Religious rights triumph: School reverses ban on pupil’s long hair


DOMBOSHAVA – Chogugudza Primary School in Domboshava has reversed its decision to bar a 12-year-old girl from attending classes due to her long hair, a move that had sparked a heated debate over religious rights and school regulations.

Image: Pindula News

The school's head, known only as Mr. T Phiri, had initially enforced the ban on January 9, 2024, citing the girl's refusal to cut her hair as the reason. 

This decision was met with resistance from the girl's parents, who enlisted the help of lawyer Mr. Kelvin Kabaya.

On February 5, Mr. Kabaya penned a letter to the school authorities, arguing that the ban was a violation of the girl's religious beliefs, which necessitate her to keep her hair long. 

The letter, also addressed to the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, highlighted the family's devout membership in the African Apostolic Faith Mission church, whose doctrine prohibits female members from shaving their hair.

Despite the parents' attempts to negotiate with the school, the authorities remained adamant that the girl must cut her hair before being allowed back into classes. 

Mr. Kabaya argued that this stance infringed upon several of the girl's constitutional rights, including the right to freedom of thought, opinion, religion, and belief, as well as the right to education.

The lawyer further pointed out that the school's actions violated the girl's fundamental right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of her opinion or religious belief, as stipulated under section 4(2)(b) of the Education Amendment Act, 2020.

Following the delivery of the letter, Mr. Kabaya issued a 24-hour ultimatum to the school, threatening legal action should they fail to readmit the girl and allow her to attend classes as usual. 

In response to this ultimatum, the school authorities promptly allowed the girl to resume her lessons, marking a significant victory for religious rights in the face of stringent school regulations.

Hair bans in schools – on a worldwide scale – are more common than one might think, and they often disproportionately affect students with certain hair types, particularly those with Afro-textured hair. 

A study conducted in 2020 found that around 70% of randomly selected school dress codes across the United States mentioned hair, with 20% forbidding students to wear their hair in Afros and around 20% forbidding students to wear their hair in braids.

However, awareness and pushback against such policies are growing. For instance, laws banning racial hair discrimination in schools are being proposed across the United States. 

The CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act, which prohibits discrimination based on hair style and hair texture, has been signed into law in 19 states.

Despite these advancements, a survey by the World Afro Day campaign found that only 12% of teachers across the UK had received equality and diversity training that included policies on hair. 

This indicates that while progress is being made, there is still a long way to go in eliminating discriminatory hair policies in schools.

Globally, hair bans in schools can have significant psychological and sometimes traumatic impacts on students, particularly those who are part of ethnic minorities.

These bans often disproportionately affect students with certain hair types, especially those with Afro-textured hair.

Discrimination against ethnic minority pupils’ hairstyles can have serious and long-lasting consequences for them and their families. Many students have dealt with hair-related harassment, teasing, or bullying at school.

In South Africa, students at the prestigious Pretoria high school for girls protested against the school for allegedly forcing black students to straighten their hair.

Many women in Africa have conformed to Eurocentric standards of beauty that, for example, place women with straight hair at an advantage in the corporate world.

The South African Human Rights Commission noted allegations of differential treatment as regards language and hairstyles, and allegations of the use of derogatory and racist language against black learners by both educators and fellow pupils.

These discriminatory policies can undermine a student's sense of belonging and emotional wellness, which in turn can negatively impact their academic achievement. 

However, awareness and pushback against such policies are growing, and laws banning racial hair discrimination in schools are being proposed and enacted in various regions. One hopes this has to be the settled position at law in Zimbabwe. 

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