Wale Sokunbi CURRENTS
What is in a uniform? Ordinarily, a uniform is nothing but clothing used by a particular group of people to identify them and distinguish them from other groups in a particular area. The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (Third Edition, Year 2000) reinforces this view with its description of a uniform as “a particular type of clothing worn by all members of a group or organisation such as the police, the army etc.”
Lately, the simple affair of differentiation of members of a group by a uniform has become an instrument of protest that has been hitting headlines across the country. For the NYSC, a corps member identified as Miss Damilola Tolulope Ekundayo, a Zoology graduate of the Lagos State University, hit the limelight in March when she stoutly resisted wearing the trousers prescribed and provided by the National Youth Service Corps for all graduates of tertiary institutions undergoing orientation at orientation camps spread across the country.
Apparently wanting to make a point on the impropriety of the imposition of a uniform consisting of trousers and shirts on NYSC members when some of them may not want to wear trousers because of their religious faith, Ekundayo preferred to be sent out of the orientation camp in Ogun State, to wearing the NYSC trousers alongside the thousands of corps members mobilized for Batch A of the 2013 service year. All efforts to make her change her mind by camp officials failed, and she was promptly sent out of the camp. That batch of NYSC members have since concluded their orientation and are now working in the various places they were deployed. It is not clear what has happened to the decamped Ekundayo since then, but it is unlikely that she will join her colleagues in serving the country for as long as she maintains her no-trousers policy.
In Osun State, where Governor Rauf Aregbesola has had a charge of nursing a plan to Islamize the State hanging on his neck for some months now, some Muslim residents and associations in the state have also been in the news for insisting that female Muslim students in the state should be allowed to wear hijab, which is a type of veil used by Muslim women, on top of their school uniforms. This demand of the Muslims, which has been in the news since the time of the state’s former governor, Olagunsoye Oyinlola, came to a head sometime ago when a Muslim student in a public school, I think, Baptist Secondary School in the state, came to the school in hijab and was immediately sent home by a teacher.
Reports indicate that some aggrieved Muslims thereafter stormed the school and beat up the teacher. Since then, the campaign for Muslim students to be allowed to wear hijab to school has increased, and the matter is now before a court as some Muslim organisations in the state try to obtain a court declaration supporting the move of Muslim organisations to make Muslim children wear hijabs on their uniforms when going to public schools. For me, the wearing of trousers by NYSC members, and the use of hijab on school uniforms by female Muslim students in Osun State, should not be a matter for rancour and unnecessary controversy. There are clearly much more serious issues, such as the poor state of the education sector, unemployment, dilapidated infrastructure and poor access to potable water and health care that should be engaging the attention of well meaning Nigerians.
The wearing or not wearing of trousers and the manner of uniform worn by school pupils should not be a big issue in our troubled country. Concerning Corps member Damilola Ekundayo, her courage in standing firm on her resolve not to wear trousers is admirable. It is good for anyone to be able to stand on his/her convictions and be ready to pay a price for it. Moreover, it is through such individual revolt to accepted norms that fundamental and revolutionary changes have been effected in society. But then, the decision of Ekundayo to refuse to wear the NYSC trousers after signing an undertaking to abide by the dress code prescribed for the scheme raises many questions. First, there is the fact that the scheme is guided by a law which says all participants must wear the prescribed uniform. Indeed, as the NYSC Co-ordinator in Ogun State, Mrs Theresa Anosike explained, Ekundayo’s refusal to wear the uniform contradicts Section 3 subsection (h) of the scheme’s 2012 bylaws.
Her outright refusal to abide by the camp rule on the wearing of the uniform was, therefore, also a threat to discipline in the camp. While I respect this young lady’s resolve to rather leave the camp than wear trousers, I think the NYSC is right to insist that all corps members must wear the prescribed uniform. It will be clearly inexpedient to allow any single corps member or group of corps members to dictate a uniform to the NYSC. This is more so as there are many religions in Nigeria and corps members of each faith cannot be allowed to dictate their preferred uniform to the NYSC. Instead of the “one-girl” approach to the demand for a change in the NYSC uniform, groups of corps members or religious institutions which have reservations about their female members wearing trousers can petition the government and call for a review of the current uniform, clearly outlining their case.
The change in the Corps uniform cannot be achieved through civil disobedience by individual corps members. Although trousers may appear best suited to the physical activities Corps members engage in, the government may decide to allow use of skirts, if the anti-trousers campaigners go through the right channels. On the Osun State hijab on uniform controversy that has been interpreted in some quarters to be a fallout of Governor Rauf Aregbesola’s inclination towards “Islamization” of the state, it is clearly inexpedient to allow this needless controversy to jeopardize the peaceful relationship between Christians and Muslims in the state. Since Nigeria is said to be a secular country, there is really no need for any person or group of persons to insist on wearing of religious items to public schools, and the governor must avoid any body language that encourages adherents of his religion to start demanding special wears. The wisdom of maintaining secularity in the matter of school uniforms can be deduced from the problem that could arise when adherents of all religions in the state start demanding all kinds of “spiritual” wears.
What, for instance, would the government do, if the adherents of Osun religion begin demanding wearing of white uniforms only, with white beads to school? Or, children of Sango worshippers, in another instance, insist on wearing red caps to school, with earrings in the ears of their boys? What again, if Sango male worshippers insist on wearing braided hair to school as we see depicted by Sango priests in some home videos? If I were Governor Aregbesola, I will, while recognizing the legitimacy of the demand for hijab, both publicly and privately appeal to all religious leaders in the state to let us maintain true uniformity of school uniforms, in the interest of peace. This hijab on uniform controversy is a needless one.
Let school uniforms be just what they are – uniforms designed to ensure uniformity in the appearance of school pupils. They should not be used as instruments by anybody to divide the hitherto peaceful state along religious lines. Let my good people of the State of Osun place more emphasis on the things that unite them as a state, and not the ones that divide them.