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.