13-Year-Old Indian African Zulaikha Patel Is Standing Up Against The Racism Of Her School

13-Year-Old Indian African Zulaikha Patel Is Standing Up Against The Racism Of Her School

August 29 will be forever etched in South African memory as the day when schoolgirls confronted the racist hair policy of their schools. At the centre of it all was a 13-year-old Indian-African called Zulaikha Patel whose defiant stance against authority became the picture associated with the appropriation of natural African hair.

In an interview with The Daily Vox, Amira Patel, sister of Zulaikha explained how she had to change her school three times because of her hair. “My mother has an appointment with the school and governing body regarding Zulaikha’s hair because she’s gotten into trouble for her before. She’s even been in detention for it. Zulaikha didn’t do anything for her hair to be like that. I can prove it by providing pictures of her when she was a toddler. She still had the afro. Unfortunately when she was younger, we had to cut her hair because the big afro would cause heat rash. People are shocked that a 13-year-old girl can pull such a movement at a young age but I think it’s been a long time coming. My mother is also shocked at this point. 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,” she said.

The school in question is the Pretoria Girls High School in Pretoria, South Africa, which used to be a white-only institution at one time. It is considered as one of the top Model C schools where parents queue up to get their children the best education possible. Many alumnis from the school have also shared their opinion on the schools discriminatory practices against its black students.

An interview with a former pupil appeared on IOL stating that the school has a history of oppressing young girls into changing their looks and behaviour. “This was necessary because the race debacle has been an issue for a long time,” said former pupil Neo Kgobane. “We should have done something about it. The school needs to step up its efforts in changing some of the rules that have kept many girls oppressed,” Kgobane adds. The 19-year-old said the issue of racism at the school were not just limited to hair, but extended to how they have been instructed to behave. “There are other aspects of institutional racism that we have been subjected to at the school…We are not allowed to speak in our mother tongue. When we as black girls are sitting together and conversing we are told that we too loud. The things that happen here can have a major effect on how you perceive yourself,” she said in an interview with IOL.

There were instances when girls speaking in their local dialect were told to stop making noises and acting like monkeys. A report by the Daily Maverick shed light on the schools policy for hair. “The Pretoria Girls policy on hair reads, ‘Cornrows, natural dreadlocks and singles/braids (with or without extensions) are allowed, provided they are a maximum of 10mm in diameter. Singles/braids must be the same length and be the natural colour of the girl’s hair. Braids shorter than collar length must be kept off the face with a plain navy or tortoise shell Alice band. Longer braids must be tied back… No patterned cornrows.’

Speaking on related issues last year, Panashe Chigumadzi said many former white schools have adopted the “add blacks and stir” model: “That is what forces us to realise that no matter how hard we work or how well we speak, we remain black. That is what forces us to realise that we are still niggers. That is what forces ‘coconuts’ to become conscious,” the publication reported.

What Zulaikha Patel and her friends started had snowballed into a movement — the hashtag #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh soon began trending on twitter and was mentioned over 1,50,000 times according to BBC. Videos appeared of police force and dogs being used to threaten the 14-year-old girls and as The Citizen reported that a teacher allegedly told the protesting students, “No wonder you black girls don’t excel academically, you’re always focused on the so-called racial issues of the school.”

Malaika Eyoh, a grade 12 student at the school wrote a seething letter on the Daily Vox exposing the schools discrimination and the protest that they held was what the school had trained them to do. “In the school hostel, a staff member reprimanded a girl for wearing a doek, calling it inappropriate for dinner and against school code. Stripping the doek of all its cultural meaning and significance with one remark. Hostel students have been told that spaces largely populated by black boarders resemble squatter camps, and told to comb through their hair with dirty combs pulled from old storage boxes before they could come downstairs for dinner,” she wrote.

“Last week Friday, 26th August, students of Pretoria Girls High School came together, united against cultural shaming and racist remarks of their school staff and self-defined ‘school rules’. The girls dressed in black garments and doeks- traditional wrapped headwear. Intending to begin a dialogue with staff, the girls were instead met with prejudiced and unsolicited intimidating behavior,” reported Apeirononline

Video Courtesy: All Africa Newsdesk

Many people felt encouraged to talk about their own experiences and asked why black girls were being asked to tame their natural African hair and not speak their own language while studying in a school in Africa. News24 reported that, “the Economic Freedom Fighters was deeply saddened that 22 years into democracy, there were still institutions that sought to suppress black aesthetics and culture. Spokesperson Fana Mokoena said this was the result of a society still struggling with transformation and failing to address white hegemony.

“A white minority culture is still so dominant that it can decree on a black majority what they should look like and how they should behave. This culture is as old as slavery itself and does not belong in a democratic dispensation such as ours,” he said. Allafrica reported that, “some of the allegations raised by the girls include being called a ‘dirty kaffir,’ being compared to a cartoon character and dividing pupils into ethnic groups in class and justifying it as a geography exercise. According to one pupil, the teacher didn’t face disciplinary action but was referred to attend a course which was supposed to remedy the situation.”

A petition has been put up on the Awethu Amandla website, titled Stop Racism at Pretoria Girls High and needs over 3000 signatures to reach the 30K mark. The campaign has been created by Koketso Moeti and is addressed to Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi and Headmistress Karen du Toit. It reads: Dear MEC of Education Panyaza Lesufi and Headmistress Mrs K du Toit, We the undersigned call on you to take swift action to ensure that: – The school’s code of conduct does not discriminate against black and Muslim girls; – Disciplinary action against teachers and other staff members implementing any racist policy and/or racist actions – Protection for the learners who protested to ensure they will not be victimized.

It also reads, “Girls attending the school have been forced to straighten their hair; are accused of conspiring when standing in groups and face other intolerable comments and actions. We stand in solidarity with the learners, who marched at the school on the 26th to say enough is enough. It is unacceptable that in a country in which Black people are a demographic majority, we still today continue to be expected to pander to whiteness and to have it enforced through school policy. Black children should be allowed to just be children, without being burdened with having to assert their humanity.”

The Daily Maverick also reported that, “Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi as well as new Tshwane Mayor Solly Msimanga visited the school. Lesufi said no pupils speaking out on the issues should be charged by the school as a committee is appointed to look at the complaints and that the SGB should apologise.”

Lesufi spoke to the girls personally and assured them that he will do whatever is in his power to get them the education and the learning environment they deserve. “You have my support, I will protect you,” said Gauteng MEC for Education Panyaza Lesufi to emotional pupils during his address at the school on Monday morning. Lesufi, together with officials from the national and provincial education department and Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga, visited the school after allegations of racism surfaced against the institution and pupils wrote a petition to the MEC’s office requesting intervention over racist victimisation, racist incidents, and the school code of conduct in relation to hairstyles,” reported Allafrica.

Video Courtesy: Eyewitness News

Carla Dennis, a model and actor based in India was also a student at PGHS. “I saw the agony these rules caused my African sisters who were also some of my best friends. I admire the girls who have stood up for their human rights and protested. They are the true future leaders of South Africa. Don’t get me wrong, our school has moulded women who are attorneys, doctors, directors and politicians. This school has a reputation of creating strong and outspoken women. The day has finally come where the students are fighting and practicing just what they have been taught, the manner in which we should believe in ourselves and fight back. This whole protest is not just about hair. It’s about our human right to equality. Women should not be discriminated against under any circumstances be it race, religion, culture or class. I’ve seen this happen in India as well. The constant pressure these girls face about bleaching their skin. What makes us superior to a person who was born into a family who cleans houses or sweeps streets for a living? It’s all a matter of circumstance and we are all equal,” she told Homegrown.

Zulaikha Patel and her friends have done at a tender age what many of their mothers faced but were afraid to question. With even South African celebrities coming out with their own stories about racism practiced at school with boys and girls, the movement has just begun gathering steam to end it all.