I don’t think I have ever seen anything quite like it.
The little girl – now known to all as Zulaikha Patel – standing in front of a rowÂ of three white males, refusing to back down, calling on them toÂ follow through with their threats to arrest them – for their hair.
“Take us all,” she said, for half a dozen girls atÂ the school. “They want to take us prison … take us all.”
It was an act of extraordinary courage that left us tingling. Who wereÂ these brave girls and how had they secured such resilience againstÂ authority?
I watched the video on a loop on Instagram. Stolen moments from aÂ protest that left me breathless. I think it was five times before IÂ dared to blink. And still, there was an artistry in the execution ofÂ their defiance. A calmness that betrayed possible consequence.
â€” The Daily VOX (@thedailyvox) August 29, 2016
ForÂ Zulaikha – her resolve was as natural as the curls on her head and theÂ light creases on her young face. It was earnest, determined andÂ uncomplicated.
Their actions were undeterred by mortgage payments and outstandingÂ car loans. Unconcerned about the impact of her actions on “her career”Â or “that promotion”.
A free spirit, asking only for the right to be herself.
The photo of her standing tall with steely eyes, arms outstretchedÂ and fists folded above her irresistible afro in a defiance of anÂ antiquated, warped and racist policy will be studied and flutteredÂ over for years to come.
We learnt later that Zulaikha had been previously put in detention forÂ her hair. That she had to leave three schools because her hairÂ challenged the system. Her sister said she was continually mocked, herÂ hair described as “exotic” and looking like a “cabbage”. She would come home in tears. Â It is remarkable then that she didn’t look for ways to mend the “problem”.
I know I would have. I know I turned a blind eye to any whispers orÂ condescension from teachers or classmates at both primary andÂ secondary school reserved for the few brown and black faces in theÂ former Model-C schools I attended. I know I put on a purportedÂ civilised face each morning I entered that school and showed my trueÂ colours each afternoon back home or with fellow brown savages at theÂ local madrassa.
Then, as profiling at airports or certain citiesÂ continue to proliferate, so many of us are shifting our behaviours,Â assimilating, changing the way we curl our tongues so we fit in, orÂ draw attention to ourselves. And if we protest, it will be decidedÂ after a cost-benefit assessment: based on time and place, potential toÂ win and lose, energy levels and interest to take on the prejudice orÂ let it slip. We are all in awe of Zulaikha, because we wish to hell we could haveÂ all been her, growing up. We wish we could be her, as a grown up.
While so many of us were trying as children, and then as adults,Â to make the world work for us, we forgot that worldÂ already belonged to each and every one of us. We’ve been left soÂ insecure and desperate to “make it”, we’ve been wired to forgoÂ anything, including ourselves.
I wondered after watching the clip another five times: what if thereÂ hadn’t been a video to record the sublime protest initiated by theÂ girls of the school? The reported narrative would have never goneÂ viral. It would notÂ have brought the school to its knees, its policiesÂ into the spotlight. It might not have brought politicians andÂ policymakers into the discussion. Zulaikha might have found herselfÂ immediately suspended, or expelled, maybe jailed. It might have allÂ been in vain.
We don’t know, as per her sister’s admission, how all of thisÂ attention will impact on Zulaikha. She is just a 13-year-old after all, acting on her own accord. And this is not a fight she was ever meantÂ to fight.
But she has provided a most memorable lesson.
Justice, it turns out, simply needs people to speak out against injustice.
And it’s apt, that it would take a child to make us remember that.