Of religion, hair and the law

Source: Of religion, hair and the law – NewsDay Zimbabwe February 9, 2019

Guest column: Miriam Tose Majome

IN January, an important court ruling with implications on religious freedoms and expression affecting mostly schoolchildren went largely unnoticed, because all focus was on the political drama that has been hogging the limelight lately.

The judgment is of particular interest to Muslims and other people who subscribe to the minority religious groupings in the country.

The very important matter was about hair — that very emotive topic over which everybody always has a strong opinion.

The High Court dismissed a constitutional application filed by the father of a Harare schoolboy against St Johns College. The boy, a Muslim, was embroiled in a long-running dispute with the school authorities because of his beard, which he was refusing to shave.

The bearded teen was being barred from attending school, which was insisting that school rules required all the pubescent boy pupils to be clean-shaven when they attended class.
The boy, on the other hand, was insisting that it was his right to keep his beard because it was part of his religious beliefs.

Different Islamic schools of thought prescribe different laws to its adherents regarding men’s hair and beards based on their different and often conflicting interpretations of the Quran.

This particular boy obviously subscribed to the interpretation that prescribes keeping long beards as the best male expression of Islam.

His father argued that excluding his son from the school was unfair discrimination and that the school was interfering with his religious freedoms and, thus, it was unconstitutional.

The High Court did not buy his argument and was persuaded by the school’s argument. The school rules were there to maintain the objectives and ethos, which the boys’ parents had voluntarily agreed to abide by when they enrolled him at the school.

The school, though secular, publicly identifies itself with Christian values, even though it enrols pupils of different faiths.

Putting it simply, the court said the boy was the one who went to the school and not the school to the boy.

By accepting the offer of a place at the school and enrolling their child, the parents voluntarily agreed to bind the boy to the school’s rules and tacitly to its underlying Christian ethos.

At the time of enrolment, it was all smiles and signatures because their little boy had not reached puberty, but as nature will have it, little boys grow up and hair grows on their faces and then it was a very big issue.

However, schoolmasters do not particularly like teaching bearded schoolboys and so the world over, schools decree that beards on teenagers must fall.

The judge held that there had been no discrimination against the boy because the school’s code of conduct applied to all the pupils equally.

The judge reiterated that it was for the boy to conform to the school rules and not for the school to conform to the boy’s individual beliefs, no matter how dearly and sacred he held them.

There have been many other cases brought against local schools by litigant pupils, alleging that their schools’ rules infringed on their personal and religious beliefs.

The case of Makani & Three Others vs Arundel School was decided pretty much the same way by the Constitutional Court, as the St Johns boys case.

Parents of certain four Jehovah’s Witness Church students had sued Arundel School for alleged unfair discrimination and undermining of their daughters’ religious beliefs by compelling them to attend the school’s religious assemblies.

Coincidentally, Arundel School, like St Johns College, also publicly identifies with Christian values. The message from the courts is clear that if one voluntarily signs themselves up for membership into a private association, they agree to bind themselves to that association’s rules, even if they contradict their own individual beliefs and so should not cry wolf later as if they didn’t know.

However, the courts have not been entirely consistent with their judgements regarding this. The rules have been somewhat different for Rastafarianism, as it appears the courts have a somewhat soft spot for them.

The St Johns boy’s case is similar to the Supreme Court case of Farai Dzvova v Minister of Education. Both cases have to do with the hair, although the outcomes were completely different.

Dzvova was a six-year-old Rastafarian boy who had turned up for Grade One at Ruvheneko Government School in his dreadlocks.

The school authorities were obviously aghast and did the completely expected thing by chucking the poor little boy out, insisting that he returns with a clean shaven-head like the other little pupils.

His incensed Rastafarian parents would have none of it and dragged the school and Minister of Education all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court bench was unanimous in finding that the little boy’s expulsion from the school infringed on his constitutional rights to practice his religious beliefs, because his dreadlocks were part of his religious expression.

The court ruled that since dreadlocks are an expression of Rastafarianism — a religion, expelling the boy was discriminatory on the grounds of religious faith.

This contradicts the St Johns boy’s ruling in which the High Court saw no discrimination or violation of his religious beliefs.

The court told the Muslim boy to go home and shave his beard like all the other boys and return to school with a clean face or stay home with his long beard.

The reasons the Muslim teen refused to shave his beard are exactly the same with the little Rastafarian boy, who refused to cut his dreadlocks.

There have been many other court cases brought by Rastafarians in Zimbabwean, South African and the world in which their hair and hairstyles have been at the centre of great legal controversy.

 Miriam Tose Majome is a legal officer for Veritas and she writes in her personal capacity. She can be contacted on mtmajome@gmail com.