The Travails of a Muslim Hijabi Nigerian Lawyer

The Travails of a Muslim Hijabi Nigerian Lawyer

By Lateefah Sodique Oluwaakemi

I Compromised…

So as a law student, I was very excited to make impact. To enshrine the principles of law and order, to uphold justice and fairness. All remarkable prescriptions of our noble profession. My Able University however, provided me with a formidable platform. From the strong tutelage from my lectures, their discipline & dedication, upholding the rules and encouraging confidence and scholarship, down to the students, in their interactions and Unions. Competence was mostly the focal point. It didn’t matter that i was a muslim lady using the hijab, i passed through the refining furnace of tutelage and was given the honour to serve in various capacities, with my hijab never being an impediment of any sort either in class, or in the moot & mock sessions, in the faculty politics, in State Associations, everywhere. I had my wings to fly…and oh i did.

There had been rumours however, that in law school, one would be required to reduce the use of the hijab to its bearest minimum, and as i was getting closer to the finish line, i particularly started hearing that during the compulsory dining terms in law school, only a skull-cap would be allowed as a substitute to hijab. This could not be true i thought! A profession whose crux is upholding fundamental human rights….No there must be a mix-up i concluded. I who had unilaterally decided to adorn the hijab and had indeed done so consistently from the completion of my secondary education…to all of a sudden be asked to remove this covering and replace same with a cap, showing more than what i was willing to make apparent of my person! This was indeed a saddening thought. But unknown to me, i hadn’t heard the worst!

Meanwhile, i had from100 level resolved that i was going to pick the Enugu Campus of the Law School as my first Choice once it was time to apply because i was born in West, had felt the North, but had never been to the East and was really looking foward to doing so, but when i heard that long skirts were not allowed in that campus, talk more of a veil, and that the best you could get is the use of a cap, my resolve to pick that campus vanished with the wind. If God wills, something else will take me to the East i thought!

Indeed i was posted to the Centre of excellence for my Law School programme-the last hurdle in the already prolonged race. It was officially announced to us about two days to the dinner that only a cap would be allowed to be worn alongside the suit for attendance; an attendance which remains a prerequisite to the fulfilment of requirements for eligibility to becoming a Lawyer in Nigeria. All efforts by we the exco of the Muslim Students Society of Nigeria, Nigerian Law School Lagos Chapter(MSSN NLS)of the 2014/2015 set proved abortive eventhough we were reliably informed that the muslim female students of the Abuja campus of the law school were being allowed to tuck their own hijabs into their shirts. This didn’t make the authorities budge and even for this frankly inadequate bearest minimum hijab which we were settling for just in a bid ‘conform/comply’, we were outrightly denied of same. This double-standard was just so dissapointing. Therefore, we the muslim students using the hijab in the law school then, were left with no choice than to use the cap during the dinner. It seemed like the longest minutes of my life. I and another muslim lady dining on the same day had to ensure we arrived to be the first set on the queue to avoid prying eyes. While we were on the queue, some officials even sneared at us mockingly that on the call to bar day, we would have no choice but to remove it completely. Their words struck my heart like a spear. That would never happen i thought! I blocked their hurtful words out of my mind. We got in, and sat at the back so as not to be spotted by too many of our classmates. It was very unpleasant to say the least. I for one had never had to dim my light like that.

The Call to Bar day however, which should have been one of the most fulfilling days, was almost totally ruined when i got to the entrance of the hall at the International Conference Centre early enough as required only to be told to remove my head & neck covering, and then, even my skull-cap as i could not be allowed into the ceremony with any form of covering whatsoever. To my greatest horror, the terrible prophesy was true. But why i thought!
I was deflated. I felt so down-cast, stripped and robbed of my essence, my fundamental human right. My hijab. Right there and then, i was invariably being asked to choose between my career and my conviction. A choice no one should have to make. This wasn’t what i bargained for. All i wanted to do was to go ahead and become a Lawyer, so why was my head covering now being made the deciding factor. I was distraught. Many things flashed through my mind. I thought of the about 8years of my life being used to study law( if you add strikes and technicalities). The time. The effort. All the exams, All the money being expended so far, the sacrifices, the expectations and most especially the struggle. From where i was standing at that instance…i would not win.. i would have indeed been denied entrance and i would not have been called that year 2016, eventhough my coursemates had been called to bar the previous year and my contemporaries, the year before that. So……i compromised.
I Lateefah Sodique Oluwaakemi, compromised.

I removed the last peice of covering from my head and only then was i allowed entrance into the hall. So i entered a hall full of people in it..uncovered. I felt naked. Bare. For the first time in my life, i wanted the ground to open and swallow me. Yes. It was that serious. I gathered myself and moved up to some female students i saw and enquired about the seating arrangement. I remember docking, bending and sneaking to the back like a meat-stew thief till i located my seat. Thankfully it was situated mid-back. If this was my set, i wonder how i would have managed! I sat down and looked down. Avoiding any known eyes as if even if they were strangers, it made it ok for me to be seen as such. Moreover, these weren’t strangers….and this was not ok. I later put on a skull-cap though, and immediately after the ceremony my head & neck covering which, paired with the Black flowing Lawyer’s robe would have been a middle course and an effective alternative. Anyway, this is how i appear in court today. However, a lot of female muslim lawyers apparently have worse hijab stories to tell. Should there have to be a price this high to be a member of such a noble profession?

Nevertheless, most regretfully, i bowed momentarily to oppression that day. A supposedly joyful day was made for me bitter-sweet. My morale dropped and i felt truly weak. Many have suffered this fate but are too embarrased to discuss it or simply dread the thought of being labelled extremist or being witch-haunted.

The prevention of Muslim Law Students from using the Hijab(the obligatory covering for Muslim women prescribed in the Glorious Qur’an) is a gross infringement of her fundamental human rights on many levels and truly constitutes unfairly prejudicial practice which should be clamped upon and laid to rest completely.

A brilliant young female Muslim student of the Nigerian Law School has however brought this to the fore. She has refused to Compromise!

Her name is Abdulsalam Firdaus Amasa and she has been denied the right to be called to the bar together with her Colleagues upon complete fulfilment of the requirements entitling her to the said call during the just concluded call to bar ceremony. Some people have been quick to mention the defence “Volenti Non fit injuria, meaning ‘He who has consented to the doing of a thing cannot be heard to complain’, but of course that doesn’t even apply in the instant case because no one consented to studying law for 5years in the university, and 1year in the Law School, only to be told to strip on the day of conferment of Honours rightly earned. Or are we now saying that female Muslims who use the hijab do not have a right to study law like their contemporaries? Definitely to say that would be an error and it would negate the principle of equity, justice and good conscience.

The law i was taught is dynamic hence my utter dissapointment at our state of affairs. The Law is made for Man and not the other way round.

That the use of the hijab is a fundamental right has long been settled.
Particularly worthy of note is the current position of the law on the use of the hijab.

In the case of Abidemi Rasaq & 3Ors Vs Commissioner for Health Lagos State & 2 Ors, Suit No. ID/424M/2004. The Lagos High Court declared unconstitutional a circular issued by Lagos School of Health Technology banning the students from wearing hijab.

Again in the case of Provost Kwara State College of Education, Ilorin vs Basirat Saliu Suit No. CA/IL/49/2009 . The Court of Appeal, Ilorin Judicial Division held thus:
“The use of veil (hijab) by female Muslims qualifies as a fundamental right under section 38 of the Constitution.”

Furthermore, a COURT OF APPEAL JUDGMENT…. Lagos State v Miss Ashiat Abdkareem CA/L/135/15.
In his lead judgment, Justice Gumel held that the use of the Hijab was an Islamic injunction and also an act of worship hence it would constitute a violation of the appellants’ rights to stop them from wearing the Hijab in public schools……….. I say NO to the removal of hijab during call to bar! It is an infringement of fundamental human rights and therefore unacceptable! No body, should be above the law.


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