In June, a lawyer, Malcom Omoirhobo appeared at the Supreme Court in Abuja dressed in traditional attire to look like a herbalist. The lawyer who gained entry into the court was barefooted with feathers attached to his wig. He was also wearing a gourd on his necklace with cowries and a red wrapper tied around his waist.
According to him, he was dressed to the court in that manner to exercise his fundamental human rights in the wake of the judgement of the Supreme Court that allowed Nigerians to express their way of worship and the use of hijab in schools and public places.
The Supreme Court had on June 17, affirmed the Court of Appeal’s decision that restored the use of hijab by female Muslim students in Lagos state. The case involved the Lagos State Government as the appellant and Asiyat AbdulKareem (through her father), Moriam Oyeniyi, and the Muslim Students’ Society of Nigeria as the respondents.
On October 17, 2014, Grace Onyeabo of the Lagos State High Court had in a judgement upheld the Lagos state government’s decision to ban the use of hijab in public primary and secondary schools of the state. But the High Court’s decision was upturned by the Lagos Division of the Court of Appeal in a judgement delivered on July 21, 2016.
In what was an unanimous judgement, the appeal court ruled that the ban on the use of hijab in public schools in the state was discriminatory against muslim pupils. But the Lagos state government was not comfortable with the appeal court’s ruling and approached the apex court in February 2017.
The Court of Appeal had ruled that the hijab ban violated the students’ rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, the dignity of human persons and freedom from discrimination guaranteed by the Nigerian. The court also ruled that wearing the hijab was an Islamic injunction and an act of worship required of Muslims.
The appellate court said the use of hijab by Muslim pupils could not cause disunity, distraction and discrimination against students of other faiths as declared by the lower court judge.
In the Supreme Court judgment that was prepared by Justice Kudirat Kekere-Ekun and read by Justice Tijani Abubakar, the apex court dismissed the appeal brought by Lagos State for lacking in merit.
According to the majority judgment, the ban on the use of Hijab was discriminatory hence, the need to set aside the judgment of Justice Grace Onyeabo of the High Court of Lagos State which upheld the ban.
But Omoirhobo, has however explained that his appearance at court proceedings was fully in line with his religious beliefs and injunctions. He said the implication of the Supreme Court judgement was that people’s dressing can now reflect their religion.
He further told journalists at the Supreme Court that it was within his fundamental human rights to so dressed to the Supreme Court which is a public place as per of exercising the rights as enshrined in the Constitution and ruled by the Supreme Court in the recent judgment that allowed all Nigerians to express their way of worship and the use of hijab in schools and public places.
“I am very grateful to the Supreme Court, just last week Friday they made a very resounding decision that promotes Section 38 of the constitution. That is our right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. That we are free to express our way of worship in our schools and in our courts. That decision was reached on Friday and that has encouraged me.
“Because I am a traditionalist and this is the way I worship. Based on the decision of the Supreme Court this is how I will be dressing henceforth in court because I am a strong adherent to Olokun the god of rivers,” he said.
The hijab is one of the types of veiling common among Muslim women. It is a scarf that covers the woman’s head with the face open and extends to with the the ankle, abdomen or knees. According to Islamic clerics, the Quran encourages women to adopt the hijab as a symbol of modesty and decency. There are those who believe that although God instructs women to use the hijab, He did not intend to force them to use it.
In Kwara state, the use of hijab has been a contentious one that has caused religious tension in the state. Early this year, protest over the use of hijab in the state took a violence turn in Oyun Baptist High School, Ijagbo, Oyun Local Government Area of the state, where a number of persons sustained injuries.
In February 2021, the state government ordered the closure of 10 schools over a dispute on the matter. The same year, the controversy degenerated into violence in Ilorin, where Christians and Muslims engaged in a confrontation following the decision of the state government to reopen the 10 schools earlier closed.
Taking a stand on the matter, the Kwara State Government said it will allow the use of hijab by only willing Muslim schoolgirls in all categories of public schools in the state.
Making the stand of the state government known to the public, the Commissioner for Education and Human Capital Development, Hajia Sa’adatu Madibbo Kawu, during a meeting between Muslim and Christian stakeholders in Ijagbo, Oyun local government area, said, “the policy statement of the Kwara State Government allowing willing Muslim schoolgirl to wear the hijab in all public schools, including grant-aided ones, is binding. This conforms with the judicial pronouncements of the courts of law and the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria,” she said.
Reacting to the Supreme Court verdict, the president of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Rev. Dogara Gwana, lamented that schools with Islamic background maintain their tradition while it is not the same with those with Christian background. He argued that missionary schools should be returned to the original owners and be allowed to run according to the doctrine of the missions. This he believes is the real solution to the hijab contentions in the country.