A little more than a decade ago, Joanna “Jumana Omari” France had to write a letter to the Department of Immigration to get permission for her brother, who lived in St. Kitts, to visit her in the Virgin Islands.
Her brother didn’t need a visa, nor did he have a criminal record. However, he did have dreadlocks, and that was enough of a reason for VI Immigration officers to deny him entry into the territory.
In the end, her brother didn’t have to cut his hair, because he was granted permission to visit.
“They didn’t give him too much trouble,” Ms. France said. “Once we got the letter approved, it was easy for him to come in without any problems.”
Although her brother was not a Rastafarian, his dreadlocks were enough to put him on the wrong side of the Immigration and Passport Prohibited Class of Persons Order, commonly known as the “Rasta Law,” which prohibited non-resident “Rastafarians and hippies” from entering the territory without prior permission.
Today, immigration officials can no longer turn anyone away based on their hairstyle or religious beliefs.
August 27 marked the 10th anniversary of the repeal of the Rasta Law. During the past decade the territory has managed to repair its international image, and it continues to rebuild a relationship with a group of people — many of whom are Rastafarians — who faced discrimination under the legislation.
When the Rasta Law was passed in 1980, it was billed as a measure to fight crime.
Edmund Maduro, then the chief immigration officer, said he suggested the legislation to Ninth District Representative Ralph O’Neal as a way to stop Rastafarians from coming into the territory from St. Thomas and stealing mangos from residents’ trees.
“[Rastas] would come over here when the fruit trees were bearing and then they would begin to reap the mangos that didn’t belong to them,” Mr. Maduro recalled in a recent interview. “The Rastas were talking nonsense, saying the mangos were not his and that they belonged to Jah. … We had to stop them from doing that. The Rasta Law was not simply brought up because there were Rastas: It was brought up because of the behaviour that they carried out when they came across from St. Thomas.”
But the law sparked controversy soon after it was passed.
Among the protestors was Betrand “Washasha X” Lettsome, who was attending the University of the West Indies in Barbados at the time.
“Reality set in when, being a Caribbean man and a Rasta myself, a lot of my brethren and friends couldn’t come to the Virgin Islands,” said Mr. Lettsome, who went on to become chief conservation and fisheries officer. “And if you did come, we would have to write a letter to the chief minister for permission.”
Other VI students protested the law in writing from Barbados, including Glen Harrigan and Kedrick Pickering, who is now the deputy premier.
The protests didn’t deter legislators, however, and the law remained on the books for 23 years.
Mr. Lettsome believes leaders took so long to repeal the legislation because it only targeted people without a VI passport — not Virgin Islanders, even if they had dreadlocks.
“If you are Rastafarian and you have your roots here, then you weren’t really affected that much by the law: You could come and go,” Mr. Lettsome said.
Mr. Maduro remembers one of the first people to be “rejected” from entering the territory due to the Rasta Law.
“I personally remember turning back a lawyer from Jamaica,” Mr. Maduro said. “He was one of the first.”
Though he didn’t have dreadlocks, the Jamaican lawyer admitted to an immigration officer that he was a Rastafarian, according to Mr. Maduro.
“I think his head was shaven clean,” he said. “Immigration was tipped off that he was a Rasta and they dealt with him.”
Mr. Lettsome said officials often detained Rastafarians who did not have the proper paperwork and arrived on the last boat or plane of the day.
However, Mr. Maduro said this practice was uncommon, and such matters were usually left to the discretion of the immigration officer.
“We didn’t detain too many people on the basis of the Rasta Law during my time. We just refused them from entering,” said Mr. Maduro, who worked for the Immigration Department for 20 years.
The law soon drew international attention.
In West End on Feb. 15, 1986, Earl “Chinna” Smith, the rhythm guitarist for Jimmy Cliff’s Jamaican reggae band Oneness, was identified as a Rastafarian and detained for more than four hours. Although other members of the band, including Mr. Cliff, are self-proclaimed Rastafarians, only Mr. Smith was singled out because of his dreadlocks, according to a Beacon report at the time.
The band was to perform at the Sir Rupert Briercliffe Hall the same night. Eventually, then-Chief Minister Cyril Romney intervened, and the guitarist was free to go.
The incident made the front page of The BVI Beacon after the concert was delayed by several hours and a small riot broke out at the venue in protest of the guitarist’s detention.
Mr. Maduro said he didn’t recall the incident.
“It may have been in the news, but it didn’t reach me directly,” he said.
Such incidents raised concerns about the ethics of the Rasta Law, both locally and internationally.
Raymond Fonseca, who was a customs officer for more than 22 years, said he saw the negative effects of the legislation firsthand. At the time, he said, he thought the law was put into place because lots of guns and drugs were being smuggled into the territory from the United States VI through the West End seaport during the 1980s. Some of the suspects and offenders had dreadlocks, he added.
Although he wasn’t in charge of turning away people at the ports, he saw a lot of discrimination towards “Rastas,” he said. In turn, immigration and customs officers were often the target of hate-filled remarks and personal criticism, even though they were only following the law.
Mr. Maduro said the Rasta Law had its flaws, but he believes it was generally a sound piece of legislation: Immigration officials, he explained, should have more power to deal with “suspicious” visitors.
“I don’t think we should have a law here specifically speaking about no Rasta, but the law should be general and simply based on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” the former chief immigration officer said. “It should be left to the discretion of Immigration and Customs.”
The first step toward reform in the legislature came from the National Democratic Party opposition, led at the time by Dr. Orlando Smith.
In October 1999, Dr. Smith, who is now the premier, put forth a motion to “reconsider” the Rasta Law. By the end of the year, however, then-Chief Minister Ralph O’Neal had not acted on the matter.
In response to the motion, a survey was carried out by Government Information Services. Once it was completed, Dr. Smith requested that the results be made public, but government did not release them immediately.
The issue allegedly caused dissension in the ranks of the Virgin Islands Party government. In July 2000, Mr. O’Neal, who declined to comment for this article, advised Governor Frank Savage to revoke at-large representative Eileene Parsons’ appointment as deputy chief minister and minister for health, education and welfare.
Ms. Parsons told The BVI Beacon at the time that she was dismissed because she deviated from the VIP too frequently, in part by supporting the repeal of the Rasta Law and advocating investigations into the causes of domestic violence.
By this time, the Rasta Law was proving to be a threat to tourism: The territory was being labeled as discriminatory and some bands with Rastafarian members were boycotting the VI altogether, Mr. Fonseca said.
Dr. Smith said the territory started receiving “bad press” internationally through media outlets like the Washington Post and the Associated Press.
In 2002, then-BVI Tourist Board Director Kedrick Malone forwarded several requests to the Chief Minister’s Office to waive the Rasta Law so participants who wear their hair in dreadlocks could attend the annual Black Boaters’ Summit. The chief minister, Mr. O’Neal, agreed to the waiver.
“There was a perception internationally that the BVI was taking the wrong direction,” Dr. Smith said. “There was a human rights issue. It was difficult to appreciate that you would be able to stop people from free travel on the basis that their hair was long or if they were of a particular religious persuasion.”
Mr. Maduro, the former chief immigration officer, said he stood by the law in the face of the criticism. Though he doesn’t believe in discriminating against any religion, he said, he does have concerns with many Rastafarians’ use of marijuana as a spiritual sacrament.
“When we are going to be having a religion here teaching our youth to be using marijuana as their communion, we have to ask what are we doing to our people,” Mr. Maduro said.
Under the law, “hippies” were also barred from entering the territory due to their ostensible connection to marijuana, according to Mr. Maduro.
“The hippies were coming down here smuggling drugs,” Mr. Maduro said. “That is how the drug trade started here in the British Virgin Islands.”
By 2002, however, the Rasta Law was fast becoming an election issue, and support for repeal was growing in every corner of the community, he said.
About a year before the election, on July 23, 2002, the Rastafari Turtle Dove Alliance led by Mr. Lettsome protested the law with what members called the Civilisation March. According to some accounts, between 60 and 100 people marched to the Central Administration Building from the Sunday Morning Well.
Mr. Lettsome recorded a song last year to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the march, but was disappointed that the milestone did not receive more attention.
Taryll “Zulu” Dareano Desouza, who also took part in the 2002 march, described the scene as a “solid” group of people singing and chanting.
“We beat the drums; we beat the nyabinghi,” Mr. Desouza said. “It was a good feeling of togetherness to stand for something that means something. It wasn’t just Rasta — it was all kinds of people standing up for human rights.”
At the CAB they met with Mr. O’Neal and presented him with a petition containing hundreds of signatures asking for the law’s repeal, as well as a proposal for a Rastafarian agricultural programme intended to revitalise farming here by handing over 142 acres of land from across the territory to the alliance, according to Mr. Lettsome.
After the meeting, Mr. O’Neal made a speech to the protestors gathered at the CAB.
“I promised the brothers it will be considered,” he said. “I cannot give you a time — whether it will be two weeks, three weeks, four weeks or five weeks — but it will be considered.”
It would take an election to strike the law off the books.
On June 16, 2003, the NDP won control of the government for the first time, securing eight of 13 seats in the Legislative Council and naming Dr. Smith the new chief minister. Two months later, the Rasta Law was revoked.
Mr. Maduro said the controversial legislation may have played a major part in the election’s outcome.
“[The NDP] tried to belittle Mr. O’Neal in the face of the electorate,” he said. “It started from the campaign trail. After the NDP got into power, it was the first thing they did: They removed the law. … I think [Mr. O’Neal] did a good job. I don’t care what anybody says.”
Mr. Lettsome agreed that the repeal of the Rasta Law was political.
“I had told Honourable O’Neal that if he didn’t remove the Rasta Law, he was going to lose,” Mr. Lettsome said. “It was clear that the public didn’t support it. Everybody in this country, I don’t care what family you come from, you have somebody in your family who is a Rasta.”
When Dr. Smith was asked if anyone in his family has locks, he responded, “Chances are I have a relative who has locks. I am probably related to Washasha.”
However, the premier maintains that the repeal was based on human rights, not politics.
“The impression by the administration at the time was that the Rastafarians were contributing, more than perhaps the general population, to the level of antisocial and criminal activity in the territory,” Dr. Smith said.
However, he said his administration found that there was no “hard evidence” to prove such an accusation.
“So that is why when we got into office we had a look at the situation, and we were not of the impression that there was any greater increase in criminal or antisocial activity by Rastafarians than by the general population,” Dr. Smith said.
Before repealing the Rasta Law, leaders considered court cases and the prison population, along with the survey conducted by GIS, according to the premier.
“We thought having this policy in place was unjustifiable,” Dr. Smith said. “There was not a significant opposition from the community. So by the time I got in, it was easy to repeal.”
Although it wasn’t difficult to convince his administration or the public to repeal the law, there were still some who supported it.
“I am disgraced that we are here celebrating 10 years of removing a law that was supposed to be so important to us,” Mr. Maduro said. “It is nothing to celebrate.”
However, when the law was repealed, its supporters’ claims that “Rastafarians and hippies” would flood the shores of the territory proved unfounded, according to Dr. Smith.
“Since the law was repealed there has not been an influx of Rastafarians visiting the territory or coming here to reside,” the premier said.
According to the 2001 Census, 90 out of 23,161 residents that year identified themselves as Rastafarians, compared to 32 out of 16,116 in 1991.
Statistics from the 2011 Census are not yet available, but DPU Statistician Reginald Hodge said based on projections from the 2001 Census, there may be about 111 Rastafarians in the VI today.
Mr. Fonseca said things are different now and Rastafarians going through Immigration and Customs at any VI port are not harassed due to their appearance.
“Customs has never been like, ‘You have locks: I’ll check your bag more,’” Mr. Fonseca said.
Professional surfer Icah Wilmot of Jamaica visited the territory earlier this year to teach surfing at Josiahs Bay.
Mr. Wilmot, a Rastafarian whose dreadlocks are blonde from long hours in the sea and sun, travels around the world competing in surfing tournaments.
“Usually, I don’t get harassed that much, because, I guess, more Rastas have been travelling the world,” Mr. Wilmot said. “The only place I do get harassed much is when I am travelling through Miami, but a lot of people get harassed when travelling through Miami. I don’t know if it is because of my locks.”
Despite his dreadlocks, he didn’t have any problems entering the VI, he said.
“It was a pretty normal trip,” Mr. Wilmot said. “Maybe they have gotten accustomed to seeing more Rastas here. I am not sure what the history is like here, but I didn’t get any weird reactions from anybody at all coming in.”
Dr. Smith said current legislation and policy fosters fair treatment for all. The 2007 Constitution includes a section on human rights that bans discrimination on the basis of religion and other factors, and government is in the process of establishing a Human Rights Commission that will advise on existing laws that may need to be revised or repealed, the premier said.
“We have an open-door policy to listen to any concerns from anybody or any group of people,” he added.
But some people who wear their hair in dreadlocks or wraps say they still experience some discrimination.
Marie-Lou Creque, founder and partner of the law firm SCA Creque, has had dreadlocks since 2007, though she is not a Rastafarian. For her, she said, the hairstyle is a matter of convenience.
“I got tired of combing it,” Ms. Creque said with a laugh. “I get my hair done once every six weeks and I don’t have to think about it after that.”
Although her hairstyle has simplified her morning routine, she has experienced some challenges when travelling abroad.
“I have been stopped more since I have changed my hair,” Ms. Creque said. “Since I have grown locks, I have been stopped more frequently.”
Ms. Creque, who hails from Jamaica, said her mother had a hard time accepting her decision to grow dreadlocks.
“It is my head, my hair, my life,” Ms. Creque said. “She is probably easier with it [now] that I am sufficiently accomplished in her eyes and can take care of my family regardless of what my hair looks like.”
Despite having dreadlocks, she “very rarely” is asked whether she is Rastafarian, she said, although she was once referred to as the “Jamaican Rasta lawyer” in court by a defendant who was requesting her services.
“It has become so much more widely accepted,” Ms. Creque said. “I think if I would have done this in the 70s or even in the mid 80s, there would have been uproar. God knows my mother would have had a heart attack.”
Ten years after the repeal of the Rasta Law, some VI Rastafarians are looking for more reform and improvements when it comes to how they are treated and how they live their lives.
Markita “Rasess Ty” Smith and Joanna “Jumana Omari” France are often mistaken for sisters. They are both search clerks at Harneys who wear their hair in a wrap, which they say is part of their Rastafarianism.
“Your locks are your crown as an empress,” Ms. Smith said. “It is taught that your king is the only one to see your hair, and you are not supposed to really have it out in public.”
However, she added that Rastafarianism has become more lenient with such rules and wrapping hair is a personal choice and not a requirement.
Both Mses. France and Smith have two children each and would like to see school officials become more understanding, they said. They each said they had to write to the Department of Education explaining that their children’s hairstyle is part of Rastafarian beliefs.
But the situation has improved, they said.
“As of recent, [school officials] have not been hassling them because of their hair,” Ms. France said.
Ms. Smith has encountered similar challenges in the workplace. At her former job as a bank customer service representative, she was asked not to wrap her locks, she said.
“I told them if I can’t do it, then I wouldn’t be in the front,” Ms. Smith said. “It is discriminating against my religion.”
Eventually, Ms. Smith was allowed to work in the front of the bank after meeting with the manager and explaining her case.
On the street, Mr. Desouza and other Rastafarians claimed, they have been profiled and searched by police because of their dreadlocks. But Commissioner David Morris said this is not how the police operate.
“We don’t carry out any profiling of any individual or groups of people based on their dreads, religion, gender, nationality, sexual orientation or age,” Mr. Morris said. “What we do is where we have reasonable cause or reasonable suspicion that an individual is committing an offence against the law we will stop and search that individual. There is no profiling.”
He added that police’s relationship with the Rastafarian community is the same as their relationship with other communities in the territory.
“We attempt to engage with them through our community meetings,” Mr. Morris said. “If we are not engaging with them to their satisfaction or if we can think of better ways to communicate with them, we are always willing to learn.”
In spite of some complaints, most Rastafarians interviewed for this article agreed that the situation is improving and people are becoming more tolerant of the Rastafarian lifestyle and appearance.
“I always thought that the law should never have been,” Mr. Lettsome said. “It was a stain against the nation.”