The Jabs, Darts and Spats over Hijab at the Bar By Jiti Ogunye

In this article, Jiti Ogunye gives a perspective on how religion interfaces with the law in Nigeria.


Rules were set by the Body of Benchers and the Council of Legal Education regulating attendance of the Nigerian Law School and the Call to Bar Ceremony at the end of the professionnal training for aspirant lawyers in the Law School provide for the dress codes for the Call to Bar Ceremony.

In part, the Rule states that Muslim ladies who may wish to wear the hijab should ensure that their faces, including their ears are not covered. The Rule reportedly provides thus: “During the exercise, all your facial features, including your ears, must be exposed for capturing. This is also applicable to all our famale muslim students wearing the Hijab.” This is the regulation governing the dress code.

In defiance of that regulation, a lady, Amasa Firdaus, at the recently concluded 2017 Call to Bar Ceremony, insisted on wearing the hijab. She was advised to remove it so that she could be called to the Bar. The Authorities demanded compliance with the acceptable dress code. She obdurately refused. Not even the entreaties and pleas of friends would move her. She was unshaken and unshakeable in her beliefs. She was defiant. She stuck to her “right to freedom of thought, concience and religion.”

Consequently, she was denied a call to the Bar.

She has taken to the media to explain her case and cause. Religion, being a major driver of emotions, has seen many rally to her cause. One of them is the president of the Nigerian Bar Association, A.B. Mahmoud (SAN), who along with others have cited the wearing of hijab by female lawyers in other jurisdictions. The New York Bar. Kenyan. Pakistan. Some have started to allege Islamaphobia on the action of the Law School.

Other examples, from other jurisdictions, of air hostesses, medical doctors, law enforcement agents, et cetera, previously disallowed to put on hijabs by dress codes in their respective professions, but now permitted to do so, have been cited to argue that the lady should not have been disallowed from being called to the Bar.

She could have gone to court to seek an order of declaration and injunction restraining the Law School from preventing her from being called to the Bar on account of her wearing the hijab to the Ceremony, should she pass her examination. She did not take that step. She was not going to follow the rule of law.

It is instructive and revealing that the lady emphatically has stated that she knew that what she did was not permitted or allowed by the Rules, which she has derided as mere conventions and not laws. According to her, she deliberately defied the Rules so that other Muslim sisters coming behind her could exercise the right of wearing the hijab. She was prevented from wearing the hijab when the compulsory Bar Dinner was held. She knew she was going to be prevented from wearing the hijab at the Call to Bar Ceremony if she passed the Bar Final Examinations. She could have gone to court to seek an order of declaration and injunction restraining the Law School from preventing her from being called to the Bar on account of her wearing the hijab to the Ceremony, should she pass her examination. She did not take that step. She was not going to follow the rule of law. She was going to force the hands of the legal profession to accept the “manifestation of her religious beliefs and practice”, as allowed by Section 38 of the Constitution, and to abide by and observe what she deemed to be her right.

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She is leading a struggle. She wants to emancipate people who are being denied their religious freedoms. She is now being celebrated, in default, by both condemnatory and adulatory commentaries. She has instantly hit the limelight and spotlight.

She has even stolen the shine and glamour off the delectable young lady, Viola-Nuela Echebima who obtained a First Class in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) and in the Law School, as the best graduating student respectively, who was called to the Bar at the same ceremony. We are forced to overlook celebrating excellence and academic industry. We are now conscripted, wittingly or unwittingly, into discussing bravery and feats in religious zealotry. We engage in incessant intellection over the rights that should be enjoyed in the legal profession in harmony with adherence to religious tenets, religious piety, zealotry or bigotry.

Religious division, animosity or war is one of our fault lines in Nigeria. Boko Haram is not a secessionist war. It is not a separatist war propagated over historical claims to land. It is not an ethnic war. It is a religious war to Islamise a territory of Nigeria and establish a theocratic state therein. That is the mission of Boko Haram. Terror is the means for actualising their agenda. That is why we say we are fighting terrorism or insurgency. We call them terrorists. They dismiss us, including fellow muslims, as infidels. Terror, fanaticism or extremism is not an end by itself. It is a means to an end.

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So, we must be careful when we are stoking the embers of religious division. True, there is religious diversity and plurality in Nigeria. We must be sensitive to this. Religious and faith sensibilities should be tolerated and accommodated. Rules can and should be adjusted from time to time. But we must work to change them to accord with our desires. Not bend or break them to submit to our whims and caprices.

The lady in question was not a total rebel. She had no objection to wearing a wig and gown and collarrette. She did not object to the black and white colours. She succumbed to a partial regulation. She, thus, substantially complied with the dress code. She just felt that it was within her powers not to comply fully with the dictates of the dress code.

For those who want to see a change in the dress code in the legal profession to enable Muslim female lawyers wear the hijab, with a wig on top, or without a wig, they have the right to so wish. Those who want the wearing of the wig and gown to be discarded altogether have a right to do so. In America, lawyers in practice do not wear wigs and gowns. Judges wear gowns or robes but do not wear wigs. Recently in the United Kingdom, the wearing of wigs and gowns was revised and jettisoned in certain respects. Thus, it is legitimate to campaign that the dress code be reformed.

Some mavericks, green professional gadflies or rookie iconoclasts may even start campaigning tomorrow that it is religiously offensive to address human beings as “Lords” or “Your Worship”, as judges and magistrates are addressed. They may insist that it affronts their religious beliefs and faiths – which accord God preeminence, honour and majesty – to address mere mortals as “Lords” or to “worship” them. Their right to freedom of expression allows them to start a campaign like this. But a rule is different from a notion. An aspiration is different from reality.

The lady in question was not a total rebel. She had no objection to wearing a wig and gown and collarrette. She did not object to the black and white colours. She succumbed to a partial regulation. She, thus, substantially complied with the dress code. She just felt that it was within her powers not to comply fully with the dictates of the dress code.

Lawyers make a distinction between what the law is, and what the law ought to be. The “law”, rule, convention, tradition, custom, or norm regulating the dress code for female aspiring lawyers and lawyers in Nigeria today is that if a hijab or skull cap is worn, the face, neck and the ears of the female aspiring lawyer or lawyer must be visible. Until the rule is changed, or until a court of law declares the rule or the enforcement thereof a breach of the right of the lady, under Section 38 of the Constitution and analogous provisions in other applicable charters, the Council of Legal Education and the Body of Benchers have not violated nor breached the right of the lady under any law. Rule 36 (a) of the Rules of Professional Conduct in the Legal Profession provides that “when in the court room, a lawyer shall be attired in a proper and dignified manner and shall not wear any apparel or ornament calculated to attract attention to himself”. If the legal profession believes that the wearing of hijab will violate this Rule, and is thus enforcing a “no hijab policy”, the legal profession must be persuaded to change the policy or be compelled by court action to scrap the policy. A solitary act of defiance by an individual should not be the fear that should drive the legal profession to abandon the policy.

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Everywhere we turn in our public life in this Country, we see the Nigerian State promoting competition and rivalry between the two dominant religions – Christianity and Islam. It has now become the norm that in every official function, the opening and closing prayers are rendered by a Christian and a Muslim. State governments build mosques and cathedrals with funds of the States, and state funds are used to send pilgrims on holy pilgrimages to Mecca and Jerusalem. Our political elites are perpetually going to the main hajj and lesser hajj. Christians go to Jerusalem. Goodluck Jonathan was there to seek the face of God to win the 2015 Presidential Election. Mrs. Aisha Buhari was in Saudi Arabia to pray for the president, Muhammadu Buhari, when he was ill. Increasingly, our political elites are frequenting Rome to have photo ops with Pope Francis.

The more religious and sanctimonious we are as a people and a country, the more our country reels in socioeconomic misery.

Jiti Ogunye, lawyer, public interest attorney, legal commentator, author, and essayist


The opinion expressed is entirely that of Jiti Ogunye and does not in any way reflect our editorial policy at educeleb.com

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