By Mahfouz A. Adedimeji
One windy evening on December 1st, 1955, a 42-year old seamstress, Rosa Parks, boarded a segregated bus in Montgomery, the capital city of Alabama, USA. She took a seat near the middle just behind the front “white” section well within the “colored” sectionDz.
As more passengers boarded the bus at the next stop, there was no more space in front for the privileged white. The bus driver who had a pistol in his holster commanded the black passengers in the middle to stand so that four white passengers could sit. Three others stood as expected but Rosa Parks refused. She knew the consequences. She was arrested; she lost her job.
However, that “singular act of disobedience”, as former US President Barack Obama once put it, changed the history of America forever especially the Civil Rights Movement. The black community rose in unison and there was a sustained collective response which made them to boycott public buses for as many as 381 days. It was America’s first large-scale demonstration against segregation.
As Barack Obama said in 2013 during a ceremony to unveil a statue in honour of Rosa Parks where past Presidents, members of Congress and military chiefs were honoured, “Rosa Parks tells us there’s always something we can do.” In other words, we can reject unjust conventions, damn the consequences and alter the course of history. We can be unreasonable and refuse to simply be sheep.
The outcome of Rosa Parks’ courageous action led to a chain of events. The US Supreme Court ultimately outlawed racial segregation in public buses in Alabama. More non-violent protests rocked several American cities and a young minister, Martin Luther King Jr, was shot into prominence as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were eventually promulgated and racial relations in the US became more favourable to the victimised black minority. The world understood very well that without Rosa Parks, an Obama would not have been President of the United States.
Fast-forward to December 13th, 2017 in the capital city of Nigeria, Abuja. A young Nigerian female graduate of law from the University of Ilorin, Abdulsalam Firdaos Amosa, was at the International Conference Centre, Abuja, for the call to bar ceremony.
As it was her turn to enter, she was prevented. She was ordered to remove her hijab above which she wore her wig just as Rosa Parks was ordered to stand. Others before her had complied but she refused. By virtue of that singular action, while her colleagues are today barristers at law and solicitors of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, she is officially not.
What defines Rosa and Firdaos is exceptional courage. Though Rosa was courageous in breaking an unjust law for which she was punished, Firdaos broke no law. Many courts in Lagos, Osogbo and Ilori, among others, had ruled that wearing hijab is a constitutionally-given right. In Specific terms, Section 38, Subsection 1 of the Nigerian Constitution provides: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…(either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance”.
Just as Rosa Parks’ courageous action divided the American public opinion 62 years ago between advocates of equality and promoters of racial segregation, Abdulsalam Firdaos’ courageous action has divided the Nigerian public between the pro-hijab advocates and the anti-hijab commentators. Since religion is such a big business in Nigeria, many choose to look at it from the prism of their religious identities.
Now, actions are in the pipeline as supporters of Firdaos will surely test the legality of the Law School authorities preventing her from the call to bar ceremony in the court of law. The young lady has become a household name by insisting on her religious rights and refusing to remove part of her dressing. From all indications, history is on the side of Firdaos as her opponents will be forgotten but her name, like Rosa Parks’, will endure.
The jinx has been broken and the effects will follow. There are many female Muslim law students who are already warming up to follow Firdaos’ example and face the consequences. The interesting thing is that there is no oppression that lasts forever. Apartheid did not last forever in South Africa; colonialism too ended in Africa.
Whether we like it or not, there are strong indications that like the American Rosa Parks, Abdulsalam Firdaos has liberated female law students from the unconstitutional and unjust insistence on asking them to remove their hijabs during the call to bar ceremony. It is just a matter of time for justice and constitutionality to be entrenched in our education system.