(By Oguntoye Oluwaseyi)

Now, if I can reject my country’s call to defend her in times of emergency because of my religious beliefs, does it not sound stupid to think that I cannot refuse a habiliment for a mere para- military service because of that same belief? Jehovah witnesses don’t sing the national anthem and none has ever been kicked out of school because of that. In fact, the right of conscientious objection demonstrates the high esteem to which the state regards the right to religion.

“The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man; neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: For all that do so are abominations unto the Lord thy God”
— Deuteronomy 22 v 5, King James Version.
IT is instructive that I start with this caveat: This is no religious writing and it does not espouse any religious leaning. It is the interaction of religion and state policy that has bewildered me for some time and I think the recent incident of Miss Damilola Ekundayo, who was ejected from her Ogun State orientation camp for refusing to wear the prescribed kits, has set the spring board for a careful analysis of this delicate relationship. Perhaps, more interesting is a question that has been disturbing me since then: For religious adherents, which is more important; the laws of the state or that of God?

I have come across the text of Prof. Wole Soyinka’s presentation as the inaugural winner of the Obafemi Awolowo Prize for Leadership (The Nigerian Tribune, March 7, 2013 pgs. 47-50). In those four pages, his brilliance and ingenuity that has made him an international icon unravelled before me. The presentation was titled, “Winding down history: Religion and Nation, Power and Freedom”. It was so powerful that after reading it at four different times, the words seem new every time I pick up the paper again. It was a masterpiece; not only for his rich and enrapturing wealth of language to which we are accustomed but in his proper analysis of the intractable relationship between religion and nationhood. I have found the brilliant thoughts of the Nobel laureate unavoidable in my discourse.

Ekundayo refused to wear the NYSC prescribed kits and insisted on wearing skirts as against trousers and was, therefore, in violation of the guidelines setting up the scheme. It is her reason for this refusal that has inspired this write-up. She claimed wearing trousers goes against her religious beliefs. It brings a question to the fore. Does she have the right to demand that her religious beliefs be respected? In that presentation, Soyinka gave two illuminating examples of misplacement of policy priority. First, it was the refusal of some teachers to allow some students write their examinations because they wore hijab. Second, it was the refusal of some two doctors in the United Kingdom to treat their patients unless they wore the hijab.

These two similar scenarios in different climes pose the same inquiry; of what relevance is hijab to writing an examination and receipt of treatment? While the “if you are a club member, you observe the rules of the club” cliché holds true, he wrote; “all institutions have the right to set their own rules –as long as these do not violate constitutional rights – including dress codes and accessories that are symbolic of the school’s founding principles, philosophy and ideology.”

This specifically has been used by many to criticise her. It has been argued that she signed up to the scheme and must be aware of the rules and cannot now complain that her religious beliefs are threatened. This thinking is flawed. First and foremost, she has a right guaranteed by the constitution that her religious beliefs must be respected. Section 38 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) states that “every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom in community with others (whether in public or in private) to manifest or propagate his belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance”.

Soyinka qualifies this; “Translated in plain, practical terms, it establishes the principle that religion should be recognised as a right, not a privilege and that a citizen’s desire for spiritual fulfilment deserves to be assisted – as a basis for both social understanding and governance equity”. This brings out the jurisprudential question; is Section 3 subsections (h) of the NYSC 2012 bye-laws superior to Section 38 of the 1999 Constitution, to the effect that her right to observe her religious beliefs becomes subsumed under her willingness to serve her fatherland? I bet it doesn’t take five years in a law faculty to answer that question. The constitution is the grundnorm and by virtue of Section 1, it is superior to any other enactment.

The NYSC guidelines, therefore, must be in conformity with the spirit of the constitution. I believe Ekundayo’s case is important for two reasons; one, it reveals the hypocrisy called religion as practised in Nigeria and at its highest; it exposes an unfortunate failure of Christian leadership. Second, it epitomises the main reasons why the much-needed change might be far from this country.

I had an interesting discourse with my cousin who just returned from his orientation camp in Ondo State. I sought his opinion on this matter as he seems more ‘religious’ than I appear to be. He told me that it confuses him when devout Christian ladies vow not to wear trousers. When they are reminded of NYSC, they are always quick to make an exception. Then he would ask them; what if a truly venerable figure comes when they are in the orientation camp, what would they say? At that point, they become muted. This simply opens the hypocrisy that colours our Christian life and it explains why the heroic Christian stance of this dynamic lady did not receive the needed support from the Christian community especially our jet-obsessed Bishops and GOs.

The above biblical passage has been interpreted in so many ways by different denominations. But translated literarily, it means that the wearing of trousers is forbidden for a Christian female. However, it is not the correct interpretation that is under discourse here. Of greater importance is the fact that this literal meaning is shared and upheld by many denominations—Deeper Life Christian Ministry, Redeemed Christian Church of God, the Nigerian Baptist Convention, to mention but a few. This confirms that Daminlola’s religious beliefs are not shared by her alone but has popular support among Christians. Now, if most pastors would frown at a lady wearing trousers to church for a Sunday service, what justifies the acceptance of trousers for NYSC? If it is truly believed that the Holy Bible disallows women from wearing trousers, through which means was the exception to allow it for NYSC created?

In the same vein, given that most churches frown at women wearing trousers to church, the same church leaders were silent when the issue came up. It is a total lack of leadership. It is already established that this literal interpretation of that Biblical passage is upheld by many churches in the country. Then, one wonders why the same religious leaders that know that she was standing on the truth didn’t come out in her support. Where were the Adeboyes, the Kumuyis, the Oyakhilomes and the Olukoyas when one sheep from the flock was in dire need of a voice to lean on? Probably they had travelled to the jet manufacturing plants in Brazil and China to find out the next innovation; since that is the pre-occupation now. Or perhaps, they were saying in their hearts; “She should have given Caesar what belongs to Caesar”. Damilola stood for her faith in the face of ejection from camp and such act of bravery and Christian steadfastness was not lauded. Ideally, she should be a role model for religious firmness. A visit to those private schools established by these churches would interest you. They maintain a strict dressing code which for ladies disallows the wearing of trousers. Unless I am convinced by superior argument that the origin of that regulation is not from the book of Deuteronomy 22 v 5, does it not make a mockery of the rule when those same students are allowed to wear that same forbidden trousers for NYSC?

This incident in its simplest form showcases everything wrong with this country. Damilola didn’t do anything wrong. Her only mistake was her attempt to change an established norm; one established and perpetuated in hypocrisy. Christian leaders see nothing wrong with ladies wearing trousers for NYSC when same action would entail condemnation on a normal Sunday service. But, if I may ask, what is so strange about wearing skirt for NYSC? Policewomen wear skirts. Between NYSC, which is only a paramilitary scheme and the Nigerian Police Force, which is more critical and important to the country? So if police women can be allowed to wear skirts, what stops female corps members? Also the concept of conscientious objection is not strange to our polity. It is a situation whereby citizens could reject conscription into the Armed Forces based on their religious beliefs. It has constitutional backing.

Now, if I can reject my country’s call to defend her in times of emergency because of my religious beliefs, does it not sound stupid to think that I cannot refuse a habiliment for a mere para- military service because of that same belief? Jehovah witnesses don’t sing the national anthem and none has ever been kicked out of school because of that. In fact, the right of conscientious objection demonstrates the high esteem to which the state regards the right to religion.

Those that argue that she knew the rules before going to the camp do not understand the issues. Those are the rules because no one has ever stood up to assert her religious beliefs and challenge them. No ‘genuine’ Christian sister has been brave enough to ask for an amendment of the guidelines to suit her religious leanings. Instead, they all abandon their religious beliefs when going to camp. Comparison with membership of a club is flawed. Membership of a club is voluntary and as such you are required to obey the rules as you join of you own volition. The Iranian women national team was thrown out of the Olympics football qualifiers because they insisted on wearing their hijab. Playing in the Olympics is voluntary and they have to follow the rules if they wish to participate. But the comparison stops there. NYSC is not a voluntary scheme, it is compulsory for any graduate that wishes to seek employment in the country. It is a prerequisite, one that its avoidance renders useless for employment purposes, the years spent in the higher institution. As such, it is a general scheme and knowing fully well, the sensitivity of religion in this country, modalities should be put in place for the incorporation of religious beliefs of all citizens in the scheme.

As I said, it demonstrates everything wrong with this country. Instead of us to stand up for our rights where they are being trampled upon, we silently suffer just to avoid being made an example. This act of forced submissiveness in the face of discomfort has kept us in bondage for a long time. We are not ready to make the sacrifice that is needed to deliver us from the hands of our taskmasters – the politicians. Nothing is as hard as standing up against an established institution, but many countries would still be in captivity today, if some people had not been defiant in the face of real threats from the authorities – even death. There would have been no democracy in Nigeria today, but for the likes of Enahoro, Ajasin, Abiola and his wife, Adesanya, Soyinka, Fawehinmi, Alfred Rewane, Bola Ige, Nwankwo, Kanu, Beko Ransome-Kuti, Femi Falana, Oyegun, Agbakoba and Col. Abubakar Umar nor would oil-producing areas have been accorded any modicum of respect today for their claim to oil in their yard but for the likes of Isaac Boro and Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Nelson Mandela, unfazed by the threats of imprisonment, gave 27 years of his life so that South Africa could be free. The absence of men like Mandela, like Ekundayo, that would stand up against age-long hypocrisy and ask for their right, the absence of such forthright and steadfast Nigerians is why we are marred in political stagnancy and economic impoverishment even in the midst of plenty. She would forever have my respect. This certainly does not belong to Caesar!

• Oluwaseyi, a law graduate of the University of Lagos, is a serving youth corps member in Osun State.

“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”