Making a statement: Understanding the hijab (Part 2)

hijab kenya

First published in the November 2012 issue of Destination Magazine

Kenya’s population is heavily Christian, but Islamic culture has always been a part of the country’s foundations. Today, however, the hijab – a part of that culture – is becoming a divisive topic, especially in schools. Is it a religious necessity or a show of inequality? By Everlyne Mosongo

Hijab in Public Institutions

Barten Lokorio, who works in a government ministry, reads widely. “A Mormon Bible?” I ask quizzically, lifting the one sitting on top of his desk. “I also have a Bagavad Gita and a Quran in English back at home,” he says, a smile playing around his lips. “Do you think Muslim students should be allowed the hijab in school?” I ask, taking a seat on the sofa in Lokorio’s plush office at Utalii House. “They don’t have to. They can wear what other students are wearing, which is just as good,” he says. “We have Muslim women in the police force but I haven’t seen any wearing the hijab while in their uniform.” Come to think of it, neither have I.

Jamila Lodi is a Muslim who’s never worn the hijab. “Wearing a hijab is hectic,” Lodi says. “If you see me among my relatives, you’ll think I am not Muslim.” Her parents, even though they are devout Muslims, allowed Lodi to make the choice on whether or not she’d like to wear the hijab. So at home while the men dress in kanzus and women in bui buis and hijab, she walks around comfortably without the veil. Her resolve came in high school where most of the students in her school had been of Christian faith. “When you wear a hijab you are not like other students, so I got used to that environment…when I went back home on holiday I just wore normally.”

However, Bashir, believes that the hijab is prescribed by the Quran. “This is a commandment from Allah, our creator, that a Muslim girl, once they attain puberty, they must cover their hair,” she explains in a small but authoritative voice. She further elucidates that the only parts of a Muslim girl that should be seen outside her home are the face and hands, from the wrists. “It is an obligation, just like the Muslim boy should be covered from the waist to below the knee.”

“Hijab is a statement, not just a covering of your body,” Bashir articulates. Her hands are encased in black knitted gloves and her green bui bui with an orange pattern running down the front gives nothing about her figure away. The orange hijab matching the decoration on her bui bui covers her hair, ears and neck, leaving out her mouth, nose, brown eyes and thickly shaped eyebrows. Bashir explains that the hijab protects the Muslim woman and acts as a barrier that holds people at bay. “If you want to see the impact of the hijab you need to observe on the street those who are wearing the hijab and those who are wearing skimpy dresses,” she says. “How do people around them interact?” This covering is a show of respect from the Muslim woman who demands the same treatment from others. “In Islam, the whole body of the woman is beauty. You also avoid tempting members of the opposite sex,” she explains.

Lokorio simply insists that one is supposed to maintain the regulations and rules they find in an organisation and if they are too much, one should walk away. “Organisations are different so you can’t come making your own rules. If that was the case then I’d say I am from Turkana and where I come from we walk around bare-chested and carry spears.” He asserts that if Muslims are to be allowed to wear the hijab then his way of dressing, as it’s also his culture, should be accepted.

A Better Understanding

To understand the hijab’s significance, I visited Sheikh Ahmed Athman, a Muslim Scholar and Imam of Jamia Landhies Mosque, in the heart of Nairobi. When I get to the Mosque, I call the Sheikh who tells me to look up the adjacent building where I see someone in a light brown kanzu and a greyish kufi waving at me. It’s the Sheikh.

The reception area is vacant as is one of the two offices. The Sheikh is still on the phone by the window, talking with someone else now. A woman clad in a black bui bui and matching hijab comes out of his office and ushers me into the empty one. “My name is Sophia, Sheikh Ahmed will be with you in a minute,” she says, asking me to take a seat. The office is airy. An open window takes up one wall, a shelf full of files lines the other. A desk surrounded by three chairs fills the rest of the space.

Almost immediately the Sheikh walks in and the Kiswahili I learned from my years in Mombasa, which I thought had been long buried, makes a grand entrance. “Salaam Aleikum,” I greet the Sheikh who smiles at me. “Aleikum Salaam,” he says, taking the vacant seat opposite mine. The Sheikh had also been a witness in the Kenya High School case. “The uniform is important,” he construes, “but the Muslim girl cannot do without the hijab. Not wearing one is a sin.”

The practice of the hijab among Muslim women comes from the Hadith of Sahih Bukhari, a collection of Hadiths (stories) authored by Imam Bukhari. The Lord’s Apostle, Muhammad, agreed with Umar that his wives should be covered since men, both good and bad, talk to them. So the hijab became the spatial curtain that provided privacy to the wives of the Prophet Muhammad while conversing with male Muslim believers.

The Sheikh teaches at the Muslim Academy, where he asks all female students to come in hijabs, which should all be white. “All the hijabs are supposed to be white for the young ones, while those in standard seven and eight wear the bui buis, which also are not supposed to have any decorations on them.” In the same way, he believes that the hijabs worn in schools can be made to suit the school, and doesn’t see anything wrong with having the Muslim students wear white hijabs on top of the uniforms. “If a person is not ashamed of their religion, then why should another deny them their right?” he asks.

A Muslim woman won’t walk outside her home without her hijab. “The hijab is not fashion,” says the Sheikh. Well, I think to myself, if it isn’t fashion, how about those who choose their hijabs for the colour or silky texture? I’ve seen Muslim women in a stunning array of coloured hijabs; fiery orange, brown, metallic blue, green, purple. Don’t they do this to be fashionable and stand out?

A Fashion Statement

Josephine Bitutu* was in St. Stephens, a Catholic school which allowed Muslim students to put on the hijab. She explains that some of the girls definitely used their hijabs as a fashion statement. “There is the simple way of wearing the hijab, but the students in our school used to wear those with blings and they’d tie them in a way that the blings fell to their foreheads.” Since everyone, even the teachers, knew they were Muslim, they could also wear hijabs that looked like Arafat’s – a chequered headscarf made common by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

“God didn’t mean for us to hide our beauty behind a veil when he created us,” Bitutu conveys. She is of the opinion that the hijab should not be allowed in public institutions as it is restricting. “Muslim girls are beautiful. You should see them in clubs without the hijab in their glorious hair and a touch of makeup.” According to her, the hijab is sexist and degrading. “Yes it might be the answer to unwanted male advances, but if a woman’s self esteem solely depends on her dressing, then we have a problem.”

Coretta Wanjiru was in a public school where most students were Muslims. At times, some of her friends who weren’t Muslim also wore the hijab and flowing white trousers to school because it was cool and fashionable. “And your head teacher didn’t object to this?” I ask incredulously. “Why would anyone do so?” she challenges. “It’s like trying to dictate to someone their religion.” But Wanjiru was not a supporter of students wearing the hijab to school. “It wasn’t part of the uniform,” she reasons, “And in any institution, especially schools, uniformity is necessary. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are because when you are in that uniform, you are all equal.”

However, her current job is in Dadaab, on the Kenya-Somali border, where the community members are mostly followers of Islam, and she’s had a change of heart. “Now I kind of understand why the Muslim students wore the hijab to school. It is a way of life to them, and for the true Muslim girl, I don’t see a reason why they shouldn’t wear [it].”

Future of Hijab in Kenya

Bashir has younger daughters and after four years of struggling with a public school, one would think she’d resolve to take her other children to private institutions. And even though she isn’t sure whether Kenya is heading towards a countrywide ban like most European countries, she will keep fighting for her children’s right to wear the hijab. “What we are asking for is not anything unusual, anything out of the ordinary,” she sighs audibly.


Originally published in the Novemer 2012 issue of Destination Magazine, authored by Everlyne Mosongo.

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