Belize's Supreme Court has ruled in favor of two female police officers who alleged that their constitutional rights were violated when they were disciplined by their superiors for not getting rid of their dreadlocks.
After the ruling on January 29, one of the officers, Alleeya Wade, took to Facebook to reflect on the ordeal and express her dismay over the "name calling, the rude outbursts, memes and victimization from my peers and even some superiors."
“Many times I cried alone because I knew that I was targeted and discriminated against,” she wrote, before explaining why she didn't back down. “I took this stand to teach little Black, beautiful young women to appreciate their beauty, hair and ethnicity, embrace your natural hair, love yourself, and never take a back seat to people stepping over your rights. Signed, a proud, Black, Belizean police officer with locs [dreadlocks].”
The case began in 2019 when six female officers were instructed to remove their dreadlocks. When they refused, they were accused of willfully disobeying a lawful command from their superiors and given a written reprimand.
“In our view, it was a violation of their constitutional rights by attempting to punish them for what is at its heart, an expression of their Black identity and their religion,” Leslie Mendez, one of the lawyers who handled the case, told VICE World News. Although the police commissioner suspended the disciplinary proceedings after a public uproar, it was never formally settled. So two of the officers, Wade and Shantel Berry, decided to proceed to the Supreme Court and “resolve the matter once and for all.”
Mendez explained that the police department alleged that dreadlocks broke their dress code, which did not allow for hair extensions. But she and her clients argued that dreadlocks are a natural hairstyle that is not only important for Black identity, but also representative of practitioners of the Rastafarianism religion.
“The court specifically found that the directive that they remove their hairstyle was, in fact, an assault on their human dignity because [the judge] found that the directive would essentially be saying that their culture, their religion and who they are is not valued by society, or worthy of protection,” said Mendez.
“And the court was very clear that in [the judge’s] view, it is quite settled that Rastafarianism is a religion and it is worthy of protection. [The judge] went into the whole historical significance of what Rastafarianism is, particularly in our region, and particularly for persons of African descent.”
Founded in the 1930s, Rastafarianism has become an important political and religious movement drawing from African, Revivalist and Christian traditions, and has become especially prominent in Afro-Caribbean nations like Belize. A monotheistic religion whose practitioners believe in the greater power Jah, dreadlocks have taken on a religious significance for Rastafari.
It’s still unclear if the Supreme Court decision will also allow for male police officers to wear dreadlocks, but Mendez believed that the Belizean ruling could be important for “regional jurisprudence, because this type of challenge has been tried before in other Caribbean jurisdictions. And the results have been a bit inconsistent.”
In a similar case in July with a far different outcome, Jamaica’s Supreme Court ruled that a school was within its right to demand that a five-year-old girl cut her dreadlocks. The Belizean ruling could now be used in other cases about dreadlocks as a way to argue in favor of religious and personal freedom towards hairstyles.
Last week's ruling was especially timely in Belize, as the small Central American nation has been engulfed in an internal reckoning over racial discrimination in the workplace regarding natural hairstyles. Days before the judgment, a woman in the capital of Belmopan, who works in a government office, alleged that her superiors told her that she must straighten her afro because they were receiving complaints that “she did not look professional.”
After a Facebook post by a family member went viral throughout, a cascade of Belizean women uploaded their own selfies showcasing their natural hairstyles and expressing support.
“The whole basis of racism in Belize comes from our own colonial experience,” said Jerry A. Enriquez, an academic who has publicly advocated to stop the stigmatization of dreadlocks and natural hairstyles in Belize.
Belize was long known as British Honduras, and was the last United Kingdom crown colony in the Americas. It only became fully independent in 1981. Enriquez explained that historically, the British colonizers had separated various groups of African descent and that some were enslaved when others were free. This, along with non-Black indigenous groups in the region like the Maya, has created a complex racial identity within the country.
But the overriding social norm was that “you're more accepted when your color is closer to the colonial master. And so people began to glorify what was the expectation from the standards of the colonial master,” said Enriquez.
And especially, straight hair.
Although Enriquez isn't Rastafarian, like many non-Rasta Belizeans he chose to grow dreadlocks as an expression of his African roots from around 25 years ago, even though his family was worried that it would affect his employment opportunities. “My mother was very concerned about what that means, because in those days, having dreadlocks was associated with being a drug addict or being somebody involved in illicit activity.”
But he said that many Black Belizeans have embraced the hairstyle because it's a “new emergence of a greater sense of people feeling and identifying with their whole history and their whole Blackness, and people trying to shed their own attachment to the remnants of colonization.”
This has become especially pronounced in the workplace where professionalism is associated with straight hair. Enriquez referenced a highly educated friend of his who was offered a position as the principal of a community college. When he arrived with dreadlocks, the offer was withdrawn when he wouldn't remove them.
“In the workplace, I cannot come up and impose that your hair must be straightened, or forced to use chemicals in a way that it has to be like the European standards of hairstyles. That has happened over centuries. And now people are saying, hell no, we need to maintain what we naturally have.”
The Belize Police Department did not respond to requests for comment on the Supreme Court ruling, and the officers involved were not given authorization to speak with VICE World News.
However, the officers consented to the use of their Facebook posts, which have been slightly amended for grammatical and spelling clarity.
The second officer, Berry, began her post quoting U.S. civil rights icon Rosa Parks: “To bring about change, you must not be afraid to take the first step.”
While Officer Wade doesn't identify as Rastafarian, Officer Berry does.
Berry wrote that she “was taunted for months, outright discriminated [against] for being a Rasta woman. Was given a written reprimand of my disrespect for authority. Was publicly ridiculed in front of all my fellow female officers among many other things. Afraid again, I read over Rosa's words and decided to take that step. Not knowing what would happen but ready for whatever was because I was frustrated with being told my hair was not good enough.”
After thanking both those who helped and hindered her to take that step, she ended with two words: “Jah Bless.”