Re: The Guardian (Nigeria) editorial “Lagos public schools and Hijab distraction”

This post is a necessary but an unfortunate one because at this stage in the history of Nigeria we shouldn’t be debating the use of hijab in public schools, but as it is we have to debate, discuss and deliberate in order for us to be able to move forward as a ‘civilised’ society. This post is about a rejoinder to an editorial (opinion) piece published on the 17th of August 2018 by The Guardian Nigeria which makes the task arduous because “opinions” can easily be influenced by conjectures, conscious and unconscious biases, sentiments, subjectivities and positionalities. Hence, there are many incomplete quotes – this is due to the avoidance of being accused of copyrights’ infringement by the publisher – from the main article I’m addressing here. However, what this post is not is is that it’s not a religious verdict on the matter of discuss but an educationally informed argument.

Now let’s get to the real issue at hand.

According to the editorial, the Commissioner for Home Affairs, Abdulateef Abdulhakeem, “stated that the use of hijabs in Lagos public schools would not be allowed until the Supreme Court “determines an appeal seeking to upturn the decision of a Court of Appeal.”” Hence, we all need decorum as civilised citizens to wait for the final outcome(s) from the judgement. However, what we can do in the interim is to engage in constructive discussions on the matter and not allow the airing of a single line of story, argument or reasoning to divide us as a people.

As far as I’m concerned the issue shouldn’t be about the use of hijabs in public schools, rather the issue should be about having a state-wide or nationwide discussion on what should be included in a school uniform or dress code policy. The editorial addresses the hijab issue by raising a “few key points” and it is these “few key points” that I have discussed below. Although, not necessarily in the order of how they appeared in the article.

The first point that I want to touch on is “the most basic of which is that religion is a strictly personal affair whose manifestations in public spaces must be reduced to the barest minimum.”, this argument is riddled with obscurity. Perhaps, by providing their readers with the definition of “public space” by the Editor will help because if we are to use UNESCO’s definition of public space that says:

A public space refers to an area or place that is open and accessible to all peoples, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age or socio-economic level. These are public gathering spaces such as plazas, squares and parks. Connecting spaces, such as sidewalks and streets, are also public spaces. In the 21st century, some even consider the virtual spaces available through the internet as a new type of public space that develops interaction and social mixing.

Then it means the Editor is saying that people that belong to any faith in the country should be pushed to the brink of society and not allowed to co-exist within the same space, publicly, with other “non-religious” people in the society. But if the aspiration of the Editor is to have a world in which everyone can co-exist – peacefully – without subjugating one group for the other based on “differences” that they do not agree with, then they need to accept that public spaces should and must always be sanctuaries of inclusion for everyone, save the unrepentant criminals.

Yes, it is true that “Schools, particularly primary and secondary schools, are part of the most important public institutions necessary for the development of citizens.” Hence, it is the same reason why as a society we need to be more inclusive, open and accepting of our differences, particularly at that phase of children’s development and educational experience, and not objectify a particular group of girls because of their choice to wear hijabs to school. And this is why I find it disturbing that the article thinks that being “sensible” and developing “the feeling of oneness, rather than difference” is only applicable to girls who choose to wear hijab in public schools and not to the other children who do not wear hijab. Perhaps, the Editor needs reminding that “oneness” is accepting to be part of the whole harmoniously.

If truly the article wants “oneness” then there is the need to see the bigger picture and accept the reality that the Nigerian society is heterogeneous and would continue to be and more importantly public schools in Lagos state – a state that is known for its cosmopolitanism, inclusion and accepting of everyone – are heterogeneous spaces. Hence, it has come to that point in the journey of Nigeria’s nationhood that the people have to fully embrace its unity in diversity. That’s more realistic, progressive and inclusive than the claim of a narrowly insinuated “oneness”. Perhaps, the Editor needs to encourage all the children to accept themselves as they are and know that together they can form a strong and progressive society and divided they would be left with a desolate society, as the country is presently and unfortunately experiencing with the state of public affairs and nation building.

The article also claims that “The wide and age-long use of school uniforms is presumably a testament to this community-oriented principle.” This can be accepted on its face value but what can be more community oriented than to use public schools as places where children from diverse backgrounds can seamlessly fit in and feel accepted without anyone inciting prejudice among them based on a narrow use of “oneness” that is open to interpretations based on who is explaining or defining it. Furthermore, the editorial argues that “Pupils should be encouraged to perceive one another as together and alike instead of being separated along ethnic, class, and/or religious lines at that pupa state of development.”, this is an argument that is being used in a very hegemonic manner because the choice to wear hijab by the Muslim girls in those public schools has nothing to do with “being separated along…religious lines” but the assertion of the girls’ fundamental human right to freely associate with their own faith without infringing on the rights of others.

If truly “The purpose of education is not ambiguous”, then there is the need to consider the interests of all the major stakeholders in the provision of public education in the state, particularly the children, families and communities affected by the issue. This is because children come from different backgrounds: religious, socioeconomic, ethnic etc. thus, any progressive system must factor these issues into consideration in determining how to design and promote inclusion within it; helping children to be accepting of each other and learning how to study and work together in harmony. Hence, oneness isn’t only about wearing the same uniform, attire, clothes or “regalia”, it also involves giving children a sense of purpose to be responsible individuals, first and foremost, and then to be responsible citizens of their individual’s physical and digital communities and the world.

What can one really say about the comment that “There are, in any case, special schools such as seminaries and ile kewus that have been built for the purpose of religious orientation. In such specialised settings the wearing of religious regalia is a splendid and in fact indispensable practice.”? Except that the editor is muddling up the provisions of religious education in institutions set up by religious organisations to propagate and preserve their religious knowledge with children wearing hijabs to public schools and in public spaces; a religious practice that is part of the everyday lived experience of many Muslim girls, women and families all over the world. Also, to even insinuate that going to these “special schools” in this instance for this children is an option is to furthermore expose the doubts around the use of “oneness” by the editor in the editorial because “oneness” seems to be, according to how the editor presents it. That is, you’re either in conformity to my own way or you’re not part of the system. “Oneness” does not seem to have semblance with togetherness, diversity, equity, equality, social justice or inclusivity in the lexical definition of the editor in the editorial.

And the views that “religious dressing should normally constitute a malpractice” and “If parents can choose whether to send their children to public secular schools or dedicated religious institutions, schools reserve the right to determine their own sartorial policies.” sum up the editor’s interpretation or understanding of what public schools stand for in a society. Telling parents that they have options, albeit private ones, does no one any good and doesn’t sound like a good suggestion from an editorial piece that wants to promote “oneness” and see public schools as “social goods”. This is because if the editor sees public schools as centres of social integration and creation of social cohesion, then the editorial would rather promote schools that are inclusive and reflective of the society that the children are growing up in. Perhaps, the editor needs to be informed that private fees paying provisions of education lead to further entrenchment of social and educational disadvantages for children from poor socioeconomic backgrounds, girls and individuals with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

It is a fact that “Emphasis should be on the quality of education and the proper equipment of pupils for both internal and external competition.” But it doesn’t have to be a situation of either this or that. Addressing the ‘issues’ around school uniform code does not in any manner hinder the provision of quality: education, educational facilities and equipment to the children. Rather than victimising and trying to shame the families and children that choose to make the hijab part of their school uniforms, the editorial should have focused on a robust and inclusive discussion on setting the criteria to consider with regards to uniforms in the state’s public schools, and this would be better achieved if the government – as the custodians of the public schools – consult and consider all the major stakeholders affected by the decision.

The claim in the editorial that “It is indeed an index of underdevelopment that in this universalistic twenty-first century, debates over school curriculum are swept under the carpet while the wearing of hijab is being pushed to the level of a national contention.” is as spurious a claim as it gets. While the case has been in court for close to a decade now, issues that relate to curriculum, assessment, pedagogy and professionalism at the compulsory education level in the state have been on-going. Perhaps, the government shouldn’t have made a mountain out of a molehill of the situation from inception and rather, should have related with all the major stakeholders involved in the issue and reach an inclusive solution ab initio. And most importantly, the families, organisations, children and individuals that are involved in the case do not have the prerogative on the provision of quality education and equipment, that’s the role of the government to fulfil.

The editor blatantly exposes his/her prejudice on the wearing of hijab by Muslim girls by questioning their morality, as can be seen in one of the many obnoxious views espoused in the article, that how can wearing the hijab “protect girl-child from poverty and rape?” as if those children (girls) that wear hijabs to school are expecting that going to school means being exposed to “poverty” and “rape”! This only shows the editor’s perception of those that wear hijab which unfortunately shows how low and demeaning he or she has chosen to descend to in order to express his/her prejudice and bigotry towards young girls that choose to wear hijabs!

Yes, we can argue that wearing school uniform is great for all the ease and convenience that it can bring but there is no empirical evidence to show that wearing a uniform to school has any significant impact on a child’s learning and behaviour. In countries like the US, Finland and Germany children, generally, do not wear school uniforms and they still have better educational experience than the average child in the Nigerian education system. You can read more on the issues that relate to wearing of school uniforms by students and the impacts it has on their learning, behaviour and results – and google is your friend in this instance – in the links I have provided below:

School uniforms: A history of ‘rebellion and conformity’
School uniforms – a blessing or a curse?
Does wearing a school uniform improve student behavior?
School uniform does not improve results – discuss

Do school uniforms improve students’ behaviour or academic performance?

Finally, if the issue is that others will want to wear what reflects their “forms of religious clothing” then the editor should promote and encourage an open and honest discussion on what should be included in a school uniform code, rather than victimising and othering a group of girls that have chosen to wear the hijab.  These children are asserting their rights to visibility and inclusivity in a society they belong to and that they’re happy, willing and proud to be part of and they demand our support and care.

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