A sense of exasperation brews within me whenever I see swarms of school girls walking by. I would wonder what made their schools think it was okay to force a girl to shave her head before receiving the opportunity to gain an education. The whole concept is beyond baffling considering the fact that many other girls like myself who weren’t subjected to this policy, well, turned out just fine.
My irritation was heightened one morning when my lingering eyes were set on an odd pair amongst the pack of girls I would usually see. Two white girls floated amidst the group but unlike the other ‘bald’ heads, these girls had their hair tied in ponytails. I was dumbfounded that as exasperating as the rule was already, girls of Caucasian descent were exempted. Upon pondering what could drive someone to design such a policy to begin with, I conducted a study to decipher the underlying reason behind the policy and why Caucasian students do not have to conform in many schools.
According to Nambe Patrick, a writer for ‘Razakmedia’, the policy demanding that school girls cut their hair originated during the colonial era, when local girls attending ‘Castle Schools’ were forced to shave their heads as a distinguishing feature between them and the ‘mulatto’ children. During that era, some African women were also forced to shave their heads because their hair was supposedly “confusing” white men. Hence, it is baffling that this policy, initially fashioned by the coloniser to undermine our people, is still strictly enforced in many African countries, this time, by Africans against Africans.
Why this policy?
The dominant argument in favour of the policy for girls to keep short hair in schools is that allowing them to grow their natural hair poses a distraction to them during lessons and would require them to spend several hours at the salon. Headmistress of Ridge Church School in Accra, Mrs. Nana Ama Acheampong Badasu, a proponent of the directive told me: “for us we don’t see plaiting hair as a priority when they’re in JHS. The reason is that in JHS, one, we’re preparing them for life,two, they’re preparing for examinations and we feel that going to do their hair will waste their time…Doing your hair or not I don’t see how that is a priority.”
On the contrary, I’m of the opinion that preparing girls for life is a holistic process, which includes the acquisition of various skills such as time management and self-care. In the real world, self-care routines are an inevitable aspect of our lives which we have to balance with our daily activities.Thus, forcing girls to cut their hair in school only makes them conform without actually equipping them with the time-management skills they need, thereby defeating the underlying purpose of the directive.
Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS) and Events Coordinator of Tema International School (TIS), Mrs. Surama King, is among those perplexed by the policy. “I’m still trying to understand why having long hair is a distraction,” she says.
“You can have short hair and still be an extremely distracted person so I don’t see the connection with the two and I don’t agree...We rather have to teach girls how to take care of themselves, and take care of their hair and time management. In TIS, I believe this policy does not have a place because we are grooming students to be thinkers, to be time managers, to understand what is the priority for them, to find balance and I don’t think not cutting their hair is influencing how they’re learning and how they are developing themselves as learners.”
Isn’t it surprising that in schools where this policy is not implemented, girls are still able to achieve academic excellence? This is because they’re groomed from the onset to allocate their time in accordance with their priorities. The fact that girls in such schools can excel without their hair care hindering their academic performance brings into question the effectiveness of the policy.
Simone Aboagye, a student at Ridge Church School (RCS) complained bitterly about the policy and its effects on her personal life.“They’ll also make you cut it low so during Christmas break you can’t even braid it or do anything with it,” she told me. Similarly her colleague, Afia Ntiamoah said she and her friends from Ridge Church feel “left out” when they meet up with friends from other schools and realize they are the only ones who have cropped hair. The self-esteem of many girls is slowly being diminished by this policy to the extent that a third student, who pled to remain anonymous told me: “I used to cry every time my mum took me to cut my hair because I feel like it makes me look like a man. My cousins are in international schools and whenever I visit them, they laugh at me and say I should come to their school.”
Exemption of Caucasians
The most provocative aspect of this policy is the fact that in many schools, Caucasians are exempted from the rule because their hair is “naturally long” and doesn’t require as much time to tend to which I deem discriminatory. This belief feeds into the age-old stereotypes of African hair being difficult to maintain and prone to untidiness, another argument some use to defend the policy.
Girls in such schools are forced to keep their hair as low as possible with the slightest trace of “untidiness” attracting sanctions. This rule is strongly hammered on to the extent that three students were prevented from sitting a paper during the April 2015 West African Senior Secondary School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) because their hair was “bushy” and “untidy”. Thus it’s mind-boggling that this rule, so harshly enforced for Ghanaian students, does not even apply to Caucasians.
Perhaps the most absurd argument I’ve heard in defense of the exemption of Caucasians is the fact that they “look ugly” when they cut their hair. Angel Kabonu, Vice President of the National Association of Graduate Association (NAGRAT) said “what I gathered was that when Caucascians students cut their hair to the level of black ladies, it makes them look very ugly and it can even affect their looks so Caucasian students are not allowed to cut their hair. There is no rule in the Ghana Education Service concerning Caucasians in Ghana because we are not Caucasians, we are negroes.”
Similarly, according to Mrs. Badasu, students of Caucasian descent shouldn’t have to cut their hair because “it’s naturally long”. “Let’s say I’m from Brazil. You know they have long hair already don’t they? Yes it’s naturally long, their hair is naturally long so they shouldn’t have to cut it. That’s how they keep it.”
It is disheartening that 62 years after independence from our oppressors, we are willingly clinging to such policies which were initially designed to degrade Africans. The fact that students of Caucasian lineage are exempted from this rule is an indication of our refusal to liberate our minds from mental enslavement.
Mrs. King From TIS, who strongly opposes the policy, feels that “it should be abolished definitely, especially because I trace the policy to the slavery time. It’s just not right. It’s very racist for me and black people, we’re also racist. You allow White girls to leave their hair long because you believe it’s naturally long? And you don’t allow a Black girl to leave her hair to whatever size she wants? It’s racist.”
Abolishing the ‘Big Chop’
Natural hair requires time and meticulous care in order to flourish. However, this ‘cropped hair’ policy strips girls of the opportunity to learn how to properly tend to their natural hair as they mature. As a result, after they graduate, they become impatient and are unwilling to begin their natural hair journey, thereby resorting to other solutions which include the use of chemicals to permanently change their natural hair texture. This policy makes some girls resent their natural kinky curls and tend to appreciate other artificial hairstyles more than their natural hair. Consequently, our natural hair which should be viewed as a part of our cultural heritage and an indication of our roots, is rather seen as a nuisance.
To achieve the uniformity amongst students which for some reason is so deeply sought, prescribed protective hairstyles such as cornrows could be introduced. This would cater for the uniformity some schools look for while permitting girls to grow their natural hair.
“People are just too afraid to change mindsets and to change something they have done for years,” Mrs. King believes. I side with her because several generations have passed through the same system and as a result, fail to see the problem with the policy and why it should be relinquished. It is pointless for girls to cut their hair for the sake of “uniformity” or “distractions” when many girls across the country who are allowed to grow their hair are still excelling in their academic work.