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Tyrone Marghuy

How a dreadlocked student sparked a movement for Black hair politics

Rastafarian Tyrone Marghuy’s court victory over his Ghana school is a step forward for conversations about hair discrimination

Black hair is politicised, whether intentionally or not. As well as being a source of identity and representing beauty, it is also a political representation of what is considered presentable. Historically, dreadlocks have not been. Over the years, the style has been weaponised, depending on the social class of whoever is wearing them. They’ve even been enough reason to deny people access to public institutions, like in the case of Tyrone Marghuy, who was refused entry to Achimota School, Ghana, on the basis of how he wore his hair. Marghuy resisted cutting his dreadlocks, and didn’t rest there.

When the state and the Ministry of Education refused to intervene on his behalf, Marghuy decided to sue the school on grounds of discrimination based on his religion, Rastafarianism. The wearing of dreadlocks is deeply tied to the Rastafarian spiritual beliefs.

Marhguy and another student, Oheneba Kwaku Nkrabea, sued the school’s Board of Governors, the Ghana Education Service, the Minister of Education, and the Attorney General for impeding on their fundamental human rights. Although his decision to go through the courts was tough to make, Marghuy felt that even a loss would be better than not fighting for his right to education.

For weeks, panelists on breakfast shows, journalists on prime-time news, bloggers, influencers, celebrities, and anyone who cared on social media expressed their opinions on whether the Achimota school’s 94-year rule on hair should be respected.

“Some people asked why I couldn’t just attend another school and let Achimota have their way,” Marghuy tells Dazed over the phone, as he gets ready for his first day at school. He didn’t let them have their way, he continues, because if that happened, “other schools may set up rules that may deny future students’ admission on grounds that ‘rules are rules’.”

The young men driving the case asked the court to rule in their favour because of the religion, spirituality, and culture that is tied to their dreadlocks. They asked the court to “declare that the failure and or refusal of the 1st Respondent (Achimota School Board of Governors) to admit or enrol the applicant on the basis of his Rastafarian religious inclination, beliefs and culture characterised by his keeping of Rasta, is a violation of his fundamental human rights and freedoms guaranteed under the 1992 constitution particularly Articles 12(1), 23, 21(1)(b)(c)”.

They also asked that the school “immediately admit or enrol the applicant to continue with his education unhindered”, and that compensation was provided for the “inconvenience, embarrassment, waste of time, and violation of his fundamental human rights and freedoms”.

The sitting judge ruled in their favour, and it was jubilantly celebrated. Marghuy’s win is a landmark ruling which will go a long way to effect future change, not just within schools, but also in how dreadlocks are viewed in public institutions. Though his argument is tied to his religion, it has also paved the way for wider conversations about dreadlocks and how people who wear the hairstyle are profiled, leading to discrimination.

There is a wider, troubling context in Ghana’s society to this story too. Wearing dreads in Ghana can mean that strangers meet you for the first time with condescension. It has been widely reported that the police exhibit discriminatory behaviours towards people with locks – police will stop people with dreadlocks at checkpoints regularly, and subject them to invasive searches, usually based on stereotypes linked to drugs. Education on Black hair continues to be an urgent issue.

Marghuy’s first experience of such blatant discrimination came as a shock to him, he says, which was why he insisted on being accepted into the school, and to have his right to religion respected.

Most of Ghana’s long-standing high schools are mission schools, with rules originally created by the Christian missionaries. Since these schools are heavily influenced by outdated rules and culture put in place by churches, Achimota could have joined in the ongoing conversations around altering religious guidelines for students. Religious intolerance is an open secret in Ghanaian schools. At the same time as Marghuy’s case was in court, the father of Muslim student Bushira Ismail accused Wesley Girls’ High School of preventing his daughter fasting during Ramadan. Older alumni (mostly Muslims) took up the hashtag #GeyHeyMuslimsSpeak to share their experiences of the school, and stories of how Muslims were prevented from practicing their faith. Some advised parents of Muslim students to sue.

In a tragic story from 2008, a Muslim student at another school in Ghana had to avoid being forced to go to church – he jumped from the fourth floor of a classroom block, and died.

Most of these schools still hold onto rules that try to limit certain rights of the students. “School rules must give way for celebration of constitutional rights,” James Gawuga Esq., Marghuy’s lawyer, tells Dazed. “This win means upholding constitutional rights over sectional rules of a school.” Gawuga Esq. joins a multitude of voices calling for such rules to be reviewed to reflect time and progress, and while he agrees that there’s no easy remedy for this situation, having rules that protect the rights of every student is a good place to start. When there are common rules that apply to all high schools, the board of governors won’t insist on rules that violate the rights of students. “Their role is to manage the school in accordance with the rules of the Ghana Education Service,” Gawuga Esq. adds.

Marghuy tells Dazed that he wasn’t sure about his career path before the incident, although he had thought of being a doctor or doing something science-related. Now, he is considering a career where he can help people whose rights are being violated. “Not necessarily a lawyer, but definitely in the legal space,” he says.

His win is important for every young person who finds themself in spaces with systems that do not freely let them exercise their rights. Marghuy’s father says something which makes him laugh: “My father thinks that Achimota believes every Ghanaian child has the right to education... unless they have dreadlocks.” Discrimination against those wearing dreadlocks continues to exist, but with a precedent set for more dreadlocked students in schools, we could see a more social cultural shift and continued conversations for Black hair politics to thrive.