What's the problem with dreadlocks?

Tamara Scott-Williams

Sunday, September 18, 2011

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THE last person anyone wants to confront on the street is a policewoman having a bad hair day.

And so we fully appreciate that Commissioner Lucius Thomas's 2006 conference announcement that he was easing up the dress code for policewomen drew loud applause and cheers from the female delegates. As of that conference they were allowed to wear cornrows, rope twist braids and weaves. They could also wear one pair of stud earrings while in uniform, two rings, inclusive of a wedding band, and colourless lip gloss.

Those small, fashionable steps suggested that the force was moving with the times and that it was okay to enhance a policewoman's appearance in an otherwise severe uniform. They could be feminine and professional at the same time.

The only proviso, the commissioner added, was that he hoped his policewomen would maintain proper grooming and would not take it as a licence for gaudiness.

The no-gaudiness condition means that shells, beads and other hair accessories were prohibited. Two-toned extensions were allowed, but bright colours weren't, and plaits and twists had to be moderate in size and neatly done with ends properly tucked away. Dreadlocks were not allowed.

Five years later, citing widespread lack of pride and decorum in the appearance of uniformed and non-uniformed personnel, current Commissioner of Police Owen Ellington has laid down strict rules governing the deportment of female members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force.

Starting November, he said, all policemen should have their hair trimmed low so that their head dress can properly fit at all times. Additionally, policewomen who wear their hair au naturel (unprocessed) would be allowed to have cornrows, weaves, hair extensions or braids but no shells, beads, scrunchies, headbands or other hair ornaments would be allowed.

But instead of moving one step forward, as did Commissioner Thomas, Commissioner Ellington has taken a step backward: "There should be no rope twists, Chinese/Nubian bumps, dreadlock twists or fat plaits," he said.

No dreadlocks? Why not?

In Canada and the United States, hairstyles for women members of the security forces must conform to the following standards:

"They must ensure their hair is neatly groomed, that the length and bulk of the hair is not excessive, and that the hair does not present a ragged, unkempt, or extreme appearance. Trendy styles that result in shaved portions of the scalp or designs cut into the hair are prohibited. Women may wear braids and cornrows as long as the braided style is conservative, the braids and cornrows lie snugly on the head, and any hair-holding devices comply with stated standards.

"Hair will not fall over the eyebrows or extend below the bottom edge of the collar at any time during normal activity or when standing in formation. Long hair that falls naturally below the bottom edge of the collar, to include braids, will be neatly and inconspicuously fastened or pinned, so no free-hanging hair is visible. Dreadlocks are prohibited in uniform or in civilian clothes on duty."

It raises the question: What's wrong with dreadlocks? Why is every other type of manufactured hair machination allowed: extensions and weaves, braids and hairpieces, chemical straighteners, subtle dyes too. But no locks, why? It's not as if the wearing of dreadlocks impacts negatively on the performance of a policewoman's duty. So what's wrong with dreadlocks?

And the answer appeared in the very definition of dreadlocks as seen in one military academy's handbook where dreadlocks were described as "unkempt, twisted, matted individual parts of hair". It is clear that both locally and abroad there appears still to be a preconceived notion that locks are unclean and unwashed and exist only because of lack of proper grooming and maintenance and attention to hair hygiene.

In fact, the opposite is actually the truth. Forget those poor, abandoned souls on the streets who are too mad to comb their hair. Forget the ill-intentioned young man whose aim is to strike fear into the hearts of onlookers by wearing his matted, unkempt hair as an armour of defence. Forget the foreign or local girl who falls crazily and deeply in love with a dread and seeks to hurriedly emulate some of his grooming rituals. None of these characters would be candidates for the police force.

But the roster of men and women in our police force should be representative of all the many people that make up our communities: Black, White, Red, Jew, Christian, Agnostic and depending on how they feel about Babylon, yes, Rastafarians too.

The most natural and organic form of expression when it comes to hair is the wearing of locks: if done well they come as a result of years of training, coaxing and moulding into robust strands of hair that are washed and nourished and tended to methodically. Unkempt? Not at all.

Try this one day. Count the number of times you see someone in a weave 'patting her head' to abate the strong urge to scratch whatever itch is provoked by the combination of glue, synthetic hair, natural oils, dampness and environmental hazards. Now count how many times you see a man or a woman wearing well cultivated dreadlocks do the same thing. Let me know what you come up with.


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