Karen van Rooyen: Time to embrace and celebrate our ‘versatile hair’

KarenvanRooyenI was 14 or so the last time I relaxed my hair. I’ll NEVER forget it!

For the first time in my life, I knew what it was like to have “white hair”, to be able to wash-and-go. To have perfectly straight hair, no sign of kroes , without having to pull at it with a huge round brush as it was blow-dried. This was before the days of GHD.

But my scalp burnt so badly (I could feel it at the time but I thought that was the way it was meant to be), that clumps of hair came away from my scalp with bits of scabby skin stuck to it.

I decided that was it, never again. The pain I had to endure to live up to what we had been indoctrinated into believing was the only way for hair to look good, was just not worth it. So, I went back to wearing my hair curly.

Occasionally, for special occasions, I would go through the process of rolling my hair (mom did all the hard work, actually) with those huge orange and green rollers, then have to sleep with a swirl-kous (I do still swirl) to keep it as sleek as possible.

In 2010, at the height of World Cup fever, I also had cornrows for almost a month.

It’s taken me a very long time but I’ve come to not only accept, but to also embrace and love what I call my “versatile” hair. To not care about what others think is best for MY hair.

Karen van Rooyen has had different hairstyles over the years
Karen van Rooyen has had different hairstyles over the years

My moods change, and with that my lus to do my hair – so some days (now that I’ve cut it to the shortest it’s ever been), it’ll be straight and other days it’ll be curly. That doesn’t make it any less beautiful.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because this week South Africans got to meet Zulaikha Patel, a 13-year-old Pretoria High School for Girls pupil whose picture – more reminiscent of a movie set in apartheid a la Sarafina than a reality in post-apartheid 2016 South Africa – circulated on social media, as did her refusal to bow to her school’s insistence that she tame her natural afro.

Closer to home, at Lawson Brown High School, another young woman, Grade 12 pupil Unathi Gongxeka, took up the same fight after she claims she was told to straighten or tie up her hair.

While the school has admitted it said afros would not be allowed during exams, it denied that Unathi was told to straighten her hair. The school has since been forced to review its policies and rules about hairstyles.

The discussions and comments around the issue have frustrated me and angered me to the point of profanity!

These include (but are sadly, by no means, limited to): “Lice can’t get a grip on straight sleek hair. They thrive on kinky krews hair because they can stick on it to lay their nits”, and “Really . . . get a life . . . what do u need an afro for anyway… rules are rules always has been always will be . . . wait till you actually have an education and pass then you can do whatever the hell you like with your hair . . . simple”.

Amid all of this, while driving us back from Grahamstown earlier this week, an old white Afrikaans man (I don’t like identifying a person by race but it’s necessary in this case) asked what I thought about the hair issue. I immediately cringed because I didn’t want to hear what he was about to say.

And then he said: “Do you think it’s right that just because you have dreads you can’t be educated? It’s not right. This racism must end.”

I felt bad that I’d judged him because of who he is and wished there were more like him. But there is hope. A group of young girls who, as teenagers, have already accepted and celebrate who they are (it took me considerably longer to get to that point) and are determined to fight their cause are symbolic of that hope.

And one day, inspired by this group of teenage schoolgirls who’d had enough and decided to challenge the status quo, I might even be brave enough to venture out in public showing off my own afro.

This opinion piece appeared in Weekend Post on Saturday, 3 September, 2016 e-Edition

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