Locks, culture and an independent nation
As we commence the new school term, I pause to reflect on recent discussions concerning the discrimination of a young Jamaican girl with dreadlocks at a primary school in St Catherine, who was reportedly told by the principal that she would not be allowed to attend school in September while she wore her hair in locks. Chief amongst the principal's alleged reasons was that there was a health risk of lice infection.
When I first saw the news report, I thought, “This can't be a real story! In 2018 Independent Jamaica?! When our Parliament has parliamentarians with locks? When many schools now have students and teachers with locks; doctors; lawyers; judges, nurses and many other professionals have locks?” “This must be fake news”, I convinced myself, for no school policy, school board or principal could think in such a manner, in an independent nation with a rich cultural heritage of which locks and Rastafari are identifiable parts.
I soon learnt, however, that there was merit to the story and that Jamaicans For Justice (JFJ) was acting for the young girl and her mother in a pending suit against the school. That a child and her mother could suffer such indignity at a public school and be singled out like folk suffering from a deadly plague and given an ultimatum to cut her locks or be denied an education at an institution of their choice is a tragedy and an indictment on our culture, our education system, and those in positions of authority at our schools.
I recall being angry and disappointed and immediately tweeting:
“ It took me 1 year before I got a job when I left law school because i refused to cut my hair ...those days of discrimination MUST be behind us ...people must be able to express themselves for religious or other personal reasons within ambit of law without fear of discrimination.”
“ School must follow constitution and recognise it CANNOT deny access to any child who wears locks and/or is rastafarian. Zero discrimination on grounds of religion plus fundamental human right to education. Let's focus on educating our children not discriminating against them.”
There are some stakeholders in the education system who posit the view that our schools should be autonomous and that there is no need for the Ministry of Education to dictate policy to them as to how principals and boards should run their schools. There are others who hold the view that whilst it is the purview of the ministry to set a policy framework for the governance of our schools, the said framework must consist of general guidelines as to how schools should be administered without, for example, specifically highlighting what constitutes well-groomed hair or dress amongst students.
The folly of both arguments is that where a ministry leaves schools with complete autonomy, or sets a policy framework to guide principles without specific stipulations for what grounds “well-groomed” hair or dress, and mandating that no child must be discriminated against on the basis of religious headwear or wearing dreadlocks, then we risk people in authority misinterpreting principles or abusing power while forgetting the need to balance their authority without excluding others who may not look, dress or express the same religious beliefs as they do.
As we start the new school term, let us never forget that a sound education for all must be the fundamental principle of every educational institution if we are to truly develop the human capital of our nation.
So far, Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) has secured an injunction in the Supreme Court preventing the school from barring the young girl, and I hope she has a great experience at school this term. The court is set to further hear the matter in January 2019, and I am confident it will rule in favour of the young girl and her family and forever end this ridiculous practice of discrimination, so that no child or family in Jamaica will ever have to suffer such indignity again.
Alas, may her tale lead to greater cultural and identity acceptance, and may she always be brave in the face of adversity. From Bob Marley, to Protoje and countless other Jamaican cultural icons who are Rastafarian or wear locks, locks have become an international symbol of our rich cultural heritage that has been admired and celebrated the world over. It is also a symbol of resistance, justice and social change that we should embrace for we are indeed a nation of “lockedwonders”.
As we celebrate our 56th year of Independence, let us remember that it is a celebration of us, as a people, of our rich cultural heritage and diversity that make us truly out of many one people. In the words of Marcus Garvey, let us remove the kinks from our mind and not our hair. Let us move forward without discrimination as we embrace individuality, tolerance and acceptance in this our Jamaica, land we love.
— Alando N Terrelonge is the minister of state in the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment, and Sport