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18.10.2021 Feature Article

The Law and Politics of Natural Black Hair: Marghuy on my mind.

The Law and Politics of Natural Black Hair: Marghuy on my mind.
18.10.2021 LISTEN

A: Introduction
The art of formulating a title for my blog articles is generally a straightforward one. Mostly, in the process of ruminating on the subject-matter of the article, the title will cross my mind and I’ll jot it down. No further autopsy may be conducted on it and it may pass without much fuss. Not so with the instant article. All the likely titles that came to mind were too numerous to make for easy choice. So, I frustratingly settled on the instant title – “The Law and Politics of Natural Black Hair”. I was amused at first because it sounded more like the title of an Introductory Course in African Identity being offered to first year students in a richly-endowed university in Europe or US. If for nothing at all, such a course of study on the menu of any Anglo-Saxon or euro-centric university could induct it into the ‘non-racist’ Hall of Fame. In spite of my anxiety that the title reeked of academia, I agreed with myself to stick with it. The reason is that, the article touches on the ongoing tussle between natural black hair and the law in the courts and the general politics and economics of natural black hair in our ‘globalized’ world. The article further raises the issue as to why in the face of a blatant abuse of a child’s right to education, most of the usual human rights adherents and diplomats are quiet. Finally, the article urges that once the High Court has given its judgment in favour of natural black hair, we should let sleeping dogs lie.

B: To admit or not to admit, that is a foolish question

There are many countries in the world that toot their horns these days as the ‘mothers’ of democracy, freedom and equality. But as students of history and law, we know that those countries had to confront and challenge most of their obnoxious long-held beliefs and perceptions in court before they arrived at where they are today. Issues such as the abolition of slavery in the US and the end of feudalism in Europe were tested in courts before they became actualized. Many of such cases changed the course of history in those countries and made them the so-called beacons of democracy and rule of law they call themselves.

One such case is the 1954 US case of Brown v Board of Education. In that case, the US Supreme Court stated that a state law that established racial segregation (that is, separating white students from black students) in public schools was unconstitutional and should be ended. Before that case went to court, black and white students could not attend the same public schools in the US. The decision in the case, therefore, made it possible for all students of any colour - black, white, brown or any colours in between - to attend any public school of their choice. The decision was applauded by many well-meaning Americans. Of course, there were a few elements that were incensed by the equal access to education granted to all Americans. But their parochial interest could not override the broad societal benefits conferred by the Court’s decision.

It was with this background in mind that I wholly welcomed the High Court’s (Human Rights Division) decision in Marghuy v Board of Governors of Achimota & Attorney-General[1]. This is the case where Achimota School refused to enroll a fresh SHS student on grounds that wearing his hair in dreadlocks was against the Schools rules that required every student to “keep their hair low, simple and natural”. The student’s plea that he was a Rastafarian and wearing his hair in dreadlocks was a manifestation of his religion was ignored by the School. The Court held that the School’s decision infringed on the student’s constitutional right to practice any religion of his choice and to manifest such religion. The Court ordered the School to admit the student. It was sad that throughout the period of the court hearing, the student was made to stay away from the school and he missed several weeks of classes. But in the end, justice prevailed and the student was admitted into the school, dreadlocks and all. To my mind, this is a forward-looking, epoch-making decision that has the effect of breaking down societal misconceptions that have seeped into our collective consciousness as the “right way” to live our lives. Being blinded by our self-righteousness, we have failed to see how far back some of our antiquated beliefs and colonialist-inspired ethos have paralyzed our growth and development as a people. The decision truly reminds me of the Brown case in most respects.

One interesting highlight of the High Court’s decision was the reference to Article 28(4) of the Constitution which states that no child should be denied medical treatment, education or any other social or economic benefit because of their religious or other beliefs. In the light of this clear constitutional provision, it is surprising to learn that the Attorney-General intends to file or has filed an appeal against the High Court’s decision. Now, in the unlikely event that the Court of Appeal overturns the decision, the student will have to be expelled from the school. The Attorney-General had said in his arguments before the High Court that if the student was admitted to the school, it will be a recipe for confusion and chaos in public schools. We are yet to receive the dreaded news of dreadful dudes in dreadlocks causing confusion and chaos in Achimota School or any other public school.

One, therefore, wonders what may be giving the Attorney-General the itch such that he would rather a youth lose his chance to get educated than to be seen studying with a head full of his own natural hair. We hope that these would manifest if and when the appeal is ever filed or, if filed, is ever heard. Thankfully, all students in public schools are dutifully complying with the colonialist- sounding rule to “keep their hair low, simple and natural”. We have not heard that hitherto ‘sakora’ boys and girls in public schools are now growing giant locks on their heads per the Marghuy decision. The ‘floodgates’ have not opened. Young Marghuy was kept away from Achimota School during the entire period his case was pending in court. He had barely a few days to prepare for the end-of-term exams after he won his case. In spite of this, he reportedly emerged the best student in Science and Maths in his Class. Obviously, the natural black hair on Marghuy’s head did not affect his intelligence and discipline. If, in spite of all these factors the Attorney-General will want the young lad expelled from Achimota School, then there must be more to the case than meets the eye. But I trust to luck, there’s no such thing.

C: Where is everyone?
One thing that was obvious throughout the period leading up to and after the Marghuy case was the loud silence of human rights activists, movements, institutions, aid donors and foreign missions in Ghana – the so-perceived ‘neutrals’. There were no marches and bonfire nights in solidarity as was done for George Floyd. Ambassadors and High Commissioners did not ‘tweet’ their views and express their disgust as they do with LGBTQ and allied issues. Here were two children facing the ‘trial’ of their lifetime against the full power of the Republic of Ghana and their dream school with an alumni list that boasts of the likes of the Akua Kuenyehia, Cyprian Ekwensi, K. G. Osei-Bonsu and Gloria Amon-Nikoi[2]. They had only their parents and lawyers and social media ‘friends’ in support. We did not hear of any ‘amicus curiae’ briefs. The neutrals were silent. For instance, USAID, the aid donation and development assistance wing of the US government, reportedly runs a Justice Sector Support Activity (JSSA) initiative in Ghana. We did not hear from them on the Marghuy case[3]. It is now clear that some of these entities step forth to agitate only in matters of self-interest or those that present opportunities to ‘trend’.

D: Who are the beneficiaries of our archaic public school rules?

Perhaps, it is the rigid enforcement of the archaic “keep their hair low, simple and natural” rule in all public schools, whether male or female, that irk our females and make them detest their own beautiful, black natural hair as soon as they leave secondary/High school. We embrace any and every other type of hair but our own. We will take Indian, Brazilian, Peruvian, even Chinese hair any day but we will not be seen dead in our own natural, curly, black and beautiful hair. Discussions around hair, no more than discussions around preferred body size, is not commonplace. And even when those discussions take place, the views expressed by many on these issues in public are mostly at variance with what they feel in their hearts. When often do we openly hear people speak in favour of natural black hair and skin, or their preference for persons with enough body to hold and behold.

About ten years ago, my hair stylist moved away from my neighbourhood and getting someone close by to handle my natural hair was a problem. In order not to fret over my hair, one fine Saturday morning, I decided to cut off my locks and keep low natural hair till I found a suitable replacement for natural hair stylist. The next Monday when I went to court, I noticed the curious glances of disapproval on people’s faces; court clerks, bailiffs, lawyers. After court, I went to the Canteen at the Supreme Court building. There, I met a young lawyer who I knew as a cousin of an acquaintance. I had no prior deep relationship with him except exchanging the usual “hello” with smiles. But that day, instead of the usual smile, the young man shot me an accusatory look that was at once perplexing and unnerving. Then he boldly followed it up in an injured tone thus: “Oh, senior, why did you cut your hair”? It was so nice. I used to admire it a lot”. Quite stunned at his boldness and my own surprise at his righteous disappointment, I said, “Oh, Counsel. But you never told me”.

Until my hair grew back and I found a permanent natural hair stylist (thank God they are now a dozen a dime), I answered such or similar questions daily from both males and females. Apparently, many admire natural black hair more than we are wont to declare. The sad thing is that, most females say they would like to keep their hair natural but they lack the courage to do so! We now need courage to carry and display our own natural hair; the hair many of us were forced to wear for the first eighteen years of our lives! How ironic. The fact is, after leaving secondary/High school, ditching our natural hair for artificially relaxed and straightened hair, wigs and hair extensions becomes a ‘rite of passage’. Been there, done. Then we later need courage to snap out of the folly.

Apart from blacks (found anywhere in the world), which group of people despise their own natural hair? It could be argued that the evil triumvirate of colonialism, slavery and repression made sure we hated everything natural to us and embraced everything natural to the oppressor. Notable are our hair and skin colour. But centuries and decades after slavery and colonialism, this argument has lost fervour.

After centuries and decades of being ordered to keep our ‘hair low, simple and natural’, we tend to believe that our emancipation from mental slavery is our ability to change our hair texture and skin colour to match that of the former colonizer or slave master. In doing so, we forget that we are creating billionaires amongst the people who neither need to straighten their hair or lighten their skin colour. Now, mark this: the global market value of hair, wigs and extensions for the period 2020-2023 is US$13 billion[4]; global trade in hair relaxing creams was valued at US$717.6 million as at 2020 and projected to reach US$839.1 by 2027[5]; the global value of trade in bleaching creams was US$8.6 billion as at 2020 and it is estimated to reach US$12.3 billion by 2027[6].

With these statistics, one can very well appreciate why the ‘neutrals’ and their sponsors were silent when natural black hair was on trial. After all, if black people embrace their own natural hair and feel comfortable in it as their crowning glory, there will be no customers to patronize the whopping US$13 billion wigs and extensions yearly global trade.

D: Conclusion
As the defence team in the Brown case did, the Attorney-General argued his case forcefully in the Marghuy case before the High Court. He lost in the same way his counterpart in the Brown case did. Losing any case in court is quite disheartening; losing a case with so much public interest is tragic. We get it. By the rules of court, the Attorney-General has the right to appeal against the judgment. He may exercise that right and even get the judgment overturned in his favour. But to what end, one may ask? The Attorney-General is a fine gentleman with fine legal brains and I doubt very much if he would want to be remembered by posterity as “Geoffrey Bing II”.

By the way, does the “keep their hair low, simple and natural” rule in public schools apply equally to persons from other ethnicities – Caucasian, Indian, Lebanese, Asian, Europeans?

[1] The judgment of the High Court (Human Rights Division), Coram: Gifty Agyei Addo, J. in Suit No. HR/0055/2021, dated 31st May, 2021.

[2] There was another case involving another student, Nkrabea, at the same Achimota School. It is my understanding that after the Court gave judgment in his favour, a philanthropist offered him a scholarship to attend Ghana International School (GIS). Thus, the sweet victory the student got from the High Court’s judgment remains a pyrrhic victory. He could not benefit from the government’s free SHS programme because he chose to wear his natural black hair per the dictates of his religion. This is a matter of national disgrace.

[3] For more on the JSSA initiative of USAID and their recent activities, see: https://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/Justice-is-served-for-duped-tomatoes-seller-1314223

[4] https://www.statista.com/statistics/917410/hair-wigs-and-extensions-market-value-in-the-us/

[5] https://www.marketwatch.com/press-release/hair-relaxer-market-size-and-growth-strategies-2021-2027-research-includes-top-manufacturers-analysis-forthcoming-developments-future-trends-cagr-status-and-share-analysis-2021-09-06

[6] https://theconversation.com/women-of-color-spend-more-than-8-billion-on-bleaching-creams-worldwide-every-year-153178

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