Religion, modernity, and secularity often do not mix well at all in Nigeria -a multi-ethnic and religious overpopulated nation -as the latest case of two graduates refusing to wear prescribed uniform in the orientation camp of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) go viral. Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL, examines the latest crisis of dress code in the country’s education system.
Founded in 1973, the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) is still grappling with relevance and its core mandate decades after. It has been a subject of contentious debates in over a decade whether it should be scrapped or not.
Many believe that its primary mandate of fostering unity, if it has any impact, has become more apparent in lumping mostly unwilling youths together in various locations they often loathe.
Out of more than four million corps members it has churned out, few dozens have so far embraced the unity and oneness of Nigeria being preached via inter-marriage.
Another complaint has been that the one-year compulsory service is a waste of time. With poverty spreading its tentacles in more than half of the homes in the country, a one-year ‘service’ to the fatherland is well worth it.
Be that as it may, the latest issue tugging at the fragile fabric of the NYSC programme involves dress and grooming.
Over the years, the scheme has had to grapple with trendy youths turning the NYSC regalia on its side -either by redesigning the trousers or the shirt. But what happened recently is considered a rebellion against one of the rules of the NYSC’s dress code.
On its website, the NYSC bye-laws (revised 2011) in section 8 states: “Wear the various uniforms provided for the activities (in camp).”
It adds: “Any member who refuses, fails or neglects to comply with this rule shall be tried by the camp court and, if found guilty, be liable to be decamped and sent out of the orientation camp.”
That section of the bye-law was broken by Okafor Love Obianuju (registration number EB/19C/0523) and Odji Oritsetsolaye (registration number EB/19C/0530) while undergoing the three-week orientation exercise of the 2019 NYSC batch C stream in Ebonyi State.
The two damsels, according to the NYSC, had refused despite entreaties to wear the shorts and trousers given to them by the organisation.
NYSC’s spokesperson in Ebonyi, Ngozi Ukwuoma, related that the duo were spotted by the camp director, Isu Josephine, and her team during a routine morning inspection, wearing white T-shirts and skirts.
“When they were accosted and interrogated, they disclosed that they could not wear the white shorts and the trousers given to them by the NYSC since it was against their faith,” Ukwuoma narrated in a statement issued after the incident.
“Efforts were, however, made by the office of the camp director to make them see reasons why they must obey the rules and regulations guiding the orientation and NYSC, but all efforts to do that proved futile.”
All concerted efforts made to make the ladies change their minds, the NYSC spokeswoman alleged, were rebuffed.
Consequently, the matter was “officially” reported and the “proceedings” for de-kitting the errant ‘corpers’ began.
“The corps members were queried and subsequently made to face the camp court, where they were found guilty, having made it categorically clear that they were ready to bear the consequences of their actions,” said Ukwuoma.
According to her, the camp court’s recommendations were to the camp management and the camp director was directed to de-kit the corps members.
“They were de-kitted in the presence of security agents, who also escorted them to the gate as they left the camp,” added Ukwuoma.
Since inception, 4,664,804 Nigerian graduates have participated in the NYSC scheme. There is no record of the number of individuals sent packing for failing to adhere to the NYSC’s dress code.
It is not known yet whether the two religious ladies have been given a hero’s welcome by their families, religious organisations and sympathisers upon returning home or whether the damsels are currently ruing their decision, shame-faced, not willing to return home.
Their case is intriguing as no religious, legal, or civil society organisation seem to have risen to defend their cause.
It is also intriguing that nothing has been heard from the graduates sent out of the camp. Did they feel the shorts were too short, revealing their thighs and buttocks? Did they think trousers were for men and not for ladies? Will they be willing to test the NYSC bye-law on the dress code in court?
This brings to mind the opprobrium that greeted the ill-advised decision of the Nigerian Law School to Bar Firdaus Amasa from graduating simply because she wore hijab to the graduation ceremonies.
The episode stirred intense controversies in the country. And to the Bar, she was eventually called after the law court ruled in her favour.
Unlike the Nigerian Law School, however, the NYSC knows better and is more flexible.
The director general of the NYSC, Brig.-Gen. Shuaibu Ibrahim, though unhappy about the recent controversy on the dress code for corps members, demonstrated understanding and firmness.
In a statement by Adenike Adeyemi, NYSC’s national spokesperson, Ibrahim urged corps members to always adhere to the dress code.
The statement said, “The DG notes with great concern the negative perception of the scheme’s dress code, arising mostly from some corps members’ disobedience to the dictates of the code. For the avoidance of doubt, the scheme has maintained one dress code since May 22, 1973, when it was established, devoid of ethnic, religious or gender bias.
“The code remains a pair of khaki trousers and shirt; crested vest; white vest; a pair of white shorts; a pair of zebra-striped socks; a pair of jungle boots; a pair of canvas; belt and fez cap. This depends on the camp activity at any point in time.”
Ibrahim noted that NYSC camps predicated on discipline and decency, are training grounds for corps members. He, therefore, warned: “Any other dress code contrary to the officially-sanctioned one will not promote the course of decency.”
It will be reprehensible for a female corps member to embark on obstacle crossing and other physical training activities on camp, including the parade, in skirt or gown, according to the NYSC boss.
“Those will expose her indecently, thus, leaving little or nothing to the imagination.
“The management observed with dismay the defacing of the NYSC uniform by some corps members by reshaping their khaki trousers, making them skin-tight, which unduly expose their curvatures, particularly the female corps members.
“Some others, in the name of religion, turn the pair of trousers issued to them into skirts. The scheme, therefore, considers the unwholesome act as an affront to decency on one hand and constituted authority on the other.”
It was for that reason that the NYSC said it came up with the policy of having prospective corps members sign undertaking forms to the effect that they will not deface the NYSC uniform, but abide by the dress code for corps members.
However, the NYSC was careful in dealing with the issue of wearing a hijab.
“Rather, the scheme permits the use of white hijab, which must not be more than shoulder length and must be tucked into the uniform. The policy of allowing hijab, which does not deface the NYSC uniform, is not new, as it has been there.”
Many tertiary institutions, in a bid to enforce a measure of decency on its campuses, have outlawed “revealing, tight-fitting clothes”. Even Nigeria’s primary and secondary schools are not left out.
Lagos State government had late last year issued a circular approving the use of hijab by female Muslim pupils in all public schools.
The circular with reference no: ED/DISTVI/CCST/HI/14/I/63 and signed by the Tutor-General, O.A. Olukoya, stated: “Since the case of the use of hijab in Lagos is still pending in the Supreme Court of Nigeria, the status quo should be maintained to avoid contempt of court. That is, students should be allowed to wear hijabs on school uniforms but it must be short, smart, neat and the same colour as the uniform (skirt).
“Furthermore, schools’ managements are advised to downplay comments and disciplinary actions on the use of smart hijabs until the final determination of the case by the supreme court. No student should be discriminated against in any form on the basis of religion. All principals and teachers must be sensitised to comply accordingly.”
It appeared some teachers did not heed that message – at least, going by what a Muslim group, the Hijab rights advocacy claimed. According to the Islamic group, two teachers of Army Cantonment Girls Secondary School in Ojo, Lagos, “molested, harassed and intimidated” one 13-year-old Khadeejah Adewunmi Ajayi, and prevented her from preparing for some class tests and assignments merely because she had her hijab on her school uniform after school hours.
“Khadeejah, a JSS 2 student was allegedly accosted by the teachers outside the school compound after school hours and while on her way home. She was ordered to remove her hijab and upon fervent pleas that she would not remove it, the teachers forcefully snatched her hijab and her school bag away from her, handed them over to a military security officer at a nearby security post.
“The poor girl wept for her bag as she had tests and assignments to write and submit the next day. This is yet another manifestation of the intolerance of some teachers in Lagos who are supposed to stand in loco parentis to children under their watch, but have thrown caution to the wind in exhibiting their bigotry against Islam and are bent on disrupting the relative peace and the goodwill of the government in Lagos by continuously carrying out their plot that the Muslim girl child does not receive education in government schools funded by taxpayers in the state.”
Against this background, the director of Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), Prof. Ishaq Akintola, urged all Islamic organisations in the state to immediately set up monitoring units for the successful implementation of the government’s directive on hijab.
In Osun State, the hijab crisis was a case of the curious and the furious.
Sometime in 2016, the Baptist Girls High School in Osogbo played host to an army of security operatives as the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in the state began a joint prayer session to resist the court judgment approving the wearing of hijab in ‘Christian’ schools.
The same scenario played out at the Baptist High School, Iwo, where some CAN representatives almost clashed with law enforcers as they ensured that robe-wearing pupils were not turned away from the school.
CAN and its sympathisers were kicking against female Muslim pupils wearing hijab to schools deemed secular, especially those established by Christendom’s missionaries. Unfortunately for them, a court judgment approved the use of hijab in the state.