Hair rules: Change needed but consultations first?
By Vishani Ragobeer
There has been an intensified discussion on dated hair rules in schools over the past few days and while several stakeholders agree that change is needed, Minister of Education Priya Manickchand says that widespread consultations will inform the much-needed change.
“Presently, we are enforcing subjective rules on what we believe neat and tidy is.
“We are changing that and there will be a change (but) that has to take root and grow and everybody has to understand,” Manickchand said during a News Room panel discussion on Monday, adding that it is schools, not the ministry that has these rules.
Many have contended that these rules have a much greater impact on Afro- Guyanese girls, many of whom have been forced to ‘relax’ their hair to maintain a neat appearance.
And Manickchand agreed that maintaining one’s natural hair should not be an issue.
With intentions to change these rules, taking at least ‘baby steps’ first, the Education Minister said there must be widespread consultations, in keeping with Article 13 of Guyana’s constitution. But those will not be for an overwhelmingly long period, according to Manickchand.
Previously, Manickchand told the News Room that there will be coordinated efforts in the coming months aimed at overhauling outdated-school rules which disproportionately affect learners based on gender and ethnicity.
Her comments came amid a national discussion, sparked by a hairstyle memorandum issued by the Ministry of Education and addressed to teachers and learners.
It seeks to grant a “one-day permission” for the relaxing of hair rules to allow for females to wear their hair as they desire on International Women’s Day.
But in what could be regarded as a backlash for what Manickchand said was good intent, the hairstyle rules have come in for strong condemnation.
Why the intense condemnation, though?
“A lot of these rules have been inherited before Guyana was Guyana. These rules had a specific purpose in terms of controlling the expression of black citizens, Indian citizens (or) anyone who didn’t align with the colonial norms of what is proper,” Salima Hinds, a feminist and gender specialist, said during the discussions.
Because these pre-independence rules have affected people’s individuality and ability to comfortably express themselves, Hinds believes they should be dismantled. She also contends that hair rules in schools do not facilitate a much-needed inclusive environment.
“Hair isn’t just hair.
“It’s identity, it’s culture, it’s expression,” Hinds emphasised.
Tamika Henry-Fraser – the creator of the social movement Curl Fete – agrees that there should be a wider cultural sensitivity to the issue.
“We’re asking for a policy or rules that do not treat black girls unfairly because when you have rules that say you need to be neat and tidy, your hair has to be slicked back, my hair cannot be slicked back unless I change the texture of my hair or I use particular products,” Henry-Fraser contended.
Even the Education Minister agrees that there are historical underpinnings that should be interrogated.
“They are rules that were inherited and they were set in a different context – in a time when people were not as conscious and we weren’t discussing not only black women’s rights, but women’s rights in general,” Manickchand said.
Based on Facebook comments, it is evident that many do not necessarily agree with these positions. Some wrote that hairstyle rules help to maintain discipline in schools and argued that permitting ‘hairstyle freedom’ may lead to distractions from schoolwork.
Because of these differing positions, Manickchand said it is important to involve as many people as possible in the consultations.
Then, perhaps, she believes the discussion on changing hairstyle rules may evolve from one that focuses on school rules to one that includes how accepting society is and how society can agree on what changes are needed.
And at that point, Manickchand said that she may be able to introduce legislation in the National Assembly.
IT IS TIME
Though the Education Minister credits herself and her ministry for advancing a much-needed discussion on these hair rules, Henry-Fraser was keen to point out that stakeholders are not solely depending on those in the education sector.
She accepts, however, that there is a need for education and understanding, particularly across cultures. And then, a wider societal change is needed.
“There needs to be a change in the workplace, even in the religious arena… it has to be a global conversation,” Henry-Fraser emphasised.
In the interim, the trio agrees that baby steps can be taken. And Manickchand promises that in the coming days, her ministry will outline how all stakeholders – teachers, parents, students and others – can participate in the consultations.
And again, she committed to changing outdated rules – just once people everywhere are included in the conversation on what that change might be.