16-year-old Zulaikha Patel is still fighting for women’s rights

Zulaikha Patel. (Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)
Zulaikha Patel. (Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)

Zulaikha Patel is certainly not a typical teen.

At 13 she became the face of the #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh movement when she led a protest to challenge her school’s rules on hair. The demonstration over discriminatory hair policies dominated news headlines and sparked similar protests around the country.

Zulaikha’s story spread across social media like wildfire and her fiery stance gained her global fame when an artist painted a 12-foot (3,65m) mural of the fist-pumping teen in Brooklyn, New York – her delicate face dwarfed by a halo of hair.

Two years later, Zulaikha, 16, is still rocking her headline-making hair. The hair policies at her school have since been amended, “and now wearing my hair in its natural state is no longer a crime.”

The teen tells DRUM she’s unapologetic about her role in kick-starting a national conversation she thought was vital. “I’m an activist for anti-racism and anti-sexism. It’s important for people to stand up for what they believe in, and that’s what I’m doing.”

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People are still talking about herhair, but now it’s a conversation she steers as a guest speaker at conferences discussing new identities in South African schools.

She says she lives by the saying “fists up, Afros out”.

Zulaikha – whose mother is black and father Indian – is also a proud ambassadorof the local Kidz of Biko organisation.

“We aim to empower African youth, to give them a platform to tackle topics such as politics, racism and sexism, teach them African history and celebrate African leaders.”

Her favourite subjects at school are English and history but Zulaikha saysshe gets her love of politics from her late father, Suresh Gulam Patel, who died of stroke earlier this year.

“My father taught me about politics, especially African history, from a young age and grew my consciousness.”

Yet the Grade 10 learner says she wouldn’t have survived the backlash of her 2016 protest without the support of her loving mother, Sarah, 46, a clinic supervisor for South African National Blood Services.

“I experienced a lot of victimization and I’ve been labelled a terrorist multiple times.” Lighting up she says, “My mom issuch an amazing woman, her strength is what’s given my sister and me courage to be the young, strong black women we are today.”

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She and her fashion design student sister are worlds apart but Zulaikha says “arty-farty” Amira, 25, is one of her biggest supporters.

In 2016 Amira told DRUM Zulaikha’s hair was such an issue in primary school she went for counselling and consulted a social worker who “helped her understand that she was not projecting a bad image”.

“She got tired of teachers cornering her, telling her in between classes ‘Your hair isn’t supposed to look like that’, ‘It’s too wild’, and ‘A beautiful girl shouldn’t look like this’,” Amira said (The great hair debate, 15 September 2016).

Zulaikha is happier now she’s defined her own beauty and Amira can’t be prouder of her barrier-breaking sister.

“Zulaikha is so talkative, man, she says the most cringe-worthy things and I just want to hide.”

“We’re totally different, but I admire what she’s doing at such a young age.”

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