File picture. A young child with dreadlocks. Photo credit: Vox Efx/Flickr/Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) No changes made.
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Kenya: Litigation as a tool for Rastafari female liberation

As an entry point for advocacy, litigation shapes public discourse. Importantly, it addresses violations and mitigates future violations. In Kenya, the High Court upheld the rights of a female Rastafari learner. She was expelled from school because of her dreadlocks. The court pronounced that “the rule that she cuts her hair is intrusive to her religion and not justifiable in a democratic country”.

In a landmark ruling on September 13, 2019, the Kenyan High Court ruled in favour of a Rastafari dawta. The court upheld her rights to education and religion. The judge ruled that it was discriminatory for the school to send her home because of dreadlocks. Importantly, Paragraph 25 of the ruling recognised that Rastafari is a religion whose adherents should be protected under Article 32 of the Kenyan Constitution. In court, the father had argued that: “Rastafarians keep “rastas” and not “dreadlock”; that rastas is a sign of faith as opposed to “dreadlocks” which is a matter of one’s choice or style”. In the ruling, Justice Chacha Mwita said: “School rules should not appear to be superior to the Constitution, the rule that she cuts her hair is intrusive to her religion and not justifiable in a democratic country”.

Averting from the hair politics, this petition relatively increased the attention on the Rastafari community in Kenya. Momentarily, media images were inundated with rasta colours, matted hair, turbans and other adornments associated with the Tafari people. For eyes that are critical, it was plain to see that the images predominantly depicted males. It would have been expected that since it was injustice towards a dawta that has led to the affirmation the constitutional rights, then more spotlight should have been on the females within the Kenyan Tafari people.

A dreadlocked African woman.

Typically in this instance, as it has been historically, much focus, has been placed on the males within Rastafari. This is consistent throughout the different mansions of Rastafari. Even in their divergence, mostly around symbolism and scriptural interpretation, homogeneity around the status of females remains almost consistent.

The status of Rastafari females

Rastafari being rooted in biblical structures and philosophy, is essentially patriarchal. The male being the “natural” head, social structures are male-dominated. Status, leadership, prophecy and healing are bestowed upon the males. In an article  titled, The Woman in Rastafari  (1980) published in the Caribbean Quarterly, a journal of Caribbean culture, Maureen Rowe argues that the potentiality of, or susceptibly to, evil as interpreted through the biblical Eve posits the male as the natural responsible for protecting the female against sin. She must be kept from corrupting the male. The female must be guided, instructed and restricted by the male until a time when she can distinguish the sinful and righteous on her own. The female ‘I’ is seen to be under the influence of Babylon and hence needs to be cleansed. The male is cleansed through his interaction with Jah and he, in turn, cleanses the female. These attitudes are compounded also by the fact that Rastafari was first articulated by males, Rowe argues.

Empress Menen Asfew Source: Facebook page/ Bob Marley Museum

The restrictive views on females govern a code of behaviour, which translates into important group rituals and taboos. These beliefs have served to legitimise the subordination of women. They have also contributed to the placing of some females within Rastafari on the periphery of economic and socio-cultural development. Further, some reggae musical content objectifies and reinforces the traditional roles of women. The music is mostly conservative on women’s freedom and equality. Overall, in reggae music, Queen Omega, Empress Menen Asfaw is not mentioned as much Emperor Haile Selassie. In a journal article titled, Religion, Patriarchy and the Status of Rastafari Women (1998), Obiagele Lake argues that male supremacy and domination are not an enactment of divine ordinance.

It is important to highlight that a significant number of Rastafari women willingly accept to practice and enforce these beliefs and behavioural codes. There appears to have been an attraction to the considerably structured and disciplined way of life. This has contributed to the acceptance and popularity of the movement amongst the female population. In the journal article Lake asserts that few women in Rastafari have disputed these ideologies and perceive themselves as equal to men. Simultaneously, not all Rastafari males hold the doctrine on females. 

Moving towards liberation

Over time, some Rastafari women have had varied degrees of increased liberty. The narrative on feminism and gender equality during the 21st century has contributed to shifting dynamics within the Rastafari community. Subsequently, this has impacted the status of women within Rastafari. It is observed that increasingly more females are working outside of the home to improve their economic and education status. Public spaces that were traditionally male dominated are being encroached by more Rastafari women, notably, in the arts and music. Rastafari women are being more impactful by utilising these platforms to highlight social injustices and other issues that impact society. Gradual change in social norms is incrementally challenging status quo within Rastafari. Laws also act as catalysts in influencing social norms. As was the case in Kenya, the judicial system not only has influenced social norms, but has proven to be an effective means of ensuring liberation of the Rastafari female. 

Contributor: Article by Tunu Ramtu

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