Often shunned by mainstream society for their long locks of hair and other habits like chants in praise of Jah, the Rastafarian community in Kenya has received an emphatic stamp of legal approval.
The High Court ruled on Friday that Rastafarianism is a religion and dreadlocks are one of its many spiritual symbols.
“It is my holding that Rastafari is a religion whose sincere adherents should be accorded full protection under Article 32 of the Constitution just like those of other religions,” Justice Chacha Mwita declared.
Schools should not discriminate against their students who keep dreadlocks or rastas as a way of professing their Rastafarian faith.
In a landmark decision, Justice Mwita ruled that keeping rastas is an outward manifestation of Rastafarian religious beliefs and forcing one to cut their hair violates their constitutional right to freedom of worship.
In the case, Olympic High School was sued by one its parents for chasing away their daughter who had dreadlocks.
The parent had told court that rastas symbolise their faith and he would not shave the girl as ordered by the school.
Judge Mwaita said the decision to exclude the minor from school for keeping rastas which symbolise her religious beliefs and the attempt to force her to act contrary to her religious beliefs, is a violation of her rights to religion and education guaranteed by the Constitution and is therefore null and void.
“A permanent injunction is hereby issued restraining the school administration of Olympic High School from negatively interfering with MNW education based on her religious beliefs, particularly for keeping rastas,” the court ordered.
The stand taken by the school that the child must shave her hair before she is allowed back to school was contrary to the law, which guarantees every person’s right to religion and to manifest that religion through practice
“The fact that the minor keeps rastas as a manifestation of her religious beliefs should not have been the basis for excluding her from school,” Mwita held.
The court found that the school’s decision to force her to shave the hair effectively punished the practice of her religion, degraded and devalued her and other followers of that religion in the eyes of other members of society.
“School rules and regulations though necessary for proper governing the conduct and discipline of students must not be applied in a manner that infringes on rights guaranteed by the Constitution,” the judge ruled.
He added that rules must appreciate genuinely held religious beliefs and should not be applied as though they are superior to the Constitution.
The court ruled that keeping rastas is not a matter of choice but is about the girl’s religion and manifestation of what she genuinely believes to be aspects of that religion which she must not be forced to compromise.
The judge dismissed the demand that she cuts her hair as intrusive and invasive of her right to religion and to manifest that religion.
Hassan Ole Naado, deputy secretary general of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, welcomed the ruling cautiously, saying he was not sure whether Rastafari was a religion or not.
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He said the right granted to the group on religious grounds should also extend to Muslims who have been prejudiced for wearing hijabs.
ANNETTE WAMBULWA/The Star