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Safety at schools must extend to the embrace of symbols of cultural and religious diversity

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Dr Lee-Shae Salma Scharnick-Udemans is a Senior Researcher in the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. With degrees in religious studies and media from the University of Cape Town, she also has extensive experience working in television production. This article is adapted from thoughts shared in a book on the life of the late Desmond Tutu, Ecumenical Encounters with Desmond Mpilo Tutu: Visions for Justice, Dignity and Peace.

The new school year is when school dress codes or uniform policies and practices are thrust into the spotlight. These include the wearing of headscarves by Muslims, dreadlocks by Rastafarians, and overtly anti-black hair rules that seek to impose colonial beauty norms on black pupils.

The genesis of the school year is a time of heightened and hybrid emotions for all involved in the industry of education. On the one hand, there is the excitement and enthusiasm that accompanies the potential and prospects that any new undertaking presents. On the other hand, especially for those entering a new learning environment for the first time, this new academic year may be the source of anguished anticipation.

As a fresh crop of pupils enters schools, it is around this time of year that contentions about school dress codes or uniform policies and practices are usually thrust into the spotlight. Local news media provide a record of reported incidents of discrimination against pupils on the basis of apparent dress code contraventions. Reported “violations” of these policies include wearing a headscarf by Muslims, dreadlocks by Rastafarians, and overtly anti-black hair rules that seek to impose colonial beauty norms on black pupils.

It is difficult to tell how widespread these cases are given the high stakes involved in non-compliance with school rules, including suspension with the possibility of expulsion. In 2016, the mother of a pupil involved in a uniform contravention incident told the media how she begged her son to shave his dreadlocks to attend school. The young man, who was publicly shamed before his peers, refused and after a three-week suspension was eventually allowed to return to school provided that he wore a bandana on his head. This paltry compromise is indicative of the demonisation of diversity and disposability of dignity that takes place in some schools.

This occurs despite the fact that while schools and their governing bodies have the authority to dictate the day-to-day management of the school as well as the development and implementation of policies, the Department of Education (local and national) have continuously instructed schools to develop policies that honour constitutional commitments to equality, fairness and inclusion, especially in matters related to religious and cultural practices.

In the landmark case of Pillay vs MEC for Education KwaZulu-Natal, where a Hindu pupil was forbidden from wearing a nose ring to school, Chief Justice Pius Langa made the following comment when he ruled in favour of the plaintiff:

“At its core is the notion that sometimes the community, whether it is the State, an employer or a school, must take positive measures and possibly incur additional hardship or expense to allow all people to participate and enjoy all their rights equally. It ensures that we do not relegate people to the margins of society because they do not or cannot conform to certain social norms.”

Langa’s statement reminds us of the limited applicability of the law and that where the law is especially opaque, the onus is on us, the people, to do the hard work of ensuring that justice is enacted and dignity protected. I am in no way proposing that civic or individual action replace the need for deep systemic and institutional overhaul. Instead, I hope to convey that the kinds of paradigmatic changes necessary to produce a more just, safe and inclusive society, requires of us as individuals, communities and institutional agents to do the hard work of dismantling the systems of discrimination, exclusion and oppression that have been misrepresented as critical to the orderly and cohesive functioning of society.

Pedagogues of all varieties but especially school administrators and teachers, wield enormous power in determining whether the experience of the learning environment is affirming or traumatic.

For students who, in the words of Justice Langa, “do not or cannot conform to certain social norms”, in this case on the basis of religion and culture, which are widely accepted as deeply personal, sensitive and treasured aspects of human identity and engagement, but also in matters related to other forms of embodied experiences including race and gender, the response of the school may at the very least leave an indelible mark on their self-esteem and confidence.

Other pupils who observe how diversity is regarded within the formal structures of their school and the less-formal interactions of the classroom are unwittingly being exposed to important extracurricular lessons about the management of diversity in multicultural and multireligious contexts.

We cannot afford to fail both sets of pupils and all those who find themselves somewhere in between lest we betray the values upon which our very fragile democracy depends. Through cultivating a culture of care and curiosity as the standard response to the presence of diversity within any environment, we are taking concrete steps towards equipping a cohort of citizens with the necessary knowledge and conviction to go beyond slogans and lip service and to approach issues of inclusion from a deep and profound commitment to social justice.

This approach to diversity requires that the old binary thinking which inspires an “us versus them” paradigm is abandoned and a collective vision of diversity as a spectrum of human orientations and experiences be nurtured and “normalised”.

The school is considered a microcosm of society. The Schools Act refers to the school as a space of safety. Safety from interpersonal crime is a grim reality in South Africa and should always be prioritised, but safety should also be a generative and expansive concept and practice that includes protection from the indignities of discrimination and exclusion.

Unfortunately, school administrators and teachers, your hijab-wearing, dreadlocked and black pupils are most likely to be subjected to the kind of scrutiny and surveillance that narrow school dress code policy imbibes for the rest of their lives. At airport security, in dusty dorpies (and also countries!) characterised by racial, cultural and religious homogeneity and in multitudes of seemingly innocuous social and public spaces, these pupils will be required to account for how they present in public.

The hard truth that we must face is that we have not yet made the world a safe enough space for expressions of diversity to be wholly accepted, let alone appreciated.

Along with all educators, I hope that 2022 will be the first uninterrupted academic year since 2020. Moreover, I share the hope that the threat of Covid-19 will fade into the background so that we can once more, and perhaps more empathetically and compassionately, given our experiences over the past 22 months, observe each other in the fullness of our humanity and its diverse expressions and representations.

The phrase “new normal” has been overused and clichéd, but in this case it seems useful to invoke its universal appeal. In 2022, let’s all make radical accommodation, acceptance and appreciation of diversity the new normal. DM

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  • So when did Rasta hair and nose rings are religious and/or cultural symbols rather than fashion statements by young people giving authority the middle finger (as they will always attempt to do to the max)? Does this include Kenyan learners wearing kikois to school, and kids with Khoi ancestry wearing springbok skins and bare feet in class then. When you cannot separate woke from common sense, pity the poor teachers.

    • I cannot wait to see how our courts will deal with the naturist religions when they come to schools here – imagine the trauma of kids being taught mathematics by a 60 year old nudist!
      [I’m assuming teachers have the same dress rights as the kids …]

  • Maybe rather focus on discipline for teachers and learners, no weapons brought to school, fewer children in a class, educated teachers, free books and stationary, running water, decent ablution facilities like flush toilets, clean schools and grounds.
    Help and give children to understand that they have the right to dream and prosper through becoming educated by working hard….Enforce work ethics for teachers …
    Maybe get the basics right then come with the useless crap about whether tying up your and tucking in your shirt is a basic human right.
    And get a lfe!

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