Kenya High is the ultimate secondary school for many a Kenyan girl.
Its neat grounds and quaint colonial architecture buttress the enviable academic performance of an institution that produces a formidable army of Kenya’s elite women.
But, of late, 12 Muslim students have ruffled the orderly feathers of this institution by suing their headteacher over their right to wear the hijab in school.
The hijab is a veil which covers the hair and neck and is worn by Muslim women particularly in the presence of non-related adult males, and the students argued that they needed to be allowed to exercise the doctrines of their religion wherever, whenever.
But High Court Judge Cecilia Githua ruled that Muslim female students have no right to wear the hijab while in school, arguing that Kenya is a secular state and no religion should be accorded any superiority.
Justice Githua ruled that allowing the hijab in class would undermine the principles of separation of the state and religion.
The students had produced a directive from one-time Education Permanent Secretary Prof Karega Mutahi which directed all schools to allow Muslim students to wear the hijab.
But the Judge dismissed the directive as well, saying “the Permanent Secretary had no powers whatsoever to issue such directives.
It is only the Minister who can do so, and it was not indicated whether the same was issued on behalf of the minister. Therefore, the respondent was not under any obligation to comply with the directive as it was null and void in principle and substance”.
The judge held that the headscarf would promote indiscipline and “breach the principle of equality and should be avoided at all cost”.
Muslim organisations, including Supkem, Nairobi’s Jamia Mosque, National Muslim Leaders Forum and the Muslim Community Research and Development Organisation, among others, have lodged a notice of appeal at the High Court and an interpretation of the Bill of Rights at the Constitutional Court seeking to quash the judgment.
Nominated Member of Parliament Sheikh Muhammad Dor has also lodged a protest note with the Attorney General to seek his intervention on the matter.
Outside the corridors of justice, Fatuma Abubakar, a Nairobi primary school teacher, says the wearing of the hijab by Muslim students should conform to the school uniform.
“We have little problem in primary schools because we insist the headscarf and the trouser should be the colour of the uniform,” she says, adding that during sports time, Muslim girls still wear headscarves and tracksuits as long as they are not tight.
Juma Abdalla, also a Nairobi teacher, says the hijab becomes an administrative issue when students insist on wearing the black overflowing dress.
“I don’t think there is a problem if one wears it according to the uniform,” he argues, adding that the dilemma becomes more pronounced in secondary schools probably because the girls don’t want their hijab in the colour of the school uniform.
Tradition demands that hijabs should not be tight or multi-coloured as they may ‘attract the wrong kind of attention’, and Sheikh Ahmad Musallam of Nairobi’s Jamia Mosque agrees with this doctrine, saying the basic reason for the hijab “is to give a woman dignity”.
“Why is it that men wear suits and tie while women walk semi-naked?” he asks. “It’s unfair! Even biblically, a woman must cover her body. Look at Mary, the mother of Jesus. She wore long dresses. It did not start with Islam.”
Sheikh Ahmad says this controversy can no longer be ignored due to the high number of Muslim students in public schools and women at the workplace, but Hashim Kamau, the National Youth Leader in Supkem, says Muslim clerics should give proper direction on the issue of hijabs in schools.
To him, the way forward is to harmonise the colour of the head-dress with that of the school uniform and not necessarily stick with the usual black.
This means Muslim female students should wear a headscarf that corresponds with the school uniform as agreed by both the teachers and the parents, as is done in primary schools. This, he argues, will bring uniformity and discipline among students.
The hijab aside, clarification is also needed on the niqab, a piece of cloth worn to hide the mouth and the nose, only exposing the eyes.
Muslim scholars differ over whether it should be worn in schools or not, with hardline religious leaders insisting that it is part of the Muslim dress code while others insist it is more of a choice piece than a must.
In Egypt, the Grand Mullah, the late Sheikh Tantawi, declared the niqab a piece of traditional wear that should not be confused with the sanctioned pieces of religious wear. Students and women, he argued, should not be compelled to wear it, either at school or at work.
But Nizar Sheikh Fadhil, a religious student at Jamia Mosque, Nairobi, says the government — or the court, for that matter — should not expect Muslims to abandon their faith for secular rules.
“For us, Islam comes first, so there is no way Muslim students will remove the hijab, no matter what. We first listen to God, then the courts.”
France became the first country in Europe to ban the wearing of hijabs, not just in schools, but also in public.
The country has about five million Muslims, most of them being of African and Arab descent from Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Turkey.
The ban was effected last year. Offenders are fined 150 Euros (Sh15,000) while forcing women to wear the hijab attracts a bigger fine and a prison sentence of up to two years.
It all started in 1989, when three female students were suspended for refusing to remove the headscarf in classroom. In November 1989, the Education Council ruled that the hijab was allowed in class, but the crisis spread as teachers went on strike to force a ban on the hijab in their classrooms.
This was later followed by another demonstration in October 1994 by students at St Exopery High School supporting the wearing of the hijab in class.
Between 1994 and 2003, around 100 female students were suspended or expelled from middle class schools.
However, the court reinstated them.
Muslim women are supposed to cover their bodies in public, but when in the house they can uncover before their husbands or close relatives.
However, the acceptance of this doctrine in schools has been a thorny issue in the recent past, thanks to changing styles of the dress.
In Iran, where wearing the hijab is legally required, women, especially younger ones, have taken to wearing transparent, colourful and very loosely worn versions of the headscarf to protest against, but keep within, the law of the state.
In Turkey, where the hijab is banned in private and state universities and schools, 11 per cent of women wear it, though 60 per cent wear traditional non-Islamic headscarves.