As the members of the House of Representatives have now decided – for the second time – to postpone the public hearing for the controversy surrounding the refusal of the Nigerian Law School to allow a certain Ms. Firdaus Amasa be called to bar on the grounds of her breaking dress code, it has become more important than ever to discuss the country’s legal system and the reason diversity needs to be implemented now.
The issue has already been discussed heavily. Ms. Amasa has faced staunch criticism, not just from the demagogues at the Nigerian Law School but also from members of the public who believe that her activism is a fool’s errand which is founded on archaic and overt religious sentiments. They label her an extremist, a dogmatic epitome of a trouble-seeking zealot. And many more.
Perhaps the most common of the arguments against her – if social media commentary is to be taken as a representative of the public’s views – is that she “dragged” religion into an area which does not need the interference of religion. They argue that she should have left her religion at home just so she can be allowed to be called to bar. Be pragmatic, they say.
But all of this reeks of pure anti-Islamist rhetoric. The choice to wear the hijab is not influenced by a fashion trend or a desire to complete a look. It exceeds such vanity. It is borne of a spiritual conviction that it symbolizes purity and piety. For a woman who chooses to wear it, it can be a lifelong commitment to upholding her modesty and privacy – a core part of her philosophy of life. This kind of religious practice is not alien to the Nigerian society, it has been integrated into our sociocultural space long enough for it to become acceptable in the mainstream. It has been inculcated into our consciousness. It is not some new, random trend we should be wary of. We are aware of the importance these women place on wearing the hijab. For that reason, it makes no sense for us to ask them to place it aside before they can be called to bar. There is no reason our laws should not be reviewed to reflect our tolerance for women for whom this culture of hijab-wearing is of a profound obligation.
Religion is important to people. And as long as their exercise of their religious liberties does not conflict with anyone else’s sense of being, there is no reason they should be stopped. Firdaus wearing the hijab affects nobody negatively. There is no reason she should not be allowed to wear it since it is known to be of a spiritual importance to her. Her religion does not need to be “set aside” for her to be called to bar. Those two things are not conflicting. Our laws should reflect our reality. And hijab-wearing women who want to kick ass in courts are part of our reality. Let us realise that now.
A most absurd criticism is that now, when Muslim women are allowed to wear hijabs, traditional worshippers too will want to be called to bar wearing charm bracelets and masquerade clothing. Apart from the fact that such sophistry is founded on a distasteful derision of our native cultural practices, such comparisons are definitely unwarranted. Such argument pretends that any of these two following arguments would be right:
[a] allowing churches and mosques to be built in open and public areas will lead to a religious crisis, soon traditional worshippers will soon start building their own shrines everywhere in the country;
[b] if religious institutions are allowed to worship on campuses, our schools will soon be flooded with Ogun worshippers too.
But we all know neither of those arguments have any basis in reality. The reason is obvious. And it is the same reason that primary argument fails horrendously.
The last argument to be considered, posed against Ms. Firdaus, is that she could have been pragmatic, bowed to the demands and then gone ahead to fight for her beliefs after becoming a lawyer. After all, her fellow hijab-wearing women also removed it for their call-to-bar. How interesting and almost convincing. Here is the problem: she would not be the first to follow that route had she chosen it. In the past, stories of similar women swearing to change things when they have joined the system have been heard but none of them even caused close to the kind of storm caused by Firdaus’ refusal to give in. Her resilience reminds one of the great African-American rebel of ages, Rosa Parks, Parks lived during a time of immense racial segregation in the era of Civil Rights Movement in America. Once, she, alongside three other black people, were asked to dutifully give up their seats during a bus ride for their fellow passengers who were white. Deciding to be pragmatic and avoid trouble, the three other black people stood up for the whites to sit. Parks did not. This rebellion changed the world.
Of course, the law of the time was against Parks. She needed to leave her beliefs behind, be a good girl and listen to the law. Just as Ms. Firdaus apparently needs to leave her beliefs behind, be a good girl and listen to the law. But in both cases, both of Parks’ and Firdaus’ choices were within the valuation of their human rights and though other might have chosen to bow down in fear, we should not criticise the rebels. Had Parks stood up like the others, there would have been no public outcry against her treatment. Things would have gone on like that. Nobody would have said much about the injustice in the law. The same goes for Firdaus’ situation.
After all, for our society to truly change, to reflect diversity, we need a group of revolutionaries who might seem radical. Or unorthodox. Or insane. Or plain mad.