Hijab Controversy: Before Kwara Slides into Religious Crisis

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By Hammed Shittu

There is no doubt that the current impasse in Kwara – with the sobriquet State of Harmony – over the order of the state government to all public schools, including schools founded by Christian missions in the state, to allow female Muslim students wear Hijab to school, has heightened tension among stakeholders in the two leading religions – Islam and Christianity.

 

The hijab controversy, according to THISDAY checks, may not only inhibit peaceful co-existence and affect academic performance of the students who are currently at home due to the decision of the state government to close 10 schools founded by Christian missions, if care is not taken, may lead to academic failure among the students in the upcoming National Examination Council (NECO) and West African Examination Council (WAEC) exams, and even snowball into religious crisis in the state.

Already, there are disruptions in academic activities of the 10 affected schools, originally owned by churches.

The affected schools are Cherubim & Seraphim College, Sabo Oke; St. Anthony College, Offa Road; ECWA School, Oja Iya; Surulere Baptist Secondary School; and Bishop Smith Secondary School, Agba Dam.

Others include, CAC Secondary School, Asa Dam; St. Barnabas Secondary School, Sabo Oke; St. John School, Maraba; St. Williams Secondary School, Taiwo Isale, and St. James Secondary School Maraba, all in Ilorin, the state capital.

 

The closure of the affected schools by the government was based on the protest embarked upon by the Muslim parents and guardians of the female students across Ilorin, the state capital, over the refusal to allow their children who wore hijab into the affected schools by their schools’ principals.

This affected 10 schools were billed to reopen Monday March 8, but following the tension that trailed the approval of Kwara state government for the use of Hijab by female Muslim students, the state government on Monday directed the 10 schools to remain shut until further notice, citing safety reasons.

How It Began

The call to allow the female students to wear Hijab in Christian mission founded schools started few years ago as Muslim stakeholders in Ilorin filed the issue in court.

The group which first filed the court case against the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in the state demanded that the association should compel the authorities of the schools founded by them to allow Muslim female students in the Christian schools to use Hijab.

The group argued that since the state government had taken over the schools, the former missionary owners no longer had control over the grant – aided schools in the state.

 

The Muslim stakeholders also said that, allowing the female Muslim students to wear Hijab will be in conformity with the judgment of the Kwara state High Court of 2016 and that of the Court of Appeal of 2019.

This however assumed a dangerous twist recently in the affected schools as Muslim female students wore hijab to school and were turned back. This prompted the Muslim community in the state to kick against the development.

Speaking at a press conference in Ilorin recently, the spokesperson of the group, Alhaji Isiaq Abdulkareem, said they were surprised that some former owners of schools in Ilorin orcefully removed hijab from heads of female Muslim students at the gates of the affected schools.

He listed the schools where there were infringements on the freedom of religion of female Muslim students as St. Anthony, St. James, Bishop Smith, and ECWA secondary schools-, all in Ilorin.

 

Abdulkareem said that allowing Muslim female students to wear hijab will be in conformity with the judgment of the Kwara state High Court of 2016 and that of the Court of Appeal of 2019.

He asked the state government to direct schools to allow female Muslim students to practice Islam in all ramifications, “i.e. observing prayers and use of hijab by female students”.

He said the infringement on rights of the concerned Muslim students was promptly reported to the appropriate quarters.

He, however, claimed that at a peace meeting held in the office of Secretary to the State Government on Tuesday, the former missionary school owners, insisted that they were not concerned about the judgements of the Kwara state High Court and the Appeal Court.

“This is the time the government and the people of the state need peace more than ever before. It should be seen as calling for trouble as failure to act may lead to people enforcing their rights in the best possible way.

“As a stakeholder in this government, we appeal to Governor AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq to take bold and urgent step in addressing this issues to avoid possible outbreak of crisis in the state”, he said.

Against the backdrop of this press conference by the Muslim stakeholders group in the state, the state government convened a peace meeting of the leaders of the two religious bodies.

The peace meeting according to the government was to allow them to state their positions and offer opinions on how to resolve the differences on the hijab question in grant-aided schools.

The meeting, summoned by Governor AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq, was presided over by Deputy Governor Kayode Alabi who appealed to all the leaders to respect their differences, live in peace and love, and join hands to raise a generation of children who will see one another as compatriots.

The meeting, which had representatives of the Muslim and Christian communities, political leaders and leaders of thoughts in Kwara State in attendance, resolved to devolve into a committee that will specifically tackle the Hijab question.

Members of the committee were the Deputy Governor (chairman), two thoughts leaders/statesmen from the two sides; three religious leaders from the two sides; Senator Suleiman Ajadi; Prince Sunday Fagbemi; Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Justice; Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education; Special Assistants to the Governor on Religion (Islam and Christianity); and the Chief Press Secretary to the Governor, according to a statement issued after the meeting in Ilorin.

The meeting stressed the need for every side to keep the peace and constantly caution members of their communities to avoid any action or comments that may disturb public peace.

But, as the peace committee set up was holding their meeting in Ilorin, the female Muslim students in the affected schools staged a peaceful protest in Ilorin over the refusal to allow them to wear Hijab to school.

Sensing the danger of snowballing into a religious crisis, the state government in a statement ordered the closure of the 10 schools in Ilorin where the crisis emanated.

But the peace meeting convened by the state government with the religious leaders to resolve the controversy surrounding the wearing of Hijab by Muslim students ended in a deadlock.

THISDAY investigations revealed that, the two religious bodies stuck to their demands at the meeting.

 

Sources close to the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity said that, the Muslim leaders insisted that the female students would continue to wear their Hijab to schools in line with the Court of Appeal ruling on the issue, while Christian leaders were said to have kicked against it saying that, “we will not allow the wearing of Hijab in our missionaries schools but head cap.”

It was learnt that, the Christian leaders told Muslim leaders at the meeting that if the female students cannot abide by their rules, they may take them to Muslim schools in the state where use of hijab is compulsory.

Because both sides did not shift ground, the meeting could not yield positive results and there was no communique on the peace talks.

CAN Holds Prayer Session

Following the failure of the two religious bodies to agree on a way out and the continued closure of the 10 schools, the state government resolved to take a decision on the issue. Worried by what could be the decision of the state government, CAN consequently chose the option of praying to God so as to have peaceful resolution of the Hijab controversy.

The association also demanded the return of the affected schools to the Christian Mission, insisting that it would not allow the use of hijab as it would make those legacy schools lose their identities of being built and originally owned by churches.

While awaiting government pronouncement on the issue after series of meetings, CAN leaders called out members to pray to God for ultimate solution.

The well-attended prayer session by members from various units and denominations was held Sunday, February 21, at St. Barnabas Anglican Cathedral, Sabo-Oke, Ilorin.

Rev Fr. Ralph Ajewole, Chairman, CAN Ecumenism who gave the brief on the reason for the gathering, said, it was for the faithful to raise their voices to the Lord in unison, giving the example of how Israelites overcame in battles.

He reminded Christians that God was with them in facing the current challenges as he had always been, charging them never to be tired or worried.

After Bible lesson from 2nd Chronicle 20:15 – 22, which was taken by Evangelist Mary Okoye, Rev. Dr. S. O. James of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Sabo-Oke, Ilorin gave the exhortation.

Rev. James charged the people to believe in God who never forsake his own people. He gave the example of Gideon who was almost going into hiding before he was strengthened to face the challenges ahead and conquered.

“We have reached a level in Kwara in which Christians are just living to survive. Why? What happened last week Thursday and Friday in respect of attempted enforcement and resistance of hijab in Christian-built schools will make anyone to feel sorry for the state,” he remarked.

He reminded all: “God is with us. We have Him as Israelites have Him. He has promised to be our God and He has superior power.” He enjoined Christians to go in might as a united body of Christ.

In their submissions, Rev. J. S. Dada, President, Kwara Baptist Convention and Rev. Rueben Ibitoye, State Secretary of CAN, said Christians in Kwara State were making two key demands: “The return of our schools and that no use of hijab in our schools,” and “CAN does not want the schools to lose the identity of being built and owned by Churches.”

Mr Shina Ibiyemi, CAN Legal Adviser, who elucidated on the legal angle of the controversy said, there was never any time the hijab issue was a subject of contention in the law court in the state. He therefore implored the people to arm themselves with fact and safeguard against misconception.

The gathering also prayed for unity of the Church, for peace in Nigeria and Kwara State in particular. Prayers were said for blessings, courage and boldness in faith. They also prayed for a secured society and for Governor Abdulrahman Abdulrazaq to heed CAN’s call and fulfill his promise of answering their requests.

Among Christian leaderswho led the faithful in prayer were Rev Gabriel Olaoye, Rev. S A Adedayo, Rev. J S Owoeye, Rev. Abel Aiyedogbon, Very Rev. Shokoya, Rev Noah Adeosun, Rev. Malomo, and Pastor Mrs. Ibitoye, who led the praise worship.

Govt Takes a Decision

After long wait and following a statement by the Secretary to the State Government, Prof. Mamma Saba Jibril, that the 10 grant-aided schools in Ilorin were to remain shut pending the announcement of the state government’s position on the issue, government penultimate week ordered that use of hijab must be allowed in all the schools, including mission founded schools, in the state.

In a statement issued in Ilorin SSG titled “Position of Kwara State Government on the Hijab Question in Public Schools”, the government further directed the Ministry of Education and Human Capital Development to come up with a uniform hijab for all public/ grant-aided schools, which will be the accepted mode of head covering in schools.

It said consultations on the Hijab controversy were held with the stakeholders on February 24, and attended by Governor Abdulrahman Abdulrazaq.

The statement said, “Sequel to recent developments in our state over the status of the hijaab in public/grant-aided schools, the state government has consulted widely with thought leaders and leaders of both Muslim and Christian communities with a view to clarifying issues and reaching a consensus.

“The last of such meetings was held on Wednesday February 24, presided by His Excellency Governor AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq.

“At least 10 schools of interest were earlier shut down to maintain peace and public order as well as prevent mischief makers from taking undue advantage of the development.

“The state government has considered submissions of all major interest groups on the matter.”

The stamen read: “It has also thoroughly considered the education law of Kwara State, the prevailing court judgments and current global trends of multiculturalism in evolving a consultation-based decision that will bring lasting peace and understanding to our communities.

“The government has also paid particular attention to the ‘declaratory’ nature of the subsisting judgments of the Court of Appeal and their purports.

“Consequently, the government hereby acknowledges and approves the right of the Muslim schoolgirl to wear the hijab, and directs the Ministry of Education and Human Capital Development to come up with a uniform hijab for all public/ grant-aided schools, which will be the accepted mode of head covering in schools.

“Any willing schoolgirl with the approved (uniform) hijab shall have the right to wear same in public/grant-aided schools.

“Also, the government affirms the right of every child in public schools to freedom of worship.

“The government hereby directs that the affected 10 schools should reopen to commence classes on Monday 8th March 2021”.

The SSG noted further that, “Similarly, the government had carefully noted submissions regarding ownership of grant-aided schools and related issues.

“While the status of these schools is the subject of judicial determination, this and other related matters will soon be subjected to a technical committee to advise accordingly.

“The government reassures all members of the public that it will act in good conscience at all times.

“The government asserts that there is no victor or vanquished on the hijaab question. It urges the two faith communities, especially the leaders, opinion moulders and media personalities to act with restraint and great responsibility in their public utterances and actions, and continue to live in peace and harmony with one another.

“The government commends all the thought and religious leaders on both sides for their forbearance, understanding and commitment to peace.”

Tension Rises as Reactions Trail Govt’s Position

However, CAN, in its reaction, disagreed with the government over the use of Hijab in schools established by Christian missions and originally owned by them.

It also accused the government of taking a decision on a matter that was still before the Supreme Court.

The association’s reaction was contained in a communiqué after a stakeholders’ meeting attended by proprietors of grant-aided schools, heads of block and heads of different denominations, and jointly signed by its Secretary, Rev Reuben Ibitoye, and Publicity Secretary, Apostle Sina Ibiyemi.

The CAN communiqué read: “The body condemns the use of hijab in Christian missions grant-aided schools as this will cause discrimination in schools and allow terrorists to easily identify our children and wards.

“Christian mission grant-aided schools should be returned to the owners promptly as most of these schools have churches besides them and unnecessary trespass may lead to the breakdown of law and order. Christian faithful should occupy all grants-aided schools.”

But, in a counter move, the Muslim Stakeholders in the state noted that the Christian Association of Nigeria(CAN), which engaged the state government in legal battle over the issue of ownership of the grant aided schools since 2013 “lost its two cases both in Ilorin High Court in 2016 and Court of Appeal in 2019.”

The Muslim stakeholders made their position known in a statement signed by Alhaji Is- haq AbdulKarim (chairman) and Prof Ibrahim Abikan (secretary).

The group while commending the state government for approving the use of hijab in all public schools in the state said that: “The decision of the state government is in consonance with the provisions of the Nigerian Constitution, the National Policy on Education and Kwara State Education Edict which must be complied with under all circumstances.”

On the calls for the return of the grant- aided mission schools to their former owners, the Muslim group posited that the stance of the state government, past and present has been that schools handed over to it over 45 years ago by communities, individuals, Christian and Muslim missionary bodies have been under it and cannot be returned based on provisions of the laws.

It added: ” In this circumstance, anybody no matter his or her position in the society that challenges this position taken by the Kwara State government on this matter is an enemy of this state as we are not in a jungle but in a society governed by laws.

“Whoever takes exception to ruling or any judgement of the court of law, they surely know what is next. If they therefore abandon that peaceful and lawful process and rely on propaganda, they are just wasting their time.

“On this basis, therefore, we condemn the communiqué credited to Kwara State Christian Association of Nigeria ( CAN) purportedly issued on 26th February, 2021 in which it claimed to have rejected the decision of the Kwara State government.

“As CAN continues to ‘fight a lost battle’ , we invite the attention of all the security agencies in Kwara State to the inciting public statement in the communiqué under reference in which Kwara CAN that had already been described as ‘ medulous Interlopers’ by the Court of Appeal – calling on ‘ All Christians to occupy all their grant-aided schools when the schools reopen on 8th March, 2021”.

Also, the proprietors of mission secondary schools rejected the approval for the use of Hijab in mission schools by the state government.

The proprietors in a communique read by Rev Victor Dada said that the “body condemns the use of hijab in Christian missions grant-aided schools as this will cause discrimination in schools and allow terrorist to easily identify our children and wards.

“Christian mission grant-aided schools should be returned to the owners promptly as most of these schools have churches besides them and unnecessary trespass may lead to break down of law and order.

“Christian faithful should occupy all grant aided schools. Christians should have a day for prayers and fasting for God to intervene in the imbroglio.

“We shall continue to interact and dialogue with the state government on the return of grant-aided schools to the proprietors.”

The Muslim Media Watxg Group in a statement issued on the issue, on its part, backed the new order on the wearing of Hijab in schools in the state.

In a statement issued in Ilorin, signed by the national coordinator of the group, Alhaji Abdullahi Ibrahim and made available to journalists, stated that, “Hijab is not new in Kwara State and Nigeria as a whole”.

According to the statement, “If Muslim students studying in Akwa-Ibom, Enugu and Delta States in public schools are allowed to use Hijab which is allowed in law as part of fundamental human rights, nobody should discriminate against them because they wear Hijab as part of their uniform”.

According to the group, “Federal Government approval for the use of Hijab in Federal Government College (FGC) and Federal Government Girls College (FGGC) dates back to over 10 years ago as circular issued on it is still being followed all over the country”.

On the ownership of schools, the group stated that all schools handed-over by Muslim and Christian missionaries since 1976 remain as public schools according to the interpretation of the Courts of Law.

Ibrahim added, “Religious group could force any state government in Nigeria to return those schools to them; not only in Kwara State but throughout the North and South West.

“Some states that did it in the South East, did it for political reasons to favour Christianity because Muslims are in minority in those states.

“In Kwara State Muslims are over 80 percent as 14 out of its 16 Local Governments have Muslim majority.

“It was because Kwara CAN lost the two cases they filed (both at Ilorin High Court and Court of Appeal Ilorin) against Kwara State Government that was why they asked female Muslim students to stop wearing hijab in schools formerly owned by them.”

The group appealed to the “CAN in the state to stop causing trouble in the State but abide by the ‘rule of law’ as Kwara State is a State of Harmony and commended the State Governor Alhaji Abdul-Rahman Abdul- Razaq for standing for truth and respecting the rule of law which he swore to protect and defend at all times”.

Also, the opposition party, PDP in the state has decried the current Hijab controversy as uncalled for at this present time, urging the two religious bodies for maintain peace.

The PDP said that, “we must not allow the issue to spark religious crisis.”

The PDP in a statement by its State Publicity Secretary, Tunde Ashaolu, stressed the need for all parties involved to be tolerant, exercise caution and not allow wearing of hijab to cause enmity between adherents of the two religions.

The party said: “Kwara is well known as a State of harmony and people of the State have been living in peace and unity. We must therefore not allow the issue of hijab to spark religious crisis in Ilorin or any part of the State.

“We call on all parties involved to exercise caution, tolerance and not allow the issue to create tension and enmity between members of the Muslim and Christian communities. We must also be careful not to sow seed of discord in the minds of innocent young school students.

“We understand that there is a subsisting court ruling on this matter. We therefore appeal to all concerned parties to respect and abide by this judgement. Any party that is not satisfied with the order should seek redress at the court and not take law into their own hands, in the interest of peace and stability of our State. Ours is a society that is guided by laws.

“Our party also calls on the State Government to be proactive, handle the matter with utmost caution and not allow it degenerate into crisis. We implore the Government to learn from how previous administrations were able to manage the matter,” the statement stated

The PDP however noted that, “The government must ensure quick resolution of the matter that will see students of affected schools return to their classes without further delay. The school closure has already caused interrupted learning for the students, and we can’t afford to let them stay home longer.”

Need to Avert a Brewing Crisis

The peace of Kwara, which is known as the State of Harmony, is currently being threatened by this hijab controversy. Even though the two camps refused to shift ground on the issue, maintaining the status quo, keen observers believe, would have helped to douse the tension while finding a permanent political solution.

The argument is that these affected schools were founded by the various Christian missions, (some over five decades ago) to promote Christian ideals in the pursuit of education. After government took over the schools about four decades ago, the then military government recognized the fact that these were heritage of the founders of the school and retained their founding names, school uniforms, anthems and symbols. The only changes were in the areas of funding, staffing and supervision of the schools, which was now in the hands of government.

Over the years, Christians and Muslim students passed through these schools without any sign of religious acrimony with all students abiding by the founding principles of the school, in terms of their identities. In fact, there was a period some of these schools were among the best in the state.

But with the rising suspicion between the two dominant religions in the country, tension began to build as Muslims began to demand that their children in the Christian Mission founded Schools should be allowed to wear hijab.

While the demand may find basis in law which provides for freedom of religion, there are however views that delicate religious issues are better resolved politically through wide consultations and compromise.

There are arguments that since the Muslim students were aware of the foundation of these schools and the fact that the schools’ identities (including school uniforms, anthems and logo) had been preserved over the years as heritage of the founding missions despite being funded by government, before enrolling in those schools, it then presupposes that they were willing to abide by the extant rules in those schools, including mode of dressing.

There are also views that learning from developments in other states, particularly in neighbouring Osun, where similar issue disrupted academic activities and created religious tension among innocent students because of the ill-advised policy on hijab by the then Governor Rauf Aregbesola administration, could have averted the current impasse. The consequences of the mishandling of the tension between the two religions on the use of hijab in Osun public schools, including schools founded by missions, were not only seen in the disharmony created among innocent school children who became pawns in the hands of religious bigots and political demagogues, but also led to religious division in the state.

No wonder, a state easily won by Aregbesola’s APC during his reelection bid had to go into a runoff before a successor on the platform of his party could emerge four years later. Aregbesola’s successor, Governor Gboyega Oyetola, having learnt from his predecessor’s missteps, has taken steps to quickly reverse some of the education policies tainted by religious consideration. The result has been very clear – religious tension that characterized the tenure of Aregbesola has been doused.

Finding a political solution to the crisis beyond judicial confines would go a long way in dousing the tension and ensuring that Kwara is not thrown into religious mayhem. Not a few believe that this issue will be one of the issues that will define AbdulRazaq’s tenure. Can AbdulRazaq Proffer political solution that will save Kwara from religious tension that could linger for a long time and a looming crisis?