I remember a long time ago that I wore my hair in an Afro, or at least tried to, but it was too wispy and my sister had to keep patting it down in place. Shortly after that, I abandoned the idea and went back to braiding my hair. Had I gone to school wearing an Afro, I wonder what would have happened. I don’t recall seeing other girls wearing their hair in Afro at school so I have no way of knowing if it would have posed a problem for them. However, if I were a young black South African student at the prestigious Pretoria girls’ school, formerly attended by whites only, I would be banned from wearing my hair in an Afro or in a natural hairstyle.
In South Africa, girls as young as 13 years took part in a protest to against a clause in the school’s code of conduct which banned wide cornrows, braids and dreadlocks. One girl wearing an Afro stood up to a man. Her defiant look told him that she was not going to allow him or anyone to tell her how she should look.
Not everyone shared this girl’s courage. Many were fearful because they knew that they would be policed when they go to school. Others cried as they shared their experiences. One girl said, “I have a natural Afro, but a teacher told me I need to comb my hair because it looks like a bird’s nest.” Another girl said that her mother forced her to cut her hair because she “didn’t want to trouble” at the affluent school. Students were forced to comb their hair before they were allowed to eat dinner.
Malaika Maoh Eyoh, 17, was told that her Afro was distracting the other students from learning. Although she now braids her hair, she felt that the comment was aggressive and was among the 100+ young women protesting against the school for allegedly forcing black students to straighten their hair. After the march of protest, images of it went viral in South Africa and an online petition garnered over 10,000 signatures. And an independent audit of the school to investigate all claims of racism has been ordered. However, this has not abated Malaika’s anger. Her experiences of discrimination over the years were still very fresh in her mind. She recalled one incident when a student was pulled out of class and given Vaseline to flatten her hair.
The discrimination went beyond their hairstyles. Students were discouraged from speaking African languages. They were told to “stop making those funny noises” when they spoke in their mother tongue. Others were compared to monkeys or told that they were too concerned with race and politics to achieve the school’s demand for academic excellence. Still, others were told that they belonged in the poorly funded schools in the black townships on the outskirts of the city.
Schools are where children are shaped and groomed for life and success. It is where their confidence is built up and nurtured. Education is more than learning from books, it is about being sensitive to the feelings of others. Girls are very conscious when it comes to their looks and they need to know that no matter how they choose to wear their hair, it does not diminish their value. Banned from wearing her hair natural took one young woman who went to a school in Cape Town years to undo the damage done to her sense of self-love and appreciation for who she was. It affected another young woman’s confidence in her abilities.
What is a girl to do? Should she change the way she looks to avoid causing trouble in school or should she stand up for what she believes is her right to wear her hair natural and face discrimination and humiliation? Well, it looks like the protest struck a chord with many and under pressure from students and parents, provincial Education Minister, Panyaza Lesufi suspended Pretoria High’s hair clause last week. The next step is to end the discrimination at the school. An online petition has already been signed.