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Where to draw line on human rights

By Joram Nyathi

ZIMBABWE’S Supreme Court ruled last week that a primary school pupil at Ruvheneko in Glen Norah, Harare could not be barred for his dreadlocks. This act “infri

nged” on the pupil’s “human rights” as enshrined in the constitution, it was reported.

On the face of it, the mention of fundamental rights is sound. While the ruling may be legally valid, there is something curious about how the decision was arrived at, at least as reported in the Herald.

The first point is one of discipline. To me if a school cannot enforce discipline on pupils, then the headmaster and teachers lose their role as surrogate parents to whom we surrender, by choice, our children as we go about our business. That discipline includes deciding what uniform a particular school chooses.

If I choose that my child shall not put on a particular school uniform, I won’t send my child to that school. It is not for the school to change its uniform. Fundamental rights have to be enjoyed within a certain social setting, not in a vacuum.

Headmasters may not necessarily be empowered at law to make rules governing the conduct of children at their schools, but because of the responsibility reposed in them by parents, they face a dilemma when a single parent turns around to undermine their authority by making unreasonable demands on them.

Farai Benjamin Dzvova was not barred from attending Ruvheneko primary school on the basis of his “religious beliefs”. It was more of the father imposing his will on the school and asking the court to endorse it.

If in all material cases a minor of eight years cannot contract or enter a binding agreement about his life and what is good for him, how is Farai supposed to have made a deliberate decision on a complex subject such as religion? Is it not self-evident that the father, having himself made a conscious decision to become a Rastafarian, that is if one he is, most likely many years after leaving school, made the decision for the child, fully aware that it was against school regulations?

Most of us were brought up on a Christian diet where it was mandatory to attend Sunday school. The school enforced attendance on the pain of severe punishment. I wonder how many of us still go to church every Sunday for any reason than to keep up appearances or to show off our latest 4×4. Is it suggested by this court decision that Farai must live by his father’s decision even when he attains adulthood, given its effect on the role of headmasters countrywide?

I can understand when government says a pupil cannot be expelled from school because his/her parents can’t afford the fees or the school uniform. The logic here is that education is a fundamental right of every child, and that the child cannot be deprived of that right because his/her parents are poor. The parents’ inability is at issue.

In Farai’s case, the parent has more than sufficient resources to enforce what is in fact not a fundamental right of the child but a personal choice he made for the child to be a Rastafarian and wants to impose it on the school authorities.

So far he has satisfied his wish. But that comes with a lot of implications. Young Farai may be lucky if he is not made an object of ridicule by fellow pupils, which might affect his school work. Certainly a headmaster who was publicly humiliated by Farai’s father cannot be expected to protect the child.

Legally the court might be correct about rights, but these have to be tempered by the fact that Farai, at eight, cannot be said to have made a decision to become a Rastafarian. What his father has done is to make a choice for the child which adds nothing to his quest for education. Who then can stop a parent sending his child to school in fancy clothes as a manifestation of their social status? Who can stop me from arming my child with a knife “for his own protection” because I live in a violent neighbourhood?

There is a danger that in attempting to uphold human rights we end up with so-called “unintended consequences”. The problematic gun culture in the United States must have started because of the same misguided permissiveness about human rights. It has become a national scourge with hardly a month going by without some fatal shooting in school premises.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with professing one’s religion. However, there are problems when its manifestation becomes the standard bearer of universal human rights.

Imagine a teacher in the middle of a lesson. A Moslem princess drifts in wearing pitch black robes broken only by a razor slit across the eyes; behind her Madzibaba Zakaria’s angel waltzes in the snow-white regalia worn by Mapostori; behind her still Mbuya Nehanda’s young medium walks in topless, with a goat skin to cover the essentials, a feather hat, an ox tail in the right hand and a spear in the left; behind this train follows Macarina from the leafy Kambanji suburb in a blouse that barely covers the navel while at the top breasts are jutting out to freedom while behind a red G-string hugs her tightly under low-cut faded jeans. For, human rights cannot be confined only to “religious beliefs”. And when do we draw a line in the sand to say this is enough?

If we want to maintain discipline in our schools, I think we should allow headmasters and teachers to play parents to our children in our absence. Religion is a very personal issue, not something to be worn on one’s sleeve.

With all due respect!

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