Cornrows won't go after school backs down on Grace and Tahbisa's braid ban

Grace and Tahbisa are pleased that the ban has been lifted.
Grace and Tahbisa are pleased that the ban has been lifted. Photo: Eddie Jim

The Melbourne twins who were ordered to unbraid their hair have been offered a "school uniform exemption".

Amid a storm of controversy, Helene Hiotis, the principal of Bentleigh Secondary College, said on Friday that she would work with the students' family so the girls could wear their "new braided hairstyle" to school.

"We are a welcoming school and I am absolutely comfortable with students expressing their cultural heritage," Ms Hiotis said.

Tahbisa says the school wants her and Grace to 'look like everyone else'.
Tahbisa says the school wants her and Grace to 'look like everyone else'. Photo: Eddie Jim / The Age

It came as the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission warned that some school uniform policies failed to respect students' diversity.

"While Victorian law allows schools and educational authorities to set reasonable standards of dress, schools must balance this with their obligations under law not to discriminate on the basis of race or physical features," Commissioner Kristen Hilton said.

Year 11 students Grace and Tahbisa spoke out after they were asked to remove their braids, which they say are a strong part of their South Sudanese identity.

The school tried to justify its position by saying that white students who have returned from holidays in Bali have also been asked to remove their braids.

Ms Hilton said there was a "clear difference" between students whose hairstyle connects them to their culture and those "who have gotten braids or cornrows on an overseas holiday".

"Schools are extensions of our society. They should be proud to promote their diversity and celebrate the many cultures that make up our society."

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Fairfax Media has been inundated with messages of support for the 16-year-old twins, including offers of legal assistance.

One mother said her African-Australian son had a similar experience while attending a Sydney school and was threatened with expulsion if he retained his cornrows.

But after removing his cornrows, which helped the young man maintain a connection to his culture, the school complained that his afro was "too big".

Tahbisa (right) says braiding makes her hair healthier and easier to manage.
Tahbisa (right) says braiding makes her hair healthier and easier to manage. Photo: Eddie Jim

"I rang the principal who refused to take [my son's] African identity into consideration and said we can leave the school or fit in with 'all the other kids' ... meaning white kids," she wrote.

Grace and Tahbisa were also supported by friends and teachers when they showed up to school on Friday, proudly wearing their braids.

Grace said she felt relieved about speaking out.

"I am happy people are talking about it and know that it is wrong," she said. She said black students should not have to apply for exemptions in order to wear their hair in braids. "The rules should change."

Maurice Blackburn senior associate Jennifer Kanis said schools needed to take into account the impact of blanket rules on certain groups of students.

"Indirect discrimination looks at where a seemingly neutral or blanket rule that applies to everyone [can] disproportionately discriminate against a group," she said.