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A five-year-old boy with Cook Island heritage has been ordered to cut his hair by his Queensland school in a case that the state’s central multicultural organisation says could be breaching anti-discrimination laws. 

Gary Underwood, the principal of Australian Christian College Moreton, where the boy, Cyrus Taniela, is enrolled in prep, says he is “an enthusiastic supporter of Islander people and their customs” but that “respecting the college’s policies, procedures and guidelines allows the college to be consistent across its many cultural groups.”

"[Underwood] understands that cultural customs and respecting authority is also of huge importance and value to Pacific Islanders,” a statement on the school’s Facebook page read, according to news.com.au. “Boys hair is to be neat, tidy, above the collar and must not hang over the face. Extreme styles, ponytails and buns are not permitted.”

In the Cook Islands, a nation in the South Pacific, cutting a young boy’s hair for the first time is culturally significant because it represents a transition toward manhood.  

Taniela’s mother Wendy said she had long-planned to honour her son and her culture by organising a traditional hair cutting ceremony on Taniela’s seventh birthday. She told 7news the ceremony was set to be held in Sydney and would be attended by over 100 family and friends from across Samoa, Niue and the Cook Islands. 

"We've tried to conform to the school uniform by doing his hair above the collar neat and tidy, but they've advised us that we'll still need to cut it,' she said, before stating Underwood had asked her to move the ceremony forward.

"This is a big cost, and we have other family commitments,” she told Cook Island News. “We don’t all drive BMWs.”

Queensland’s Anti-Discrimination Act bans racial discrimination in all schools. 

According to the Ethnic Communities Council of Queensland and the Queensland Human Rights Commission, cultural practices are generally accepted as a component of race. Therefore, the college’s hair policy could be seen as indirect discrimination and a breach of law.

The Taniela family are currently considering filing a complaint with the Human Rights Commission.

President of the Cook Islands Council of Queensland Archie Atiau announced he would absolutely defend the family. He claims that beyond the obvious breaches of law, there may be lengthy mental health implications for Taniela if he is forced to cut his hair.

"Not only now, but the long-term effects if he gets to adulthood and realises that he didn't get the opportunity to have the ceremony," Atiau said. "The family should make the decision as to when his hair is cut."

Hair discrimination occurs around the world. 

The bias most commonly affects black women, who have long been shunned and excluded from jobs because of objections to natural hairstyles. Progress is being made, however, particularly in the United States, where California officially became the first state to legally safeguard the hair of black students and employees in July 2019.

The state of New York followed nine days later.


Demand Equity

A 5-Year-Old Australian Child With Cook Island Heritage Has Been Told to Cut His Hair or Leave School

By Madeleine Keck