OPINION PIECE: Schools keep splitting hairs over “neatness”
School uniforms have long imposed strict rules on hair styles but the recent controversy has sparked a new debate and it’s a good one.
I remember feeling frustrated at school with the lack of freedom I had with my hair. Our school insisted that the girls had all their hair scrapped back and neatly tied. This certainly didn’t make high school any easier for gawky girls with stick-out ears (I’m still not over it) and most of the girls were always trying to rebel with little wisps escaping their hair bands to frame their faces. The boys were always trying to gel their locks back so that they could grow them just a little bit past the unflattering school-cut. What I didn’t know was that some of the girls might have liked to grow their hair out too. We all faced restrictions when it came to hair, but a recent video that went viral on Instagram has brought up a hair-raising point: that of the afro. The video depicts 13-year-old Zulaikha Patel who stood up to security guards in defense of her fro.
And Patel’s protest has made a very poignant point. Colonisation has been pin pointed as a culprit with reports of how this hairy situation is racist to the core. And while this is certainly true, I think schools are outdated overall. Schools are still implementing the old-fashioned hair-standards that our parents abided by some 40 years ago. In a society that is fast accepting tattoos, long hair on men, short cropped women’s dos and even dreadlocks in some professions, schools are still lagging way behind with out-dated ideas of “neatness.”
Just two months ago, a 13-year-old boy was sent home from a prominent Durban boys school for his haircut that was not appropriate. And while boys might look silly with school cuts and white girls might be stuck with their natural hair colour (and their sticky out ears on full display) neither have to go through chemical relaxants or face the full on head shave to meet school standards.
It’s quite ironic that schools prevent white girls from enhancing their natural hair while simultaneously forcing black girls to change their natural hair. It’s a bit of a double standard. If natural hair is what schools want, why must the fro go?
This is where the colonial penny drops and we are forced to see that South African schools are still basing their idea of “natural” on what is natural for whites. If all white school children were forced to get a perm, that would be ludicrous. Yet the very same thing is being enforced in reverse.
I remember that a white girl at my school was sent home for having braids and that the school only permitted braids for black girls, while boys didn’t even get to grow their hair at all. There have always been these prescribed racial and gender ‘blocks’ and instead of promoting acceptance and understanding, schools make sure they keep genders and races in their little boxes. Why not let white girls try braids? Why not let boys have long hair? Why not let black girls have beautiful afros? Why are schools promoting racial segmentation and dare I say, white supremacy, 20 years after apartheid ended? Why, are schools promoting colonial ideals 50 years after South Africa gained independence? And why are schools enforcing gender roles 80 years after women got the right to vote?
These ideas are so radical for our conservative society.
It’s time to change. And a new standard needs to be set. Schools will no-doubt still enforce a standard of neatness, but surely banning what’s natural is just splitting hairs.