Kenyan Muslim students and Methodist school lock horns in Supreme Court over head covering

Cases of religious conflicts in Kenya's education institutions are not new. For instance, students professing Seventh Day Adventism often find themselves in trouble when admitted to Catholic schools as they are required to go to class on Saturdays and to mass on Sunday.

Muslim schoolchildren in Kenya

Muslim schoolchildren in Kenya

But never before has a dispute over school rules found its way to the highest court in the land like it did recently.

On January 24, the Supreme Court by a majority set aside the orders of the Court of Appeal directing the Board of Management of St. Paul’s Kiwanjani Day Mixed Secondary School to amend school rules in order to accommodate students with religious beliefs requiring them to wear particular items in addition to the school uniform such as the hijab.

Around 10 percent of the Kenyan population practices Islam, while 84 percent follows Christianity, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

The Court of Appeal had also directed the Cabinet Secretary for Education to formulate rules and regulations for the protection of the rights under the Constitution.

The church had moved to court to challenge a decision by the Teachers Service Commission (TSC), County Director of Education, Isiolo County and the Isiolo District Education Officer that all Muslim girls in Kiwanjani Secondary School be allowed to wear hijab and white trousers contrary to existing school uniform policy.

The church sought a determination that the Respondent’s declaration was unlawful and contradicted the Constitution and school rules.

There has been a long-running dispute over the role of the hijab at Christian schools, with some of them banning the hijab outright in the past.

In 2015, Justice Harun Makau allowed the petition and directed that allowing Muslim students to wear hijab/trousers was discriminatory, unlawful, unconstitutional and contrary to the rules and regulations of the school.

He issued an injunction preventing the respondents from allowing Muslim students to wear hijab and compelled the respondents to ensure full compliance with the school rules and regulations.

Aggrieved by the decision, a parent, Mohammed Fugicha moved to the Court of Appeal seeking to have his daughter and other Muslim female students allowed to wear hijabs.

The Methodist Church sought to overturn the Court of Appeal’s decision and challenged the Court of Appeal’s interpretation and application of the Constitution.

Initially, media outlets had announced that the Supreme Court judges had overturned the Court of Appeal petition that allowed Muslim students to wear hijabs leading to uproar on social media.

Some Kenyans expressed criticism of the country’s Ministry of Education after it allowed turbans in schools for students of different religions with head coverings, including Rastafarians.

TSC also holds that schools sponsored by religious bodies should be accommodating to students who may not profess the Christian faith.