School discipline and uniformity?
The events at #PretoriaHighSchoolforGirls do ring a bell and that bell may ring to the tune of a South African Constitutional Court case from a few years ago: MEC for Education v Pillay 2008.
What happened in the Pillay case was that a South Indian Tamil Hindu learner was scolded for wearing a nose stud.
Section 9 of our Constitution enshrines the right to not be unfairly discriminated against directly or indirectly on the grounds of “race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.”
The school in the Pilay case argued that wearing a nose stud was a voluntary and not a compulsory South Indian Tamil Hindu custom, and therefore the school’s code of conduct was not discriminatory. The Equality Court ruled that although the code was discriminatory, it did not amount to unfair discrimination in that it was designed to “promote uniformity and acceptable convention amongst learners” and to avoid a “disorderly environment.”
Eventually the Pillay case ended up in the Constitutional Court where it was found that it is wrong that the school’s code does not provide for a procedure to apply for an exemption to reasonably accommodate religious and cultural practices. Also that there is no evidence that a nose stud would lead to less discipline. According to the Pillay case, the fact that an exemption might encourage more learners to express their religion or culture, should be celebrated and not feared.
A strict code regarding hairstyle may be discriminatory, but the question is whether it amounts to unfair discrimination. Is a school acting within their right to promote uniformity and/ or is a ‘one size fits all’ approach to ‘neatness’ unreasonable? Is there a system in place in terms of which one may apply for exemption?