For weeks now, the Barbadian public has been transfixed to the unfolding drama of a Rastafarian couple, who have been charged for keeping their two children,
12 and nine years old away from school.
The parents, Ijui Jah, and his partner, Isartes Ibre, were found guilty of breaching Section 41 of the Education Act on the grounds that there was no record of the children attending formal classes.
The children have since been placed in the custody of their paternal grandmother. However, the couple insisted that their son and daughter were being homeschooled.
In modern day society, both at law and more broadly, we appreciate that education is an imperative that has the ability to contribute to quality of life and the like. It is on that basis that the said law was conceived and is enforced.
Despite this, the Education Act makes a provision for children to be homeschooled for religious reasons. In keeping with the legislation, an application to the Minster
of Education and some standardized testing is necessary.
However, given the statements of the father in court, it may be safe to assume that the application to and engagement with the Ministry of Education would have been incongruent with his religious practice and perhaps what he thinks his children should be taught.
It is important to note that parents and guardians have been charged with the similar offense in times gone by. However, undoubtedly, part of the reason this case has so much consumed our collective attention is because of the Rastafarian faith of those involved, a reality that all media houses have played into and even exploited.
As a society, we have “othered” those of the Rastafarian faith for eons, because they do not adhere to the “respectable” and fundamentally racist and problematic ways of worship many of us do.
In statements before the court, the father sharply criticized the island’s school system, citing many of its contemporary challenges such as bullying, violence and illegal drugs and sexual activity.
Implicit in the father’s comments is the familiar notion of a parent doing what they view as best for their children, an aspiration that should be familiar to all of us regardless of religion.
It is noteworthy that Muslim, Seventh Day Adventists and Catholic parents all have chosen to educate their children with overt religious teachings without a furrow.
In the midst of all of the discussion, members of the Rastafarian community have alleged that they have been largely ignored by the Ministry of Education regarding a request to establish their own school.
The claim was refuted broadly by the Ministry when it said last week that they were not discriminating against the community of Rastas. Yet, it is curious in the context of many other religious schools existing on the island.
Perhaps, if we were minded to take this as just another father attempting to do what he sees as right for his child, we could avoid much of the carry-on that has ensued.
As such, the petition by the Child Care Board seems like an overreach, particularly in the context of the most recent public failings of that institution which, some suggest, contributed to the death of those who needed it most.
Moreover, we must recognize that taking these children out of the custody of their parents does no one any good, particularly the children. Imagine the potential psychosocial shocks a child experiences as a result of being taken away from his parents.
Add to that being more integrated into a society which has a way of life that is foreign, if not repugnant, to the child who has been taught that this way of life is individualistic, violent and sex crazed.
The system of child protection and care requires strict guidelines and protocols but we must also be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The ultimate goal in this case should be to ensure that the children benefit from education.
However, we must be careful not to deny the family their practices and perhaps, most fundamentally, keep the family intact in the absence of any evidence that suggests that they ought not to be so kept.
Alternative dispute resolution practices could have contributed to settlement of this issue. Mediation would have prevented the protracted court proceedings that are attendant to the case. Additionally, it would have also mitigated against the public spectacle that this has become. That would have been a noble goal given the ages of the children at the centre of the case.
We need to find a meaningful solution to the case but it is imperative that we understand that this is bigger than this one family. This is about our willingness and our ability to recognize that not everyone adheres to the convictions of the majority and with that will come challenges; challenges that, if we are to consider this to be a progressive society, we must settle with deep consideration and some haste.
However we resolve the issues, we need to find a solution that reinforces the need for an appreciation of the inherent diversity in Barbadian society. The issues here are another challenge as we march towards 50, and we have to at least try to get this one right.
(Andwele Boyce is a young communicator who is passionate about politics and popular culture. He holds a Master’s degree in international trade policy and is currently pursuing a law degree.)