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Malawi’s Rastafarian children start school return as dreadlock ban lifts

Rastafarian children in Africa
Rastafarian children in Africa Copyright GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/2005 AFP
By Katy Dartford
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About 1,200 Rastafarian children are expected to return to state schools in the country after being banned for a decade.


Rastafarian children in Malawi will start their return to state schools over the next month, after being banned for a decade because of their hair.

In March, the country's high court ordered the education ministry to inform state-run schools that they must admit Rastafarian children by 30 June.

Letters have now been sent out to about seven thousand schools, informing headteachers that the exclusion of children with dreadlocks from the classroom has been ruled unconstitutional. 

Rastafarianism is an Abrahamic religion from Jamaica that stresses living in a natural way, in a way that extends to their hair. 

In Malawi and in other nations, Rastafarians have long been sidelined by education policies requiring students to cut their hair to promote what they describe as 'uniformity' among students.

A landmark court ruling in Malawi in 2020 forced schools to accept children wearing Rastafarian headdresses and, in June 2020, a Kenyan court also ruled upon a similar case which barred schools from turning away Rastafari learners.

Hairstyle discrimination across the globe

Last year the UK's Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) warned schools not to penalise pupils for wearing their hair in natural afro styles, as well as braids, cornrows and plaits.

In France, a bill is set to go before parliament in the autumn to fight ‘discrimination linked to hair texture, length, colour and style’.

That will follow the 10-year legal battle of a Black flight attendant for Air France, Aboubakar Traoré, who took his employers to an industrial tribunal because of discrimination over his braids.  

In November last year, France’s highest appeals court found in Traoré’s favour, ruling that the company authorised female staff to wear braids and so could not justifiably ban the hairstyle from male staff.

Across the pond, US House of Representatives passed the Crown Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair and came into force last year.

The bill banned race-based discrimination on hair, specifically textures or styles associated with a particular race or national origin such as dreadlocks, afros and braids. 

Other religious symbols

Several European countries have banned burqas, hijabs and veils. 

In 2011, France became the first country to ban full-face veils in public following decades of debate surrounding the wearing of headscarves in the country.

In 2021, the French Senate - the upper house of Parliament - also controversially voted in favour of banning girls aged under 18 from wearing a hijab in public. Religious clothing has been banned in French schools since 2004, including headscarves. It went even further in January 2022, voting to ban the wearing of the hijab and other “ostensible religious symbols” in sports competitions. 

Several other countries, including Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark followed France with their own bans, partial bans and local bans of face coverings.

Switzerland joined them and banned the burqa in March 2021. At the time, proponents said that the ban was needed to combat what they consider a sign of the oppression of women and to uphold a basic principle that faces should be shown in a free society.


In contrast, The UN Human Rights Committee has upheld that a blanket ban on face coverings and burqa is not compatible with international law and human rights standards, deeming it discriminatory. It further emphasises that the ban is not proportionate to its stated legitimate aim of promoting public safety.

In 2020, the constitutional court in Austria ruled that a 2019 law banning girls under the age of 10 from wearing religious headscarves at school is "unconstitutional".


Wearing a cross is protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, which gives the right to freedom of religion.

In 2011, European human rights judges ruled that schools had the right to display a crucifix on classroom walls. The decision came after an appeal against Italy's ban in 2009 which argued that hanging crucifixes in schools breached the religious rights of children.


The ECHR also ruled in 2013 that British Airways discriminated against an employee, Nadia Eweida, by not allowing her to wear a cross at work. In 2022, Mary Onuoha a nurse from Croydon in the UK won a case for unfair dismissal after claiming she was victimised for wearing a necklace featuring a cross while at work. 

It's a complex subject though and, in 2021, the European Court of Justice ruled that European employers can ban workers from wearing any visible sign of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs.

The ruling states that the ban "may be justified by the employer's need to present itself in a neutral manner to customers or to prevent social conflicts".

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