People who don’t understand the imperative of lexical economy that column writing imposes on columnists wondered why I didn’t write more than I did last week on the hijab controversy in Ilorin— and why I didn’t suggest ways out of the problem I analyzed.
First, as much as this is a legitimately religious issue, it is really mostly a social class issue. Most upper-class and middle-class Muslims send their daughters to private schools where the hijab isn’t even an option, and they don’t mind. And many wealthy Christians have no problems with the religious restrictions in prosperous Muslim societies like the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere.
Only the children of poor people attend public schools where the hijab excites passions, where the politics of public displays of religiosity is invoked as a wedge issue. Wealthy people and their children don’t give a thought to this.
As I pointed out in my August 6, 2016 column titled “Nigeria as a Perverse Anarchist Paradise,” parents with even modest financial capacity have learned to not send their children to government-funded schools because public education has now become the graveyard of learning and creativity.
“This is precisely where the intergenerational perpetuation of social and economic inequality starts,” I wrote. “Only the children of the desperately poor go to government schools, which are hardly in session because teachers aren’t paid salaries. This ensures that children of the poor stand no earthly chance of breaking from the cycle of poverty and social oppression into which they are born.”
Nonetheless, we can’t ignore a controversy because we think it’s contrived or politically motivated. As I admitted last week, the hijab has evolved as a legitimate accoutrement of female Muslim identity all over Nigeria. It is unhelpful to simply dismiss it as foreign or a consequence of an emergent Islamic fanaticism because it didn’t exist before now.
At the same time, Christian resentment against the wearing of the hijab in historically Christian missionary schools is justifiable, in my opinion, in light of the fact that the schools started out as private Christian schools which, even after being nationalized, observed the traditions of their original owners for decades.
So, the root of the problem is the inexcusable takeover of the schools by the Yakubu Gowon military regime in the 1970s. The Gowon regime expropriated Christian missionaries of their schools in order “to provide stability, satisfy people’s basic educational and national needs, combat sectionalism, religious conflict and disloyalty to the cause of a united Nigeria.”
State governments adopted and adapted the federal law that nationalized missionary schools, with many of them in southern and northcentral states allowing the missionary schools to retain their rituals— and playing a prominent part in the appointment of key administrative staff. In Baptist Grammar School, my alma mater, for instance, no Muslim has ever been appointed a principal even though the school has been fully government-owned since the 1970s.
But missionary schools that were taken over by the government are still essentially public schools. No more, no less. Their staff are paid by the government. That’s why when teachers in public schools go on strike, all missionary schools in Kwara State grind to a halt.
So one of the most effective solutions to the nagging controversy over the wearing of the hijab is to lobby the National Assembly to repeal the federal law that nationalized Christian missionary schools. The law was obviously informed by a post-Civil War obsession with “national unity” and curricular uniformity. That imperative no longer exists. Curricular standardization and national cohesion can be achieved without the appropriation of private schools by the government.
What is more, several private missionary (including Islamic) and secular schools have been established after Christian missionary schools were nationalized in the 1970s, but such schools haven’t been nationalized likewise. Whatever justified the takeover of the missionary schools in the 1970s should extend to private schools that were established after the fact. If the government hasn’t found the need to nationalize schools that were established after the takeover of missionary schools in the 1970s, it should denationalize those that it did forthwith in the interest of fairness and equity.
I am aware that many governments in states where Christians enjoy numerical and symbolic dominion have returned Christian missionary schools to their owners. But as Miracle Ajah of the National Open University of Nigeria pointed out in his Stellenbosch Theological Journal article titled “Religious education and nation-building in Nigeria,” state governments that returned mission schools to their owners did so through mere memoranda of understanding, which have no legal force.
“Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) is not a law and cannot amend or repeal a valid law,” he wrote, pointing out that “the current trend in the return of mission schools stands on a false foundation, which an ambitious regime could overturn any day.”
That risk is almost zero in states where Christians are a majority, but it is always ever-present in a predominantly Muslim state like Kwara, which has never had an elected Christian governor, except for the Olusola Saraki-engineered brief governorship of Cornelius Adebayo in 1983 to spite Adamu Atta whom he also installed, since the 1970s.
The only logic that sustains and justifies the demand to accommodate hijab-wearing Muslim girls in historically Christian missionary schools is that the schools are public schools that are funded by public patrimony. I would be surprised if the Supreme Court rules that public ownership of a previously Christian mission school is not a sufficient justification to allow Muslim students to wear the hijab as part of their school uniform.
That means the only way to resolve this issue isn’t through the Supreme Court but for the law that made these schools public schools to be repealed. There’s no other way.
Of course, the denationalization of missionary schools will have an immediate adverse effect, which isn’t too much price to pay for peace given the violence that has attended the controversy. At least in the short term, enrollment will decline, and many teachers will lose their jobs. We have already seen that in some states where schools were returned to their owners.
Take Ogun State as an example. Ajah’s article shows that “in Abeokuta South Local government, where six schools were said to have been handed over to the original owners by the government, the total school enrolment of these schools in 2008 was 12 663. But by 2010, after the hand-over, students’ enrolment dropped drastically to 401 for the simple reason that school fees were high. Consequently, 12 262 students could not get access to secondary education. In Ijebu Ode, enrolment dropped from 8 729 in 2008 to 876 by 2010.”
As a parent in Ogun State— who displayed a protest sign that read “Missionaries are now Capitalists”— told Christianity Today in early 2012, “These schools are not for the poor; they are too elitist, even members who donated toward their establishments cannot send their children there. They should have told us they are running profit-oriented schools from the outset instead of using the word mission to raise money, get public support, and turn around to become unaffordable.”
But this is no reason why governments should hold on to schools that don’t belong to them, particularly when doing so is increasingly inviting communal distress and disruption. No law of nature says missionary schools should subsidize education for people. It is governments that have a responsibility to build schools, subsidize education, and allow religious groups to give expression to their sartorial rituals if doing so isn’t disruptive.
Before an enduring solution is found for the hijab problem, it helps to remember that no Muslim girl will lose her faith if she doesn’t wear a hijab to school nor will any Christian’s faith be hurt because a Muslim girl wears a hijab to school. That realization should inspire greater inter-faith tolerance.