I have read many self-imposed pity posts, disparaging comments and unwarranted attacks on the Muslim young lady who flopped her opportunity to be called to the Nigerian Bar yesterday. In a brazen breach of a long established legal tradition, but also an apparent exercise of religious freedom, the Muslim lady had simply refused to remove her hijab that was tucked underneath her practice wig and collarette. Actually, her open and brazen defiance was not the first of such defiances in the history of call-to-bar and law school dinners in Nigeria. It will certainly not be the last. I guess the struggle may still continue for some time.
Meanwhile, wearing of hijab is not a mere decoration for Muslim girls. It is an OBLIGATORY religious adornment/garment, especially prescribed for all Muslim girls of maturity. It is a fundamental aspect of Islamic religion that is expressly written in the Holy Qur’an of Muslims. While some Muslims use mere scarfs just to cover their heads, others use flowing gowns (jilbaab) with wider coverage. Some don’t even use anything at all to cover their heads/hairs. All simply depends on individual’s level of faith and sense of commitment to religious obligations! I understand that our call-to-bar lady under reference actually used a hijab that only extends around her neck. She was not also reported to be wearing a flowing gown (jilbaab)! Never mind that lawyers actually wear flowing gowns to call-to-bar ceremonies, courts and other official ceremonies!
However, there is no doubt that the noble legal profession is a conservative one with certain established ethos and ettiquetes. It is therefore imperative upon subscribers to the noble profession to be mindful of such requirements before making their choices. One of such ethos and ettiquetes is the long established TRADITION (not necessarily LAW) of certain manner of dressing for all legal practitioners and aspirants to the Bar, particularly at the call-to-bar ceremonies. This manner of dressing – a received English tradition handed down as part of Nigeria’s colonial legal heritage, requires ladies, for example, to leave their heads uncovered with anything other than their practice wigs during call-to-bar and in courts. This tradition apparently contradicts the religious right of Muslims or others who are religiously obligated not to open their hairs or heads in the public.
What happened yesterday was therefore a CONFLICT between a long established professional tradition of a noble profession and the religious right of a certain subscriber to that profession. In that case, which one should trump the other? The near-law and almost sacred call-to-bar tradition or the citizen’s right to freedom of religion and practices as guaranteed under section 38 of the 1999 Constitution? I think it is not straight forward, but not impossible, to tell which should trump the other in all cases. This is particularly so that freedoms are generally not absolute. There are potent and plausible arguments on both sides. What is not difficult to tell however is the modern standard approach to such or similar conflicts in other climes. I say with authority that such modern approach, especially in the non-Islamic West, is to accomodate diversity and respect peoples’ religious believes that are not fundamentally at variance with other ethos or ettiquetes in the society. Can anyone in good conscience and with sense of objectivity say, for example, that wearing of hijab, a religious obligation upon Muslims, is fundamentally at variance with being a lawyer or appearance of a lawyer, an engineer or a doctor? When does the hood begins or stops to make the priest? Isn’t the priest who actually makes the hood?
Furthermore, when compared to the military and other strictly regimented forces or institutions, the legal profession is not actually a regimented discipline as such. Yet, even in the Military nowadays, especially in the non-Islamic Western societies, military and paramilitary personnels are now allowed to wear hijab (usually smal scarf or cap) in addition to their official uniforms. Such societies have simply embraced diversity and acknowledged the religious rights of individuals to certain fundamental practices of their faiths. These societies did not necessarily change their constitutions to accomodate such diversity or liberalism. They only give expressions to the extant provisions of their constitutions and international instruments on the freedom of religions and other freedoms.
Under several international instruments (International law) and in the U.S., for example, there are provisions on “conscientious objectors” which protect those enlisted in the military against state or professional practices that violate or contradict their “conscientious” religious believes. In other words, a commissioned soldier in the U.S. whose established and verfiable religious belief is against participating in a war may refuse to enlist for a war without losing his commission in the Army. Nobody in that society will argue that he shouldn’t have enlisted in the Army if he was not prepared to go to war front. Yes, it is not everytime that we can argue that people should not go to the stream if they abhor the splashing of water. What about guaranteeing their rights to be at the streams without being splashed with waters? For me, the constitutional provision of section 38 of the Nigerian 1999 Constitution on freedom of religion may also be deployed or interpreted to serve this purpose. Indeed, a full panel of the Nigerian Court of Appeal had actually handed down a decision in 2016, that wearing of hijab by Muslim girls is a religious right protected by the Constitution.
So, while there is no doubt that our Muslim lady under reference actually breached a long established call-to-bar tradition, the sight must not also be lost of her freedom of religion to freely make choices and stand by them. It must also be noted that a TRADITION, though long established, which conflicts with express freedom of religion of a citizen is unconstitutional, highly discriminatory and unfair. It is therefore in view of the foregoing that i wish to strongly argue that people should stop their pity-parties, attacks and name callings for the lady under reference. What if she never really wanted to be called to the Nigerian Bar? What if her long time ambition was to get so close without getting in? What if all she wanted was to show defiance, resistance and then draw attention to an old, discriminatory, unfair and non-value added practice? So why taking pain reliever for a person who may not really be in pains? I think she just made her choice and it is open to her alone to savour or regret the consequences. We can never do that on her behalf because we may never know her real motive.
But then, It’s also possible that she actually wanted to be called to the Nigerian Bar yesterday and then flopped that possibility by her choice to breach a tradition while asserting her religious right. Even at that, i do not think she deserves castigation, attacks or name-calling for her personal choice to assert her religious belief. She is free to express her religious belief and decide which path to take in the event of any conflict between a TRADITION and her FAITH. It is all her choice and she’s entitled to it. It is the society that actually owes her a duty to protect her right to become a lawyer without sacrificing an innocuous aspect of her FAITH.
NB – I would have actually preferred that she “conforms” momentarily, gets enrolled and then help us to swell the numbers of qualified and practising lawyers agitating for the abrogation of the discriminatory, worn-out and unedifying tradition. But then, that is my own personal opinion. It is beside the real point here. The issue at hand is all about her choice and I may never know her real motive. To her, the legal profession may not actually be noble or enviable as it is for me or you!
Misbau Alamu LATEEF, Esq