thursday has had the same shock effect beyond his writing.Some reports say the Supreme Court justices upon seeing him looked at each other, and quietly took a recess. The shock. The unpredictability.
It was what he warned about. If we all want our religions reflected in our professional appearances where will this end?
It’s why I’m now one hundred percent for secularism in public life, and advocate for religion to be personal and private. After all, religion in Nigeria hasn’t had the positive effect it should, if we want to be honest
In the US Supreme Court is an image of Prophet Muhammad. An embossed sculpture in the courtroom.Hisimage is among the pantheon the greatest lawgivers in the history of mankind, his along with Moses, Solomon, Confucious, Hammurabi, Justinian, Menes, Charlemagne, Augustus, Blackstone, and other historical figures, 18 of them.
Six decades after this was completed, a coalition of 15 Muslim groups, the Council of American-Islamic Relations, in 1997 quietly wrote the US Supreme Court to have his image removed. They appreciated the kind gesture and honour of considering the prophet among the leading lawgivers even in the secular world, and so forth but insisted that having his image was against the teachings and practice of Islam, and unappreciated.
The US Supreme Court received their concerns and appreciated their approach but declined removing the image for reasons that they gave. Though some concessions were made. Afterwards, some Islamic leaders thought about it and said it was okay to have the image there, (even if it is unislamic).
One reason was the thought given to it and the reasons adduced at the time, noting that in that era America wasn’t as diverse as it is today, or had as many Muslims yet the Court in its wisdom thought it wise to have that image, and it should be seen in that light.
To be sure, I’m unbothered by whether females choose to wear the hijab, or any form of clothing they prefer in their private lives. Even on their professional lives modest modifications to suit preferences don’t bother me. Personally, I don’t think it should be an issue. It doesn’t affect me in any way. Same applies to the men.
However, in Nigeria once these things start they never end but only keep getting worse. In March this year, the inspector-general of police, Usman Alkali Baba, attempted go alter the uniform of police women to reflect the hijab in police uniform. To be sure, the Nigeria Police has been ranked the worst in the world. The police are undertrained, underpaid, underequipped, insecurity is on the rise the life of the Nigerian is cheap, and of all these raging issue the major concern of the inspector-general of police is outward appearance of Muslim police women. Why introduce issues religion into the police? On this too Chief Omirhobois in court.
Tomorrow someone else with a loose screw in the head would say the hijab is not a mere head covering but is supposed to be a loose gown covering the hands up to the wrists and ankles length, then would begin another series of alterations of the uniforms of our military, police and paramilitary service. Where will it stop?
Others have asked what if all religions decided to have their appearance reflected in professional appearances how chaotic would it be? Instead of asking us to imagine, Omirhobo demonstrated on Thursday.
Decisions have consequences and the Supreme Court decision no less. Where the floodgates it might have opened for others to also agitate for their own religions to reflect everywhere else the dominant Christianity and Islam hold sway today leads, would be seen in the coming days, weeks and months.
Personally, I’d rather the status quo were maintained, as we put a pause on this religious thing, and left it to be personal and private, as religion in public life brings us more harm than good. Not clearly separating ‘church and state’, and keeping the former personal and private is going to be the undoing of us all.
Sesugh Akume, a public policy analyst, wrote from Abuja. He is reached via [email protected]