Railway station in Lagos, Nigeria

Global outlook: The Hijab – a reflection of political contestations in Nigeria

2018-02-18 07:00

Today the use of Hijab is obligatory for women in Nigeria. According to Hauwa Mahdi, gender researcher at the School of Global Studies, the University of Gothenburg, it has both emancipated and silenced women. She means that Hijab on itself is not suppressive but becomes so when politicians involve themselves in how people dress up.

Until 1970s, the use of Hijab in Nigeria was only limited to women who visited Mecca, Muslim’s pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, as a religious duty. Others were mostly bareheaded and their hairdressing signified certain practical and cultural meanings, such as age and marital status. Today, Hijab is mandatory for majority of Muslim women in Nigeria and is enforced by various intuitions in the forms of school uniform or dress codes in workplaces.

– Hauwa Mahdi recalls her young adulthood days in Nigeria and asserts that decades ago, Hijab was not a mandatory part of women’s dressing in the prevalent way it is practiced today. We, Nigerian women, were Muslims prior to 1970s too but never veiled as heavily as today, she says.

In her research, she traces the post 1970s changes which drove this ‘silent revolution’ and made hijab compulsory in Nigeria. Women’s bodies and religion has not changed since 1970s. Hauwa Mahdi questions where the change stem from.

– It is the perception towards women’s bodies and the dominant patriarchal ideologies which made the change happen, she responds.

Historical transformation

In the mid-1970s, the urban middle class women in Nigeria started wearing Hijab as a way to have access to higher education and public sectors. The use of Hijab spread to rural areas within the next decade. In 1990s, it became an official part of school uniform and most professions in public sectors.

Hauwa Mahdi argues that a close connection between the Nigerian public space, women’s voices, and the demand for certain form of dressing exists.

– The rise of Hijab in Nigeria reflects the power struggles and the dominant ideologies that were at rise within the state at that time.

In 1970s, Nigerian women’s participation in the public sector and higher education has increased tremendously. The political reforms by the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) in Kano and Kaduna States of Nigeria has opened the opportunity for more women and girls to enroll in schools and receive quality education. The increasing rate of educated women led to an increase in the number of women in the labor force, making the job competition fierce for men.

The rising demand for Hijab at the same time as women started to enter the higher education and public sectors was not coincidental.

– The intention behind enforcing Hijab was to silence women. It was an instrument to shut women down and put them away from power, politics, and decision making institutions, Hauwa Mahdi says.

Liberating or oppressing?

Hijab on itself is neither liberating nor oppressing until it gets entangled to the political processes which enforce it.

– It gets oppressive when enforced on people against their will.

From Hauwa Mahdi’s point of view, in 1970s, Nigerian women used it instrumentally to voice their opinion and remain present in the public sectors.

– Although the intention behind imposing Hijab was silencing and marginalizing women, women gained agency and visibility through it in the public sectors.

The exact same oppression goes on in France as the state is enforcing no-Hijab rule against Muslims’ will in the public sectors.

– Although governments hardly acknowledge, they strictly control and determine people’s dressing all over the world, Hauwa Mahdi concludes.

Photo Nazifa Alizada
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