A South African high school recently came under fire for racist dress code regulations targeting Black female students. The girls responded by protesting on school grounds against the strict code of conduct enforced by school, which they felt discriminated against black girls.
Images of the protest went viral, including this one, depicting 13-year-old Zulaikha Patel with her arms crossed above her head. She protested because her afro was deemed too “untidy” according Pretoria High School’s code of conduct.
The code of conduct doesn’t actually mention afros specifically, but the hair regulations, specifically for black students, are extremely strict.
It states, “cornrows, natural dreadlocks, and singles/braids are allowed, provided they are a maximum of 10mm in diameter.” The section goes on to be very specific about how hair must be tied back and “conservative.” Apparently, afros are a violation of this discriminatory rule.
This kind of policing has everything to do with limiting the blackness of students, and nothing to do with general school policy. Patel and many other students protested because their natural hair is a part of who they are, and these rules limit their right to be black.
One student at the school told Al Jazeera, “In a country with a black majority, how can you tell black students that their hair is unnatural?”
The school’s regulations show that while apartheid ended in 1994, racism is still manifesting in policies like dress codes at school or work. Even after Pretoria High School was integrated, with many of its current students being black, there are rules enforced that work to limit their blackness as much as possible.
The dress code mentions black hair, especially, as a kind that must be tamed and made tidy to fit appropriate school standards.
The idea that natural black hair is deemed too untidy and not conservative carries extremely racist undertones. The point of Black girls “going natural” is that they are choosing to wear their hair the way it naturally grows. To prohibit this is to take away what is simply an undeniable part of their identity. Hair policing is just another way to oppress black girls and perpetuate white hegemony.
Patel told CNN, “The issue of my hair has been a thing that’s followed me my entire life, even in Primary I was told my hair is not natural, it’s exotic, my Afro was not wanted or anything like that and then the issue followed me to High School.”
The incident also sparked protests in another school in South Africa, Lawson Brown High School, after a student was prohibited from taking her exams due to her having an afro.
An online petition was created in response to this incident, called “Stop Racism at Pretoria Girls High.” After only five days, it has over 30,000 signatures.
The petition calls for an end to discrimination “against black and Muslim girls.” It also states that students at the school have been forced to straighten their hair to fit into the acceptable standards of dress. This is an outrageous violation against black students. They are being told they can’t be who they are.
As of now, the Gauteng Department of Education stated that “the Code of Conduct of the schools must be reviewed and the clause dealing with hairstyles should be suspended in the meantime.”
This is a victory for Black female students in South Africa and warriors like Zulaikha Patel, but there is still a long way to go in the fight against racism in post-apartheid South Africa.
Written by Muslim Girl Staff Writer Nour Saudi