I have read many self-imposed pity posts, disparaging comments and unwarranted attacks on the Muslim young lady, Amasa Firdaus, who flopped her privilege 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 young 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 does not even have an end in sight for now.
Meanwhile, wearing the 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 the 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, courts, and other official ceremonies!
However, there is no doubt that the noble legal profession is a conservative one with certain established ethos and etiquette. It is therefore imperative for subscribers to the noble profession to be mindful of such requirements before making their choices. One of such ethos and etiquette is the long-established TRADITION (not necessarily LAW) of a 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 obligated not to open their hairs or heads to the public.
What happened yesterday was, therefore, a CONFLICT between a long-established 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 the answer here is not straightforward, but also not difficult to tell. This is particularly so that freedoms are generally not absolute. There are simply potent and plausible arguments on both sides. What is straightforward 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 accommodate diversity and respect peoples' religious believes that is not fundamentally at variance with other ethos or etiquettes in the society. Can anyone in good conscience and with a sense of objectivity say, for example, that wearing of the 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, Muslim military and paramilitary personnel are now allowed to wear hijab (usually small 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 accommodate such diversity or liberalism. They only give expressions to the extent 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 sincere religious belief is against participating in a war may refuse to enlist in 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 the war front. Yes, it is not every time that one may plausibly 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 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 advise people to stop their pity-parties, attacks and name callings for the young Muslim lady under reference. What if she never really wanted to be called to the Nigerian Bar? What if her longtime 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 take a pain reliever for a person who may not really be at pains? I think she just made her choice and it is open to her alone to savor 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 castigations, 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 practicing 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!
By Misbau Alani Lateef
Barrister, Lecturer, OAU, Ife.
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