Teenage girls in South Africa are leading a protest movement against their school's discriminatory hair code–which they say targets black students' natural hair–and is a symbol of the wider environment of racism at the school.
Students at Pretoria High School for Girls began protesting last Friday after a black student was reprimanded for writing an essay about white oppression of black women and then told that her afro was "unruly," Al Jazeera reported. In the days since, several more students and former black students at the school have come forward with similar stories of being told their hair was "unruly" and unacceptable.
The students attended an assembly on Friday dressed in black instead of their school uniforms and continued to protest through the weekend and Monday, according to local media reports. They were greeted by heavy security including armed guards, News 24 reported, with authorities reportedly threatening to arrest the girls at one point.
This photo of one 13-year-old student, identified on Twitter as Zulaikha, has become a particularly powerful symbol of the girls' movement:
A 12th grade student at the school, Malaika Eyoh, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Vox on Monday:
Incidents like these occur on a weekly basis at Pretoria High School for Girls. White students lovingly refer to Girls High as “the most fair and just” school that they know. They tell us racism doesn’t exist because they’ve never experienced it. Meanwhile, black girls live in fear and discomfort at existing in their skin in that same environment… the one that they trusted to keep them safe. Its clearer now more than ever that black and white girls may sit in class together, but we don’t experience the school in the same way.
The regional education head who oversees the district visited the school yesterday and announced that the hair policies will be suspended while an independent investigation is conducted into the discrimination at the school.
"Racial abuse and victimisation by both white educators and white learners, in particular the use of hurtful terms such as monkeys, kaffir, and being told you belong at Mamelodi High and not at Pretoria Girls," the statement reads. "In one incident a white learner told a black learner she does not need a pencil but should rather use her finger since it was black enough."
Former students and students from other schools across Pretoria showed their support yesterday:
The protests come in the wake of nationwide marches at universities last year in which black students spoke out against racism perpetuated by faculty and fellow students on their campuses.
During Apartheid, Pretoria High School for Girls allowed only white students–since the segregationist regime ended in 1994, students of all races have been accepted
into the school. An online petition supporting the students' calls for reform has 25,825 signatures as of Tuesday.
"Black children should be allowed to just be children, without being burdened with having to assert their humanity," the petition says.