There is a popular saying that the cassock does not make a monk. But I always add that “it does not mar a monk too”. Religious garbs are clothing worn by the adherents of religious faiths depending on the role/function you perform in the community of worshippers. Some people wear these garbs because it is the approved street dress to match the lifestyle they are expected to live in the community. That is why Reverend fathers and female religious of the Catholic faith have various distinctive cloth patterns that stand them out. Other Christian denominations, especially of the older mode such as the Methodist and Anglican Churches also have distinctive uniforms for their ministers, unlike the Pentecostal and Evangelical churches that do not have such. We are used to the worship dresses of the African Independent churches such as Cherubim and Seraphim, Celestial Churches, the Brotherhood of Cross and Star (Olumba Olumba Obu), etc.
The non - Christian religious groups, especially the adherents of Islamic religion in Nigeria, recently started witnessing a greater use of the female distinctive clothing, the Hijab and the nigab. Specifically they refer to the injunction of Allah to the Prophet Mohammed, “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: and God is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their zeenah (charms, or beauty and ornaments) except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their khimar (veils) over their bosoms and not display their zeenah except to their husbands, their fathers .... and that they should not strike their feet so as to draw attention to their hidden zeenah (ornaments) (Koran 24:31-32)”. These are religious injunctions to invoke decency in women and men.
Saint Peter in his writing speaks about the inner beauty which is better than external display of bodily beauty. “Your adornment should not be an external one; braiding the hair, wearing gold jewellery, or dressing in fine cloths, but rather the hidden character of the heart, expressed in the imperishable beauty of a gentle and calm disposition which is precious in the sight of God” (1Peter 3: 3-4). In his first letter to the Corinthians in Chapter eleven, Saint Paul gives an extensive exhortation on how it is wrong for a man to pray to God with head covered and while it is right for a woman to pray to God with head veiled. So every religion has its own injunction and the adherents of such religion are enjoined to keep to them.
Wearing of these cloths that identifies one with a religion shouldn’t have been a problem or a concern for anyone. In fact when you see someone with an elaborate religious dress, you should have felt more relaxed in his or her presence. But because of the mutual suspicion that today exists between Christian and Muslims in Nigeria, the use of these attires has become subject of debate and court cases. While would a religious attire that should evoke a feeling of awe and respect among people provokes anger and angst to the point of become nauseating? This has become possible because religion is no longer seen as a form of worship but a tool for oppression by some people. It is because of such an attitude that others will begin to hate the religion because of the attitude of the followers. Mahatma Ghandi, a former Indian Prime Minister said of Christians; “I love your Jesus Christ but I hate your Christianity”. The same feeling Christians have at the moment for Muslims “That Islam is a religion of peace, but the Muslims are not”. I used to say before that I fear two persons in life; I fear God and secondly I fear the man who does not fear God. But now I think I fear God and also fear the man who says he fears God too. Instead of using our various religious garments to evoke love and peace, it has become reasons for scorn, hatred and rancor. Now the rivalry has been taken to our institutes of learning, starting with the use of garments such as hijab, nigab, choir robes.
I am definite on this, and I am clear in my mind without doubt that the proponents of all these at the moment are not doing so for the religious wellbeing of the students nor for the progress of the religion. It is still part of the grand design of the political and religious bigots that populate our government houses and corridors of power. When leaders run out of ideas and lose the capacity to deliver on the electoral promises, they create distraction and enmity between the governed. It is part of the grand plan to make it impossible for the people to collectively hold them accountable for their misdeeds while in office. We saw that play out in Zamfara State at the dawn of democracy in 2000/2001 when the governor provided the “sweet pie”of Sharia law, while he and his cohorts were busy sharing the state funds among themselves. The ordinary people gathered at the public square to witness the cutting of limbs and other parts of the body of petty thieves of chickens and goats and cows while the elected and appointed state officials were fattening their bank accounts from the state treasury. They segregated the poor men and women in rickety town service buses and cab in the spirit of Sharia law, while they themselves travelled in chattered aircrafts with skimpily dressed damsels to choice love nets within and outside Nigeria.
Our governors and parliamentarians do not question the dress code of schools in Europe and America where their cherished children attend. Some of them dress up in jeans and those ‘abominable’ attires. But over there these Your Excellencies and Distinguishes do not mind because they are bothered about the content of the teaching not the attire of the students. When choosing schools for their children abroad they never consider the religious bias of the schools but the content and quality of teaching. But come to our country here, they are not bordered about what quality of teaching in public schools but the religious bias of the school uniform. If you cannot do that to your children, why do you want to spoil the religious and educational harmony that had existed in Nigeria since western started in our Country?
Why has the issue of cloths to be worn to school become so important to a state government such that it is causing much tension in schools? It started in Osun State and now some “school pupils” (I still dey laugh) in Lagos went to court to enforce their religious rights to wear their religious identity cloths to school. Get me clearly and simple here. Everyone, including me should have his or her right to religious worship, attire and freedom of expression. My pain at this point is that why are we are so worried about what to wear but not about the content of the teaching in our schools? Christian Association of Nigeria is fighting a battle of cloths and religious identity. We are also fighting over recognition and appointments. All these are fallouts of mis-governance paucity of ideas.
It is mischievous for any political leader to carry his religious emblem on the forehead as if he is the spiritual leader of the religious group. Why can we not restrict our religious devotions to our private homes and places of worship and leave governance out of it? Such a leader causes more problems for himself and his people by situating a place of worship in the government house, whether Christian or Muslim. When president Obasanjo was in power, he built Aso Rock Chapel, late president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua popularized Aso Rock Mosque. President Goodluck Jonathan carried it from where Obasanjo stopped with the chapel business. I do not have any issue with our leaders praying to God in the seat of power of the nation, but I would have been happy if all these religious devotions had stopped corruption and naked, primitive stealing of public fund by the so religious and devoted occupants of such seats and their co-worshippers. In fact the more the Allah Hak’barr and the louder the Alleluia, the higher the stench of corruption. You cannot bury incompetence under the heaps of religious and ethnic sentiments. This happens not only in Aso Rock, but in every State government house in Nigeria. When religious piety does not positively affect official conduct, it is nothing but wicked hypocrisy. We have too much of that in government circles at the moment. With the hordes of men and women bereft of ideas and knowledge of good governance and economics parading the corridors of power in Nigeria, what else does one expect than the barrage of problems confronting us? They are promoting religious acrimony, ethnic bigotry and tribal sentiments. Appointments are made into positions of leadership based on such archaic belief of “It is our turn”.
It is on the basis of this that I condemn what is happening today concerning wearing of religious garbs not because the pupils do not have the rights to it but that the noise is only diversionary. The real issue bedeviling our educational system, namely, education without curriculum, teaching without content, teaching without forming, and certificate without commiserate expertise cannot be atoned for by nicely sowed school/religious vestment. Wear whatever you like but let the content of your character be human and nationalistic enough. Wear whatever you like to school, including turban or Rev. Father’s Cassock, but do not steal public funds. Wear whatever you like but value human life. These are lacking in the contents of our school training and no religious garment can cover them up.
(Rev. Fr. Ojaje Idoko Director of Pastoral Affairs Department Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria)