(Telegraph.co.uk) – The Royal Navy has changed its rules to allow Rastafarians to keep their long hair and beards as the head of a new association has called for the end of the drug-taking stereotype.
The Co-chair of the Defence Rastafarian Network has said work is still required to break the myths around drug use and ethnicity regarding the religious and cultural movement, saying stereotypes must be challenged.
Lieutenant Shabaka Kenyatta, 38, an officer in the Royal Navy, believes many people associate Rastafarians with “the things that people see on TV” such as marijuana and drug taking.
However, Lt Kenyatta, a marine engineer, said there is “zero tolerance for drugs” in the armed forces.
“One of the biggest myths is that all Rastafarians smoke weed. That was one we had to shut down quickly,” he said.
He said another myth is that Rastafarians all have to be black.
“We have to be there to increase awareness that it is not about being black or white,” he told the Telegraph. “It’s open to anyone and everyone, it’s a way of life to follow.”
“You have bald-headed rastas [and] don’t necessarily have to have dread[locks] to be a rasta, you don’t have to be from the Caribbean, Africa or Ethiopia”.
The Defence Rastafarian Network (DRN) was set up in 2017 and comprises almost 300 members from all three services and the MoD civil service. Most come from the army.
Rastafarianism is based on Christianity and can trace a lineage back to the bible. It developed as a religion and social movement in Jamaica during the 1930s and has no central authority, although Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, remains a key figure in Rastafari ideology. It was formally recognised as a religion and culture by the MoD about five years ago and is the fastest growing faith in the armed forces.
The DRN seeks to support members and counter what it sees as “incorrect information on the internet”. It helps the established military welfare organisations and chain of command by providing advice and awareness around the Rastafarian religion and culture.
Having a formal network has allowed the group to speak with a single voice and represent Rastafarian concerns to senior officers.
Leading Supply Chain Kevin Joseph, 35, a member of the ship’s company on HMS Prince of Wales, the second of Britain’s two new aircraft carriers, said Rastafarianism is: “more about how you live your life; being humble and more down to earth.”
“It’s more a way of life for me than a religion.”
He said the military has made changes to accommodate his culture, particularly regarding beards and long hair. The DRN hopes naval policy makers will soon allow Rastafarians to wear turbans.
Relating how he trimmed his beard sufficiently to get an adequate seal on his face mask during his fire fighting course, Leading Supply Chain Joseph said: “The rules say you should be clean shaven (to get a satisfactory seal) so I worked with the instructor. The end result was that he got what he wanted and I got what I wanted.”
Lt Kenyatta, a veteran of numerous operational deployments on both ships and submarines and the first Rastafarian officer to serve in the Royal Navy, acknowledged his own hair is over a foot long.
He said: “It is not a case of trying to break the rules, it is a tenet of the faith that Rastafarians do not shave and we grow our hair. Your hair is a sign of solidarity and strength.”
He was quick to point out that observing Rastafarian culture has to work alongside operational duties and be safe when operating military equipment. “To some people that stereotype doesn’t really work,” he said.
Leading Supply Chain Joseph said the military is a welcoming place for Rastafarians and the message is slowly getting around regarding their service. “It’s important that we get ourselves out there the right way, so people can see us.
“There’s a lot of people who are willing to join the military but they want to practice their faith and they don’t know that they can join. So that’s why we get ourselves out there.”
Lt Kenyatta says other nations are looking at how the British have incorporated Rastafarianism into military life.
“We have international services looking at us now and by us leading from the front we are influencing policy in different countries.
“To see a minority actually succeeding in something like this it makes a massive difference to some people.”