One 5-year-old will start classes this week at Kensington Primary School in Kingston, Jamaica, with her dreadlocks intact after a legal battle that has gone all the way to the island’s Supreme Court. That case, which implicates more than just appearances, has raised issues of race, gender and discrimination in Jamaican culture.
The case originated from an experience Sherine Virgo had earlier this summer, when was told that she would need to cut her daughter’s dreadlocks in order for the 5-year-old attend the prestigious Kingston public school to which she had been accepted. The school’s principal explained that the no-dreadlocks policy was a matter of hygiene and avoiding lice in the school, Virgo recalled.
“I said, ‘I will not be cutting her hair,’ ” Virgo recounted.
Earlier this month, the court handed down an injunction ordering that the girl — identified in court documents only as “Z,” because she is a minor — be permitted to attend school. It was a first step in a constitutional challenge by a human-rights group, Jamaicans for Justice, that could bring an end to the practice of barring children with dreadlocks or “natural” hair from school. Jamaicans also think it could help diminish the historically discriminatory treatment of Rastafarians, who wear their hair in dreadlocks as part of their culture.
The human-rights group is challenging the school’s prohibition on dreadlocks by arguing that it violates the child’s constitutional rights — including the right to an education, freedom of speech and freedom from official discrimination. The case will be heard in January.
“This is an important first victory that will allow the child to attend school and receive an education which she has a constitutional right to. Without this court order, she faced the prospect of being denied an education simply for refusing to remove her dreadlocks,” the executive director of Jamaicans for Justice, Rodje Malcolm, said in a statement.The dreadlocks issue hasn’t just affected female students.
In 2016, a 3-year-old Jamaican boy was expelled from school after his mother, Donna Amritt, refused to cut his hair.
“This is more than a gender-related issue, it is a racial issue,” said Amritt, adding that white children with long hair faced no similar requirement.
Rastafarians are part of a political and religious movement founded in the 1930s in Jamaica that drew from Revival, Christian and African faiths. The movement became popular in part as a reaction to British colonial rule, said Erin MacLeod, a Rastafari scholar who teaches at Vanier College in Montreal. Rastafarians are believed to make up about 2 percent of the island’s population. One of the best-known advocates of the faith was the Jamaican musician Bob Marley.
Virgo and her daughter do not consider themselves Rastafarians, but wear dreadlocks as a way to express their identity.
She declined to provide her daughter’s name, citing a desire for privacy for the girl.
The ban on dreadlocks appears to be a practice adopted by some schools, but is not in the law.
Since the injunction was issued, the Ministry of Education has released intricate guidelines for students’ hairstyles, including permission for females to wear dreadlocks if they are neat.
Carolyn Cooper, a retired professor of cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, said Rastafarians have experienced discrimination for decades. The Rastafari movement was initially regarded as a subversive anti-colonial force by the government. Suspicion of its members lingered even after Jamaica became independent in 1962.
“This is part of a whole prejudice that has historical antecedents,” she said.