Zulaikha Patel (c. 2003- ), a South African schoolgirl, was punished by her school, Pretoria High School for Girls, for wearing her hair in an Afro. She had changed school three times because of her hair. This time she led a protest against the school’s racist rules.
Her older sister Amira says:
“My sister has gone through a lot of bullying, she’s had to change school three times because of her hair. Other children would laugh at her and say, ‘Oh my god, your hair looks like a cabbage’. It broke my heart.
“She’d cry everyday when I picked her up from school. She’d get home and cry because of how she was treated because of her hair, and say that the school said her hair is a distraction and called it exotic.
“I’m kind of glad that she’s done this but I’m also concerned about how it’s going to affect her emotionally at a later stage. I know her, she’s a very fragile person. What led to her to actually start this movement is the pain that she’s felt when looked down upon, constantly feeling like she needed to be accepted or change herself to be accepted.”
Nathi Mthethwa, the Arts and Culture Minister:
“Schools should not be used as a platform to discourage students from embracing their African identity”
But that is not what is going on.
Pretoria High School for Girls is widely considered one of the best high schools in the country’s capital. But it was all-White in the days of apartheid and even now, with more than half of its students Black, it still makes them wear their hair in unnatural European styles and speak only in European tongues. In Africa!
The school’s code of conduct is something students agree to before being admitted, but they have little choice if they want a good education: the free government schools for Blacks are terrible. And Pretoria High does not just enforce its rules, it does it in a way that makes Black girls feel like dirt. Some teachers tell them they look like monkeys or have nests on their head. Afros do not even appear in the school’s code of conduct – because they count as “unruly” or “untidy” hair!
Protests were a long time coming. The example of Black Lives Matter gave the schoolgirls courage. So did Twitter and other social media. They use the Twitter hashtag #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh and have a petition that over 25,000 have signed. Their protests have been non-violent. They made news nationwide and even overseas.
Courage: They needed even more courage than they imagined: when they came to the school for a yearly family event, they were met with men with machine guns and attack dogs.
Victory: On August 29th 2016, Panyaza Lesufi, the province’s education minister, came to the school. He met with some of the girls, who broke down crying telling him what they go through. Then he met with the schoolmistress. He gave her three weeks to change what he calls “stone-age rules”.
– Abagond, 2016.
- Twitter: #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh
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