Hijab in SHS: On Justice Tanko and Freedom of Choice

This Piece was authored by Umar MF || PHD Candidate,  Texas A&M University

I just listened to Justice Tanko’s answer on the Hijab issue in secondary schools and I am rather disappointed in his rather simple-minded reasoning on freedom of choice. I am surprised that someone who is about to be a supreme court judge thinks with un-nuanced mindset. Very disappointed.

To simplify his point, ‘if you are a Muslim girl or parent who wants to wear your hijab, then do not go to a school who’s dress code does not allow for the wearing of hijab.’ Now, this is a rather literalist reading of the concept of freedom of choice in the constitution.

I saw that he dodged Haruna Iddrisu’s attempt to get him to identify his school of judicial interpretation. The idea of choice is a very nuanced issue and must never be a literalist one. This is important for two reasons: history and access. Say I come from a minority population and we have historically had fewer resources to build schools, hence we have fewer ‘good schools’.

Now, the majority group, wanting to maintain their collective privileges design rules that ensure that if I send my child to them, my child comes out perhaps more favorable to the majority group-think. They ensure that I can not attend school while maintaining my identity.

So when I come out of that school, I am now part of the majority. If I choose not to subject myself to these onerous conditions, I am shut out of the benefits of getting a good education that by virtue of the majority’s history of access and control of resources they monopolize.

I am in essence given no choice at all. It is a false choice. When a member pointed out the constraints of this false choice, he had no response but shifted the conversation to not involving children in religious excitement. He had no response because there’s none to give. But his answer was so inadequate that it actually invited more questions than answers.

Does Justice Tanko mean religious schools should not be established? Religious-based schools are established to socialize children into religious beliefs. Does he mean to say we should not educate children in religious schools? His position on general codes is also so basic I cringed listening to him. General codes are designed by the powers that be, mostly to cater to the majority. There’s no universal thing called general.

That is why there’s always got to be exceptions. I mean what kind of mind does this man have? Anyway, I remember spending time at Achimota School in 2006 and seeing for the first time girls in the school with long hair (which is against the school rules all over Ghana).

Many of these girls I later learned were actually foreigners and what we call half-castes in Ghana. The school’s short hair policy was relaxed to cater to their sensibilities. I saw no problem with it. It made sense. Giving exceptions is the norm for people when it comes to general rules and freedoms. As a country, we have general rules and there must be exceptions.

The only people who insist on negating the exceptions are people who are interested in forcing their ways on others. That’s what the courts are supposed to prevent from happening. In my estimation, Justice Tanko absolutely does not have the requisite nuance to be a supreme court judge. I am saying this even though I agree personally with him on religiosity, faith, and the hijab.

I personally do not think to wear the hijab or otherwise takes away a Muslim woman’s religious belief. But that is my personal opinion. A Muslim woman or girl somewhere might believe not wearing the hijab takes away her religious beliefs. That is not my decision to make for her. That’s not the job of a judge. A judge should not be dabbling in religious interpretation. As long as a Muslim woman does not hurt anybody in her religious beliefs or force it on me, I have no reason to curb her practice. That should be the position of the law. This man lacks nuance to be a supreme court judge. He’s being a literalist.

Literalism breeds fundamentalism. And literalist laws only benefit majorities and the powerful. My sister Bilkis Nuhu Kokroko yesterday talked about school proprietors trying to proselytize her daughter and saying derogatory things about her daughter’s hijab. That’s what literalist laws do. They give cover to people who want to abuse their privileged position to maintain their privileged position.

I am not even going to comment on his rather incendiary comment on Islamic law on inheritance. He has no countenance to sit in Ghana’s apex court. He’s allowing his personal position (which I agree with) to color his position on law and rights.

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