My Daughter Zubaida Mahmoud at the ceremony admitting her to the New York Bar earlier this year…the controversy here on Hijab is needless. pic.twitter.com/adgWlTGSGC
— A B Mahmoud (@abmtwitt) December 15, 2017
Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud, the president of the Nigerian Bar Association shared this tweet over the weekend, as his contribution to the maelstrom of conversation that followed a report from the just concluded 2017 Nigerian Call to Bar. The tweet he shared was poignant, if not somewhat ironic; it was a picture of his daughter, being called to the New York State Bar Association after satisfactorily completing their own requirements. We will not focus today on the President of the Nigerian Bar Association not seeing how paradoxical it is that his own child was sent abroad to study law and is about to practice in another continent, and how ironic it is that he uses the freedoms the New York Bar Association affords his daughter to question the laws prevalent in Nigeria, laws he is in a uniquely placed position to amend or even outrightly repeal.
Amasa Firdaus was aware of the law banning women from wearing any kind of headgear underneath their wigs when she dressed up to the bar that Thursday. She had taken extra care to tuck in her hijab underneath her spiffy black outfit and was the very picture of a person put together. She was denied entry into the venue of the call to bar by the officials in charge because she had an obvious headpiece. Other graduands being called to bar remembered her, and suggested that she rained insults on them as they tried to convince her to take off the hijab and conform to the preset instructions for the day’s events. Stories about the Nigerian law school’s commitment to its often strange internal laws is a subject the men and women of Firdaus’ class are particularly conversant with, considering a member of their class Mr Kayode Bello initiated what easily became the biggest Nigerian Law School’s biggest public scandal of 2017 when he campaigned for reformations after disagreement with school authorities over illegal seat reservations led to a suspension. She must have known that this is not the year to be a dissenter, especially not now, at the very end of a gruelling academic year that saw a good percentage of the students sitting for the 2017 bar exam fail. But Firdaus refused to stay silent and it cost her the opportunity to graduate with the rest of her class.
There have been many very vast opinions around Firdaus’ decision, the vast majority of Nigerians castigating her for not simply choosing the path of least resistance available to her in that moment. They have explained in glaring detail how it would have taken her mere seconds to take off her hijab and two hours to get her degree, time in which she could have simply compromised. Others have praised her force-of-will and projected their own expectations of Islam and modesty on her, trying to brand her as a martyr who suffers so subsequent Muslim women who have embraced the hijabi won’t. But Ms Firdaus, a diminutive woman, almost swallowed by her gown, is a subject of discussion today not because she took a decision but because she refused to be forced to take one. It is obvious that she had no idea her story would go viral, let alone be shared by hundreds of thousands of people. She wasn’t even the one who tweeted about her not-so-peculiar predicament. Her actions were spur of the moment and motivated by self, there were no cameras, little fuss. She didn’t even get her license.
Firdaus’ personal actions have been put into a funhouse of public opinions and skewered into monstrosities. It has gotten big guns like the Sultan of Sokoto himself and the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (both Muslim themselves) crashing in, swinging bats at the perceived forces that seek to hinder the Muslim Faithful from practising their faith. The Christian religious leaders might be quiet now, but when the table is rattled sufficiently, they will spill forth, spewing rebuttals sprinkled with Bible verses and possibly no context. This back and forth will go on until the actual fact that Ms Firdaus has still not gotten her license to practice is relegated to a secondary issue.
The question that matters in all of this why Ms. Firdaus has to wear an itchy platinum blonde wig in 2017, done in the style of Victorian Lords and Ladies of the court and just as tacky today. Of what functionality is it to us today as a country that the symbols of office in our legal system are literal relics of a colonial past that was held on to by the British as a facsimile of the vibrant culture they saw when they first came, culture they sought to crush by forcing everyone to embrace the bland black cloaks and the badly coiffed wigs that have endured till today. What other relics of foreign invasion by colonising countries are we still carrying, wrapped around our heads like a hijab and masquerading as our ‘cultural modesty’?
The Nigerian legal system was created in 1893 to undercut the power of pre-existing legal structures within our pre-independence village spheres and replace them with the homogenous, England facing Warrant courts. Anyone who has studied the Nigerian constitution will tell you that the bulk of it is still pretty much the same since 1893, in wording and intent. The leaders we have had since Independence have allowed these laws to covertly demonise our unique cultures and expel diversity from within our courtrooms under the guise of homogeneity and ‘modesty’ and we have allowed them. It is why we do not see a blonde wig, its history and its continued use as mockery of our own natural hair as an enduring insult to us as free people, it is why we celebrate our post-colonial heritage that was forced on our ancestors with gusto today and fight to protect its relics, to perpetuate its practice.
There is also a much older and more violent span of colonialism that we often forget to mention when we castigate the Dutch explorers who first discovered our land and the British invaders who followed them. The Fulani Jihads of 1804 – 1810, perpetrated by Uthman Dan Fodio was a violent spate of colonization, embarked on by Fulani Islamic militia who had lived among the Hausas for four centuries but had remained legal aliens, excluded from their pagan but established culture. There are many reasons why the Jihad was embarked on, including expanding the increasing influence of Uthman Dan Fodio (influence some argue has remained till today), ‘purifying’ the practice of Islam and strengthening socio-economic ties between the Fulani Aliens and their Hausa hosts including taxes on nomadic cattle rearers who grazed in the lands of the locals. The primary thrust of the jihad lasted seven years and resulted in the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate that started from Borno and spread all the way down to Ilorin. But the cost of this glorious Fulani caliphate was the aggressive and relentless homogenization of the cultures and people that found themselves under this new regime under a new Islamic ‘culture’.
The effects of the colonization of Northern Nigeria were most felt closest to the heart of the Caliphate in Sokoto and Borno, but no region under the Caliphate has escaped its substitution of Islamic law and practice for the ritual and history of the region’s indigenous cultures. While it is impossible to complete crushing indigenous cultures, Christianity and British colonialists tried, The Fulani jihad and the subsequent Caliphate’s subjugation of the indigenous tribes have had the most success stripping the indigenous cultures of their history and the context behind their rituals. Even the tribes of Nigerian Middle Belt that resisted the forced Islamization of their peoples have lost much of their culture and are only starting to reclaim their heritage. The Nok people’s of Southern Kaduna and their world-renowned art, harkens to a vibrant culture, almost entirely lost now to us. They are only one of hundreds of distinct cultural tribes with distinct cultures and rituals, now completely lost to time and Northern colonization.
This is a form of violence in itself, and it is disheartening that even now, very few people from Northern Nigeria truly understand and appreciate how much the North has lost in pre-colonial music, dance, history, art and culture to this homogenization.
Amusa Firdaus wanted to wear her hijab underneath her wig as a public attestation to her faith, a perfectly understandable decision. But her hijab says nothing about who she is, and what her heritage as a Nigerian is. It says as little about who exactly Amasa Firdaus is, as her foreign wig.
It might have happened tangentially, but Ms Firdaus has reminded us again, that Colonialism is pervasive and pernicious, it can be as overt and as flawed as immigration laws, or as subtle as laws that discriminate against traditional ceremonial headgear while elevating the religious and cultural iconography of alien invaders over our indigenous ones.