30 August 2016

South Africa: Zulaikha Patel - How We All Wish We Were You

Photo: Mishka Wazar/Daily Vox
Young black girls at some South African schools have taken a stand against hair rules that have led to accusations of racism.

I don't think I have ever seen anything quite like it.

The little girl - now known to all as Zulaikha Patel - standing in front of a row of three white males, refusing to back down, calling on them to follow through with their threats to arrest them - for their hair.

"Take us all," she said, for half a dozen girls at the school. "They want to take us prison ... take us all."

It was an act of extraordinary courage that left us tingling. Who were these brave girls and how had they secured such resilience against authority?

I watched the video on a loop on Instagram. Stolen moments from a protest that left me breathless. I think it was five times before I dared to blink. And still, there was an artistry in the execution of their defiance. A calmness that betrayed possible consequence.

The feels. The chills. School girls threatened with arrest. And how they respond ✊🏾 #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh pic.twitter.com/DNr1lhpiN4

-- The Daily VOX (@thedailyvox) August 29, 2016

For Zulaikha - her resolve was as natural as the curls on her head and the light creases on her young face. It was earnest, determined and uncomplicated.

Their actions were undeterred by mortgage payments and outstanding car loans. Unconcerned about the impact of her actions on "her career" or "that promotion".

A free spirit, asking only for the right to be herself.

The photo of her standing tall with steely eyes, arms outstretched and fists folded above her irresistible afro in a defiance of an antiquated, warped and racist policy will be studied and fluttered over for years to come.

We learnt later that Zulaikha had been previously put in detention for her hair. That she had to leave three schools because her hair challenged the system. Her sister said she was continually mocked, her hair described as "exotic" and looking like a "cabbage". She would come home in tears. It is remarkable then that she didn't look for ways to mend the "problem".

I know I would have. I know I turned a blind eye to any whispers or condescension from teachers or classmates at both primary and secondary school reserved for the few brown and black faces in the former Model-C schools I attended. I know I put on a purported civilised face each morning I entered that school and showed my true colours each afternoon back home or with fellow brown savages at the local madrassa.

Then, as profiling at airports or certain cities continue to proliferate, so many of us are shifting our behaviours, assimilating, changing the way we curl our tongues so we fit in, or draw attention to ourselves. And if we protest, it will be decided after a cost-benefit assessment: based on time and place, potential to win and lose, energy levels and interest to take on the prejudice or let it slip. We are all in awe of Zulaikha, because we wish to hell we could have all been her, growing up. We wish we could be her, as a grown up.

While so many of us were trying as children, and then as adults, to make the world work for us, we forgot that world already belonged to each and every one of us. We've been left so insecure and desperate to "make it", we've been wired to forgo anything, including ourselves.

I wondered after watching the clip another five times: what if there hadn't been a video to record the sublime protest initiated by the girls of the school? The reported narrative would have never gone viral. It would not have brought the school to its knees, its policies into the spotlight. It might not have brought politicians and policymakers into the discussion. Zulaikha might have found herself immediately suspended, or expelled, maybe jailed. It might have all been in vain.

We don't know, as per her sister's admission, how all of this attention will impact on Zulaikha. She is just a 13-year-old after all, acting on her own accord. And this is not a fight she was ever meant to fight.

But she has provided a most memorable lesson.

Justice, it turns out, simply needs people to speak out against injustice.

And it's apt, that it would take a child to make us remember that.

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