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Hijabite lawyer: Let the court bail us out

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Hijabite lawyer: Let the court bail us out

A colleague had asked me whether or not I would be contributing to the ongoing debate through my column on the Hijab crisis at the Nigerian Law School. Firdaus Amasa had refused to remove her hijab during the call to Bar of new wigs at the Nigerian Law School on December 13 and was thus denied the call to Bar, a precondition for her to be eligible to practice law.

I told him I am not interested for now but did not rule it out outright even though I am not usually keen on writing on religious issues. I chose this approach having realised that emotions rather than reasoning and sound judgement devoid of bias mostly determine people’s position on religious issues.

It is for this reason and out of respect for other people’s faiths that I never wrote a line when the debate was ongoing on social media on tithes. But I have observed over time that everybody becomes experts whenever Islam is involved with some commentators talking from an uninformed point of view or displaying complete ignorance in a matter they know nothing about.

Some have even taken a ludicrous position that Amasa’s defiance was emboldened because a Muslim is now the president. She has been vilified with a barrage of back-handed remarks and unsubstantiated claims just to give a dog a bad name in order to hang it.

She is being called “attention seeker”, a “religious bigot” among other disparaging names. I have also heard stories of how her parents and two former Chief Justices of Nigeria begged her. I have heard people talked about it as if they were at the convocation arena and actually saw how she “snubbed” her parents and the former CJN.

As far as some are concerned, this lady should be thrown under a fast moving bus for her obduracy. Although I have my reservations about the postulations of Karl Marx that religion is the opium of the masses, it is difficult to dismiss it in its entirety. His position that religion is the opium of the masses has some element of truth. From tithe debate to the Hijab matter, emotions ran high. Legal profession remains one of the most conservative professions in the world. And a lot of countries are moving away from the age-long conservative practices associated with the legal profession particularly those that have nothing to do with fundamentals in law.

As a rookie in year 2000 covering the judiciary, precisely the Lagos High Court, Igbosere, on Lagos Island, I witnessed a drama at the court of Justice Hoponu Wusu that bordered on dress code in the legal profession. A senior lawyer had appeared before the judge in an awkward suit, which did not conform with the colour of suits that lawyers are expected to put on when-ever they appear in court.

The colour of the lawyer’s suit was grey but the rule allows either black or deep blue. The lawyer was conversant with the rule but chose to wear the awkward colour. He had relied on his black gown to cover the suit. But the judge had seen the colour and asked him to stand up.

The judge did this in the middle of a matter that was ongoing. The lawyer seemed to have the premonition and had an idea why he was asked to stand up. Justice Wusu threw the bomb in his baritone voice, one of the reasons I frequently attended his court: “Mr. XYZ, what is the colour of your suit?” “Grey, my Lord!” the lawyer replied. “Is that the appropriate colour?” Justice Wusu asked. The lawyer admitted that he ran foul of the rule. He went ahead to tell the judge how his black suit was soaked by the rain, which fell overnight.

The judge refused to buy the lawyer’s feeble and flimsy excuse. He said he would have overlooked the infraction if the lawyer were to be a young wig who is less than five years at the Bar. The errant lawyer was more than 10 years at the Bar then. It was the day knew that a lawyer that is 10 years at the Bar is qualified to be a judge once he meets other requirements. Justice Wusu slammed him with N10,000 fine. Attempts by other senior lawyers to intervene and change his stand on the penalty were rebuffed by the judge. He dismissed in its entirety the allocution brought by some of the lawyers who intervened with a succinct and brief sentence that ‘law is what it is and not what it ought to be’.

This forms part of the rules set up by the Body of Benchers and the Council of Legal Education. Part of the rules also regulate attendance of the Nigerian Law School and the call to Bar ceremony at the end of training for aspiring lawyers as it concerns dress code for the call to Bar ceremony.

Concerning the dress code for the call to Bar ceremony, the rule states in part that Muslim ladies who may wish to wear Hijab should ensure that their faces, including their ears are not covered. “During the exercise, all your facial features including your ears must be exposed for capturing. This is also applicable to all our Muslim students wearing Hijab,” the rule states in part.

The law school seems to have taken into cognisance that some female students may want to wear Hijab based on their religious convictions and faith and thus makes provision for that. I have seen the photograph of Amasa and the bone of contention for me is that her Hijab covered her ears.

There is no way Hijab could be worn without covering the ears and there is a rule, which says the face and ears of the wearer must be shown. So, for the young lawyer the rule doesn’t take care of what she is expected to do as a Muslim who believes her opinion doesn’t count in a matter commanded by her creator as stated in the Glorious Quran.

This is just as my opinion will not count if a member of Jehovah’s Witness insists that he will not do blood transfusion even if that is the only alternative to save his life. The issue of dress code and controversies is not new. I remember that as a corps member at the camp in Issele Ukwu, Delta State, about 20 years ago, some female Christian corps members had on their own turned the khaki trousers provided by the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) into skirts after employing the service of a tailor. Their position was based on their conviction that females are not supposed to wear trousers.

They were entitled to a pair of trousers, which they had converted into skirts. It was later resolved after they had apologised and female corps members were advised to desist from such act. And in April, Mr. Andrew Kumapayi, a former sector commander of the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC), Rivers State Command, had his fingers burnt while trying to enforce the dress code of the commission. He had paid particular attention to the hairstyles and nails of his female officers. Those whose hairstyles did not conform with the corps’ code had their long and fanciful hairstyles cut with a pair of scissors at the parade ground by the officer-turned barber.

The errant women appeared in their uniforms as if they were doing high street fashion and ready to do sashay on the runway. It was incontrovertible that the female officers erred for breaching the dress code but the pendulum of public opinion swung in their favour and Kumapayi, the hunter, became the hunted and was made a scapegoat. But this will not apply in the case of the hijabite lawyer just because some people have made up their minds to be biased. It is a misconception to assume that wearing of Hijab is a cultural thing. It is a religious duty and is not meant to enslave women as being deliberately misconstrued.

While I will not foist my religious belief on others, how do we resolve Section 38 of the Constitution, which emphasises right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion? I may not be learned enough to understand its interpretation but I have heard some learned men argue that based on the provision of the Constitution, Amasa ought to have been called to the Bar. Such lawyers were of the view that that section of the Constitution is superior to the law school dress code rule. Some others had disagreed that the argument won’t apply in this case.

However, I agreed with a part of Lagos-based lawyer, Mr. Jiti Ogunye’s submission, that Amasa should have preempted the law school by approaching the court to stop the school from preventing her call to Bar if she passed having been prevented from the compulsory Bar dinner on account of her wearing Hijab. The going back and forth will be regarded as the dynamism in law by the learned men.

But for me and perhaps some ‘unlearned’ men, it is confusing. Since law is what it is and not what it ought to be, going to court is the best way to resolve the matter. And I think Amasa should explore this option.

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