Last week South African media was bombarded with a very disturbing yet pertinent issue. Girls at more than one school in South Africa decided to protest and speak out after they were faced with discrimination regarding their naturally curly hair. Some girls mentioned that they were asked to straighten their hair for school as their “hairdos”, did not meet school requirements. Many accounts of discrimination and bias surfaced. As can be imagined it caused quite a stir for the schools involved. Now, I understand that school rules are important, but we all know that this issue goes way deeper, particularly in a country with a history like South Africa’s.
Strangely, the issue of “hair” is not a new one. The focus on the type of hair someone has goes back many years. It’s actually quite sad and ridiculous that we have to be discussing this in the first place. Yet over the years people have continuously being stuck in this system where curly hair needs to be straightened in order for it to be regarded as beautiful. Granted there was that time when the “perm” was in fashion and suddenly curly hair was the new cool thing, but that can’t really be counted since it was just another fad.
The fact still remains that people have gone through many lengths just to change their natural hair so that they can fit society’s standards. Malcolm X called this hair straightening a form of self-degradation. He was appalled that people could put themselves through painful processes simply just to have straight hair. I urged people to stick to what was naturally to them. So many years later and we are still stuck in the same debate. What has happened to human progression?
In my opinion, this is all about the dominant people in society making decisions about what the standards should be. It’s about those power holders who just like everything else, long ago decided what the standards of beauty are, based solely on what was common for them. Curly hair only came to be regarded as inferior because it was not the norm of those in power. This is an old colonial way of thinking, everything that’s different must be inferior-everything that does not fit in should be changed.
How do we spend so much time debating issues like the type of hair people have, or for that matter the colour of peoples skin, or the way a woman dresses when she goes to the beach. How do these seemingly insignificant things become so significant? Do we not have enough problems in the world to deal with?
Sadly, its these very things which creates division in society and it begins the debate on “us” and “ them”, “ selves” and “others” – and before we know it people have labelled each other to such an extent that the “other” begins to be regarded as less than human, less important and in need of change. When this is allowed to continue then this type of thinking becomes ingrained in people to the extent that they are unable to identify what they are doing wrong and how they are actually harming others.
I remember being made to feel different as a young child because of my curly hair. At the time I did not understand the social and political issues which underlie this thinking. All I knew was that other children recognised something different in me. It made me feel inferior, I actually wanted to change. Many years later and I now understand all this. Thankfully and with the Mercy of Allah I have come to accept myself completely and I appreciate myself for who I am. I understand now that there are far too many important things in the world to worry about for us to be stuck on issues like a person’s hair.
For this reason I salute the school girls who came out to protest, because no one should be forced to change simply because they do not fit the standards set out by those in power, because people should not be made to feel inferior based on what was naturally given to them, because although school rules are important, those rules should not exploit or discriminate against anyone. Prejudice has been going on for far too long. When will we stop trying to divide and when will we begin to unite?
Image from here