In December 2017, while scrolling through social media, I came across a picture of a young woman wearing the Nigerian attire for lawyers: a black robe, and a blonde wig. Beneath the wig, she had on a light black hijab that was carefully tucked into her collars. It neither disfigured her robe nor hid any part of her attire. For a moment, I wasn’t sure she had anything on at all under the wig even though the caption to the photograph said she did. This is because it was so little, so neatly worn, and dark enough to blend in with the robe.
She had gotten her law degree at the university and subsequently passed the bar exams. She was dressed in this way to attend her call to bar ceremony; the ceremony that would declare her fit to practice as an advocate and solicitor in Nigeria. She was thrown out of the hall.
The Body of Benchers and the Nigerian Law School insisted that the hijab was not part of the dress code. This exclusionary system which had existed for decades had never once made room for Muslim women who wore the hijab.
Her name was Firdaus Amasa, which I would come to learn through heated social media debates about the case, newspaper publications, and journalists writing hot takes on the issue.
A very large percentage of the Nigerian populace agreed that she should not be called to bar with her hijab on. The reasons ranged from Islamophobia to misogyny: She knew beforehand that the hijab was not welcome; why did she not choose another line of career that made room for her? Why were Muslims trying to Islamize every aspect of the Nigerian space? Who did she think she was; did she not know that rules were rules?
Firdaus Amasa went to court to secure the right to wear the hijab and be called. She won. She was called wearing her hijab, seven months later than she was originally intended to.
Because of her, I will be able to wear a hijab to my own call to bar ceremony next year, in shaa Allah. Because of her, hundreds — and perhaps thousands — of hijabi Muslim women lawyers were allowed to wear their hijab during subsequent calls.
This is why the idea that the takeaway from Halima Aden’s journey with the hijab in the fashion industry being that Muslim women do not have to be represented everywhere turns out to be a harmful and misogynistic one.
Throughout history, women — all groups of women — have been made minorities despite our numbers. Spaces, including mosques, are designed to the exclusion of Muslim women. Excuses have been made for this, but each seems in furtherance of the goal of keeping women by the margins. To posit that Muslim women will have to accept that and not fight back and assert our place is to agree to the complete erasure of women across all important industries and career fields. Because they weren’t made for us, and will not just be handed to us on a foundation that is most likely already built on islamophobia and misogyny.
When Firdaus Amasa’s case still raged on social media, the default comment that men seemed to fall back on was something along the lines of “Perhaps it just means that the legal system isn’t made for Muslim women, perhaps they should take the cue and leave.” But to imagine even slightly, for a nanosecond, a legal system comprised entirely of men, is to in fact come face to face with a possibility of the complete extinction of women.
Halima Aden found during her journey in the fashion industry that she was an imperfect human, like every single human in the world. She found herself compromising on the personal standard of her hijab, in order to fit in, to feel accepted, to be accepted. She found that she had lost herself, and would only continue to lose herself if she didn’t step back and re-evaluate. And so she did what was best for her, her faith and spirituality, and she stepped back.
Throughout history, women — all groups of women — have been made minorities despite our numbers. Spaces, including mosques, are designed to the exclusion of Muslim women. Excuses have been made for this, but each seems in furtherance of the goal of keeping women by the margins. To posit that Muslim women will have to accept that and not fight back and assert our place is to agree to the complete erasure of women across all important industries and career fields.
It is correct to say that her experience in trying to fit in, in having to make compromises, is a uniform experience among Muslim women in all fields. Perhaps even among all women and minoritized peoples. But to posit that her solution to that personal failing is the solution to every other Muslim woman’s personal failing is an incorrect, reductive, and highly misogynistic position. It robs other women of autonomy in choosing what is right for them, erases the peculiarities of their individual struggles and aspirations in their chosen fields, and concludes even without knowing them, that they are incapable of weathering storms in unique ways. It furthers the agenda of excluding women and is no different from men trying to explain that women don’t need spaces in mosques to do something as important and as indispensable as pray.
There were many lessons to take from Halima Aden’s story. The first thing I thought when I read it was “Every Muslim woman needs to read this.” The second thing I thought was “Every woman needs to read this.” Because while it was strongly about the hijab and spirituality, about the ways that holding on to it might at some point feel like holding on to hot coals, it was also about fitting into spaces that were not from the onset designed with us in mind.
Halima Aden mentioned that a key contribution to her not so smooth journey was the lack of enough Muslim stylists in the room. This points to the fact that the setup of these industries does not have us in mind, but it also reflects that it is a very correctable institutional failing. It could, with effort, not only make room for hijabi models, but also for Muslim stylists. And that is the thing with inclusion when done correctly — it has ripple impacts. But that is also the thing with seemingly little exclusion — it leads to complete erasure.
Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu is a writer from Nigeria with work published in Tiny Essays, African Arguments, Popula, Minority Africa, Lolwe, The Republic, and elsewhere. She has written extensively about her experience with hijab.