What You Should Know About Schools and the Islamic Dress Code

Some schools prohibit Muslim girls from dressing in a manner that is compliant with Islamic teachings. Is it prohibited for Muslim girls to attend such schools?

Islamic teaching prescribes a compulsory minimum dress code for both boys and girls when they reach puberty. For boys it is from the navel to the knees, while for girls it is the whole body with the exception of the face and hands. This is the understanding of the majority of Muslim scholars and schools of law (madhahib). A school uniform for that age group should therefore respect this religious requirement. This is the case in many schools where there is adequate respect for religious freedom and expression.

In many predominantly Muslim states in Nigeria, boys and girls are able to wear a version of the school uniform that is respectful of Islamic requirements. The argument that girls should not go to school because hijab is a religious obligation that is prohibited by schools, cannot therefore be used to prevent girls from pursuing their education in those schools that are tolerant or respectful of the hijab.

In some places however, the only quality schools for children are private non-Muslim schools that are not sufficiently respectful or sensitive to the dressing needs of especially Muslim women. Sometimes, there are government schools where the administration does not allow Muslim girls to wear Islamically compliant uniforms.

One of the lessons we learn from the Sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh) is to have a sense of priority when faced with such dilemmas and challenges. During the well-known Treaty of Hudaibiyyah for example, the Prophet (pbuh) had to make a choice between a long-term benefit of a peace treaty with the Pagan Quraish, and the short-term legitimate rights and need of movement of oppressed Muslims from Makkah to Madinah.

The Prophet (pbuh) regarded the long-term benefits of peace as a priority over the short-term needs. Most of the Prophet’s companions were unhappy about the Prophet’s decision, as they were more concerned about the dignity of Islam and the clear needs of the oppressed Muslims. The Prophet’s choice for long-term peace however allowed Muslims to take advantage of the period of peace to build better relations with others, enlighten more people about the true message of Islam and increase in the number of Muslims and their influence. When eventually the Pagan Quraish broke the treaty, the Muslims had enough strength and influence to get both long-term peace, security and the full rights of movement for Muslims who were now no longer oppressed.

From this and many other cases in the Sunnah, scholars conclude that it is permissible to sacrifice or forgo a short-term benefit for a much longer-term advantage.

Muslim scholars have picked many pieces of wisdom from the methodology of change taught by the Qur’an and Sunnah, and have converted these into short memorable statements or “legal maxims” (qawa’id) to guide Muslims when faced with various dilemmas in new context where specific texts may not have directly address. Some of these maxims include:

“A greater harm can be eliminated by means of a lesser harm.” (Yuzal ad-darar al-ashadd bi al-darar al-akhaff).

“We choose the better of two beneficial alternatives, and the lesser of the two evils when there is a choice.” (Nakhtar a’la al-maslahatain, wa akhaff al-mafsdatain inda al-tazahum)

“A specific harm is tolerated in order to prevent a more general one.” (Yutahammal al-darar al-khaas li-daf’ al-darar al ‘am).

“Whatever is a prerequisite or necessity for an obligation (wajib) is itself regarded as an obligation (wajib).” (Ma la yatimm al-wajib illabihi fahuwa wajib).

“To repel a public damage, a private damage is preferred”.(Al-darar al-‘am li daf’al-darar al-khas)[1]

The Muslim Ummah has learnt many lessons in survival, growth and societal reform over the centuries in many societies. There are many institutions in many societies – schools, universities, hospitals, law firms, government offices, administrative positions, security services, media organizations, etc. – that formerly did not allow women to wear any Islamically-compliant dressing (hijab).

However, Muslim sisters sacrificed the short-term advantage of the dignity of the hijab for the long-term advantage of getting a better education, greater authority and influence with the intention of ultimately reforming the system. And in the long-run, with Allah’s support, these now influential women (and men) have been able to influence reforms in long-standing discriminatory policies that now accommodate and respect Islamically-compliant dress codes and many other needs of Muslim men and women related to food, drink, clothing, finance, laws, culture, etc. The early sacrifices of those Muslim women – similar to those done by many early Muslims – have resulted in a present situation where all women are now free to dress with dignity according to the dictates of their faith and have much greater religious freedoms.

While this approach may take time, hard work, sacrifices, disappointments, patience and perseverance, it so far appears the most assured route for positive change that the Ummah has used, and the real test of sincerity of purpose and faith in the methodology of the Sunnah. To decide not to attend educational or professional institutions because they are presently not tolerant of any form of hijab is to lose the time-tested long-term benefits that come with gradual but ultimate reform. You may win the “battle” for yourself to dress appropriately, but probably also lose the “war” for the Ummah and posterity.

As some wise scholars say, “In life you do not get what you deserve. You get what you can negotiate and work for!” Most societies would usually not change their laws and policies just to suit Muslim needs. It is the responsibility of Muslims to find the most effective ways of gaining respect and influence, and better means of communicating and securing their needs sustainably and for the long term.

There is however the need for more qualified Muslims in the field of Law and Human Rights who are competent enough to take legal action against bigots, extremists and others who would want to deny Muslims (or anyone else) of their legally protected religious freedoms. This also calls for Muslims to pursue conventional education to the highest level possible.

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Better interfaith relations can also play an important role in reducing the use of religious sentiments and bigotry by some to discriminate against and deny others their constitutional rights and religious freedom, which at the same time do not trample on the rights and freedom of others.

The importance of a good education for Muslim women (and men) and the opportunities for reform of society and the progress of Islam that come with it are too valuable to be sacrificed for short-term benefits of the various reason and excuses presented for avoiding such an education. These long-term benefits affect many rights of Muslim women in the family and society, da’wah to non-Muslims, health of women, poverty alleviation, morality, drugs, and most social problems that require competent Muslims women to attend to them.

[1] Ali bin Na’if al-Shuhud, Al-Khulasa fi Fiqh al-Aqalliyyah, Maktabah al-Shamila 3.13, vol.7, p.48

This is an excerpt from the book “IS BOKO HARAM?

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The Da’wah Institute of Nigeria fully support the efforts to pressure the relevant authorities in respecting the hijab wearing needs of Muslims in every field, and institution and profession.
May Allah bless bless all those who strive in His cause to the best of their ability.


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