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Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer and playwright, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986. His many books and plays include "Death and the King's Horseman," "Ake: The Years of Childhood" and "Isara."

By Wole Soyinka

LAGOS, Nigeria -- The issue that has arisen over Muslim headscarves in France, I understand, is the flaunting of religious markers in public educational institutions. Let me begin by confessing that I envy those to whom those choices that have only been recently thrust to the fore in France -- they have always been with us! -- are straightforward and permit of dogmatic positions.

In normal circumstances, perhaps I would agree that it should be a non-issue. It is tempting to simplify the debate by evoking the nature of club membership -- a public school has certain rules, and if you wish to be a member, or make use of its facilities, then you must conform to those rules or seek alternatives elsewhere.

However, the world we inhabit has changed vastly and dramatically over the past few decades, and club rules -- like race or sex-differentiated membership rules -- are no longer sacrosanct. In addition, the genie is out of the bottle, and the beasts of intolerance, suspicion and polarization stalk the streets. Dialogue is mostly relegated to the status of a poor relation of terror and intimidation, barely tolerated, often mocked.

Conscious of the fact that the present dialogue is being conducted within such an atmosphere, it may be helpful if I began with a reference to my personal response when a directly contrary policy was announced in my own country, Nigeria, and not just recently. It happened about 20 years ago, long before the introduction of the Sharia -- the Islamic law -- in a number of states within the country.

After several decades of independence in Nigeria, during which the issue of school uniforms in public schools never at any time emerged as a social problem, I was appalled when a minister of education ordered that secondary-school pupils should be allowed to dress in a distinct fashion that was mandated by their religious belonging. What I experienced was, frankly, a deep sense of revulsion at this insertion of a wedge of difference among youth, at a period in their lives when they should be saved from the separatist imbecilities of the so-called adult world. My response was visceral and instinctive, and I realized that this move had savaged a deeply held social philosophy within me that I had always taken for granted.

The contributive effects of upbringing to such a reaction cannot be ruled out, so let me also state my own background. The schools that I attended -- both primary and secondary -- observed the tradition of the school uniform. The primary school was an Anglican missionary school whose uniform -- a khaki shirt, a pair of shorts and bare feet -- could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be attached to any religion, from the traditional orisa worship of the Yoruba to Zoroastrianism. My secondary school -- or high school as it is known in some parts -- was a boarding school. On Sundays, Christian service was conducted in the chapel while, on Fridays, Muslims gathered for their devotion. On Saturdays, the Seventh Day Adventists received an automatic exeat, went into town for their version of the Christian worship. Even Sunday devotion among the Christians respected differences. Roman Catholics as well as Pentecostal -- known as the aladura -- went their own spiritual ways. In short, although this school, a state-owned school, could be said to be basically oriented toward an Anglican tradition, freedom of worship for every pupil was not only guaranteed but structured into the school's routine. The minister's claim that the uniforms worn by pupils in the various secondary schools were "Christian" was so specious that even a number of his fellow Muslims expressed skepticism about his motives. Those motives are reflected today in the deep social divisions that have become exacerbated over time and now express themselves in religious clashes of increasing savagery.

The basic question for me is this: What does adult society owe its younger generation in a world that is so badly torn by differences? Having observed alternative examples in practice, I find the model of my upbringing infinitely preferable to most others. It proposes that, while the right of religious worship, even in schools, should remain sacrosanct, society profits in the long run from a muting of the overt manifestation of religion in places of public education. Now, I am positioning myself here on a platform of principle, not of details. We may find that some religious augmentation of a school's dress code is not obtrusive, while others violently blare forth! I associate myself, basically, with a policy of creating the maximum possible sense of oneness within the younger generation. Allowance having been made for differences on those days allocated to spiritual exercises of choice, I see no harm done to the young mind when it is thereafter bound with others in routine expressions of a common identity, and that includes, most prominently, the school uniform.

If we may approach this issue obliquely and push aside religion for the moment, I should add that I hold the same view of schools where absolute freedom of dress is permitted school pupils. What this has meant is that children from affluent homes can attend school in designer clothing, forming associations distinguished by an elitist consciousness, in contrast to the farmers' and workers' children who can just about scrape together the odd pieces of castoff dressing from charity or second-class clothing markets. A simplistic reading of the rights of children to individual self-expression is responsible for this takeover of the young learning environment by fashion parades, a sight that is so prevalent in countries like the United States. My objection to this rests on the recognition that the modern school is an equivalent of the age-grade culture in traditional societies. There, the rites of passage from one phase of social existence to the next are bound by rules that eliminate exhibitionism, and that includes a strict dress code. The purpose of this is to create a common group solidarity distinguished only by age and learning aptitudes, enabling the pupil to imbibe not only a formal education but the sense of place and responsibilities within the overall community. At the heart of this strategy is purposeful leveling. This is the one place, in a child's life, where the child can see the other as a human equal.

In a situation that involves a plurality of faiths, a common dress code thus strikes me as a medium of secular arbitration, a function that is vitiated by a blatant divergence from the uniform. To revert for a moment to our own Nigerian experience, the action of that minister of education in decreeing a duoform policy -- as I dubbed it at the time -- in place of the uniform, was a withdrawal of a profound educational virtue in the personality formation of our youth. That equipment is a foundation block in the acquisition of the concept of oneness, one that does not interdict the celebration of the pupils' faiths with their families at home, in places of worship in the outside world and religious seasons.

Six to eight hours each day, five or six times a week, in a basically undifferentiated companionship of their age group, a period that is interspersed with huge spaces of vacation weeks during the year, strikes me as being not too great a sacrifice for parents to make, and I must stress that this "sacrifice" is made, not by the children but by the parentage, the adult stakeholders that are so obsessed with reliving their lives, with all acquired insecurities and prejudices, through their offspring. That sacrifice, or danger, exists only in the parental mind, since no child loses his or her spiritual bearings simply from the removal or addition of a piece of tissue from an outfit for a few hours a day. Left alone, children create their own world. They should be encouraged to do so. They re-enter another world on returning home and again, left alone, harmonize both and others without any anguish. In itself, this constitutes part of their educational process and makes their existence a richer one. Learning includes an adjustment process. I should add that I take this position within the context of a situation where private educational institutions -- which include missionary-owned schools -- are permitted. Such schools are then free to decree their own modes of dressing, but their curricula should also be vetted by the state -- for reasons that I hope are obvious.

If I happen to believe that youths should be weaned away from any sense of class distinction through a display of affluence in school, it seems only logical that the more insidious demonstration of religious difference should be equally discouraged. "I am wealthier than you" as an attitude among youth earns our immediate disapprobation. No less an institutional responsibility should be the attenuation of all buntings that, today especially, leave impressionable youth with the message: "I am holier than thou."

(c) 2004, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 1/12/04)