Identity, Diversity and Belonging

Understanding how individuals develop a sense of identity and belonging through faith or belief;

 

Exploring the variety, difference and relationships that exist within and between religions, values and beliefs.

 

Religious Identity

Rastafari identities focus on trying to recreate themselves in their image of Africans. This means rejecting ways of living associated with Babylon and adopting those of Rastafari. It is an elite and exclusive identity; they are the chosen people and everyone who does not follow their ways is part of Babylon. One must have insight to accept the divinity of Haile Selassie. However, they do not have formal organisations or doctrinal orthodoxy which means that how individual Rastafari construct their identity has fluidity and openness. There are some accepted identifying characteristics. The most well-known and immediately recognisable mark of Rastafari identity is the cultivation of dreadlocks. Rastafari are forbidden to cut their hair, following the Old Testament law that prohibits trimming and shaving of the hair (the Nazarite vow mentioned above), and also of tattooing. For the Rastafari, dreadlocks are “a sacred and inalienable part of his identity” (Chevannes 1994: 145). The hair is called a crown, compared to the crown of Emperor Haile Selassie or the mane of a lion. In the early movement, dreadlocks were a challenge to the European colonialist constructions of race that deemed African hairstyles bad and European hairstyles good. They are a celebration and acceptance of Africanness. Rastafari identity is also expressed through speech by using ‘dreadtalk’, a way of speaking that distinguishes Rastafari from non-Rastafari. Some Rastafari study Ethiopian history and the Amharic language. There are also distinctive Rastafari diet restrictions (see below), the smoking of ganja, and wearing tams over their dreadlocks, which serve to separate Rastafari from Babylon, which can mean all non-Rastafari. Rastafari know who they are and carry themselves with self-confidence because of this strong sense of identity.

Family and Community

Despite the Rastafari rejection of the ways of Babylon, for much of the movement’s history their family structure has reproduced the patriarchal system that also characterised the colonial society of Jamaica. The man was the head of family and the woman was subordinate to him. The husband was called ‘king-man’. Women were called ‘daughters’ or ‘sistren’ or ‘queens’. There has, however, been historical variation in the roles of women in Rastafari. At first, women were active in the early groups as they were in contemporaneous Revival movements. Then there was a virtual disappearance of women except as spouses in the 1960s. Women could only be ‘grown’ into Rastafari by a Rastaman. A woman could only be Rastafari through her ‘kingman’. Then from the 1970s, women began claiming space for themselves as Rastawomen.

Prior to the late 1970s, the status of women in Rastafari beliefs was as fallen creatures, echoing their status in the Old Testament. There was a strict division of labour, with women in the domestic sphere and men in the public sphere. Women were often excluded from decision making. A wife must obey her husband, cover her hair, and wear what her husband told her to wear. Women were said to find their salvation through men. Women for much of the Rastafari movement did not participate in public reasonings, and rarely went to celebrations. They did not have the status of an elder in the house. There was an explicit ideology of the subordination of women among the Rastafari. Attitudes to women were the same as those in Jamaican society more widely, and found among the British colonisers the Rastafari opposed as Babylon.

However, the status of women has been changing since the 1970s. Women are coming into the movement independently, rather than being brought in by men. They are present at celebrations, participate in chanting and dancing, and no longer cover their dreadlocks. Women are often the main breadwinners and the main caregivers for children. However, it is often important for men to stay at home with the children and spend lots of time with them. Family life is important and highly regarded. This is a way of addressing the family system in slavery, which was disrupted by the control of slave masters, and often meant that men were unable to stay with their partners and children. Rastafari by contrast focus on a cohesive family with defined roles. Fathers try to be active and positive role models for children, for example by cooking meals and nurturing young children. In Jamaica, some men practised polygamy or secret polygamy (where the various wives were unaware of each other), claiming that it was a traditional African practice. However, this practice was resisted by women and did not take hold. Some Rastafari women observe menstrual taboos, mainly not cooking or attending Nyabinghi while menstruating. There is a difference in the length of time among the mansions; 7 days for the Nyabinghi Order, 21 days for Bobo Shanti, whereas others do not have the prohibition.

Rastawomen joining the movement in their own right rather than as queens of Rastamen have challenged many of the assumptions and stereotypes of women. There is a tension between feminism as a liberation ideology and Rastafari as a liberation ideology that still subordinated women. Rastawomanism emerged as Rastafari women’s ideology of liberation within Rastafari against structures of racial, class, and sexual subordination. The dress code became seen as a way of separating the self from Babylon and modelling African regal dress. Women in Rastafari portrayed themselves as ‘African Queens’ with natural beauty that is not modelled on European standards of beauty. Many claim their right to choose their own dress. They prefer the title ‘queen’ to ‘daughter’ or ‘dawta’. They use the symbol of the lioness who partners the lion. Head wraps became a symbol of militancy analogous to dreadlocks rather than a covering that diminished them. Rastawomen smoke ganja openly and attend Nyabinghi, participating fully in reasonings and playing drums.

Rastafari value community among brethren and are active in community programmes. They represented the lowest segment of Jamaican social classes in the early years when the movement spread in the slums, which meant that community organising amongst the poor has always been an important feature of the movement. However, this sense of community at first was exclusive, as they sought to withdraw from Jamaican society, which they experienced as ruled by whites but built on black labour, while exploiting them and giving them nothing in return. They experienced violence from the Jamaican police and other authorities. This position has changed since the 1970s. Rastafari became more interested in liberating Jamaica, making it the land of the Rastafaris, and so they have become more active in Jamaican society rather than withdrawing from it. For example, Rastafari never voted until a Rastafari elder, Ras Sam Brown, first stood for election in 1961 for his Suffering People’s Party.

Diversity within the tradition

Different denominations are called ‘houses’ or ‘mansions’ of Rastafari. Three of the oldest and most significant are the Twelve Tribes, Bobo Shanti, and the Nyabinghi Order. The Twelve Tribes of Israel call themselves the ‘real Jews’ or Israelites and trace their descent to the twelve sons of Jacob. There are twelve denominations within the Twelve Tribes each named after one of the sons of Jacob, membership of each tribe depending on one’s month of birth. They are more open to giving a role to women than some of the other mansions. Bob Marley was a member of the Tribe of Joseph.

The Nyabinghi Order (also known as the Nyabinghi House) takes its name from the East African resistance and spirit possession cult of the Kiga people against colonialism, which in turn was named after a famous queen of the Kiga. The spirit of Nyabinghi was female and championed the cause of the oppressed and exploited. The Nyabinghi Order was previously called Young Black Faith. It emerged in the late 1940s, founded by Arthur and Pan-Handle. It was the Young Black Faith who started wearing their hair in dreadlocks. They were more militant than the early Rastafari, taking their inspiration from the Mau Mau colonial resistance in Kenya. The Nyabinghi Order leadership is by elders and those who show the initiative and desire to lead; there is no formal structure for choosing elders beyond this form of self-selection.

The group founded by Prince Emmanuel Edwards are known as Bobo Shanti (or Bobo Ashanti, the Ethiopian National Congress, or Bobo Dread). Shanti refers to the Ashanti, the African tribe from which the majority of Jamaicans are said to descend. They are one of the strictest Rastafari mansions, forming more of a formal church than the others. Prince Emmanuel is regarded as a God, part of the trinity with Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey. The Bobo refer to him as ‘dada’. The Bobo see themselves as a ‘priestly order’ of Rastas. They have a more formal church structure, with a specific church building, services from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, and they prostrate in silent prayer at meetings. They live in a self-sufficient commune on Bobo Hill outside Bull Bay in Jamaica. They wear their dreadlocks tightly wrapped in turbans and clothe themselves in priestly robes. After Prince Emmanuel’s death, they split into three groups, all of which live on Bobo Hill.

Some Rastafari groups exclude white people, viewing them as having no authentic connection with Africa. However, in recent decades there are white Rastas, as parts of the movement have moved beyond black supremacy to seeing all races as Jah’s children and the unity of all people of the world.

Attitudes to Other Religions and Interfaith activities

Christianity is seen as the religion of the oppressors. Slaves in Jamaica were excluded from the Anglican Christianity practised by British colonials because it was seen as too sophisticated for them and it was thought that they might be inspired to think of themselves as equals in the eyes of God. In the past Catholicism was also abhorred because of the link with Italy as the power invading what was then Abyssinia. Rastas were seen by Christians as outcasts in Jamaican society: as criminals, poor, and not respectable. This began to change in the latter part of the 20th century, however, as Rastas lost some of their outcast status. There are, moreover, several points of convergence between Rastas and Christians; both revere Christ, for example. However, for Christians the veneration of Haile Selassie as the messiah is a heresy.

In the late 1990s some prominent Rastas converted to Evangelical Christianity. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is an inspiration and influence because this was the faith of Haile Selassie. Bob Marley was baptised into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church shortly before his death in 1980. There are few organised interfaith activities by Rastas inasmuch as there are few organised activities by Rastas. Members of other faiths are welcomed into ceremonies depending on the relationship with the specific group of Rastas holding the ceremony.