Saturday 5 December, 2020

Jamaica's Supreme Court rules against dreadlocked girl

A photo of the then five-year-old girl who was refused full access to Kensington Primary.

A photo of the then five-year-old girl who was refused full access to Kensington Primary.

On the eve of Emancipation Day, Jamaica's Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional rights of a five-year-old girl were not breached in 2018 when she was denied access to the Kensington Primary School - a prestigious public school in St Catherine -  because of her dreadlocked hair.

Emancipation Day, August 1 is celebrated in Jamaica to mark the end of slavery in the British Empire.

The ruling has shocked human rights advocates and puzzled the parents of the five year-old. 

The child’s father, Dale Virgo, believes that Jamaica is taking a backward step at precisely the time that the rest of the world is embracing change in bucking systemically racist thinking as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Dale Virgo, the child's father, says he will not be cutting his daughter's hair.

"It's just backward thinking and bureaucratic ideals being enforced," Dale Virgo, a well-known musician told Loop News

Despite the court's ruling, Virgo insisted that come September, he will neither be cutting his daughter's hair nor removing her from Kensington Primary, which is located in Greater Portmore, St Catherine. 

"I am not going to remove her, but if they're willing to remove her, I have no problem going with another school," he said.

The ruling ends a two year fight that began in August 2018, when Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) - on behalf of the girl's parents - obtained an order preventing the board of management from blocking the girl’s admission. The human-rights group challenged the school's position on the basis that enforcement of the rule would violate constitutionally protected human rights of the child and her family and that no other remedy existed to prevent the threat of that violation, given the school's demand. 

The court's ruling has delivered a 'cutting' blow to the Rastafarian movement as it rejects one of the most recognizable symbols of the culture - the growing of the covenant, the dreadlocks. 

"My reaction is that it is unfortunate," human rights crusader and attorney-at-law Isat Buchanan, who is himself a Rastafarian, said. "The written judgment is not out yet so it is very difficult to determine what the reasons of the court is without seeing it."

Buchanan...  it is unfortunate.

Rastafarianism is a spiritual movement  based on the belief in Selassie’s divinity that took root in Jamaica following the coronation of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1930. Its followers congregated around preachers like Leonard Howell, who founded the first prominent Rastafarian community in 1940, and was later spurred by the Pan-African movement and particularly the teachings of Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey. Later, the movement had earned global attention thanks to the music of devoted Rastafarian Bob Marley.

So in Jamaica, this ruling really sticks in the craw of every Rastafarian who sees the covenant as an expression of beautiful black hair in its  natural state as a symbol of the island's cultural heritage, identity and race as a Jamaican people. 

Across the world, children who wear dreadlocks have won constitutional battles against oppressive schools that have sought to deny them attendance on the basis on discriminatory anti-locks rules or policy. In Malawi, a six-year-old girl was allowed to return to school thanks to a landmark court ruling forcing state schools to accept children wearing their hair the Rastafarian way. The case was galvanized by her family, who joined forces with dozens of other Rastafarian parents to try to force the education system to end discrimination against children from one of the country’s smallest religious minorities.

 In Jamaica, school boards are empowered to make rules under the Education Act, in consultation with staff and students. 

The Ministry of Education in 2018 developed a Student Dress and Grooming Policy which was aimed at safeguarding against non-discriminatory treatment of students.

The policy recognises that where there are schools with rules which seek to prevent students with certain hairstyles, such as locks, from admission, exceptions must be made. However, it fails to explicitly state that children with dreadlocks, irrespective of religious reasons, must not be prevented from attending school and getting an education.

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