Why Hair Matters
It's been a week since the group of fabulous young black girl students at the Pretoria High School for Girls in South Africa made national and international headlines for standing up in protest against their school's discriminatory policies.
According to a statement released by the Department of Education in the Gauteng province, the group of students challenged the school's hair policies which arbitrarily ban black students from wearing certain natural hairstyles to school,such as afro's and bantu knots, and the language policies which prohibit learners from using African languages at school.
picture source: nymag.com
This protest has ignited a huge conversation on the discriminatory school policies which exist in some South African schools, particularly in so-called " former Model C " schools. Having grown up and attended school in South Africa I can say that Pretoria Girls High School is unfortunately not alone in terms of enforcing discriminatory hair policies against black students, nor is it the first institution to ever do so.
Having witnessed firsthand the negative attitudes that accompany many schools' rules in South Africa regarding the use of African languages ( in an African country no less!) and the wearing of African hairstyles by black learners, it is unfortunately unsurprising to hear reports that some of the learners at Pretoria Girls High have been mocked and demeaned by some (presumably non-black) teachers and learners for wearing african hairstyles which " look like a bird's nest" to school.
In the media, the naturally curly hair of black women is often depicted as troublesome and as something that needs to be "fixed" and straightened.
While hair may not be viewed as an important issue by some, the truth is that hair is probably one of the most important (and most visible) ways in which we express our identities and cultures in society. As brilliantly put by the acclaimed Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, hair matters because it is" political" and, in the case of black women, it can shape self-identity and convey beliefs surrounding beauty - be it intentionally or unintentionally - in a society which upholds and values western standards of beauty.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie : " Hair is hair – yet it is also about larger questions: self-acceptance, insecurity and what the world tells you is beautiful. For many black women, the idea of wearing their hair naturally is unbearable. " - Source : The Guardian.com
Given that people's physical appearance in society is still largely measured in terms of lopsided western standards of beauty it is highly evident that schools such as Pretoria Girls High School, by enforcing eurocentric ideals for "neat" hair and physical appearance, are abandoning part of their duties, as teaching institutions, in helping learners to express their identities as African students and to take pride, not only in their natural hair, but in their cultures.
Finally, after many years of enduring the relaxer, in 2013 I decided to cut off all of my chemically straightened hair (known as the "big chop") and within a short few months my natural curls blossomed again. They have continued to grow into a glorious afro which I now see as beautiful part of my identity.
After overcoming many years of relaxing my hair in order to "fix" my natural curls and conform to a school's predetermined (i.e. narrow) rules for "appropriate" hair for black students, I am extremely proud of the girls at Pretoria Girls High School not only for standing up for the right to wear their hair naturally, but also for rising up against society's insistence to squeeze all people into a single (westernized) box for what is deemed as beautiful.
picture source: Daily Maverick.co.za
The Students at Pretoria Girl's High have started a petition to bring change to their school, you can sign it here to help them achieve their goal!