Agonies of the Nigerian Muslim woman

Sunday, 03 October 1999

Agonies Of Muslim In Veils


Kayode Ogunbumi

CLOTHED in a flowing robe, with her head demurely covered with a scarf, Miss Hajarat Usman thought she was an epitome of what a lady should dress like. So she went in to meet the panel of interviewers. But there she sensed "some undercurrents of discomfort with the way I dressed, and open hostility from one or two".

She recalled steeling her nerves to reply to the questions, put to her, as best as she could, following which she was
rewarded with glances of admiration from the panelists. "I could see they were impressed by my performance. This
was later confirmed when the leader of the panel told me after the interview that I was the best candidate they had
interviewed that day and that I would be best for the job. He however wanted to know if I intended to dress the way
I was to the bank if employed".

Miss Usman replied in the affirmative. She was told to go and await the bank's reply. She knew she had somehow
missed the job, which was true, for the bank never got in touch with her.

Two years after, she was still waiting for the letter she knew will never come. She traces the missing of the job to
her "resolve to dress in a way compatible to my Islamic faith".

Miss Usman holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Banking and Finance from the University of Jos, Jos, and was
the best graduating student of her class. She is from Osogbo in Osun State.

Minutes before the interview was to take off, an official of the Bank had walked up to her to inquire if she was to
be interviewed by the panel.

"I said yes, happy in the belief that a friendship with the man could help eventually," she recalled. "I was therefore
stunned when he told me I would not be interviewed because of the way I dressed. And where I was interviewed I
should not expected to be employed.

Miss usman said, in a tone of bitter resignation, that she had learnt the society has little regard for upright people,
"those employers would rather I come to work exposing half my body to them".

She also made another observation. Hers was just another in a rising number of Moslem women discriminated
against in the work place because of the way they dress. "Maybe, we should actually form an association to fight
our case," she joked.

Investigations by The Guardian On Sunday revealed that some companies are averse to employing women dressed
up in hijab, - the flowing robe which covers the whole of the body and the head, leaving only the face and the hands.

Mr. Aina Olukolun, the personnel manager of an insurance company in Lagos, told The Guardian On Sunday that
because Insurance Salespeople have to go out to meet people, he "would not want to include a covered-up woman
in my team".

How about office duties, like in administration and accounts. He said there might be little problem there, "Though
I don't think we would employ such women."

An employment consultant in Lagos, said appropriate dressing is a major requirement for getting employed. But he
was quick to add that the definition of what constitutes appropriate dressing is flexible. "A lady in mini-skirts
might fail an interview. Then she might not, depending on the organisation. But I think most companies are likely
to frown at women who covered themselves in clothes. I think the odds against such women are huge".

Perception is indeed a major reason for the troubles of hijab-wearing ladies. Mr. Bade Ologun, a senior executive in
an advertising agency in Lagos said a number of otherwise brilliant applicants had failed to get their career started
because of their Islamic mode of dressing" You see, advertising thrives on dynamism and the readiness to be
creative. Such women might be seen as being old-fashioned and are incapable of being creative".

Most Muslim women say they feel they are required to satisfy more conditions than the rest of people - renounce
their belief and their being, as Miss Mujidat Oni, another "victim", puts it. A graduate of Business Administration
from the polytechnic, Ibadan, she had been in job seeking for the past four years. "I had high hopes of getting a
good job after I finished my National Service, Now, I am almost resigned the matter to fate"

Miss Oni had somehow lowered her expectation, all she wants now is "a job, even a teaching job, so I can start
applying myself. All my friends have ended up as teachers, so I might as well join them;" she said.

Though teaching is usually seen as the 'last option', due to low wages associated with it, getting a teaching job
could also be demanding, as another lady, Munirat Yusu testified. A graduate of English Language from University
of Ibadan, she had been directed to the headmaster of a private Secondary school at Ojodu, a suburb of Lagos.
"Immediately I met her, the woman could not hide her displeasure with the way I dressed. After reading the
recommendation I brought with me from her friend, she was sorry that the students would not like the way I
dressed. She said this will affect them academically, as I would not be an effective teacher. I walked away".

As it happened, it is not always so easy to walk away from the troubles associated with the dressing.

President of the Malaria Care Association of Nigeria MCAN) and Islamic Study Group of Nigeria (ISGON),
Professor Abdulkereem Hussein, told The Guardian On Sunday that he was recently approached by two ladies who
told him they have been asked to change their mode of dressing or risk being sacked by the Bank they work for.
"One of them had resigned while the other is still fighting it out", he said.

Hussein said it is unfortunate that most organisations have taken to persecution in the name of enforcing corporate
dressing culture. "God has directed us on how to live in a community.  Should people dress to satisfy owners of
business or their God?", he asked. ''If a Muslim woman opens her legs or hair for public admiration, she has gone
against the wishes of God. The same way, if a well-brought up Christian girl should dress with her hair uncovered,
she has gone against the teaching of Jesus and God". (Hussein cited 1 Corinthians, Chapter 11, Vs. 6) in the Holy
Bible and Chapter 24, Vs. 31 in the Holy Koran to back up his argument that both Islam and Christianity support
women covering up their hair.

Beyond this, he said, it is undemocratic to insist on a certain dressing code for people. "Are we more corporate or
advanced than Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia?", he queried, wondering why covering one's head should be
frowned on. 'Under military rule, people can be forced to do things. Now, under democracy, people should be free to
do what will create harmony for the individual and the society. Certainly, to force a woman to expose her hair is
against her fundamental rights and should not be allowed.

He called on Christian and Muslim organisations to come together "to protect the interest of those who want to
follow the rules of God so that they are not persecuted by the society.