A lot of people have wondered what it means to mark a World Hijab Day(WHiD). What is it for, what do Muslim women hope to achieve by observing it? Well, before I could come up with a convincing defense of it, our brother, Disu Kamor, the indefatigable executive director of Muslim Public Affairs Centre, rose to the occasion with this well-researched piece on the event, which is due on Saturday next week. Please read on.
Thousands of people across the world who would either be non-Muslims or Muslims who ordinarily do not don the hijab will wear it on the 1st of February, 2014 in solidarity with the hijabis everywhere. This annual solidarity event tagged the World Hijab Day (WHD) seeks to create better understanding and awareness of the Muslim head cover, at a time that the hijab has seen great assault, and when modesty of covering up is being ridiculed or associated with oppression and backwardness. The event will also highlight the fact that the hijab is religiously mandated, and that millions of Muslim women are making the free choice to follow God’s legislation regarding the way they dress every single time that they step out of their houses.
Many Nigerian Muslim women will mark the occasion of the WHD to reflect on the situation that exists for them: the unwarranted hostility and discrimination they and their daughters have to suffer for making the free choice to put a piece of cloth on their heads. The hostility and discrimination that manifest in various places and ways: at the workplace, in schools and sadly, even in official quarters. Many Nigerian Muslim women endure untold hardship as a price they pay in order to meet this religious obligation.
For instance on October 28, 2013, the Nigerian embassy in Washington DC denied a Muslim sister wearing a hijab, who had gone for a biometrics appointment necessary to replace her Nigerian passport, any service on the basis that she had to expose her ears. Even when the victim informed the attendant that she was wearing the hijab for religious purposes and as such could not expose her ears, an immigration attaché at the embassy intervened and insisted that the victim had to because it is the law of Nigeria that ears must show. Interestingly, the way and manner the victim donned her hijab at the Nigerian embassy in Washington was the exact way she dons it every day- common sense would have made it the best form of identifying her whenever she carries the passport.
This disturbing example fits into a pattern that is replicated at almost every immigration centre and other government agencies in this country. Thousands of Muslim applicants of Nigerian passport, the driving license and other forms of ID cards are being harassed to show your ears or to totally remove their hijab by state officials claiming to be enforcing the law of the land. Officials of the Nigerian Immigration Service in Nigeria and their counterparts in several other government agencies, remain obstinate and maintain that they are enforcing a law of the land which none of them has been able to produce for verification.
Perhaps some of them assume that there is such a law, since no one above them has deemed it fit to clarify the official policy and create a better understanding of the Nigerian law as it pertains to the work they do. Ongoing request to the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Interior to clarify policies regarding the use of hijab in passport photographs taken for ID purpose have met with complete silence. Sadly, heads of the affected government agencies have also ignored earlier requests sent directly to them, in a show of lack of sensitivity or a sense of responsibility. Of course, official clarification and pronouncements would have stopped the needless misery that many Muslim women continue to go through.
The total abandonment of responsibility on the part of the senior officials, at these services, on this issue is clearly responsible for the continued misbehaviour of the officials who are let loose on hapless Muslim women. If they are employing world-class standards and best practices to run the services, it will be easier and better to publish unambiguous guidelines on the websites of these services. The equivalent of our own immigration service in the UK, in the United States and in Australia (all secular democracies) have user-friendly and clear guidelines which show that hijab (with ears covered) is allowed for passport and visa application.
More importantly, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards which the Nigerian machine-readable passport complies to specifically spell out that head covering for religious purposes is acceptable. As more people step into the shoes of the hijabis on the 1st of February, they will see how securing freedom of religious expression serves compelling national interests. The goodwill and flexibility in meeting both the religious needs of Muslim women and the legitimate needs of those service providers cannot be mutually exclusive. One wonders if Catholic nuns are asked to remove their habit or show their ears when taking pictures for ID purpose at immigration centres, at the Nigerian Identity Management Commission, and at driving license issuing centres etc – or is the ‘bare your ears’ only a Muslim thing?.
The testimonies of many past participants of the World Hijab Day will help us to better understand that it takes more than lectures and reading to share the experience and real commitment of those wearing the shoes in any situation. Female staff and pupils at Pleckgate High School, Blackburn UK decided to step into the shoe and wore the headscarf last year. A participating teacher of the school had this to say: A lot of the girls at the school already wear a hijab, and we have one as part of the school uniform. I asked the head if we could ask all the girls to take part and around a third of them did. We also had a number of staff take part. I think World Hijab Day helps us to understand how Muslim women feel and more about their beliefs and faith. A lot of the girls were excited about taking part and many saw it as a fashionable thing and quite light hearted, while still getting the message across. Pleckgate High School is a public funded school, and prides itself on the value it attaches to diversity.
It will be nice to get our public officials into the same mindset and make our public schools establish and promote a policy that would make every feel child priceless and valued equally- where every child will feel truly included. As things stands, an existing policy in Lagos State for instance, effectively bars any Muslim female student from wearing the hijab. Of course, the policy of discrimination sends a strong message of exclusion to all Muslims and posterity will surely judge this period as a time when the state forbids education to a child unless that child violates the tenet of her faith.
Sadly, Muslim students in public schools of similar ages as those depicted in the Pleckgate High School story above will finish their education in Lagos State with memories of bias, exclusion and discrimination. Perhaps the greatest lesson we all can take from an event like the WHD is that we actually do not know enough until we take the courage to step into other people’s shoes. As the organizers of the event stated on the need for a day like this: It will be a day for everyone willing to experience what it’s like to step inside the shoes of a Hijabi. We wish you will gain a wealth of knowledge and experience a slightly different definition of FREEDOM.
The author, Executive Chairman, Muslim Public Affairs Centre, MPAC, Nigeria.
Latest posts by Yoopya (see all)
- Biden expected to nominate Blinken as secretary of state - November 23, 2020
- Singer Bobby Brown’s son found dead at Los Angeles home - November 21, 2020
- Lil Baby, Roddy Ricch, Taylor Swift win Apple Music Awards - November 21, 2020