Verónica Vega

A Havana high school. Photo: Juan Suarez

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.

Veronica Vega

Veronica Vega: I believe that truth has power and the word can and should be an extension of the truth. I think that is also the role of Art and the media. I consider myself an artist, but above all, a seeker and defender of the Truth as an essential element of what sustains human existence and consciousness. I believe that Cuba can and must change and that websites like Havana Times contribute to that necessary change.

2 thoughts on “The Price of Uniformity in Cuba

  • The world needs more young men like Kabir – brave enough to be different, take a stand and speak out about issues pertaining to equal rights and human dignity.

  • The official who described what should be the highest law in the land, ie the constitution, as merely a “personal interpretations” of the law, displayed the totalitarian mind of the New Man. So sure is he in his view, he will twist the constitution any way he wants to justify what is an arbitrary decision enforcing the conformist ideology.

    It has been decades since any school teacher in Canada has told a student he or she must get a haircut. The boys in my son’s class have everything from crew cuts to dreadknots to ponytails, Mohawks or long curly mops and everything in between. It simply is not an issue.

    Parenting is hard enough as it is, Veronica, my heart goes out to you. We cannot change who our child is, but we can make him feel good or shameful about himself. We can see you made the right choice on that point.

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