I have been ruminating over the girls of Pretoria Girls High School, South Africa. Small fists raised defiantly in the air, afro’s out in all their hallowed glory and courage so powerful, it was heard around the world.
It made me think about Kenyan high schools and their policies on hair. In my high school; perms, texturisers, straight kits and naturals were allowed as long as they were neatly tied or cut, no braids or weaves and please never ever dreadlocks. I remember one girl caught combing her hair in Form One by a teacher and having her hair roughly chopped with scissors. This earned the teacher the nickname ‘Barberess’ which stuck throughout her tenure in the school even though she never again barbered anyone’s hair.
Other high schools, especially those in rural areas, had a strict short hair policy and shaved unwitting new students bald. In some more progressive schools, braids were allowed and how we envied those girls who could enjoy flipping their braids or casually twisting them while talking to boys during school functions. Hair was not really seen as a big deal because we knew after high school, finally free from the clutches of sameness and matronly matrons, we could do what we wanted. I also think this is the reason some students switched their names when joining university but that’s a story for another day.
The whole idea, we gleaned, was to cultivate a sense of equality and not have children of parents who earned less go home and start asking for expensive hair treatments, other reasons given was that it was to help the students concentrate better by focussing on their studies instead of beauty. These rules were never questioned and are still not questioned. It is quite similar to the way we never question why local female newscasters are never seen without long undulating weaves. Those with short coloured dos or even dreads opt for wigs rather that shock viewers to the view of their real hair as it grows out of their heads. How fragile Kenyan viewers seem eh?
Just the other day a Kenyan parent took a school to court over the refusal to accept their son’s dreadlocks, they lost the case but I have a feeling this is not the last we will hear or see of such incidents.
Hmmm, so natural African hair of a certain texture? Unacceptable, long straight hair? Perfection! At least that’s the message we seem to be getting.
“Who made these rules, we’re so confused, easily led astray” – Lauryn Hill, Everything is Everything
And then #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirls happened…
Though the story may not be so different in South Africa, hair like a girls uniform is expected to be tidy, questions have been raised. Who first decided that African hair in its natural form is untidy? Why do dreadlocks scare people so much? Why is the idea of black women celebrating their beauty as God made them seen as threatening?
It seems in a continent dealing with its post-colonial identity, African hair is indeed still controversial.
The questions are even more pertinent in South Africa, a country where (during the apartheid era) deemed who could go to what school based on the texture of their hair and a pencil. The pencil test – an experiment where a pencil was stuck into ones hair was used to determine whether you were white enough or ‘coloured’ enough to attend the schools designated for these racial classes. If the pencil fell you were good to go, if it stuck and refused to budge as combs often do on tightly spiralled afro hair… you were kicked out or refused admission.
The quality of education in white schools was infinitely better than that of black schools from resources to opportunities after graduating so you can see how hair stops being just hair at this juncture.
Your hair could determine your future prospects in much the same way the “brown paper bag test” worked in post slavery America whereby the tone of your skin (pray, not darker than a brown paper bag) determined if one was light enough to enjoy the privileges of upperclass black life including a college education.
To the Pretoria Girls, nobody has the right to make you feel small. Your physical attributes should not be used to put your down or make you feel less than human. Your hair is beautiful, your culture is beautiful. You matter.
The #pretoriagirls is much more than just about hair, it’s about our collective post colonial identity as Africans and the inverse ways we continue to squash our truth so as to fit into a narrow ideal of acceptability and aesthetics.
An online petition has since seen over 27,000 signatures showing support to Pretoria Girls and rules on how female students can wear their hair have since been suspended while investigations are carried out.
As Marcus Garvey once said:
“Take the kinks out of your mind, not your hair”
In solidarity, #PretoriaGirls