Editorial | Hopefield Prep in a larger context
A private Jamaican preparatory school's refusal to enrol a three-year-old child with a frizzy afro again highlights the tension that often arises over the individual's rights to free expression, while ensuring a society's ability to maintain rules for good order, but without being a cover for institutionalised discrimination.
The easy response in the face of such quarrels is to yield to the majority position. But in the circumstances where the issues are neither clear-cut nor obvious, the danger of acquiescence, in the absence of serious and thoughtful dialogue, is to surrender a fundamental element of democracy: its willingness and capacity to protect the minority.
In that broad context, the debate surrounding little Zavia Assam has a context beyond which school he eventually attends, or his parents are forced to send him to. It is universal. Indeed, many people will hear echoes of it in the debate in France over the ban by several provincial towns of women, usually Muslim, wearing the burkini on their beaches.
The burkini resembles a diver's wet suit with a head scarf. As beach wear, it suits Muslim women who follow their religion's code of modest dress. But in France, where radical Islamists have killed scores of people, rightwing politicians are interpreting the dress as, if not signal, support for the terrorists, a symbol of supposed non-conformity with French values and, therefore, potentially disruptive to public order.
From our vantage point, the values that appear most under threat from the burkini bans are those of liberte, egalite, fraternite, which are the very foundation of France's democracy. This is why we expect the French higher courts to overturn these bans, declaring such actions unconstitutional and bigoted.
In Jamaica, the issue regarding little Zavia and Hopefield Prep are not so clear-cut, although we wouldn't expect anyone to interpret his hairstyle as symbolic of his parents' support for Islamists. Under section 13 (3) of the Constitution, he has, invested in his parents for the time being, "the right to freedom of expression", while at 13 (3) (i) (ii), he is guaranteed that he won't be discriminated against on the basis of "race, place of origin, social class, colour, religion, or political opinions".
PROMOTE ITS VALUES
Yet rights are not without limits. they have to be exercised in a fashion that doesn't impinge on the rights of others and within reasonable rules established for the orderly management of the community. In the case of Hopefield Prep, it is expected to have regulations that promote its values, as well as for the protection of the health, safety, and welfare of the entire school community. These may include codes for dress, grooming, and behaviour of students. Importantly, though, codes, rules, and regulations must be transparent, and their implementation should neither be arbitrary nor discriminatory, and, in enforcement, care must always be taken not to impair the dignity of anyone to whom they apply.
We, of course, do not suggest that Hopefield Prep has, or would ever derogate from any of these principles. But many Jamaicans are, and have cause to be, sensitive to such issues in some class. It used to be the case that Rastafarian children found it difficult to be enrolled in even public schools. Students and their parents are often still discriminated against for how they talk. When issues like the Hopefield saga are honestly debated, the greater the likelihood of arriving at societal consensus.