BLANTYRE — Rastafarians in Malawi are intensifying their push for the government to lift its ban on students attending school wearing dreadlocks. They argue it is unconstitutional to deny their children an education because of their religious practice, which calls for wearing their hair in that style.
Despite an absence of legislation on hair length or its appearance in Malawi, Rastafarians in this southern African country have long been banned from wearing dreadlocks in public primary schools. They are usually told to remove the locks or risk being denied entry.
But the president of the Rastafari for Unity, Ras Judah I, said dreadlocks are a component of their religion. He says the ban violates the students' right to education and freedom of worship - which are both enshrined in Malawi's constitution.
This month, the Rastafarian community again asked Malawi's government consider lifting its ban. Ras Judah said they presented a petition last Wednesday after a street march towards the District Commissioners Office in the capital Lilongwe.
“At the moment we are waiting for from the government to respond. If we cannot have any response we will follow up our petition to the office of president and cabinet, then after getting feedback from the government side, is when we will decide on next action to be sought,” said Juda.
The Rastafarians have been trying to get the unofficial ban on dreadlocks lifted for a decade, to no avail.
The closest they came was in 2011 when President Bingu wa Mutharika verbally instructed teachers to start allowing dreadlocked Rastafarian children in schools. But following his death in 2012, the instructions did not get implemented.
The Rastas' push has gained support from some legal experts.
Edge Kanyongolo, a constitutional lawyer who lectures at Chancellor College of the University of Malawi, says although rights can have limits, he sees no reason to ban wearing of dreadlocks.
“Our constitution guarantees various rights including the right to freedom of religion as well as a right to equal treatment. Now the only time you can limit those rights is if somehow the exercise of the rights harm the rights of others. In the case of Rastafarian children, I cannot see how allowing them to keep hair in dreadlocks harms anyone at all,” he said.
Ministry of Education authorities have argued that refusing dreadlocked children into classes is in line with education policy which aims to encourage uniformity among students.
Kanyongolo said that policy does not trump constitutional rights.
“If it is against their policy, then the policy should be modernized to be in line with the constitution because the constitution itself is the supreme law of the land and therefore you cannot use a policy to defend yourself against the constitution,” he said.
Government spokesperson Moses Kunkuyu says that the government would consider the Rastafarians’ demand only if they are in line with issues of policies and regulations regarding discipline and conduct of children in public schools. He did not elaborate.
The spokesman did not rule out the need to match education policies with the constitution, but he said doing so is a process which would take time.
Rastafarians have won similar legal battles in other countries.
For example, in 2009 a group of Rastafarian security officers in New York City won the right to wear their locks in neat ponytails, rather than be forced to tuck them in their uniform caps.
In April of this year, a Rastafarian pupil in South Africa who was ordered to stay away from school until he cut his dreadlocks, was allowed to return following the intervention of a rights group, Equal Education.
This gives Judah hope that sooner or later, Malawian Rastas will win the battle.