Kano state government in northern Nigeria has made it compulsory for all girls attending schools run by the state government to wear the hijab Islamic headscarf, whether or not they are Muslim.
The directive, announced on Friday, has provoked protests from the one million strong Christian minority in the state, whose capital, Kano, is Nigeria's second largest city.
“We cannot be forced to live like Muslims,” Musa Abdulsalam, of the Christian Association of Nigeria, told IRIN.
Kano state commissioner for education Ishaq Mahmoud Umar said the order for schoolgirls to wear the hijab formed part of the state government’s efforts to uphold public morals and ensure “the teachings of Islam are applied in each and every aspect of governance.”
The directive that schoolgirls of all ages should were headscarves does not apply to private schools or schools run by the Nigeria Federal Government.
However, Umar made clear that the dress code would be enforced on girls of all religions who attend schools run by the state government. “As far as we are concerned there will be no no-go-area,” he told a delegation of the Muslim Students Society.
Kano has a history of violent religious clashes and is among 12 states in Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north to have adopted strict Islamic or Shari’ah law in the past four years.
Punishments prescribed under Shari’ah include amputation of limbs for stealing, public flogging for drinking alcohol and stoning to death for adultery.
Kano State governor Ibrahim Shekarau of the opposition All Nigeria People’s Party defeated the candidate of the President Olusgun Obasanjo's ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in elections last April and pledged to apply Shari'ah law more vigorously when he took office.
His PDP predecessor, Musa Kwankwaso, who is now Nigeria’s minister of defence, was accused by Muslim radicals of being too soft on the implementation of Shari'ah.
Nigeria's population of more than 120 million is almost evenly divided by Christians, who live mainly in the south, and Muslims, who dominate the north. Tensions between the two religious communities have led to periodic bouts of violence since several northern states adopted Shari'ah law following the country's return to elected civilian government in 1999.