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Hijab case ruffles national psyche

Published: 
Tuesday, June 5, 2018

It wasn’t that long ago that our national fabric was ruffled by the High Court’s ruling on the Sexual Offences Act pertaining to the decriminalisation of buggery.

While the LGBTQI community hailed it as a sign that our country was taking steps to becoming a more tolerant society, religious groups viewed the law as essential to suppressing homosexuality, which they believe endangers traditional family values. This led to a national debate on secular versus religious rights and whether one should override the other. Now, thanks to Sat Maharaj, that debate just became a lot more interesting.

Let’s first consider the individuals involved. There’s Mr Sat Maharaj… an unapologetic ethnoreligious nationalist.

His comments often land him in the public eye owing to its lightly-veiled racism. Last year he became a staunch opponent to the Government’s redressing of the minimum age for marriage which nullified the allowance under Hindu and Muslim rites. He’s probably one of the most provocative persons in T&T.

Then there’s Ms Nafisah Nakhid… the young lady at the centre of this controversy. Her tearful telling of the experience with the Lakshmi Girls’ Hindu College (LGHC) and their policy regarding the wearing of her religious attire made her an overnight superstar. And the publicity paid off; from her YouTube rant and televised interviews, to ending up with an OJT position at a government ministry. It became a modern-day version of Little Red Riding Hood where our “little red” wears a hijab and “the big bad wolf” is touted as a bigoted bully.

Mr Maharaj is a perfect example of what happens when the medium overshadows the message. His reputation for being uncouth ensures that anything he says carries a negative connotation. As political historian, Dr Kirk Meighoo pointed out on CNC3’s Morning Brew last week, “… it doesn’t mean that everything he says is wrong …we have to be able to look past the package, and sometimes what he says might be right.”

Let’s not forget that Mr Maharaj, along with another religious zealot Inshan Ishmael, filed the 2005 motion challenging the constitutionality of the Trinity Cross, arguing that it discriminated against non-Christian recipients and wasn’t representative of the multi-religious nature of our country. While Mr Maharaj’s motives may have been questionable, we can’t ignore that the motion itself served our national interests.

Ms Nakhid’s case isn’t necessarily one of discrimination. Had the school’s position been, “We are not hiring you because you are Muslim,” THAT would be discrimination; it simply informed her that, in order to be trained, she would have to abide by the dress code. The decision to wear the hijab, like any other religious practice, is a personal one.

And in the expediency to defend Ms Nakhid’s religious freedom, we must be careful not to trample on the religious rights of the school in question.

The 1960 Concordat grants the denominational boards some authority when it comes to the appointment and dismissal of teachers on moral or religious grounds. Perhaps the LGHC felt that Ms Nakhid’s very visible expression of her faith, especially in the capacity of a teacher, conflicts with their religious teachings. It’s the same as if a Catholic school requested a transfer of an openly homosexual teacher, or a Muslim school’s refusal to hire Salman Rushdie to teach literature.

Is this policy right? Well, our society has certain expectations when it comes to the denominational schools. Apart from religious instruction, these schools emphasise discipline, which makes placement in them highly prized when compared to their government counterparts.

The demands on those teachers are strict because of the example they are supposed to set.

Sat Maharaj may be an odious man, but his defence of the Lakshmi Girls’ Hindu College’s dress code is fair and anyone on the school’s compound should respect it. Ms Nakhid, in turn, is free to express her faith in public and in government offices as protected by law. Either way, it’s something she can put on and take off whenever and wherever she chooses. And she must remember that what is a symbol of modesty to her and her fellow Muslims is just a headscarf to everyone else.

Ryan Hadeed

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