She has pulled the trigger of change. Once again, another colonial heritage is hit and it is just a matter of time before it will collapse, if not instantly.
The world is made of two kinds of people: one, the radicals who bring about change, as in chemical reactions, and two, the followers. While humanity spends almost all of its time following, it is gifted from time to time with activists who activate the process of transformation by introducing new ideas that challenge the status quo. The action of Firdaus squarely places her here.
In the eyes of the conformist, any protest against any inherited tradition appears brazen because the attendant reproach by its custodians is predictable. Some can even blackmail it as cheap publicity or other names that alludes to their intolerance to the new idea. Call it whatever, the truth is that universally, civil rights are hardly granted on a platter of gold. They are fought for one way or another and jealously guarded as a result. Where they are declared cheaply, like in our constitution, their breach is greeted with a manifest docility.
The protest of Firdaus cannot be dismissed in the laidback fashion some traditionalists want us to believe. It does not make sense to abort her right to practice as a lawyer simply because she wore a headscarf on an occasion in a country that preaches freedom of religion.
Some questions are pertinent here. What significant meaning does such intolerance to our diversity makes to cause such denial? Would someone sustain any injury as a result of her headscarf? Has Muslim-majority Nigeria become far-right Kurz’s Austria or still answerable to the British crown? What merit does a woman’s open hair add to her knowledge and practice as a lawyer?
To Firdaus, however, covering her hair – a part of her beauty as a woman – is a religious obligation which the constitution has pledged to guarantee. It is a clear injunction for Muslim women in the Quran (24:31). It is not extremism at all, unlike covering the face, which is subject to interpretation, or wearing a beard or a turban which are optional.
Even as Africans, who would like to see his mother walking with bare hair in public? To the African lady, the hair is part of her privacy and covering it in our culture is a sign of decency. A woman displays it only in attempt to attract a suitor or in appeal for appreciation by men around her. Without these two reasons, she does not feel comfortable displaying it to people, especially in the presence of those she respects most. In fact, if the woman’s hair is nothing, why are some people protesting against the headscarf? Must men see it?
So from the point of view of Islam and African tradition, the headscarf is normal. However, to colonial tradition and its upholders, it is taboo on the bar. Now, for how long must we remain slaves to a colonial relic that is at variance with our tradition and does not respect our diversity?
As an advocate of secular Nigeria, I believe we should respect the decision of others once they do not deny our right to personal liberty or violate the sanctity of our lives, property and dignity. If any regulation will choose to deny anyone this right, then it – not Firdaus and her likes – is in breach of the constitution and that law must be amended accordingly.
The Bar is a station of reason. A headscarf will not in any way hinder Firdaus from performing creditably as a lawyer or a magistrate. No court of law in the modern world will shred itself of logic and side with the Nigerian bar against Firdaus on the issue of headscarf. Similar cases have been treated elsewhere as cited by some contributors to the present debate. I feel Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) must not wait for similar verdicts before contemplating some amendments now. Here, there are three scenarios.
One, the Association may revolutionarily think of abolishing the colonial dressing code altogether. Many distinguished jurists have spoken before of its incompatibility with our climate and suffocating court conditions. Instead of the black suit, gown, wig, etc, it can just go for a decent dress of a lawyer’s choice as our universities are doing today. Lawyers are people of knowledge and dignity. It is very doubtful if anyone would be irresponsible to wear a disgraceful dress on the bench. Discarding the code will not only give members the liberty they need, it will also respect our diversity and avoid incidents like the one in question.
Two, the Association can maintain the colonial code but adopt the liberal interpretation of its use that will accommodate climatic and cultural preferences. Depending on individual’s choice, the wig can be alone or cushioned by a headscarf; the skirt can be long enough to reach the ankles as do trousers for men; the whole dress could be wide enough to allow – if desired by the individual – air circulation and conceal body lines. I wonder why we men are interested in stripping the woman while we cover ourselves fully. In this, even the Bar is failing to accord her more than the dignity of an object. And some women are comfortable with that dehumanization.
Three, the Association can notoriously stick to the colonial code despite its unsuitability for our climate, culture and conditions of our courts. This option, I must say, will not last long after Firdaus. In few years to come, there will be many Firdauses who will individually or collectively challenge the embarrassing irrationality of the code through similar protests. It will only be a matter of time before the present code gives way to something more logical, as is always the fate of laws that negate human liberty.
When we were students, the conditions of our universities in the North were radically different from how they are today except, perhaps for Bayero University and University of Sokoto. This was Ahmadu Bello University in 1978: Alcohol was sold everywhere including in every student common room, staff clubs and canteens. Students had unfettered access to girls’ hostels from 10am to 10pm. In some hostels, like Barau Dikko, there was no separate hostel for girls. Right from day one, at the two weeks orientation program, new students were encouraged to adopt lifestyles of social and academic freedom – and you know what that means. Student clubs had unfettered access to common rooms and dining halls to host events that could include the use of these common facilities for drinking alcohol.
The Muslim Students’ Society (MSS), A. B. U. branch, wrote, to no avail, to the authorities a number of protest letters against the misuse of dining space and kitchenware by palmwine drinkers club – Kegites. Tired of the deaf ear, some MSS members one night violently disrupted the 1979 “gyration” night at the dining hall of Ribadu Hall. The university authorities responded by dismissing the entire MSS Exco. Mass protests by MSS members ensued and the school continued to dismiss attackers on beer parlours on Samaru and Kongo campuses.
Some students then, including many Muslim students, condemned the protests against sale of alcohol on campus, saying that many Muslims too drink alcohol, that religion is a personal affair and such other excuses that are repeated against Firdaus today. Some asked of what benefit it was to stop beer sale on campus when it is sold in parlours across the road in Samaru. Etc.
But it was too late. MSS has fired the gun of change at the heart of licentious living on campus. Though many members suffered dismissal, the authorities finally succumbed to reason and all campuses of the university were cleansed of alcohol by the time we were graduating in 1982. Professor Ango Abdullahi, who signed those dismissal letters, also banned us from “visiting” our girl friends in their hostels. Guys could only wait outside the hostel and send for the girl student. When two students violated the rule, the ever resolute VC did not hesitate to dismiss them. The deterrence worked.
Other universities and polytechnics in the North followed the line – and I guess some southern universities too. Had not those MSS members damned the consequences, the change would not have come so soon.
Gandhi, King Jr, Mandela, and many others followed the path of protest and today humanity stands in appreciation of their courage. The defiance of Rosa Parks to give up her seat for a white passenger in 1955 fired protests that gave tremendous impetus to the civil rights movements in America. Her defiance was not futile.
Our Firdaus may not look that big today, but her courage will be remembered by Nigerian women who as lawyers will enjoy the freedom to wear the headscarf. The dress she wore on that historic occasion costs only some few thousands today, it will in fifty years from now sell for millions of Naira.
The NBA may deny Firdaus a permit to the bar but she has many options in life where her impact will be felt more. If she picks up lecturing law, for example, she will have the opportunity to reproduce thousands of Firdauses for Nigeria and the world in her lifetime. God, the Most High, may have something big for her in store, for He does not abandon whoever stands up for justice. Today, the expelled members of MSS, ABU, in the late 1970s and early 1980s are professors and PhDs, contributing in various sectors to the development of the country.
Today also, after 40 years, the same Muslim students that opposed the MSS in 1978 on alcohol ban will hesitate to send their wards to any Nigerian university where alcohol is sold rampantly or boys have unfettered access to their daughters’ rooms or where drugs circulate freely. Also, no sane white-American will accept a law that prefers him over an African-American in a bus. Irrational traditions appear invincible before they are challenged. But once decisively dared, they are quickly shaken and give way ultimately.
Firdaus has rightly pulled the headscarf trigger at the Nigerian Bar. Changes will definitely follow, sooner or later. I do not doubt that when the names of women that fought for civil rights are written in Nigeria of the early 20th Century, the name Amasa Firdaus will be written in gold.
Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde
17 December, 2017