Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Price of Uniformity in Cuba

The Price of Uniformity in Cuba
May 28, 2014
Verónica Vega

HAVANA TIMES — My access to the Internet is extremely limited, and I am
able to read the comments on my posts for Havana Times thanks to the
editor, who sends these to me via email. Many a time, these are
truncated when they reach me (the mysteries of Cuba's Internet
connection) and I am only able to read the opening remarks people make.
This discourages me and forces me to be absent from most debates.

I am, however, interested in joining the debate sparked off by the post
"Uniformophobia" through this post – not because the author of the
article in question is my son (who can answer for himself) but because
of the criticisms one reader levels at his parents.

I would first of all like to say that it is easy to attack those who
have the courage to expose a part of their lives and feelings this way.
Those who criticize do so from the shadows (many use pseudonyms) and
their lives and mistakes are kept secret. Most do not live in Cuba, so
they do not experience what they pass judgment on and, in this case,
they also appear to be ignorant of certain things they comment on.

This is why I am going to try and summarize the events that led my son,
Kabir, to withdraw from high school, something I find difficult, because
it is long story that do I not like to recall.

My son had been asking me why he had to have short hair since more or
less the second grade. Many of my friends had long hair and the father
of one of his classmates had a very long, braided pony-tail. Every time
he had to get a haircut and kicked up a fuss, I would tell him it was a
school regulation. As time passed, I realized I didn't have any solid
argument of my own. All the while, my son's questions became more and
more specific:

"Why is it bad to have long hair if hair doesn't hurt anyone? Why can
girls have long hair? Why aren't they breaking the rules, even when
their hair is loose?"

How could anyone interested in infusing their son with the values of
equality, freedom and sincerity answer those questions honestly? I said
to him: "You're right, I'm going to ask the teacher." At the time, he
was already in the third grade.

The teacher, who seemed unprepared to answer such a question, mentioned
a school regulation she was unable to produce or quote, so she ended up
allowing my son to keep his hair long. He kept it this way during the
third and fourth grades, the last two years he had this excellent
teacher, who then retired. The teacher Kabir had in fifth grade,
however, began to show increasing hostility towards him and, following
several incidents, I asked the principal to transfer my son to a
different classroom.

The "stigma", however, was already in place, and the situation didn't
improve much with the second and third teachers he had. The curious
thing is that, when asked whether Kabir had any academic or disciplinary
problems, the three teachers answered with a resounding "no."

I consulted with a psychologist and she suggested I move Kabir to a
different school. I did so and it worked – he was able to finish the
fifth and sixth grade like a "normal" kid, despite his long pony tail. A
complaint lodged at the Municipal Education Office made them send an
inspector over to the school. The inspector told me that the teachers
who had complained were "under observation", and she signed a document
instructing them to withdraw the spurious evaluation they had tried to
include in his record.

The new teacher was surprised that someone as "intelligent and
respectful" (her words) as Kabir could have ever been described as
someone with disciplinary issues. That young woman and the teacher he
had in the sixth grade grew particularly fond of him, but our previous
experience had been so bitter that, when people asked me whether my son
was keeping his hair long because of a religious vow, I ended up saying
that was so. This lie brought us an unexpected period of peace. It
became a justification that was more acceptable to people than any
reference to the truth or respect for someone's identity. During the
three years at that junior high school, the principal, with whom I had
been entirely sincere, also showed my son her unconditional support.

By Kabir's first year in high school, the official policy regarding male
haircuts had become stricter. The principal of the Lazaro Peña High
School in Alamar scathingly told us that if my son didn't get a haircut
he would be unable to enroll at the school. Kabir, who was very much
enthused with the teachers and the new syllabus, was once again faced
with the old dilemma. I had to travel to France, to promote my first
novel, and it was impossible to become involved in yet another marathon
of complaints during this time.

He unhappily agreed to get a haircut and continued going to school. The
mother of a student he had met in junior high, who had defended the same
cause at several schools around the country, then told us the law was on
the side of the students. She had studied Cuban law as part of her
degree program in Marxism. By this time, Kabir's hair had grown a few
centimeters, and they were already demanding haircuts that were
practically "crew cuts." While in France, I learned that the Provincial
Education Office had acknowledged it had no legal authority to deny the
two teenagers the right to attend classes, so they were able to complete
the tenth grade.

We ran into the same attitude on behalf of the high school principal at
the beginning of the eleventh grade. Now, she was wielding written
school regulations that demanded male students attend classes "properly
groomed and shaven." That "properly" is a relative term posed no
problems to the tacit agreement that the male chauvinist tradition had
officially established. The four parents began legal proceedings,
pointing out, among other things, that:

In Chapter 6 ("Equality"), Article 42, the Constitution of the Republic
establishes that discrimination on the basis of race, skin color,
gender, national origin, religious beliefs, as well as any other affront
on human dignity, is proscribed and punished by the law.

In Article 43, we read: "The State enshrines the right, secured by the
revolution, of all citizens, regardless of their race, skin color,
gender, religious beliefs, national origin or any characteristic that
undermines human dignity, to receive school at all of the country's
educational institutions, from primary to university education, which
are open to everyone."

The International Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Cuba
has been a full signatory since 1991, establishes that "The States party
to the Convention shall adopt whatever measures are needed to ensure
school discipline is administered in a way compatible with the human
dignity of the child and in conformity with the present Convention."

In the opinion of the Attorney General's Office, where we were summoned,
the above arguments did not demonstrate that the constitution had been
breached. They were merely "personal interpretations" of the law. All
the while, the two teenagers had gone to school every day, only to be
kicked out time and time again. The principal's office at the high
school had created an atmosphere of hostility towards the two "black
sheep" which threatened to turn into a public reprimand. That is when
the two decided to withdraw from school, where they had been refused to
attend a single class and had even denied them the course textbooks.

I would like to point out that, during my son's time in the tenth gade,
I was able to confirm that things in high school weren't a lot better
than in junior high: there was a teacher deficit, an excess of students
per classroom and the difference between the syllabus and the actual
classes taught was abysmal. Kabir's classroom was next to a bathroom
whose fumes were unbreathable. The parents would notice this during
meetings and would lodge complaints that went nowhere. I always thought
it absurd that, in such a chaotic environment, the length of a student's
hair could become the focus of so much attention and energy.

In the course of our strange journey, I met kids who confessed they want
to have long hair but that their parents didn't support them. Some were
threatened – and even beaten – to get haircuts. These were the ones who
became rebellious, who turned away from school and even home. Some even
got a signed document from a psychiatrist, saying that their long hair
was covering a shameful ear defect.

That short hair cuts should continue to be a "disciplinary" requirement
for male students, in Cuba or abroad, represents a denial of the
principles that are today defended as an extension of the right to
freedom of thought. It is ironic that we are already talking freely
about sex-changes (which entail operations and implants) and that long
hair in males (which, incidentally, grows in an entirely natural way)
should continue to be taboo. One's appearance is part of one's search
for an identity and ought to be incorporated into our concept of plurality.

Those who defend this right include Karl Marx, Jose Marti and Anton
Makarenko. This battle will be won, sooner or later, in the same way
Jehovah's Witnesses secured the right not to salute the flag or wear a
school uniform, after a long history of prejudice and discrimination.
Uniformity is achieved only by sacrificing a part of our lives.
Diversity is the natural state of things.

Lastly, I would like to point out that Kabir has never given up on
school. The fact of the matter is that enrollment for the eleventh grade
does not begin until August of this year. I feel that other
ill-intentioned comments are not worth replying to.

To the reader who signs as "Eduardo" (on the Spanish side of HT): I have
read your comments and arrived at the conclusion that your remarks are
not sincere. Trying to have a serious debate with you would therefore be
in vain.

Source: "The Price of Uniformity in Cuba - Havana" -

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