THERE is an intense discussion ongoing on the need to change archaic hairstyle rules that are imposed and enforced by schools and I believe this national discussion is crucial if any level of positive change is to be had.
For a bit of context, this discussion intensified after the Ministry of Education issued a hairstyle memorandum that sought to grant a “one-day permission” for the relaxing of hair rules to allow for women and girls to wear their hair as they desire on International Women’s Day.
The memorandum, understandably, sparked much discussion and condemnation by scores of people,both from people who believed that these hairstyle rules are archaic and should be abolished, and from those who believe that hairstyles should remain ‘uniform’ as part of efforts to maintain discipline in the school system.
I was not surprised by either of these reactions. While, as an Indo-Guyanese teenager, I did not share the same harsh experiences of having my hair policed by schools or teachers, I have witnessed how this affected my friends and colleagues – it caused them great hurt and frustration.
I distinctly recall when many of us were hoping to be selected as school prefects at my high school, our appearance came under much scrutiny. For us, it was understood that having your hair neatly combed meant that it should be plaited. Of course, you had folks like myself, who couldn’t be bothered to plait our hair (except on Mondays, because that’s the general assembly day); instead, I placed my hair into a quick bun and felt quite comfortable with that.
An Afro-Guyanese colleague, who had very short hair, pointed out to me that if she put her hair in a bun or in any other style besides plaiting her hair, concerns would be raised about the neatness of her appearance. At a time when our awareness of our appearance was heightened (because we wanted to become prefects and get the fancy badges and tie), what my colleague said to me resonated deeply.
These are sentiments shared by so many more people on social media. In mainstream media, some people have spoken out about the perpetuation of gender and social norms that have been inherited from colonial times. They argue that these norms should have no place in a post-independence period, when cultural sensitivity should be a foremost consideration.
And so when I think about the conversation that’s happening now, replete with the intense agitation of some people, I am not surprised, because I have known these hairstyle rules to be problematic for quite some time now.
So here we are, engrossed in conversations and forthcoming consultations on the topic.
And do I think that these conversations and consultations are needed? Certainly, I can appreciate the need to bring more people into the conversation and help some interrogate their beliefs of what neat and tidy hair looks like for different groups of people.
I can also ‘see reason’ that with such actions, people are given a greater opportunity to take ownership of the changes that could come, instead of feeling far removed from the changes, or even feeling as though the changes to the rules are imposed upon them.
My concern with this, though, is whether we become stuck in a ‘talking stage’ for far too long and we forget about the issue until there is some other event or occurrence that prompts a large outcry once again. I am wary that people’s views on the issue can be diligently collected and analysed, but left to languish wherever well-meaning, but unused reports or policy drafts go.
I am hopeful that this will not be the case this time around because we’ve had commitments from the Education Minister and because the ministry itself seems intent on moving the conversation along by convening several panel discussions on the topic already.
Even so, I believe that deeper conversations should be had to help us interrogate just how ingrained ‘anti-blackness,’ for example, is in our norms and possibly even policies and laws, or how we unintentionally perpetuate these problematic things. There are deeper conversations needed on our conceptualisation of maintaining order and discipline in the classrooms, while the overarching responsibility is to ensure that children learn in a safe, comfortable, and empowering manner.
I imagine that the promised widespread consultations will yield much-needed discussions on these topics. And with the level of interest in overhauling the archaic rules generated already, it appears as though there’s no going back from here.
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