The Body of Benchers may need to review its rules on who to admit as a barrister

The controversy involving a female Law graduate, Ms Amasa Firdaus, who was recently denied a call to the Nigerian Bar for wearing a black Hijab, an apparel worn by Muslim women as a symbol of modesty and privacy, has raised several pertinent questions. While some people have been making incendiary comments on the issue, what is being ignored is that the Nigerian Law School has long adopted a dress code that the authorities believe students must comply with to graduate. These are set prerequisites which every student is aware of at the time of admission into the institution.

Since the student in question refused to take off her Hijab for a standard ceremony for which she knew the rules ahead of time, despite entreaties from the authorities, we believe the school is within its rights to insist on enforcement of its rules. Allowing one person to dictate standards and amend the rules of engagement to suit personal convenience or make a political point should not be allowed by any self- respecting society. We enjoin those dissatisfied with the decision to seek redress in the court rather than inflame passion on an issue as sensitive as religion.

However, there are substantive issues that we must also address. Section 4, subsection 1 of the Legal Practitioners’ Act (LPA), which empowers “the Body of Benchers” as the organ responsible for the formal call to the bar of persons seeking to become legal practitioners in Nigeria, provides that “Subject to the provisions of this section, a person shall be entitled to be called to the Bar If, (a) he is a citizen of Nigeria; and (b) he produces a qualifying certificate to the Benchers; and (c) he satisfies the Benchers that he is of good character”. On the specific matter of dress code, Section 16, subsection three states that “Every student proposed and approved for call to the Bar shall, on any Call Night, be dressed in his Bibs and Barrister’s gown but shall not place his wig on his head until he has been called to the Bar by the Chairman”.

While those who support the wearing of Hijab argue that there is nothing in that provision which forbids a lawyer from wearing the religious apparel, those who oppose argue that to the extent that Hijab is not on the list prescribed, it would be wrong to wear it. But the most plausible argument, in our view, is that which hinges the wearing of Hijab on human rights. And there are several decided cases to back up this argument. For instance, in the case of Abdulkareem v. LASG (2016), the Court of Appeal held that “The use of hijab by female Muslims constitutes an act of worship, hence the refusal to allow the appellants to wear it on their school uniform, is a clear infraction of their constitutionally guaranteed right”.

By the reasoning of the court, no citizen should be denied the enforcement of their rights as enshrined in Section 38 (1) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) which provides as follows: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

What the foregoing says very clearly is that the Body of Benchers may have to review its rules to allow those who choose to wear Hijab at their call to bar ceremony to do so because it is within their rights to wear it. But aside the legal argument, the best approach to managing diversity, especially in a plural society such as ours, is to respect all peoples and their cultural/religious rights and identities.

  • Citadel

    Dear Members of Thisday Editorial Board

    May I take the liberty to complement your objection assessment and reckoning of this
    delicate and sensitive issue. I like to say that, when I initially learnt of the incident, I was bemused, felt pity for the Learning Counsel and was deeply troubled and feared that that singular Act by the Body of Benchers would to a large extent undermine the core values of the Legal Profession.

    However, a reassessment of the situation paled my earlier feelings of indignation. In as much as the Constitution provided for freedom of Religion, the same Constitution also provides for freedom of Association. Thus, albeit by the Constitution, one is free to join any association, the person would have to meet all the necessary requirement to be eligible to join the Association; as anything short of that might render him/her ineligible to join the Association. For instance, although anyone is free to join the Nigerian Bar Association, the Constitution and/or Governing Laws of the NBA requires that a person must have been called to the Nigerian Bar in order to be eligible. A person must also be a Medical Practitioner to be eligible to join the NMA.

    It is only when a person meets all the requisite conditions and yet is disallowed that the person would have the legal justification to cry foul.

    Be it known that, even if the LPA and/or other ancillary or supplementary laws or rules of the NBA did not specifically prohibit the use of Hijab for the purposes of the Call to Bar ceremony, in construing relevant provisions, the courts are wont to taking cognizance of customs and practices. May I refer to section 28 of the Evidence Act 2011.

    It is importantto have a thorough and unbiased appreciation of the issue.

  • tobias

    Dear Writer,
    I wish to comment on your statement ‘But the most plausible argument, in our view, is that which hinges the wearing of Hijab on human rights’ and quote “The use of hijab by female Muslims constitutes an act of worship, hence the refusal to allow the appellants to wear it on their school uniform, is a clear infraction of their constitutionally guaranteed right”.

    On your statement regarding human rights, I really don’t see how human rights come in here.If she was not stopped on the street or even at the entrance to the hall because she was wearing a hijab. So let’s leave out human rights from this and concentrate on the appropriateness or other wise of wearing the hijab to the swearing-in-ceremony. The key issue here is appropriateness and this is what the ‘Body of Benchers’ hinged their refusal on. Just like they would refuse someone who, let’s say jeans or sports track suit to his or her swearing-in-ceremony. And like you would be refused participation from a football match if you are one of the players and you come in a different thing from the teams’ jersey. Now going back to Firdaus and how she was dressed and based on that if the ‘Body of benchers’ were right to have deemed her dress code inappropriate for the occasion. Now we know that lawyers dress in black suits, black trousers and white shirts for the men and black suit, black skirts (or trousers) and white shirts for the women. They both afterwards adorn the wig and gown and then they are set for business. For me, if Firdaus was dressed like this but with the additional modification of attaching the head gear (white hijab) to the shirt, then I do not see why the ‘Bar of benchers’ should refuse her being sworn-in. Was that how it happened? Or was she dressed differently? Did she refuse to wear wig over her hijab? I wait to hear from you how she was actually dressed, if possible post the photograph of how she was dressed for the occasion.
    Now on the court ruling which you quoted, that “The use of hijab by female Muslims constitutes an act of worship, and that they can wear it on their school uniform”, I find that ruling very curious and very un-elegant. Firstly if he says that use of hijab is and act of worship, then that means it should be worn only when the person wearing is is going for worship and nothing else! Secondly the school is not a place of worship, so to say “hence the refusal to allow the appellants to wear it on their school
    uniform, is a clear infraction of their constitutionally guaranteed
    right” is to go judicially over-board. Similar to what I said above, If they are prevented from wearing their hijab to their place of worship or even in society generally, then you can talk of infraction of their rights. Are you now saying that schools and other public institutions do not have constitutional rights to set rules guiding their operations. That we can all do what we like anywhere and then claim constitutional and human rights?
    Where will we end if we now adopt the ‘anything goes’ mantra?