Hairstyle prejudice: When your hair defines you
As recently as last year, Chikayzea Flanders, a young Rastafarian boy living in the United Kingdom was forced to take his battle to court when the school he wished to join refused to accept him because of his hairstyle. According to school officials, the Chikayzea’s dreadlocks went against school policy. Coming from a Rastafarian family, the way he wore his hair transcended just being a fashion statement. It was religious. And by law, the school was being discriminatory and therefore illegal. The young boy won this battle, yet, for many, the war is not over yet.
For many Africans, the discrimination they face is not simply rooted in prejudices; and analyzing and understanding where the discrimination begins is important for young Africans to proudly wear their hair the way they want, without the need to abide by international, mostly western standards of beauty. In order to sensitize and shed some light on these perplex issues that lay beneath the surface, a group of panelists at “Let’s talk about dread locks” focused on issues Africans deal with on a daily basis at home.
SawaraworkTafari is a 42-year-old photographer in Addis Ababa working for Addis Fortune Newspaper. He has been wearing his hair in dreadlocks style for 9 years and it now reaches his lower back. At work, Sawarawork never felt like he was being discriminated against, yet on the streets, many have mistaken him routinely for a marijuana smoker, even though he isnot. He has never been asked to cut his dreadlocks for work, neither, and he isnot sure if he would ever cut them if a job opportunity presented itself. For Sawrawork, his dreads are the representation of an “Ethiopian way of life”.
Let’s talk about dreadlocks -an art exhibition/colloquiumwas held on Saturday, March 9th with hopes of raise awareness about the perception of identity andnatural hair throughan open conversation about culture, identity and hair style connotations’ that comes with it. In honor of the International Women’s Day, the panel discussion gathereda small crowd in Eleni Gabre-Mahdin’snew rentableoffice space – Blue Space.
The short seminar curated by Desta Meghoo (PhD), revolved around the impact that hair styles might have on women and youth of African descent and the importance that “no one has the monopoly on beauty” in the words of Wessen Celine, one of the attendees of the event, has for Africans. That is precisely what Meghoo highlights in her children book entitled “I Love Locks,” which celebrates African culture and heritage.
Breaking the mold of indoctrination, the seminar unveilednarratives of culture and identity from an academic, artistic, spiritual, theological, psychologicaland human rights point of view, through the lenses of a panel composed of a psychotherapist and life coach, ZaharaLegesse-Kaufmann; a contemporary artist,MeridTafesse;the regional gender advisor to UNOHCR, Victoria Malokaand a Pastor from an international Ministry, Zerubbabel Beta Mengistu aka Pastor Zee.
According to Meghoo, “Wearing natural black hair impacts opportunities for employment, housing, education and even health care”;Even for qualified women inacademia. Although the 11thCircuit Court of Appeals ruled against such discriminations, refusing to hire someone because of their hairstyle, it still remains common in the work space around the US. “I have to wait until I secured a job before I get my dreads,” expressed Samrawit Bekele, research analyst at SETAWEET, a feminist organization based in Addis Ababa.
Embracing natural beauty is no longer just about making a fashion statement. With growing numbers of discrimination and ostracizing due to hairstyle, accepting and embracing natural hair has become a way to raise cultural, financial and even political issues for women like Samrawit who realize that wearing her hair naturally might impact her status and ability to get employment.
While some might struggle to find a job because of the hairstyle they chose to wear, some others do not seem to have a problem with it. “I have never gotten a negative remark at work,” says MeheremMelakou, a category Manager at Ethiopian Trading Enterprise (AlleBejimla). He further explains, “All I have ever gotten were compliments”. Meherem believes that because he has fully incorporated his hairstyle, and that it has become a part of his identity, people tend to shift the focus on his attitude and character rather than his dreadlocks.
In Ethiopia, each region of the country reveals a different hairstyle. “You could easily identify which region someone comes from just by looking at the hairstyle. And while some coiffures might denote social statuses, others believe that educating African children to embrace their roots and their natural hair is the key to eliminating stereotypes and insecurity in women who may be more comfortable to wear their hair in hairstyles in a way that is more “accepted” by society – breaking their confidence to walk to a job interview with anAFRO – the seminar wanted to preserve and welcome natural hair while drawing attention to the fact that, in the words of panelist Pastor Zee, “If identity is broken, very little can be fixed”.
Ed’s Note: The writer is on an internship program with The Reporter. He can be reached via his email address [email protected].
Contributed by Amanuel Neguede