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Afro-descendant women demand respect for their identity
Gabriela Read
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Movement of self-worth and assertion of black roots is growing.

In 2014, a member of the Central Electoral Board (JCE) requested the plenary of that entity to instruct the personnel in charge of issuing identity cards to “refrain from making discriminatory or degrading remarks” against black women who wear their hair in an afro style, after a group of activists went to his office to demand respect for their identity. Some women had reported through social networks that they were sent back to their homes until they “comb their messy mop of hair” when requesting the renewal of the document, because of wearing their hair without straightening it.

It might seem unusual for employees of document issuing centers not to allow black women to wear afro hair style, in a country where according to a recent study by the Dominican Academy of History, the National Geographic Society and the University of Pennsylvania, 49 percent of the Dominican population is of African descent.

That same year the JCE had removed the indication of skin color from the identification document. Until then, “Indian” used to be entered to indicate the color of blacks and mulattos, which in the opinion of some, was a sign of institutionalized racism. Passports and driver’s licenses still maintain that practice.

The entity, which manages the Civil Registry office in the country, responded through the plenary that a policy of discrimination did not exist, and therefore the passing of a resolution on the subject was not needed. But, women’s groups such as Afro-Dominican Action, which promotes the filing of complaints and meetings of training or recreational nature on this subject, have denounced the existence of a structural racism that hurts those women who decide to assume their African identity, and the manner which they wear their hair is the most obvious manifestation of this decision.

The most recent case, summarized by Bienvenida Mendoza, a member of Afro-Dominican Action, was that of a young political scientist who reported to the media that the Minister of Higher Education, Ligia Amada Melo, denied her a postgraduate scholarship for wearing an afro.

“I do not give scholarships to people who wear their hair like you,” were the words that she attributed to the minister. Later questioned about it, the official said she did not refer to her hair, but that she “looked unkempt.”

Culturally to wear the hair in a natural way among women of black descent is considered, in fact, an informality, and sometimes an unacceptable informality.
Eulalia Jiménez, also of Afro-Dominican Action, recalls when in 1978 she decided to stop straightening her hair and the impact this had not only in their family, but also in the workplace.

“It took my mother 40 days before she talked to me again,” she told Latinamerica Press. Almost 40 years later her brothers take advantage of family gatherings to throw it in her face or to ask her to go to a hair salon to get the traditional straightening done.

Teacher by profession, Jiménez spent three years without work around that time, which she attributes to “her pajón” (afro hairstyle). That is when she joined the social movement and started to work in an organization where “those things were not important.” The weight of her decision has been removed somewhat since then, but she still struggles to be recognized as black. Not in the identity card, where this characteristic is no longer taken into account; but in other documents, such as a passport or driver’s license. Office employees are surprised and displeased when she asks them to put “black” on the line that determines her racial profile, she says. She also says that it is common in the street to be called “crazy” or “witch.”

“Negras lavaditas”
Some things have changed since then, but others persist, Mendoza insists. “At the university where I work, when women are finishing their career, they are required to remove their curls, because ‘a licensed student does not go around looking like that’,” she says.

Although the media have begun to incorporate black women in their advertising, they are, according to Mendoza, the “negras lavaditas” (“washed blacks”), meaning black women who despite having curly hair have a profile closer to Caucasian women.

In recent years in the Dominican Republic, some women have chosen to wear afro hair. An entire market of specialized products and beauty salons for curly hair has emerged for them. Social networks have served to popularize what they see as a movement of self-worth and assertion of their black roots.

A query to their pages reveals the frequent stories of rejection and discrimination for having taken this decision that goes from being an aesthetic issue to becoming a struggle for their rightful demands. The stories range from problems at school, where girls and adolescents are prohibited from wearing braids or curly hair afro style (with the threat of expulsion) to cases where women with afro hair are asked to leave cafeterias because their hair “is not hygienic.”

Indeed, on Aug. 11, a group of organizations demanded President Danilo Medina to put an end to the discrimination cases that are taking place in schools and universities against Afrodescendant students because of how they wear their hair, through a document read in front of the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology.

The frequency of these cases led to past campaigns from civil society to demand respect for diversity, such as “To School I Go as I Am,” an initiative which denounced discrimination suffered by children with curly hair in schools. This is a situation that is also seen reflected in the work area during adulthood, according to the campaign.

Parallel to this movement, other groups are attempting to rescue the values of the Afro identity through the artistic, as in the case of Kalalú Dance, whose actions are focused on the artistic traditions of the black communities.

Marily Gallardo is an activist and cultural manager who since 1997 has been working with men and women of African descent through that creative space, in seven communities of La Victoria, a district of the municipality of Santo Domingo Norte, which together with the municipality of La Caleta and Villa Mella, and the province of La Romana, has the largest population of African origin in the country.

“From Kalalú we have raised the need to coordinate the activities and programs with the schools. We have observed a painful lack of consideration in these institutions regarding the importance and the link that exists between racism-classism-colonialism and the phenomenon of violence, seen as an expression of social exclusion. This is one of the easiest aspects to identify,” says Gallardo to Latinamerica Press. “For instance, most educational projects do not provide effective answers to these situations because they pretend in many ways to deny that black culture is transverse to the Dominican identity, of the Antilles or the Caribbean.”

The invisibility of what is black
Gallardo also points out the challenges that come before those trying to rescue the values of black culture.

“Girls and boys are influenced by speeches and alienating practices. They reject the value of their black-African origins at home, at school, on the street, in books. Above all, most media maintain a remarkable indifference to the visibility of those working these values,” says Gallardo.

The third volume of the study “Política Social: capacidades y derechos” (“Social Policy: Capacity and Rights”) published in 2010 by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in the Dominican Republic, addressed the issue of racial identity, finding different positions. All of them pose the difficulty of the interviewees to identify themselves as black: they either say their skin is “Indian” color, or are “prietos” or “morenos” (a “softer” form of identifying as black) but almost no one states being “black.” The study also found that these racial prejudices have a greater weight in women.

“While racial discrimination affects both sexes, it bears more social pressure on women, as it is associated with beauty in the search for jobs and for a partner. The black women that were interviewed reported greater discrimination in obtaining sentimental partners, or employment, than men do,” says in a newspaper article social anthropologist Tahira Vargas, a research team member of the study.

Therefore, for women of Haitian descent, their African descent status, plus the birth origin of their parents, exposes them to double discrimination and especially the denial of their rights, according to Sirana Dolis, coordinator of the Haitian-Dominican Women’s Movement (MUDHA).

“If a Dominican woman of Haitian descent lives with a man of Dominican origin, it is more difficult for her to register her children, regardless that the nationality of the child is awarded automatically by the father,” she says.

The state of vulnerability of this population increased with ruling 168-13 by the Constitutional Court in 2013, which invalidated the documents of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent, who were stripped of their right to the citizenship. Although Law 169-14 tried to resolve the situation of this population, thousands of people still have not been able to recover their citizenship because their parents are undocumented in the country.

“We are those who have the least chance to have a better education, because of the issue of documentation, because in our country, if you do not have documentation, you cannot attend school, buy, sell, or work, except from an informal business or by doing underpaid domestic work when you could go to school to learn, get educated and get ahead,” says Dolis.

Women of Haitian descent must not only withstand the pressure over the issue of hair. “There are phrases that you must hear daily: that a black person, if he does not do it coming in, he will do it on the way out [tends to do things wrong], that blacks are ugly, a black person is dumb, or only black in my house is the kettle. All that is bad is referenced to black. To live in such an environment one has to be very brave to not disown oneself,” remarks Dolis.  —Latinamerica Press.


Members of the Kalalú Dance School during the commemoration of the Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Women’s Day on July 25. / Maribel Núñez.
Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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