On the brink on the island’s Emancipation Day holiday, Jamaica’s Supreme Court yesterday, ruled that the constitutional rights of a young girl were not breached when she was barred from attending school because of her dreadlocks.
It should be noted that the actual written judgement has not yet been given, and thus the reasons and technicalities of the case are not yet public.
The panel of judges, however, stated that there was no breach of the child’s constitutional rights, based on the arguments presented.
In the 2018 incident, the girl’s mother, Sherine Virgo was told that her then five-year-old daughter would need to cut her hair before she could attend the Kensington Primary School, one of the top-performing primary schools in Portmore, St Catherine. The school stated that the wearing of dreadlocks was against its policy due to fears of a lice outbreak at the school.
In August 2019, the Supreme Court had granted an injunction for the child to attend the school after Jamaicans for Justice filed a motion on behalf of the child and her parents.
While there may be several technical reasons why this case would have been dismissed, the very genesis of the case has triggered an entire island, where the majority of the population is of African-descent.
The fact that a rule of this nature even exists on the island which birthed the Rastafarian religion and culture has shocked the entire diaspora, and the world. The potential exploitation of such a rule has also been a factor for locals that are outraged.
Jamaica has had a long history of anti-rastafarianism and anti-blackness coupled with issues of classism and colourism. Despite being popularized by Bob Marley and reggae music, Rastafarians are still a small percentage of Jamaica’s population and face much discrimination outside of their own families/communities.
The girl’s father called the ruling another sign of “systemic racism.”
“A child was refused because of her Black hair, you know?” said Dale Virgo, father of the now seven-year-old girl. “It’s so weird that right now in the current climate of the world, in 2020, we are having protests, and Black people are fed up.”
Virgo said that this is an opportunity for the government to step in and “right the wrongs” of its legal system. But the island’s government cannot overturn the ruling of a court.
Any change would have to be made the Ministry of Education regarding specific kinds of discrimination, to prevent similar incidents to happen in the future.
Currently, Jamaica’s Ministry of Education has not set any clear guidelines regarding such discrimination. While there is a general position taken against discrimination, its “soft guidance” leaves room for a school board to make decisions about certain specifics, like appropriate hairstyles for students.
The attorney of the parents, Isat Buchanan, has already indicated that he intends to appeal the court’s ruling. He insisted that the child’s constitutional rights to freedom of expression, the right to religion, equity, equality before the law and access to education, among others, were breached.
The written judgment will be given at a later date, but Buchanan said the judgment will have further implications for the child and her parents. “The injunction which caused the child to go to the school without being harassed or harmed is now lifted, and the child is at the mercy of the school,” Buchanan said.
In the meantime, the girl’s mother has said that her daughter will continue to sport her dreadlocks. “I will not be cutting her hair! That was never an option on the table. As it is right now, it seems that everything is going the homeschool direction anyways.”